I am certain that hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, books, and blog essays have been written to advise authors how to find the perfect editor. Even so, authors continue to ask about finding a good editor, especially if they have already had a bad experience, which tells me that the question of how to find the right editor remains unanswered.
The Plain-English List
There are several recurring problems. The first is that the searching author rarely knows what she wants or needs from an editor and so uses terms like “proofing,” “proofreading,” “light editing,” and “copyediting” with the expectation that the editor’s understanding will equate with the author’s meaning. The two rarely meet.
Rather than using terms like those, it would serve the author better to make a plain-English list of exactly what she wants an editor to do with her manuscript. As detailed a list as possible serves best. When the author gives that list to the editor, they can have a meaningful conversation.
The Editorial Budget
The second problem is deciding how much to pay for editing. Before searching for an editor, the author should decide on a budget. The budget should not be based on going rates or what the author thinks the editor’s services should be worth. The budget should be the maximum amount that the author is willing to spend on editorial help — a number calculated in the same manner the author would calculate the maximum amount she is willing to spend to buy a house or a car before actually shopping for the house or car. This number should be a gross amount; for example, it should be $5,000 and not $50 per hour.
The reason for the gross budget amount is that too often authors decide not to hire an editor they otherwise think is a good fit because they “feel” the cost is too high. An editor will quote a price of $50 an hour and immediately the author’s hackles rise, thinking that $50 is too much because she had budgeted for $20. Sometimes it is better to pay more per hour for fewer hours of work than to pay less per hour for more hours of work. Better editors, as with many things in life, also tend to be more experienced and efficient; thus the higher per-hour fee and the fewer hours needed. Having set a gross budget limit moves the focus of the discussion from the per-hour rate to whether what is wanted can be done within the budget.
The Evaluation Criteria
A third problem is that authors tend to use the wrong criteria to evaluate an editor. It is true that an author should carefully evaluate an editor, but not by applying criteria that do little to answer the questions of competence and fit.
Great editors do not have to be authors themselves, by which I mean writers of books or published in magazines or journals. But in today’s competitive internet world, the editor should be a blogger and a participant in public editorial forums.
If I were looking for an editor, I would begin my search at a place like LinkedIn. Not because LinkedIn is such a great website, but because it provides an opportunity to get a first look at a pool of editors — those who participate in the various editing and writing groups. The first information I would be looking for is the kinds of questions they ask and answers they give in editorial/writing-oriented groups. Editors whose contributions to LinkedIn conversations consist of “Joe is right,” or whose responses tend not to address where the conversation is currently, or whose answers are often not answers, just a lot of smoke, are editors I would avoid. I also would avoid those who need help with fundamentals such as the reasonableness of some request made by a client or what to charge (or what others are charging; while I would avoid someone who asks what is the going rate, I would consider someone who doesn’t want to know what others are charging but how to calculate what she should be charging). I would not want my book to be an editor’s learning experience at my expense.
The editors I would want to consider ask and discuss more “advanced” things, such as questions of ethics, grammar, underlying principles of editing, both as a business and as a craft, and the like. I want an editor who sees more than the surface of my manuscript. Every competent editor can find and correct misspellings or can understand what an orange is, but not every editor can grasp that a word has been deliberately misspelled or that what you really mean, based on the context, is not orange but tangelo. Editors give clues about themselves in the questions they ask and in the responses they write. One can determine with some accuracy an editor’s experience with certain areas of subject matter through their questions and answers.
Equally as revealing are an editor’s blog articles. Blogs are generally intended to sell the editors (bloggers) to their audience. When you look at editors’ blogs, who is the audience they are trying to sell to? What are they trying to sell that audience? If they address an issue, do they do so cursorily or in depth? Does their writing evoke a sense of editorial competence, or is it so casual that it is bothersome? Are there mistakes in their writing? (But be sure to consider “mistakes” in light of blogs’ tendency to be more casual, and remember that few people write perfectly.)
Questions, answers, and blog essays give an insight into an editor’s approach to business — and editing is a business. Note that I haven’t mentioned scrutinizing the editor’s website. The problem with using a website to form an opinion about an editor is that it is difficult to know who is responsible for the website’s content and design. I understand that the editor is ultimately responsible, but authors looking for an editor are looking for editorial skills, not for design skills, which is what the focus on a website is — design, not editing. One of the best editors I know has one of the worst websites to be found short of what pops up with a Not Found error from your ISP.
The Reliance on Recommendations
A fourth problem is that authors too often rely on recommendations — positive or negative —from fellow authors. The smart author avoids hiring or not hiring an editor solely because someone she knows recommended or dissed the editor. If the editor was recommended, the editor should be put on the author’s list of editors to check out. If the editor was dissed, the author needs to ask questions designed to elicit more in-depth detail about why the editor was dissed. It makes a difference, for example, if the dissing is the result of such things as these: editor incompetence; unreasonable author expectations that the editor did not, perhaps could not, fulfill; or a personality conflict between author and editor. Depending on the reason (e.g., personality conflict), the author might add the editor to her list. After all, each author is an individual and has different needs. Different authors have different personalities — some are easier to work with and some harder. Every author needs to find the editor with whom she can work successfully — even if that editor was fired by another author.
The Key to Finding the Right-Fit Editor
The key, I think, to an author’s finding the right-fit high-quality editor lies with the first-mentioned items: seeing the questions and answers the editor posts on editorial/writing forums and reading the editor’s blog. It is the culling done with the help of these items that will leave standing those editors the author should further interview using the first two items discussed in this essay — a description of what the author is looking for the editor to do and keeping within a preestablished budget. Once the author enters into a dialogue with the editor, the author can learn more about the editor’s skills and background in an attempt to find the perfect editor for the manuscript at hand.
Yet I offer one word of caution to authors: your budget can be a very limiting factor. Experienced, high-quality editors are in demand and rarely work on the cheap. Editing is their business, the source of their income, and thus the editor has to and does charge accordingly. If you are unrealistic in your budget, you will cripple your search for your perfect-fit high-quality editor by narrowing the pool of editors from which you can choose. This is why the discussion of money should not occur until you think you have found the editor you want.
Choosing editing for editing’s sake, by which I mean hiring an editor simply so you can say your book was edited, is not a worthwhile goal. Editing by a professional, highly skilled editor will enhance your manuscript and improve its likelihood for success. In contrast, hiring an editor largely because the editor fits within your budget is unlikely to advance your goals. Budgets do not have to be unlimited but they do have to be reasonable in relation to the work required from the editor.
Richard Adin, An American Editor