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April 16, 2015

Picking Editors: How to Evaluate Potential Editors

Yellow star with text: How to Rate Potential Editors

Last time we talked about how to know what type of editing we need for our strengths and weaknesses. Depending on our situation, we might be able to find others to help us, such as beta readers, family, or friends. Other times we might be able to exchange our strengths for editing services from others.

I’ve traded my developmental editing skills for developmental edits and copyedits on some of my stories. Those trades cost me time but have greatly helped my wallet. *smile*

However, we might not have others to turn to for favors, or we might not have skills to trade. (Don’t be too quick to count yourself out in having worthwhile skills though. Any strengths we have might be good for trades, online workshops, coaching, etc. which could all reduce our expenses.)

Obviously, when we do need to open our wallet, we want to make sure that we’re spending our money on quality editing for our needs. Not only do we want our editor to know what they’re doing, but we also want their edits to fit with our story, our voice, and our weaknesses.

Let’s see if we can come up with tips, questions, and processes that will help us evaluate editors for our needs. (And hang on, as this is a monster of a post!) With luck, we’ll all be able to find the right editor for us. *smile*

How to Find Potential Editors

Step One: Gather Names

As soon as I decided to self-publish, I started keeping my eyes open for potential editors, and I saved links for every editor I came across.

I collected names, links, and/or email addresses from:

  • friends who edited,
  • recommendations from friends or on social media,
  • editors of award nominees,
  • answers on forum posts about editors, etc.

By the time I was ready for editing, I’d collected over 100 names across all the different types of editing. (Yes, I’m an over-achieving perfectionist who goes overboard on projects. I wouldn’t recommend trying to imitate my approach. *smile*)

This thorough approach meant I had plenty of possibilities to choose from, however. Going back to my post about the need to pick two choices from the list of fast, cheap, and good, the more potential editors we have to choose from, the more likely we’ll be able to find an editor who’s good and within our budget. The cost is our time for the next step.

Step Two: Research

Once we have our list of possibilities, we need to research further to start eliminating names. We can check an editor’s website for our first pass of deciding whether they’d be a good fit for us.

We might eliminate names from our list due to issues with:

  • typos on their website
  • their personality (their editing goals don’t match ours)
  • the type of editor (an editing stage we don’t need)
  • their policies (full payment upfront, no clean-writing discount, no sample edits, etc.)
  • scheduling (they’re not taking new clients, etc.)
  • their prices (seem out of line from others)

After we complete our initial “rejections,” we can dig deeper. We can check their services to see if what they offer really matches what we need. (Remember that editing titles aren’t absolute, and many editors call themselves one kind of editor but are actually stronger in another area.)

We can look through their recommendations or testimonials and see if we know any of their clients to ask for more insight or examples of their edits. We can do a search on their name and the word editor to see if any other links show up with more information. Or we could ask around on writing forums to see if any members are familiar with their work.

Step 3: Make Contact with Potential Editors

With our final list of potentials, we can start making contact. I had a developmental editor lined up already, so I started out searching for a line editor. I emailed a handful at the top of my list with an introduction: my genre, that I was writing a series (so they knew I was looking for a long-term partnership), and how I’d heard of them.

Then I started the questions… *smile* Again, I’m uber-over-achieving in this regard, but I had a whole list of questions that I customized based on what I couldn’t answer from their website.

The questions included:

  • What’s your typical turnaround time?
  • Do you have preferred genres? (I also made sure they’d be okay with my stories’ heat levels.)
  • How do you provide feedback? (Avoid editors who make changes directly in the manuscript without using MS Word’s Track Changes or comment functions, as it’s a pain to figure out what they changed to see if you agree with the edits.)
  • What are your biggest strengths as an editor?
  • When would you be available for an X words story?

Then I closed with a note about how I was attaching the first chapter of my story in hopes that they were open to demonstrating their editing style on at least a few of the pages. Finally, I asked what they’d charge for an edit on that full story (as they’d now seen my writing to decide on a clean-writing discount or not).

I gave every editor the same pages. In other words, I didn’t update the sample after getting a few suggestions from an editor. The point here is to not only see whether they’re a good fit for our voice, but also to compare one editor to another. We can learn a lot by what editors do—or don’t—point out.

Some of the editors flat-out told me they didn’t do sample edits or weren’t available. Those were easy to eliminate.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I consider sample edits essential for line edits and copyedits. For line editors, one of the most important considerations is whether an editor is a good match for our voice. For copyeditors, we want to be assured that they know grammar rules, etc.

By eliminating a couple of editors at a time and then emailing the next one on the list until I found the perfect match, I was able to see a lot of sample edits. I quickly realized two things: far too many of the editors were unqualified (grammar errors or general sloppiness) and many editors don’t use the “right” title.

Evaluating an Editor’s Strengths

As I mentioned last time, about half the editors I contacted about line editing came back with sample edits that focused instead on copyedits. Now maybe they just thought my prose didn’t need changes for flow or tightening (*snort*), or maybe line editing isn’t actually their strength.

To give you an idea of how to tell an editor’s focus from a sample edit, I’m going to share some paraphrased comments I received from my editors at different points in the editing process for my freebie short story, Unintended Guardian. Evaluating an editor’s comments or suggestions in a sample edit can help us identify an editor’s strengths.

Developmental Editing

Note how these comments get deep into motivations, emotions, and characterization. Along with the bullet points I mentioned last time, these are signs of developmental edits.

  • “I don’t understand her thoughts on what’s happening. I think it might be because we don’t know her default attitude. This would probably just take a couple sentences here and there to fix.”
  • “Feels like we need some visceral bodily reaction here to add emotion. I like the metaphor, but I find I’m wondering what she’s feeling.”

Line Editing

Note how these comments get into reading flow, clarity, tightening, and stronger writing. These are great signs of line edits. (Also note how these comments get into the nitty-gritty of how we word things. That’s why we need our line editor to be in tune with our voice.)

  • “I feel like her words should directly follow this. See what you think of the new arrangement.”
  • “This wording is a little awkward, and I would add a sentence or two showing her decision.”
  • “You can cut this. We know it already.”
  • “This almost goes without saying. Could you use a more descriptive adverb, or better yet, phrase?”

Copy Editing

Note how these comments get into tense, comma, word choice, and grammar issues. These are all signs of copy edits.

  • “Insert had.”
  • “You could cut this and insert a comma.”
  • “This is an unusual word for the context.”
  • “This like should be as if or as though.”

The Skills Matter, Not the Title

We shouldn’t eliminate an editor who’s using an imprecise title for themselves as long as we’re clear on what they can do for us and their skills meet our needs. Many editors have skills that overlap.

My line editor also gives a ton of copyediting suggestions and a few developmental suggestions too (such as pointing out where motivations need to be more fleshed out). So the lines connecting what an editor’s skills are with the titles that define them are very gray and wavy. A perceived mismatch isn’t a reason to “reject” an editor.

The Skills Matter, Not the Price (Sort of…)

Obviously, an editor’s price matters if we can’t afford them. (Although I’d suggest that it doesn’t hurt to ask if we qualify for clean-writing discounts, or if there are other ways to save money.) But in my experience, a high price doesn’t automatically equal good quality, and a low price doesn’t automatically equal poor quality.

Among the editors who impressed me, prices ranged from:
$5 per 1000 words to $20 per 1000 words.

Among the editors with questionable grammar, prices ranged from:
$3 per 1000 words to $50 per 1000 words.

Point made: Price isn’t connected to quality—good or bad. *smile*

Do We Know Enough to Evaluate an Editor?

So I keep talking about sample edits here, but there’s a very big elephant sitting on our manuscript pages that we need to discuss. If we look at those comments above, we’ll see that we need to have strong writing skills to know if a potential editor’s suggestions are right or wrong.

There’s a big difference in how easily we can trust an editor depending on whether we know if they’re right or not. When we get notes back from an editor, do we do a *head slap* for missing something we know? Or do we think “Huh. I didn’t know that, but I guess they must be right”?

The former situation makes it easy to evaluate sample edits and know who really has the skills and who’s full of it. The former situation makes it easy to develop a relationship with our editor based on trust. The former situation makes it easy to “accept” 90% or more of our editor’s suggestions and know they were the right thing for the story.

The latter situation—when we don’t know how to improve our writing or we don’t know the rules (and we don’t take the time to Google and verify or fully understand the rule)—makes everything harder. We won’t be able to tell which editors are good or bad, and we won’t be able to build a trusting relationship with the editor we choose. That’s a tragedy.

That’s why—unless we have unlimited money to pay an editor to mentor and teach us everything we need to know—we shouldn’t pursue editing and publication until we’ve strengthened our own skills.

Evaluating a Sample Edit

Once we receive a few sample edits, we can start comparing to learn more about each editor’s strengths. For example:

  • Does one editor suggest a change and note the reason why (“Webster’s calls for this to be one word and not hyphenated.”), while another editor doesn’t mention it?
  • Does one editor suggest changes that mess up our voice?
  • Do editors make opposite suggestions? (I had one editor tell me to put something in quotes and another editor point to a Chicago Manual of Style rule that it should be capitalized and italicized.)
  • Does one editor make positive comments that make it seem like they get our voice, story, and writing style?
  • Does one editor point out more issues that are truly helpful or insightful?

Notice that some of those questions are objective (quoting rules), and some are subjective (voice, etc.). Yet even on the objective side, we might not need (or want) an editor who’s a rule-stickler.

Either way, that kind of analysis can tell us a lot about an editor’s skill set and/or what they tend to notice. I’m terrible with hyphenation, so I knew I needed a copyeditor who would notice those errors. I cut my writing teeth at the feet of two editors who showed me the possibilities of great line editing, and I was starved for more than just a copyedit.

Other writers will have different goals, priorities, and weaknesses to fill in. I love my editors, but they wouldn’t necessarily be perfect for others. The right match for us is extremely subjective.

The Details: Keeping Track

Because I’m ridiculously organized, I created a spreadsheet to keep track of all the editors on my short list. My spreadsheet included:

  • all their contact information,
  • pricing and availability,
  • notes about recommendations, clients, and genres, and
  • notes about the sample edits.

The Details: Grading Each Editor

Then I gave each editor a grade based on how good of a match they’d be for me. (i.e., I’m not sharing this spreadsheet because it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. *smile*)

That last column with my notes on the sample edits was the basis of the grade. That column included notes such as:

  • D: Copy edit only, didn’t agree with most changes
  • C: More copy than line, and not sure about many grammar aspects
  • B: Mix of line and copy, but some of the comments broke my voice
  • A: Good mix of line and copy suggestions, agreed with most

By the time all the sample edits were returned, I had several A-grade editors to choose from. I made my final choice based on which editor was best for my voice, was spot on with all of her rule-based suggestions, was available, and charged a fair price (she charges by the hour, so my clean-writing discount was built into the price).

What Questions Don’t Matter?

We might see advice about other ways we can evaluate an editor, but much of this advice is inaccurate or doesn’t matter in most cases.

Myth: The Best Editors Are Also Writers

False. As writers, we know that novel writing and query and blurb writing are very different skills. Multiply that by a thousand and we might understand why editing skills are often unrelated to writing skills.

Even if they are published authors, their own writing quality doesn’t indicate their editing skills, as writer-editors can’t edit themselves any more than the rest of us. Their writing quality might say more about their editor’s skills than their own editing skills.

Myth: The Best Editors Are Not Writers

False. Whether or not someone edits as their full-time job doesn’t necessarily reflect their skills.

No matter how good I become at developmental editing, I wouldn’t give up writing. Editors can like—and be good at—more than one thing.

Myth: An Editor’s Process Determines Their Quality

False. Some of you might have seen the debate on my Facebook post about whether or not editors who started making comments on their first read-through were “sloppy.”

Just as plotters and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants) can both write clean and strong stories, editors who make comments on their first read and those who do an overview read-through first can both give insightful and complete edits.

In fact, most editors I know make comments on their first read-through because their fresh eyes are better at catching issues. They don’t want to forget any concerns by waiting for their second pass to make their notes.

As I mentioned on Facebook, editors who make comments on a first read should probably do a second pass to see if their questions, concerns, suggestions, etc. change once they know the story. (If they left inappropriate comments in, that would be sloppy.) But there’s no reason for them to not make a note when they notice a problem. Only the quality of the final edit they return to the author matters.

Final Thoughts

All of these tips, lists, and myths come down to one thing:

Do you trust your editor?

If you need your editor to be an author (or not be an author) for you to trust them, then it matters to you. If you need your editor to follow a certain process for you to trust them, then it matters to you.

Conversely, if you don’t need your editor to be in tune with your voice to trust their suggestions, then that tip doesn’t matter to you. Or if you don’t need your editor to know grammar rules to be able to trust their judgment, then that tip doesn’t matter to you.

An editor—especially for self-published authors—is a partner and not an authority-from-on-high. The best partnership often comes down to finding an editor that we can trust.

Those A-grade editors on my list were all people that I would trust with my work. If we don’t trust an editor enough to “accept” most of their suggestions, the edit is a waste of money.

The details of an edit are just sausage-making. Only the quality of the edit for the author matters. And hopefully, this post will help us find that perfect match. *smile*

Do you have suggestions for where else to look for potential editors? What do you look for in an editor? Do you have any questions about these evaluation tips? Do you have other tips to share? Do you agree that it’s most important to find an editor we can trust?

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37 Comments on "Picking Editors: How to Evaluate Potential Editors"

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Carradee

*scratches head* I know I’ve written my own thoughts on this, before, but I can’t find them, right—

Oh! It wasn’t a post on my blog but a comment on yours, Jami! Note to self: convert & expand that into a blog post.

For now, I’ll just point to that link. 🙂

Ashley Leath

What a thorough post! I absolutely agree with much of what you wrote. Sample edits (I do the first 5 pages for potential clients) are a great way to get a feel for whether you and the editor will mesh well.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
I know for me, someone who gets my voice and understands I’m NOT writing a picture book (despite the animal characters) is HALF the battle in whoever I consult. If I were writing straight natrualistic animals this wouldn’t be so challenging. But I’m also not wrting absolutely cartoonish animals either. If I had dollar for every time I heard “I’m not familar with animal stories for non-preschoolers” I could afford a deposit on the illustrator I’m hoping to land for “GABRIEL”, as even though this is a novel, I know having some illustrations (plus a striking cover that sets the right tone) will give the final book an edge styliscially, and frankly give readers a guide of how in the middle I am between cartoonish and naturalistic. If they at least understand my type of stories are not limited to the picture book format, in general, I can better trust their advice. I think because I don’t draft nearly as cleanly as you or Caradee do, I get especially anxious about “sticker shock” beacause while you make the clear point the high price doesn’t mean high quality, I know there’s a lot of debate among entrepneurs about pricing themselves too low out of fear, and that may add to the tricky nature of what’s resoable for you to pay for the help you need. Obviously you charge what you do for your services to make it worth the time you put in, right, Jami? If it’s too low it’s not… Read more »
Carradee

I do microgigs on Fiverr. It started off because I realized I could convert things to “clean” HTML really fast. (*cough* find & replace + macros specific to particular clients… *cough*). Eventually, I added other little things, mostly because folks on Fiverr kept hiring me to do those things for them.

Most of my Fiverr clients are repeats, referrals sent by word-of-mouth, OR people who need something close but not quite what I offer. And some of my repeat clients hire me for one thing, then realize they need other things I can help them with. (Example: Someone who hires me to help clean up their formatting might realize I can proofread, too.)

If you’re clear, precise, and careful about how you set things up and communicate with clients, you can end up averaging a decent hourly rate on Fiverr. As well as a confidence boost when clients tip you or not-so-subtly indicate that your skills are more valuable than you realized. 🙂

Now, Fiverr has its issues, but everywhere does. I think it’s well worth checking out just as a brainstorming method, even if you ultimately decide to do something else.

Kathryn Jankowski

Interesting points. I’d love to know which editor(s) you chose. Perhaps in a private email?

Stephanie
Stephanie

Hi, Jami. Thank you for another wonderful post. I have a few questions for you and possibly your readers. How do you feel about an editor who will suggest that to keep an author’s voice, it is okay to leave some things alone, otherwise risk losing that connection? If we all wrote with perfect grammar and punctuation, wouldn’t things be too similar? Isn’t it better to allow the author’s style to shine through (so long as it isn’t difficult for the reader to understand)? Hope that makes sense. Thanks!

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[…] Some line editors will overlap with the other stages as well, providing developmental feedback as well as some copyediting suggestions. I’ll dig deeper into sample edits and what to look for in Thursday’s post. […]

Glynis Jolly

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while now. I have a very short list of possible editors but I’ve been going by how I feel about them personally, nothing else. I didn’t know what else to look for, that is until now. Thank you.

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[…] Picking Editors: How to Evaluate Potential Editors by Jami Gold. Loads of wisdom shared in this one. 🙂 […]

Kirsten Schuder
Hi Jami, My, what a thorough article! It’s rare to find such a high level of detail available in free web content. I agree with almost all of your comments, except for one: that it’s a myth that editors who write don’t make better editors. When I first started working in my present editing position, I was also asked to write some articles too, and I’ll have to say, I feel it improved my editing skills. When editors are not writers, they only have one half of the view of the process. They have no idea what it’s like to repeatedly subject your own work to criticism, and sometimes, it’s constructive criticism, and sometimes, the criticism sounds kind of mean and angry. I think it’s healthy for all editors to get a complete view of the process and write an article or two so they can experience how good it feels when a writer receives a compliment on a well-written passage, for example. Also, it makes me more sensitive to what writers go through in their learning process and skills acquisition, as well as making me more sensitive to issues such as novel marketability. For example, for my novel, Inside Dweller, I have been researching how to market a sci-fi/paranormal fiction novel, and I can and do share this knowledge with my clients. But, I also find that this knowledge is applicable across different genres as well. I’ve been both editing and writing for years, and now I have my… Read more »
Leona

Hi Jami!

Love your blog, as always 🙂 I’d like to point out a few things.

Some editors (moi included) were taught at small houses and do double duty. I’d say, in addition to your list, you might see if one comes with this built in double duty. I do copy editing that includes developmental and a lot of grammar and other line issues. (I became a line editor for a press, and CMoS and I became reeeeaaallll close lol)

I’d also add to look at how many passes you are getting for your bucks. For instance, some only do one or two passes, while others will do three. I will even do four if my editing discovered an issue that meant major rewrites. Others are like that as well.

Also, look to friends who know your writing. I don’t do cut rate for clean copy upfront. That being said, if I’m familiar with the writing and know they are clean writers, I will give them half or more off, depending on the length of the manuscript.

And, knowing you, I’m sure that chart is a doozy!! LOL These are good criteria 🙂 And bartering is good! I just bartered for cover art with my editing expertise.

One last favor… Please, don’t judge my editing skills by my blog. LOL I’ve long been a maverick in that I won’t blog at all if I’m worried about everything. Sighs. Have a great time!

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

Some fabulous tips, I’ll definitely be rereading this when it comes to picking an editor!

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