Working with an editor: Part two

In the last blog, we looked at the things an indie author could and should expect from their freelance editor. This time, we’ll swap it around and find out what the editor needs in return. These are the things that will make your working relationship a pleasure, and that editors think are vital to the ultimate success of your project.

What do editors need from authors?

An understanding of what you’re asking for: a lot of authors think that a ‘proofread’ is a catch-all term for any kind of editing, but to a professional editor (or anyone else in the publishing industry, for that matter) a proofread is a very specific thing, and it happens very late in the process of producing a book. A proofread, strictly speaking, is a final check for small typos, layout problems, pictures with incorrect captions … that kind of thing. It’s not a chance to check for plot holes, or to do any restructuring of sentences beyond the odd small tweak. Editors call those things ‘developmental editing’ and ‘structural editing’, ‘line editing’ and ‘copy editing’.

All editors have stories about authors who asked for a proofread when what their work really needed was a major structural overhaul, but don’t worry – we know the terminology can be confusing. We often can’t even agree amongst ourselves what each term means.

But if you haven’t worked with an editor before (and often even if you have), the chances are that what you need isn’t a proofread, in the way that your editor understands it. What you need is a copyedit, or a line edit, or even a structural/developmental edit if your work is in an earlier draft stage. You can read more about the levels of editing here.

A draft that is ready for editing: don’t send your first scribblings to an editor and expect a finished product by return email. An editor is not a miracle worker. It’s also a waste of your time and money to send work to an editor for a ‘proofread’ when what it actually needs is something much more in-depth. Tools like Grammarly are often derided in the editing community – and it’s true that they can’t replace the improvements you’ll get by having a real-life human being look at your work – but it’s definitely worth using them to catch the more obvious errors before sending your material for professional editing (especially if your editor charges by the hour!). The more time your editor can spend enhancing the flavour of your writing without being distracted every time you spell ‘their’ as ‘thier’, the better. That’s a more efficient use of everyone’s time and money. And Grammarly is free.

Documents in a user-friendly format: most editors prefer to work in MS Word, which is regarded as the industry standard for submitting manuscripts to publishers. Most of us can also work with PDFs and Google Docs, but many editors prefer not to. Word has significantly more power; most of us are expert users and we’ve seen bits of its menus its own mother never knew about. And we have special editing plug-ins that make our lives easier and make our output better. So if you’re in the habit of writing on your phone, or scribbling bits of your magnum opus on the backs of envelopes, please convert them into something useable before expecting your editor to start work. If you can’t afford Word, then you probably can’t afford an editor, but don’t forget that free alternatives like OpenOffice and LibreOffice are available which do pretty much the same job and are compatible with Word.

Communication and responsiveness: you’re both great at words, and you should be using them. This is as true for the author as it is for the editor; the editor needs you to answer those queries, to be clear about your deadlines, and to articulate what it is that you want. If you don’t transmit your requirements to your editor, don’t be surprised if what comes back to you isn’t what you were expecting. Very few of us have psychic abilities.

An understanding of the timescales: editing a novel isn’t just a question of running it through the spellchecker and making sure it’s all in 12-point Times New Roman. A professional editor will take several weeks to copy-edit a book of any substantial length. Many of us agree that it’s not possible to concentrate on a manuscript for more than five or six hours in a single day – and we have businesses to run, too. We need to spend time on marketing, accounting, project management, training, networking, updating Windows (again), preparing sample edits for prospective clients, shouting at the printer, and writing blog posts. Sometimes we need to do laundry, too.

Punctuality, or flexibility: If your editor is a freelancer – and even if they’re not – don’t imagine for a minute that they’re just sitting around waiting for your call. They’re trying to make a living. That almost certainly means they have multiple projects on the go at any one time, and they won’t all be for indie authors. They’ve probably squeezed your book in between a copyedit for a corporate client and a proofread for a popular publisher. Those things have tight deadlines. So it’s particularly important that you stick to the agreed schedule wherever possible. If you submit your manuscript late, don’t be surprised if your editor has pushed you down the queue in favour of working on the next project on their list. I’m sorry to break it to you like this, but ours is not a monogamous relationship.

An understanding that an editor has a living to make: most editors won’t work for free beyond the odd quick email. If you want to spend an hour on the phone discussing a plot point, that’s fine, and your editor will usually be happy to accommodate it, but – unless you have a contract that states this kind of thing is included – don’t be surprised when their invoice includes a charge for the time. If you want your editor to write your synopsis or your query letter, expect to be charged for it. (And while we’re on the subject, please pay that invoice on time. We really, really don’t want to have to chase you for money, because most of us are way too introverted for that kind of stuff. Have a heart.)


We understand that a lot of writers don’t have a lot of spare cash to spend – but really, truly: editing is an important investment, and you really do get what you pay for. In order to get the most out of your working relationship, and to guarantee an end product that’s as good as it can be, then it’s vital that you know how to use your editor to best effect. I hope these two posts have helped to set you on the right path.

Ready to work with an editor now? Click here.

Working with an editor: Part one

If the writing and editing forums I frequent on Facebook are any guide, the relationship between an indie author and their freelance editor can be fraught with difficulty. And it’s a two-way street. Authors complain about editors destroying their vision. Editors complain about authors not knowing what they’re asking for.

In this pair of blog posts, I’ll be examining how we can best make that author–editor relationship work, because it’s critical to the success of a project. If the relationship is a marriage, the book it produces is its precious offspring. And you want your book to be the bright, happy, beautiful kid who’s friends with all the cool crowd at school, not … the other one. Don’t you?

What should an author expect from an editor?

Technical competence: It should go without saying, but one of the main reasons you’re employing an editor is that they have an advanced understanding of the technicalities of writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting. Your brain might be wonderfully creative, but perhaps you’re not so hot on the differences between their and they’re and there, or where the comma goes in relation to the speech marks. So your editor, first and foremost, should be great at that stuff.

(As a side note: even professional editors make typos. It’s not necessarily a cause for alarm if there’s a spelling mistake in that quick email they dashed off at 6am before they took the kids to school; they probably just needed a coffee, or their other glasses. Editing forums on social media are full of sorry tales from great, accomplished editors about signing off emails with ‘best retards’ or describing themselves as ediots. One editor confessed to writing ‘thanks for contacting me about shit’ instead of ‘thanks for contacting me about this’ and I regularly mistype my own surname – which is unfortunate because it comes out as a word for a female dog which many people regard as highly derogatory. For more on this topic, see here.

Specialist knowledge: Editors working in specialised fields should have at least some knowledge of them; this applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t edit complex scientific material well without having at least a basic grasp of the terminology and conventions that apply to that area. You might think that anyone can edit fiction, but it’s a pretty good idea for a novel editor to understand the basics of how stories work. And, if they’re working in a particular genre – high fantasy, say – then it’s also a good idea for them to understand the expectations of that genre’s readership. Just as you wouldn’t expect Lee Child to suddenly write a novel about a fairy princess falling in love with a dragon, many fiction editors limit themselves to a particular genre or genres, because they know their subject. And that makes them useful people for an indie author to know.

Communication: Freelance editors are busy people (or at least, we hope to be) but it’s poor practice to just take the manuscript and run. Failing to communicate during the process – particularly during a long project – is unhelpful and can leave you feeling like someone whose close relative was wheeled into the operating theatre eighteen hours ago for a tonsillectomy and hasn’t yet emerged. A good editor will acknowledge receipt of your manuscript, will keep you up to date with progress, will answer your questions, and will contact you with any queries they have rather than just making assumptions. (Don’t make me say that management-speak thing about what we do when we assume.)

A fair price: authors have a right to expect that the editor will charge them a fair price for the type and amount of work undertaken – but ‘fair’ isn’t necessarily ‘cheap’. Some types of editing are more expensive than others, but they all require a high level of skill and concentration. Editors are professionals, with training and qualifications, and you should expect to pay for their expertise. Sure, you can find ‘editors’ working for a dollar an hour on several popular freelancer sites, but those people aren’t, by and large, the professionals. More often than not, they’re just people who know how to use Grammarly. You can do that yourself for free, and using Grammarly is not the same as editing. Whisper it quietly: sometimes, Grammarly is wrong.

The editor should tell you before they start work what their estimate or quote covers, and how it’s calculated. Are they going to charge you by the hour or by the word, or have they set a fixed price for the whole job? Do they need a deposit to book a slot for your project (many do)? Will they expect payment of the full amount before releasing the work to you? Will they allow you to pay in instalments? How do they accept payment?

Suggested minimum rates for different types of professional editing are available on the SfEP (UK) and EFA (US) websites.

A written contract / terms and conditions: many freelance editors use these to define the terms of a project, so don’t be surprised if yours asks you to agree to a contract or other documentation. This is for your protection and theirs, and they’re not trying to trick you – they’re just making sure that both sides know what has been agreed so there are no nasty surprises later. This leads us on to …

The kind of edit you expected: many editors offer a sample edit (sometimes free, sometimes not) so that both sides know what to expect. The sample edit means that the editor can see what shape your work is in and, if necessary, suggest a different kind of editing from the one you requested. It may even be that they decide they’re not a good fit for the project once they’ve seen what it needs (this is more common than you might think – most editors will not take on a job that they don’t think they’re suited to, and many will make efforts to find you another, more appropriate, editor).

Remember, too, that even editors can’t always agree on what the various terms mean. One person’s ‘copy-edit’ is another’s ‘line-edit’ is someone else’s ‘proofread’. Whatever terminology they use, if the editor hasn’t done a sample to show you what to expect, then they should be very clear at the outset about what they will and will not be doing.

Once the project parameters have been agreed, either with or without a sample edit, the editor has no business rewriting sentences or suggesting alterations to the plot if all that was requested was a proofread, and shouldn’t be wasting your time and money nit-picking about comma placement if you asked for a developmental edit to refine the big-picture story structure.

Homework: The editing process is more of a conversation than a lecture. You can expect your editor to return your document with tracked changes, suggestions and comments, and it’s up to you to decide what to do with them. That, I’m afraid, means more work for you. You’re not obliged to accept any of the suggestions or changes, of course – it’s your book, and always will be – but your editor is expecting you to go through them and make some revisions.

Depending on the stage at which you entered the process, it’s likely that your manuscript will need more than one round of editing. If you employed a developmental editor to help the flow of your story and suggest a way out of that problematic tight corner in Chapter Nine, then they won’t be dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s at the same time. (Yes, I know Word does that automatically. You know what I mean.) No: they will return the manuscript for you to revise, and they will expect you to send it to a copy editor – who may or may not be the same person – when it’s done. And the copy editor may well expect you to have a further round of proofreading before publication.

Safe keeping of your files: A good editor will have multiple backup systems in place – which may include external and cloud storage as well as storage on their computer. They should not work on the original file you send them, but will make a working copy. That way, they will always have the original to return to if something goes wrong. Their systems should be adequately protected against software glitches, malware and viruses, too. None of this is to say, of course, that you shouldn’t be taking care of your own files too. Your editor is not your mum. Tidy your own bedroom.

In the next part, we’ll flip things around to look at what editors need from authors.

Looking for an editor?