An American Editor

January 29, 2018

Signs that an Editor Might Not Be a Pro

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Today’s aspiring authors have a lot more resources for getting their work into readers’ hands than ever before, but often have little experience in the publishing world. That can make authors vulnerable to people who call themselves editors — whether of books or of other projects — but are not truly skilled or experienced in that realm.

Since I’m a writer as well as an editor and proofreader, I often think about editing matters from the author’s or client’s perspective. For subscribers to An American Editor who are writers, here are signs that an editor might not be a pro, so you know not to use the same person for your next book, or you might not want to hire an editor you are considering working with. You might even want to find someone to redo an already-published book so it does better in future sales.

For subscribers who are editors, these might be areas to consider when wondering why you aren’t getting as much work as you’d like, haven’t gotten repeat assignments from past clients, or are just starting out in the field. They also might serve as talking points when you want to explain to a potential client or employer why you’re the best pick — or at least an appropriate one — for their editing work.

As colleague Katherine Hinkebein Pickett has said, “Due diligence is essential to finding a qualified, reputable editor. When you know what to look for, you can hire your editor with confidence.” Equally, when we know what prospective clients might look for when choosing an editor, editors can power up their responses more effectively.

Authors don’t have to be experts in language and usage to notice some problems that could indicate work by an unprofessional editor, such as:

  • Every word in every title or chapter heading starts with a capital letter, including a/an, and, the, of, etc. (I see this a lot in online material, but that doesn’t make it right.)
  • Commas, periods, and closing parentheses are outside the quote marks (in projects using U.S. English).
  • There are commas before opening parentheses.
  • Basic spelling errors jump out at you or have been noticed by readers.
  • Punctuation is inconsistent or missing.
  • References/citations are all in different sequences or styles.

To head off such problems with your next book, or a new edition of the current one, here are some red flags to keep in mind. These also can function as suggestions for how editors can position their businesses better.

  • A prospective editor has no website, no testimonials at a website, no professional memberships, no LinkedIn profile/account, no formal training, no apparent experience, and/or no references.

A professional editor will probably have a website that outlines his or her training and experience, such as coursework from a respected publications program, in-house work, or a freelance track record. It should include testimonials from employers, colleagues, and/or clients attesting to the editor’s skills and approach, and references that prospective clients can contact (or a link to reach the editor to receive contact info for references).

The editor should belong to an organization such as the American Copy Editors Society, Council of Science Editors, National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, Society for Technical Communication, Editorial Freelancers Association, Society for Editors and Proofreaders (UK), Editors Canada, etc. Since groups like the American Medical Writers Association, Society for Professional Journalists, and National Association of Science Writers all have freelance sections and members who are editors, membership in them is also a good sign that someone is a professional.

Belonging to the Copyediting-L e-mail list and Editors Association of Earth (EAE) Facebook group also would be useful indicators of an editor’s professionalism and commitment to staying on top of trends in language in general and editing in particular.

Training could include having earned certificates from respected editing programs. Experience would, of course, include working in-house for a publisher, publication, or organization, or with individual authors. An editor who writes about the crafting of editing in his or her own blog, has published a book about editing, or is a regular and respected contributor to the editing-related works of others and lists or groups is also likely to be someone with experience and skills.

  • An editor hasn’t asked what style manual/guide you use or the editor should use, or hasn’t told you which one s/he will use for your project. There are several standard guides for using language and formatting documents. The Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, American Psychological Association Publication Manual, and Government Printing Office Style Manual are the leading resources, with many more available for specific professions and industries. A professional editor is familiar with at least one of these and lets prospective clients know that’s the case, which should reassure authors who might be concerned about consistency and accuracy in their documents.

Identifying the dictionary that an editor uses is also helpful to clients. Spellcheck, as most of us know, is not sufficient, but even if it were, some clients have to be convinced by an authority other than the editor that a given word has been spelled correctly.

  • The editor’s only credential is a degree in English or a career as an English teacher. While knowing English is a plus (a strong grasp of grammar is essential for an editor), there’s a difference between what’s involved with teaching English and knowing how to edit. Simply having taught English or earned an academic degree in English is not enough to understand the importance and use of style manuals, publishing standards and conventions, and other aspects of editing.
  • An editor’s pricing is very low. That might be great for your budget, but is likely to be terrible for the quality of the editing. Someone whose rates are super-low is probably either new to editing or inexperienced, untrained, minimally skilled, and/or only editing as a hobby, rather than seriously committed to editing as a business and profession, with training and experience to match. From the editor’s perspective, lowballing your rates can make you look as if you’re new to the field, unsure of your skills, or desperate for work. If we don’t value ourselves, our clients won’t value us, either!
  • There are typos — misspellings, grammar and punctuation errors, etc. — in the editor’s e-mail messages, résumé, and/or website. An e-mail or word-processing program will highlight some of these issues for authors who are not sure of what is right or wrong. Some authors might not recognize such issues in communications from an editor, but they often are egregious enough for an amateur author to notice.
  • The editor promises 100% perfection or guarantees agent placement, a publisher, and/or bestseller status for your book. It probably would be easier to pitch an edited manuscript to an agent or sell it to a publisher, but having the manuscript edited is not a guarantee of getting published or selling lots of copies.
  • The editor claims to rely on spellcheck, online programs like Grammarly, and other tools to ensure perfection. Not only is perfection unlikely, as noted above, but it takes more than a mechanical software program to ensure high quality in editing. An editor who uses PerfectIt, the various tools at, and EditTools from wordsnsync demonstrates a commitment to knowing about and using appropriate, respected resources to contribute to a better result, but doesn’t say those resources are all it takes to provide excellence in editing. The human brain and eyes are still essential to the process, which means experience and training are still vitally important to professionalism and providing high-quality service.

What have colleagues here encountered as examples of poor-quality editing, and how have you positioned your experience and skills to convince clients to hire you for editing projects?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.



  1. I appreciate this post. I don’t believe I’m doing any of the no-no’s you list here, but I’ve been discouraged by the “editors” with “rates” so low that I’d be literally charging 10x what they do, even when mine are at the bottom of the EFA listed rates due to my inexperience. But I’m encouraged that it doesn’t seem like I’m doing anything really wrong.


    Comment by April — January 29, 2018 @ 11:58 am | Reply

  2. Overall, I agree with much that you write, Ruth, but I strongly disagree with a couple of “signs,” namely, “no website, no testimonials at a website, no professional memberships, no LinkedIn profile/account, . . . and/or no references.” I have no professional memberships as the only organization that remotely would fit my needs is EFA and EFA is a poor excuse for an editor’s organization, although a decent organization for a local social organization. I have no testimonials or references on my website. I do have a LinkedIn account, but how truly significant is it? Why don’t I have these things? Because they are unnecessary for my clientele and because I have worked hard and steadily to build my reputation in my field. As I am sure you know, some of the best editors today would fail to meet your criteria.

    I also note that missing from your list is a verifiable reference library of materials relevant to the subject matter to be edited. My clients know what kind of reference library I have because I usually list the leading references in the initial emails, but they wouldn’t have a clue looking at my website. And formal training is exactly what? In the U.S. there are some certificate courses of mixed quality but they aren’t what I would call great training grounds based on the experiences I have had with “editors” with their certifications.

    I also note that you make a criterion separating pro from amateur of NOT asking the client which style guide to follow. I’m curious. How many indie authors do you think are familiar with the content of Chicago or APA or any of the style guides? In my experience, of those I have dealt with over 34 years of editing, the number is zero. Many know the name but not the content and absent knowing the content, of what value is it to ask? The pro editor will, instead of asking, act as a guide to the best choice based on the subject matter and ultimate purpose. (Truthfully, you’d be surprise at how few specialty clients are familiar with the contents of the focused style guides.) And the pro editor will know not to slavishly follow a style guide but, instead, have the knowledge to make an independent judgment.

    Overall a good essay, but I think too rigid in its approach. The beauty of editing is that there is often more than one perspective, none of which is necessarily wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by americaneditor — January 29, 2018 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

    • Why is EFA a poor excuse for an editor’s organization? I just joined and enrolled in a variety of their editing courses, which I am sure will help me gain valuable skills. I joined because so many editors vouched that the membership cost was worth it. I don’t know much about it yet, so I am interested in hearing your perspective.


      Comment by Katie Chambers — January 30, 2018 @ 10:58 am | Reply

      • Katie, your experience may be different than mine was and I do know editors who like the group, largely for the job bank and the social intercourse on the chat list. My experience was that it was overpriced for its services unless you lived in the vicinity of NYC. It is best that you give it a try and see whether it fits your needs. But do not mistake it for a professional organization of the caliber of the Editor’s Association of Canada or the Society for Professional editors in the UK or the Australian society (name eludes me right now), which are professional organizations that are well-run and intended to advance the editorial profession.


        Comment by americaneditor — January 30, 2018 @ 11:08 am | Reply

        • Good to know. I looked into all three: Editor’s Association of Canada, the Society for Professional Editors, and Editorial Freelance Association. In the end, I went with EFA, believing it to be the US version of the other two. I got mixed messages on whether the other two would benefit a US-based editor.


          Comment by Katie Chambers — January 30, 2018 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

          • It depends on what you want. If you want a US job bank then EFA is the only option. Just remember that every subscriber to the job bank is notified of every job posted and so you may have several hundred co-members applying for the same job. If what you want is a professional organization that provides the resources for advancing the both you and the editorial profession, then one of the others is a better choice and if you are US based, then I would put EAC at the top of the list, mainly because it is more likely you would get to one of its meetings.


            Comment by americaneditor — January 31, 2018 @ 3:19 am

  3. Listing one’s library of references is a good idea, especially in fields like the one where Rich is focused (medical editing) that are complex and technical in nature.

    As for clients and style manuals, I was thinking in terms of editors who don’t know what a style manual is – I’ve seen posts from such people! Not all prospective clients know anything about style manuals or guides, especially new authors. I think a professional, experienced editor will let clients know that these exist and that s/he follows or knows at least one – and why. Doing so can help establish the value that an editor brings to a project.

    Someone as established as Rich can get away with not belonging to professional organizations or listing them at a website, and not everyone needs LinkedIn visibility. I’m thinking in general terms and useful (I hope) suggestions for people who are newer to editing and to freelancing.

    These comments are giving me some thoughts for a future column about editors’ websites …


    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — January 29, 2018 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  4. FYI, I’ve revamped the title and first paragraph of this post to make it clear that I’m referring not only to book-editing projects.


    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — January 29, 2018 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  5. The article as it came in email was headed “Signs that a Book Editor isn’t a Pro” — with “isn’t” lower case. How did that error slip in? — Pat McNees


    Comment by patmcnees — January 29, 2018 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

  6. Rushing to post will do that!


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — January 29, 2018 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

  7. This article has a few great insights for someone like me who is getting their feet wet in freelancing. Thank you!

    One thing I’d add, though, is that experience doesn’t equal aptitude in our field (unfortunately). As an editorial manager, I’ve seen people with master’s in English fail editorial tests, people with 15 years of experience as an editor have QA issues, and college students exceed all expectations.

    I love that this article lists some concrete indicators other than experience-based ones for that reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Amanda Edens — January 29, 2018 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

  8. I was guilty of a few of these when I started out last year: my only credential was my eight-year career as an English teacher, and my pricing was low. But I had to start somewhere. I worked on Upwork to see if I would enjoy the profession, to gain some experience, and to build a portfolio. Thankfully, I received most of the jobs I applied for; otherwise, I wouldn’t have known whether I wanted to invest nor would I have any experience upon investing. Since I decided I did enjoy it and had some experience under my belt, I then invested in editing courses, a website, a membership etc. Maybe that was the wrong way to approach it, but it worked for me.


    Comment by Katie Chambers — January 30, 2018 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  9. Interesting post! I’m sharing on LinkedIn. For what it’s worth, I’ve found the courses the EFA offers to be worth the membership. Agreeing with the above poster, though: I’ve worked with experienced editors (my background is in newspapers) whose skills were … debatable.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by marlainawrites — January 31, 2018 @ 10:46 am | Reply

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