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How to Spot —and Keep— a Sharp-Eyed Freelance Editor

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by Katherine Pickett, Owner, POP Editorial Services

Katherine Pickett

To produce a quality book, publishers of all sizes rely on the help of high-quality editorial freelancers. The types of editorial freelancers a company employs depend on the needs of the publisher, and can range from copy editors and proofreaders only to acquisitions editors, copywriters, and developmental editors.

Nancy Sakaduski, who owns Cat & Mouse Press in Lewes, Delaware, highlights the value that a quality editor can bring to a publisher. “As an independent publisher, I strive to differentiate my books from self-published books, and one way to do that is to use a skilled copy editor to ensure that my books are of professional quality,” Sakaduski says. “This helps me not only sell books, but also attract high-quality authors. I am building a reputation for my company so that people can buy books published by Cat & Mouse Press with confidence.”

For independent publishers and small presses, knowing where to find freelance editors can be the first hurdle. While some publishers let the freelancers initiate contact, others rely on referrals from larger publishers, connections made at writers’ conferences, and personal contacts to find editors for their books. Many associations also have resources for finding freelance editors, such as the IBPA’s Supplier & Services Discovery Database, the Editorial Freelancers Association’s Job List, or the Bay Area Editors’ Forum Editor Database. Commercial sites are another popular source.

These may be excellent ways to locate editors, but how do you know if the freelancer you’re considering is top-notch? And when you do find a top-notch editor, how do you keep him or her working for you? The following four steps will help.

1. Know What Kind of Editing You Need

“Make sure you know what you want,” says Austin Camacho, editorial director at Intrigue Publishing in Cheltenham, Maryland, because “editing is subjective to an extent.” Craig Schenning, owner of Old Line Publishing in Hampstead, Maryland, concurs. Schenning maintains that when you aren’t clear about the type of editing you require, “roles are gray, and that leads to problems.” Although many terms are used for the types of editors available to you, editing can usually be broken into three large categories: developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

  • If you need an in-depth edit, including reorganizing chapters, reworking full paragraphs, or restructuring the plot or argument, then you need developmental editing.
  • If you want the editor to read through the manuscript twice, correcting problems of grammar, punctuation, style, consistency, sense, transitions, and word choice while also making smaller organizational changes, then ask for copyediting.
  • For manuscripts that have been through the copyediting stage and require one pass through to catch what the copy editor missed, ask for proofreading. For print books, this should come after typesetting. E-books are often proofread in Microsoft Word. Proofreaders focus on fine-tuning the text, correcting errors of grammar, punctuation, style, consistency, and sense, as well as looking for dropped copy or other typesetting errors. Finessing word choice and transitions takes a backseat, and you can expect very little rewriting at this late date when making changes becomes costly and time-consuming.
  • The most common mistake among publishers is asking for proofreading when the manuscript really needs copyediting or even developmental editing. When that happens, the publisher often ends up unhappy, either with the minimal editing the project received or the unexpected high fee if the editor performed the level of editing the project required.

2. Check Credentials

When vetting your editor, ask for any or all of these: a résumé, referrals, a recent titles list, a client list. Checking credentials is a simple step, and any good editor will be happy to share the information with a prospective client. You may even find it on the editor’s website. As the publisher, you have to decide how famous the previous clients should be or how long the résumé, but knowing how many years of experience an editor has, with which types of books, and to what degree of success, will indicate to you what caliber of editor you are hiring.

3. Administer an Editing Test

A key factor in your search for a qualified editor is finding someone with “the skills and attitude that match your content,” according to Sakaduski. Administering an editing test can help you make that determination. Editing tests come in all shapes and sizes, from one paragraph of prose to three pages or more that include prose, fill-in-the-blanks, and word lists that verify spelling skills. What’s more important than length, however, is that the test represents the kind of books you publish and the skills you need. Some publishers have separate tests for copyediting and proofreading because these require a different approach to the work. In addition, although many editors can and do edit both fiction and nonfiction, and both trade and academic works, these disparate fields demand different skill sets. Your test should reflect which type of books you produce.

Beyond the genre of books you publish, as you craft your editing test also consider the kinds of errors you frequently come across. For example, if you publish fiction and you often have problems with pacing and time lines, include those errors in your editing test. Consistent misspelling of names? Include it on the test. What about spelling of specialized terminology or extensive endnotes and references? Put those on the test too. You may find it beneficial to pull copy from a work in progress or one of your already published books, as Schenning, Sakaduski, and Camacho all reported doing, so that you are using real-life examples. For more formal editing tests, The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn provides several samples.

A good editing test should take no more than two hours to complete, preferably less. Make sure your test makes the most of the amount of time and space it requires. Although you may run into editors who feel they are above the editing test at this point in their careers, most editors don’t have a problem with such requirements. You want to work with someone who wants to work with you; an editing test shouldn’t be a stumbling block.

4. Pay a Competitive Rate

Your last step in finding and keeping a high-quality editor is to pay your editor what he or she is worth. You don’t have to pay top-of-market prices, but you do have to be competitive if you want to hold on to a good editor. The Editorial Freelancers Association website (the-efa.org) provides a chart of average rates across the nation. When you pay significantly below these rates, your chances of finding a good editor drop dramatically.

Although some publishers, especially micro publishers with micro budgets, may be tempted to go cheap with editing, this is “one of the worst areas to cut corners,” according to Sakaduski. “Price is a big concern,” she adds. “There is huge price pressure on small presses. But I’m not willing to pay $200 for a poor product.”

There are mitigating factors when it comes to fees—for example, if the manuscript is on an interesting topic and the in-house staff has clearly taken care to make a quality book. Many editors feel that such a project makes up for a lower pay scale. An easy working relationship can also make lower pay more acceptable. “When you are easy to do business with, you retain good vendors and get good prices,” says Sakaduski. If, for example, the schedule is always reasonable, the in-house contact is friendly, and payment is prompt, the joy and ease of the work will keep your editor working for you. If you drop too far out of the range of other publishers, however, your editor may have no choice but to pass up work from you in favor of a better-paying client.

Finding a qualified copy editor, proofreader, or developmental editor should be a priority no matter your schedule or budget. Once you know what kind of editing you want, remember to check credentials, administer an editing test, and pay a competitive rate. If cost is an issue (and when isn’t it?), you will always save time and money when you supply your editor with a carefully prepared manuscript. And when you do land that top-notch editor, hold on tight, because as Camacho says, “Once you find them, boy, does it make life easy.”

Katherine Pickett is the owner of POP Editorial Services, LLC, where she offers copyediting, proofreading, and developmental editing services, and wrote the award-winning book, PERFECT BOUND: HOW TO NAVIGATE THE BOOK PUBLISHING PROCESS LIKE A PRO.

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