February 27, 2014

How Can We Identify a Good Editor?

Compass with text: Finding a Good Editor

Back at the start of the ebook revolution, self-publishing was still a “no-no” and only a handful of small and e-publishers existed for my genre. Since then, our choices for publication have exploded, from self-publishing becoming accepted to dozens of small and e-publishers hopping on the ebook train.

Before, we used to deal with whatever editor was assigned to us at the publisher and not think about what made one editor good and another bad. That’s not to say editing was perfect back then. Rumors circulated about how editors didn’t edit anymore, and horror stories existed for the unlucky few.

Now, outside of the biggest publishers, freelance editors reign. Self-published authors and small/e-publishers alike are pulling from the same pool of freelance editors, and we have more choices of who we wish to work with. So how do we decide?

Learn about Editing and Editors

A fantastic resource for learning about editing and editors is Marcy Kennedy’s free PDF, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Hiring a Freelance Editor…” Look for it in the sidebar of her site.

The first thing to know is that there are 4 types of editing and they have to happen in a certain order:

  • Developmental/Content Editing (character arcs, theme development, etc.)
  • Line Editing (paragraph and sentence flow, word choice, etc.)
  • Copy Editing (grammar and punctuation, unnecessary words, etc.)
  • Proofreading (typos, missed grammar and punctuation issues, etc.)

Usually, we’d want at least two editing passes from different editors. The second set of eyes is always helpful, and more importantly, the various types of editing require very different skill sets, so any one editor typically won’t be strong in all areas.

Questions to Ask a Potential Publisher

Understanding the types of editing can help us evaluate a potential publisher before we sign a contract. The editor who “owns” (and often acquires) our manuscript throughout the publishing process would typically act as our developmental editor. That means we can try ask them questions before accepting the offer:

  • Will the publisher do multiple levels of editing?
    A developmental edit and a line/copy edit should be the minimum.
  • Does the publisher use different editors for the various phases?
    Using two editors for the different types of edits would be ideal.
  • What changes do they recommend?
    Ensure their vision for the story matches ours. We can also get a sense of their qualifications by listening for key ideas that a developmental editor should be addressing:

    • Do they speak of story structure, character arc, or turning points?
    • Do they have suggestions for deepening character or theme development?
    • Do they have feedback about pacing, goals, motivations, conflicts, or stakes?

Bad Editing Is a Risk at Publishers Too

If any of those answers are “no,” be wary. I know of far too many writers whose stories have passed through the publishing system without real editing. A dozen authors have complained to a publishing CEO about their common editor’s lack of any editing and been blown off with assurances that said editor is the publisher’s “best.”

More heartbreakingly, I know of writers whose stories have been ruined by poor editing. If a developmental/content/acquiring editor seems to know less than I do—with all of my story structure, theme, character development, etc. posts here on my blog—be extremely wary. A publisher’s editor broke a friend’s book by having her delete the scene of the hero’s turning point, erasing his motivation to change, all because the editor knows nothing about story structure.

Be especially wary if the publisher is smaller, newer, or an epublisher. These publishers are more likely to use the same hit-or-miss freelance editors that self-published authors do, rather than developing their own talent in-house.

When Bad Editing Might Be Worse than No Editing

Like I mentioned in my post last week, I don’t mean to pick on digital-first epublishers. However, many epublishers (and smaller/newer publishers) have a bad reputation for editing quality. Whether that reputation is deserved or not, we need to be aware so we can work to avoid negative consequences by association.

During a long, one-on-one chat with a senior editor* of a major publishing house, I had the opportunity to discuss various publishers’ quality reputations within the industry. The (paraphrased) conversation on this topic was very enlightening:

Editor: “I’d rather work with a debut author than one who came from a digital-first house.”
Me: “Why is that?”
Editor: “Epublishers’ editing is always crap, and that gives the author an inflated sense of their writing quality, making them difficult to work with.”
Me: “Excepting the digital-first imprint of your house, of course.”
Editor: “No, they’re crap too.”

* For obvious reasons, I’m hiding the identity of the editor and publisher, but yes, this was an interesting impromptu discussion, where I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I want to repeat this line because this is the crux of the danger to us:

“Epublishers’ editing is always crap,
and that gives the author an inflated sense of their writing quality,
making them difficult to work with.”

Whether this editor’s opinion is accurate or not, we should be aware of that reputation among other editors (and agents). We can also prepare for the possibility that any editing we went through at a small publisher was less-than-stellar quality and be open to learning more from a better editor in the future.

Why Is It so Hard to Identify Good Editors? (Part One)

If we’re self-publishing, we have to find our own editors. Unfortunately, the advice on how to find good editors often lumps different types of editing together. “Ask for a sample edit” is a common tip.

But a free sample edit of the typical 3-10 pages won’t tell us diddly-squat for the quality of a developmental editor. They work in story arcs, beats, and the big picture stuff. Those issues can’t be seen in a few pages, so a sample edit won’t be useful.

On the other hand, sample edits could be useful for evaluating line or copy editors or proofreaders, but only if we know what to look for. The risk is: We don’t know what all we don’t know.

Sure, they marked up some issues, but did they miss any? How many? Were the issues they marked up right or wrong?

Without getting a second opinion, we simply don’t know when it comes to line or copy editors. And we can’t tell if a developmental editor is any good unless we fork over money for a longer (1-5 chapter) sample edit and maybe not even then. Yeah, this isn’t easy.

Why Is It so Hard to Identify Good Editors? (Part Two)

Other than the good author-editors, the only authors who can really tell good editors from bad are those who have been through a lot of edits with a lot of different editors. Think of the multi-published authors (over 10 books) with multiple publishing houses—they’ve seen all types and could probably tell a good editor from a bad one.

The rest of us? Not so much. If we’ve worked only with smaller publishers or one or two editors, we might not know what our previous editors have missed.

It’s tempting to try to save money by cutting out some of the editing steps or going with a cheaper editor. But I know some of those cheap editors, and I wouldn’t let them edit a letter to Santa Claus, much less my manuscript.

Many of those cheap editors have published a few books (often through an epublisher), and now that they’ve been through the editing process, they think they can do it themselves. After all, what their editor did for them looked easy. But that’s likely because their editor wasn’t very good.

What Can We Do to Find a Good Editor?

  • Learn as much about writing craft as we can. The more we know about story structure, grammar, etc., the better we’ll know whether an editor’s suggestions are great or off-base.
  • Learn about editing and the questions to ask (like from Marcy Kennedy’s PDF and from Angela James’s advice).
  • See if the editor has a blog or website. Do they have articles about writing craft that are insightful and helpful? Do they “walk the walk”?
  • Is the editor familiar and comfortable with our genre? Different genres have very different expectations about point of view, descriptions, etc.
  • Get recommendations and/or references, and ask for specifics on the suggestions the editor made. Did a developmental editor go deep enough? Did a copy editor respect the author’s voice? Has the author worked with multiple publishers or editors? Or is this editor the only one they know so they have nothing to compare it to?

A good editor is worth the money. Every year the Romance Writers of America National Conference puts on a huge award show (think Oscars for the romance writing community) to honor the best books. And every year, the same handful of editors’ names appears next to many of the finalists.

To put that in perspective, that means about 3-5 editors across all romance imprints across all publishing houses are good enough to consistently produce award-worthy work, year after year, author after author. The remainder are more likely to be hit or miss quality.

So if the big publishers struggle with this issue, we’re going to struggle with it too. Good editors are hard to find. However, with a little education, we might be able to increase our chances for our own successful match. *smile*

What other editing-related questions might we try to ask of a potential publisher? What are other warning signs about editors? Have you heard of the bad reputation for editing quality at many smaller/e-publishers? Do you have other suggestions or insights on how to identify a good editor?

Full Disclosure: Yes, I do developmental editing, but I’m not even linking to my services page. This is simply a rant about how widespread bad editors are and the risks (short and long term) when working with one. *smile*

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It’s possible for someone to be a good editor and to not know the jargon, but unless you want to risk that, there are a few questions that can quickly check an editor’s experience: 1. Comma before an “and” on a list of 3+ items (called “Oxford comma” or “serial comma”), yes or no? Best answer: For most things, yes, due to parallelism. Certain specific fields like journalism omit it, though. (The primary handbook in most publishing is the Chicago Manual of Style [CMS]; the journalism handbook is the Associated Press Stylebook [AP]) The key is consistency. Okay answer: Yes. (This is what’s standard in publishing. UK/world English can be but isn’t necessarily an exception.) Bad answer: No. (If this editor is experienced, it’s in non-fiction.) 2. Spaces around an em dash (—), yes or no? (Note that an otherwise good editor may not know that the “—” dash symbol is properly an em dash. In US English, the en dash symbol rarely appears in anything but some non-fiction and science-fiction. In Australian and some other non-US variants, an en dash with spaces around it can be substituted for an em dash. The key is consistency.) Best answer: Except in journalism, the technical answer is no to the spaces. However, due to formatting concerns—like e-books often being easier to format with the spaces—publishers in general have a “house style override” for that question. This publisher’s style is X. (Or, if you’re self-publishing, “Which is your house style to be?”) Okay…  — Read More »

Leslie Miller

Jami, I am a developmental/content editor and I agree with your points. I’ve recently started working together with an excellent copy editor/proofreader so my clients don’t have to find another editor on their own once I’m finished with their book. We each have completely different strengths and make a terrific team. So far, this system is working well for all concerned and I’m really thrilled. It is a free-for-all out here in terms of editors, and I’ve heard many genuine horror stories. I agree that learning the craft of fiction is the best thing an author can do, for a wide variety of reasons. And therein lies the main issue I face. The large majority of clients I work with are planning to self-publish. They frequently send manuscripts which appear as sloppy as a first draft. They clearly have taken no time to learn any craft at all and they seem to believe an editor can “fix” their book. And–they want it all done in one round, having no idea that there are different types of editors or which type they need, or even if their book is ready for editing. I have to turn down many projects because they are uneditable (if that’s not a word it should be), the authors are not willing to spend the money for more than one round of editing, or they don’t want to write another draft when they believe they are finished and mere seconds away from loading the book to Amazon.…  — Read More »


[…] was going to rant about poor editing today, but I closed the wrong window in my computer and lost all 1000 words. *sigh* So I’ll try it […]

Leslie Miller

There’s another issue with editing, whether content or copy, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen covered anywhere. Let me give you two examples, one writing related, one not. I took watercolor classes for a year. In one of our class critiques, my teacher suggested something I could do to fix a problem area in my painting. His suggestion was excellent and I went home to try it, but because I didn’t yet have the skill, I wound up making the problem worse. Now, here’s the writing related example. I worked on a paranormal suspense novel, and I noted that instead of finding the tension building throughout the novel to the climax, the author was doing something that dissipated the tension in each chapter. I pointed it out to her, gave various suggestions to fix it, etc. But because we only had contracted for one round of editing–I have no idea if she implemented any of my suggestions, or if she had the skill to fix the issue. I never saw the book again until she handed me an autographed copy months later. One of the issues with editing is we cannot know whether authors will actually accept the changes, or only some of the changes, or implement the suggestions, or with what skill they will implement the suggestions. Then an editor may be blamed for ruining a book, when it’s the author who has–quite literally–the last word in every single instance! It’s a difficult business for editor and author…  — Read More »

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Don’t have time today to leave a beefy comment, but I read the post and as always it’s chock FULL of GREAT info!
Thanks so much and have a great weekend, Jami!!


As a relative newbie in the writing world, I’ve had editor dealings that were both positive and negative. I’ve appreciated the help with POV, repeated words, punctuation. But even at the beginning I resisted the attempt to change my phrasing to something they preferred (totally changing the tone of the work.) And the next round of editing proved me out. I was uncertain about my resistance until I heard the horror stories from multi published friends dealing with major publisher senior editors who want to removed every sharp edge from the heroines. Thereby losing the snarkiness readers expect from these stories.
Criticism of my writing can hurt at first. But it’s fixable, and best to hear BEFORE you punch that ‘publish’ button

Jennifer Barricklow

Yes, yes, and yes! Another sign of a good editor (also mentioned above) is that she recommends proofreading in addition to her editing (or editing before she proofreads) — by another professional. I have never been brought work for proofing that didn’t need editing first. I offer both services, by the way, but will not perform both for the same manuscript. I have developed working relationships with other professionals and regularly refer clients to them for complementary services. As was also mentioned above, one difficulty with independent publishing is that authors don’t always take the advice of editors. Since the authors are themselves the publishers, there is no higher authority to make certain that necessary changes (or editorial reviews) are made. Seen in purely practical terms, traditional publishing is a money-making enterprise. With an eye on the bottom line, most houses have drastically reduced their marketing departments, typically requiring authors to do all the heavy lifting on their own. Yet publishers continue to send manuscripts and page proofs out to be edited and checked, a minimum of three passes (content, copy, and proofing) per book. If this were not absolutely essential, would they continue to do so? Authors who publish independently without implementing even minimal quality standards do their work and their audience a terrible disservice. Thank you for opening a conversation on what to look for in an editor. It might also be valuable to have a conversation about what makes a good author, as far as editors are…  — Read More »


I kind of want to hit that editor you were talking to. ALL editors for epublishers are crap? Really? I call bullshit. And this is just a personal opinion, but I wouldn’t hold the RITAs up as a standard for which houses have the best editors. I’d be looking at which publishers are landing the hard to get reviews (and which of these reviews are excellent) from Kirkus, PW, Library Journal, and even RT (sometimes. Not always 🙂 ). Comparing the RITAs to the Oscars is actually a good comparison, though – if you look at it in terms that the same directors, actors, and production companies get nominated every year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has long been the subject of many grumblings about how boring and safe it is – and if the RITAs keep going the way they are, they’ll end up with the same reputation. Case in point – Harlequin. They OWN the series category, despite other publishers (yes, digital first) putting out stories that fit within the parameters of a series book. People are afraid of change. They shouldn’t be. It’s inevitable, and not embracing it means losing out in a lot of cases. I dislike people who make gross generalizations, and a comment like that would make me leery of working with that particular editor, not to mention it sort of sounds like s/he would be prejudiced going into a project if the author in question HAD been published first by…  — Read More »


‘I know some of those cheap editors, and I wouldn’t let them edit a letter to Santa Claus, much less my manuscript.’ – brilliant 🙂

I just bagged Marcy Kennedy to edit my MS so I’m *happy dancin* all over the place 🙂

Anne R. Allen

Great piece, and great comments. Every new writer needs to read this, so I’ll share it like mad!

Just this week I heard from a first time novelist who wanted to get his book edited, but was such a newbie, I hardly knew where to begin. He thought whoever charged most must be best. He’d found an editor who charged $300 an hour (!) But he didn’t know if it was for a developmental edit or a copy edit. I sent him the link to the EFA price list. I wish I’d had a link to this post.

Then there are all the people who contact me to say, “my daughter is an English major and she’s doing some editing to earn money over the summer. Would you spread the word?”

No, I won’t. She’s not an editor; she’s at best a proofreader. And she’ll probably use MLA rules, not CMS.

Then of course, there are the indie gurus who preach the Heinlein gospel of “never edit and let the market decide.” I’ll be talking about that piece of misguided nonsense on my blog on Sunday.

Jen Tanner
Jen Tanner

Hi Jami,

This post is why I subscribe to your blog. Whether Indie or traditionally published, lack of editing is usually the reason why I give up on a book. Good editors aren’t cheap, but I’d like to believe that spending money for editing up front might make a difference in future book sales. Hiring an editor is kind of like taking an expensive workshop but finding one is still a daunting process. Thanks for another fabulous post.

Rinelle Grey

I’ve been through 4 or 5 different editors now, and I’ve found that I’ve learned something from each and every one of them. I rarely agree with all of the corrections/suggestions, but even in just working thorough why I disagree, I usually learn something. And yeah, one of the things I’m learning is what sort of editors work for me! But I’m also preparing a better manuscript each time, before it hits the editor. I think that’s something you can’t gain by working with the same editor over and over.

LG O'Connor

I’m keeping this post! Unfortunately, I think I’ve stumbled across a couple of those expensive but ‘not right’ editors. They fit the example in the first comment of using non-fiction rules to edit fiction. Bad, but who knew? I didn’t. Luckily, I had a decent one from my publisher, but I’m planning on self-pubbing the next book and still think I need to up my game in the editorial department…


As a longtime technical writer/editor who is is trying to break into freelance fiction- and memoir-editing, I found this article *very* helpful. In fact, I find just about everything you post to be helpful! The “Pantsers” story arc sheets in particular helped me to write my first two romance novels, and I’m studying those sheets (along with many related resources) to make myself better qualified to write and edit fiction, particularly in the romance genre.

Thank you!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

This is not really (directly) related to this post, but do you have a solution for the following probably common writing problem?:

Do you sometimes have characters tell each other their names (and sometimes last names), and when they meet again, they always manage to remember each other’s names perfectly somehow? Even though in real life, it’s quite a struggle to remember names? (At least, I often find it difficult, unless that person really made an impression on me. I already have a lot of trouble recognizing faces, lol! XD) However, if we want to make it more real life, it might be annoying to the reader to have one character constantly need to remind another character what their name is…lol.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with this?


Fiction conversation is idealized. It can help to keep that in mind.

Even so, there are ways to work in reminders so they fit the situation and characters, particularly if you use it more as part of the coloring for a character or two, or for a particular character relationship, rather than something characteristic of all characters/relationships.

Now you make me want to write a narrator who can’t remember anyone’s name…

Sharla Rae

This blog is timely for me. I’m looking for an editor and then a digital formatting expert. I’ve worked with editors before even ones that didn’t work for a publishing house way before digital was even a possibility.

I never sent in a book to my House editor without hiring a freelancer to go over my work. Why? Maybe it was pride but I didn’t want to get caught at stupid mistakes that I just overlooked from having reread the book a zillion times. Also, it prevented the House editors from going into my work and making ridiculous suggestions to correct any issues.

Most House editors don’t understand historical terms and you’d be surprised at what they tried to substitute! One would think that a House editor working in the historical genres would know most of these terms. They don’t. But if a historical terms trips up the freelancer, then I knew to substitute it “before” the House editor saw it and stuck something totally stupid into my book. 🙂 What you said about editors knowing your genre is very very important.

Stacy Jerger

Jami, I totally agree with you about sample edits from developmental editors. As a D.E. it’s sometimes difficult for me to help authors understand why a generic sample edit wouldn’t reflect my skills. But I do think they should see something from me prior to hiring because it can be such a big commitment to work with a D.E. In the past I’ve given critiques or line edit samples with developmental comments. And I explain that some edits won’t always survive if sections/paragraphs get moved around later to improve story structure. Even a suggestion in a sample could turn useless later if a character’s motive shifts, a timeline alters, a plot changes, etc. But I think this is hard for some authors to realize until they go through the developmental editing process or learn more about it. And there’s definitely some planning and organization I do with authors before I even touch their manuscripts. Immediately I want to make sure I understand the author’s vision and if the author is open to what I can offer in return (make sure we’re seeing eye to eye). In that case, a consultation may be more valuable than a sample edit of some kind. And authors get a better idea of how a developmental editor thinks and how that editor might approach their project. Just as authors have lessons learned, so do editors! Not all good editors start out good–we’re always improving our craft and the way we collaborate. We have authors to…  — Read More »

Gloria Oliver

Awesome post! And yes, it’s such a shocker when you think you finally have a clue and you find out there’s yet so much more to learn. I’ve come to the realization that I seem to develop different bad habits on each new manuscript. Almost like for every lessons I finally have down, I have to offset it with a new bad habit. o.O


[…] How Can We Identify a Good Editor? by Jami Gold –  a MUST READ. The line she highlights is probably the most important one. And even small publishers run into people like this. (Have been doing editing sessions with one of my publishers the last few weeks and it truly is humbling to see all the red, but I am so grateful for it! I apologized for making her work so hard, but she said I was easy, especially compared to some of the authors who fight her over every word. Eek!) […]


[…] week I wrote about how to find a good editor, partly as a rant against the flood of bad editors out there. It seems like everyone and their […]


[…] needed to write the last couple of posts about finding a good editor and what it takes to be a good editor because I’ve seen and heard too many horror stories […]


[…] the draft comes the editing. Jami Gold looks at how we can identify a good editor, while Melissa Donovan has tips for accepting critiques and then writing […]


[…] we’ve finished writing, it’s time to revise and edit. Beta readers and developmental editors can help us with big-picture revising, like bringing out our story, plot, and characters as much as […]


[…] few weeks ago, I posted about how we can identify a good editor and the skills a good editor should possess. During those posts, a conversation with fellow […]


[…] the next step so we’re ready to move forward (i.e. researching editors while waiting to hear from beta readers, […]

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