Using a Freelance Editor

Here’s a question I got from Katie recently about freelance editing services and using a freelance editor:

I was just wondering if you recommend getting freelance editing services and getting one’s manuscript professionally edited? Do you think this would help the revision process or have an effect our our growth as a writer? What are the advantages/disadvantages to a book editor and can agents usually tell if a manuscript has already been edited professionally before? Are there any editor services that you recommend? If an editor does scouting for certain agents do you think this could help the writer get one foot in the door?

freelance editor
Aerial view a woman using a retro typewriter

Using Freelance Editing Services

There are a lot of reasons to use freelance editing services and a lot of points in one’s writing journey when a freelance book editor could come in and help the writer to the next level. Some writers hire freelance editors at the beginning of their learning experience and give them a very early novel. Other writers hire a freelance book editor after several drawer novels and for the final draft of something they really think, after stumbling around for a while in the dark, might be The One. Some writers don’t hire freelance editors at all.

My thoughts on the subject are a little … complicated. Especially since I work as a freelance book editor, and have for the last five years, since leaving the literary agenting world. First of all, I have to say that there are a lot of wonderful writers and publishing professionals who either make a career in or supplement their income with freelance editing. Their talents are many and their insights are deep. However, I would not point all writers to freelance editors.

Considerations for Hiring a Freelance Editor

First, here are the types of writers who might benefit from the services of a freelance fiction editor:

  • Writers who can handle constructive criticism (working with a freelance editor, as Katie guesses, IS a great learning experience)
  • Writers who haven’t managed to find a good critique solution despite trying
  • Writers who don’t work well in a classroom or workshop environment
  • Writers who are starting out and want to strap rocket boosters on their learning curve
  • Writers who are so stuck that their loved ones fear for their sanity
  • Writers who are so close to a good, publishable manuscript, and know it, and want a more complex and professional opinion on the whole thing before querying or submitting

Then there are the types of writers who might not benefit from a freelance editor:

  • Writers who cannot handle critique or constructive criticism
  • Writers who have never been in a critique or workshop situation before
  • Writers who just want to give their manuscript to someone in the hopes that it’ll get fixed for them
  • Writers who don’t intend to learn during the process
  • Writers who want someone to decide, once and for all, if their book is saleable or not… Not everyone will have the same opinion of this and, unless your editor has had significant experience in publishing, do not ask them to make this call
  • Writers who don’t vet their freelance editors… Not all freelance editors are created equal… Ask for references, talk to them to see if you’re a fit, and don’t go with the first one you see…

The Caveat About an Independent Book Editor

Here is why I say I don’t want to send all writers to freelance editing services. And here is why, even if you get your book professionally edited, it might not be a magic bullet for the thing selling.

There are no guarantees, not even if you hire the country’s best, most expensive book doctor. The danger is this: Revision is the most important skill, after writing, that a writer has in their toolbox. Until you learn to revise successfully, I say you’re not ready to be published. (Check out some great revision techniques here.) An editor will edit you and give you suggestions for revision, but then it’s up to you to turn out the finished manuscript. If you like getting edited and lean on an editor for every manuscript… which is a very real thing that happens… you might not be learning the critical skills you need to see your own work with an editorial eye. And those skills are essential. You’ll be getting great advice, but you’ll be short-changing yourself. Revision will be your blind spot and, these days, it simply can’t be.

Another issue here, which I hinted at above, is expectation. Freelance editing services are expensive. And good freelance editing SHOULD BE expensive. This isn’t something to cut corners on, if you go this route. With expense comes the expectation that you’ll really get something out of it (in this case, a publishable manuscript). But do remember that the final burden is on you. You can get notes until you’re blue in the face, from teachers, critique partners, freelance editors, but it’s up to you and you alone what you do with them.

That’s why, to answer another of Katie’s questions, agents can’t really tell if a book has been freelance edited. When I was a literary agent, I didn’t spent time trying to guess … authors tell literary agents if they want to. It’s really what the writer does with the notes that ends up in my inbox, and if the writer can’t revise, or they take their revision in an unsuccessful direction, or they just didn’t have that strong of a manuscript to begin with, it’s an unpleasant surprise to hear that they’ve been edited already. There really is only so much even the best freelance book editor can do with a bad manuscript… they’re not God. It makes me wonder what kind of mess the writer had before the editor stepped in. On the other hand, if I see a clean, tight, and polished manuscript that has been freelance edited, I might be more wary of the writer’s revision skills, since I don’t know how much is them and how much is the editor they hired. It’s not a deal breaker, but I do want to see if they can revise with me, just to get a feel for how they do on their own.

As for working with editors who scout for literary agencies — a common practice — sure, that’s a way to get in the door. If your editor is good (see above) and well-connected, it could lead to a recommendation to an agent… but there are less expensive ways to get an agent’s attention (namely, writing an awesome book and querying or going to a conference) than hoping for an elusive recommendation.

Freelance Editing Services Are a Personal Decision

Those are just a few thoughts on this very complex subject. Like I said before, I think freelance editors are some of the hardest working and more under-appreciated people in publishing. They see a lot of messes. They labor quietly behind some great successes. They think and critique and inspire. But they’re not for every writer. The decision to hire one, when, and for which manuscript, in your writing career is a very personal one.

If you’ve read this advice and are ready to hire a book editor for manuscript critique, let me throw my hat in the ring for consideration. I’d love to work with you.

19 Replies to “Using a Freelance Editor”

  1. Wow, thanks so much for this indepth response Mary! It’s definitely given me food for thought.

    PS- (I know you’ll fix this eventually but your title says ‘Freeland Ediors’

  2. Great insight. I remember toying with the idea when I first started writing and was learning about the business. I was surprised how expensive it was, but now that I know a little bit more about the process, it rightfully is. It takes a lot of time and effort and skill to be a good editor.

    Nice post! Have a great day.

  3. I know two writers who used a freelance editor. For the first writer, she spent a lot of money and in the end landed only one partial request. It went nowhere. The second writer had only the first 5,000 words critted and I think it was helpful. If anything, that might be the better way to go. It’s cheaper, and they point out some errors in your writing that you might not realize you’re making. Of course a crit group who knows your genre can do the same thing. 😉

  4. Thank you for posting this, and for the list of types of writers who would and wouldn’t benefit from a freelance editor. I contemplated using an editor a while back for my first novel, but I didn’t have the money, so I set that thought aside. I’m glad I did, because for my personal situation, I think I should try critique groups first (something I haven’t tried yet.)

  5. This was a great question! (And a great answer too, of course.) Another set of eyes is always invaluable, it’s just a matter of how you go about getting those eyes on your paper.

  6. melodycolleen says:

    It’s so nice to have access to sites like this that offer so much insight to burning questions. I haven’t the funds to invest in an editorial service, so I am very thankful to the critique groups I participate in. Our area chapter of SCBWI has one that is very helpful to me, and I receive the benefit of several pairs of eyes at once.

  7. I’m sure freelance editors can be great help, as long as someone isn’t trying to use it as a short cut. Writing is definitely a journey. I love looking back and cringing at my ignorance, but also seeing a glimpse at the bit of talent I already had. I wouldn’t want to look back and remember the time I took the chairlift.
    However, I imagine a good editor could teach a writer in days what a peer-critique group could only do in months, possibly years.
    Thanks for all your well-rounded insight, Mary!

  8. I used a freelance editor and I have to say, I found it to be an expensive and disappointing experience. The editor had more than a decade of experience working as an editor with a very well known children’s publisher, yet his/her comments left me feeling more confused than anything. I think that’s a big problem with paying someone – you don’t know them and they don’t know you, so interpreting their comments can make editing decisions more difficult. With my critique group, I’m able to say, ‘How about this change?” or ‘What did you mean by this?” With a professional editor, that’s not so easy – you are, after all, still using their time, so you can’t ask endless questions!

    That said, I would pay for a critique again if I had good recommendations from other writers. I sometimes feel with my critique group that I can’t see the wood for the trees, especially if we’ve been looking at something for a long time. I also think critique group members tend to have ‘new story’ goggles, ie they get so excited to read something new from a group member, they’re overly positive about it. At times like those, it’s great to have the option to pay for fresh eyes to look at your stuff.

  9. I am married to a contract editor (a former city editor for a newspaper). Most freelance editors for hire now consider themselves ‘contract editors’. They are expensive but if you want more than just having your ‘t’s crossed and punctuation you are going to pay for it. A really good editor will run $90/hr at about 15 to 20 minutes a page. You have to buck up and be ready for what they dish out because it can be pretty intense but your work will be squeaky clean. Writers don’t realize how much more involved editing is beyond grammar and structure.
    My husband routinely takes the writing of 3 scientists and 6 engineers and creates one document out of 9 with the same voice and without losing any essential content or nuance. That takes skill. With an average manuscript, he can do a good edit at about 30 to 45 minutes per page, single spaced. This is for an average document not one that is a real mess. Some of the authors can take the edits, some can’t. He also checks for continuity, repetition, changes in voice, questions fact accuracy and a bunch of things you wouldn’t even think of.
    He says the ones that need it the most are the ones who don’t think they need an editor. Something to think about. Needless to say I’ve had my own personal spell check for 30 years!

  10. Excellent post. Although I don’t advertise myself as an editor, what I do through my writing consultancy is show writers how to edit their own work, what to look out for. I do a detailed edit on a section of their work, in the context of a full MS appraisal/critique with a detailed report, and I show them how to use the same principles throughout the rest of their work. I totally agree that being able to revise your work is one of the essential tools. I see my task as a writing consultant as shining a light on the problems and then handing the torch over.

  11. Cynthia — I WAS TOTALLY ON YOUR SITE LAST NIGHT LOOKING FOR THIS! I remember seeing that you had this resource available (heck, you have EVERY resource available) but apparently was too tired to track it down yesterday. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  12. I’ve been using a writing coach/editor for about 5 months and I’m thrilled. I took a class with this person and she was ruthless. So, she was vetted and perfect for me because I’m pretty good at taking criticism. I honestly don’t think I’d be this far on my book if someone weren’t kicking my but to turn in pages every week and then critiquing them.

    I really think it makes a difference when you take the time to become friends with your coach and take can constructive criticism with a sense of humor and an open mind.

  13. Don Cummer says:

    I was fortunate enough to have a friend forward the the first chapters of my manuscript to her friend who was a freelance editor. He was kind enough to offer some excellent advice that helped me cut down my word count, and he championed the parts of the story he thought worked very well. It was a valuable experience.

    Valuable enough that I pay for the service? My grandmother’s good Scottish soul would recoil. Still, I know that here is one source of good advice if I find myself in a rut again.

  14. Great article! I am a freelance line editor, and I try very hard to get writers to do all they can on their own before they send me the manuscript. The fact is, if you send me a first draft, what you get back is basically a second or third draft, and that’s not worth your hard-earned money.

    A sample edit is important enough that I won’t do a full edit without it. You need to know what you’re buying; and I want to be sure I’m not selling Extra-Sharp Cheddar to someone who wants Velveeta.

    I don’t think everyone needs an editor, and I hope that those who send me their work learn from the experience, so they can do their own afterward.

  15. This is a great article. You brought out some really good points for using a freelance writer and NOT.

    I think as Bonita mentioned, it’s so important for a writer to get his ms in as good a shape as possible before submitting to an editor. This should mean belonging to a critique group specific to the genre he is writing in and one that has new and experienced authors.

    There are also some wonderful free online writers’ conferences that writers can certainly benefit from.

    Thanks for providing such useful information.

  16. Hello, I will self-publish a book of 110 pages (around 40.500 words) and I was told to pay around 170 uk sterlins for the editing. Is this too much? too little? Also, what is the average amount that editors demand for this size of book? Please don’t ask me to search on google, and do give me numbers where possible. Thanks!

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