How to Work With a Freelance Editor

The writer/editor relationship is an interesting one, built on trust, open communication, honesty…things which, let’s face it, most of us suck at. So it’s not surprising that for a lot of writers, it can be one of the more intimidating steps on the road to publication. It’s scary to send your manuscript, your baby, off to an agent or editor– otherwise known as Total Stranger Whose Sole Purpose is to Rip it to Shreds. But editors are not the enemy. In fact, they’re your best ally. And, as someone who toes the line between writer and editor, I can tell you that the process is just as nerve-wracking from the editor’s side of the fence.

Yes, our job is primarily to pass judgement on something you’ve slaved over for years. But it’s also our job to polish, refine, and help you present your work to the real jury– the readers– in the best form possible. Like jewelers honing an uncut diamond into the sparkly perfection adorning someone’s engagement ring, we hack and chop and tweak your manuscript until it shines like the brilliant gem you knew it was. We invest in your work, not nearly to the level that you did, of course, but enough that we care about it’s success. We want to see it make the bestseller’s list almost as badly as you do. Because the reality is, it’s success reflects on us as well. Which is why it can be just as scary for us to take on a client as it is for the client to hire us.

What if they don’t like our work? How will they react to all the changes that need to be done? What if the book flops because of me? These are just a few of the anxiety-producing thoughts that can run through an editor’s head. Not so different from the nail-biting that ensues while you wait for our verdict, is it? But this relationship doesn’t have to be a stress-producing, hair-graying, fear-fest. It all depends on the approach. This is the part you will be hard pressed to find information about. There are plenty of other posts that explain how an editor works, what the average rate is, how horrifying a process it is for the writer, etc. But very few will tell you the best practices for actually working with a freelance editor. Until now.

Things That Make a Writer/Editor Relationship Work Smoothly:

  • Open Communication. Yep, there’s that phrase again. But this is the heart of working with an editor. Be clear in what you expect from us. Do you just need a proofreader? Tell us that. Do you want a full, comprehensive, brutal strip-down type of edit? Tell us. If you have specific areas of concern in your work, yep, you guessed it, tell us. We’re not psychics, so don’t be afraid to provide directions. It helps ensure that we meet your expectations for the level of editing you wanted.
  • Ability to Accept Critique. So often, writers hire an editor thinking there’s nothing wrong with their manuscript beyond maybe a few typos, and that they’ll get to bask in the editor’s glowing review of their brilliance. And then they find out they’re wrong. They take the criticism of their work personally, bristling on the defensive and completely discounting the editor’s opinions. But no manuscript is ever perfect. That’s why you hire a second, or third, pair of eyes to look it over. So expect feedback. Harsh feedback. I’m sure you’ve heard that you need a thick skin as a writer, and this is why. Try to remember that as much as it stings to be told that your favorite scene really should be cut, that it’s not an attack on you personally or your ability to write. It’s a suggestion that will strengthen your story the way liposuction strengthens self-esteem.
  • Payment. This probably seems like something that shouldn’t have to be said. But sadly, it does. Editors don’t work for free. If you want that kind of superficial feedback, then what you really want are Beta Readers– people that will read your manuscript and offer the bare minimum of feedback in exchange for a free copy of something unreleased. Don’t get me wrong, Beta Readers provide an invaluable service too, and I firmly believe that any work should be read by as many willing eyes as possible before it faces the gauntlet of publishing. But they’re not editors. An editor will spend hours of detailed work, reading and re-reading passages, reorganizing and honing the text on a word-by-word basis, working with you on trouble areas and answering questions. Depending on the length of the manuscript, this can take a significant chunk of time. Time they couldn’t devote to other means of bill paying. Would you expect a lawyer to work for free? A contractor? An accountant? No? Then why would you expect an editor to work for free? Suffice to say that if you plan on hiring an editor, expect to pay a decent wage for that person’s work. Or expect it to very quickly become a point of contention that can ruin an otherwise working relationship.
  • Provide a Reference. Think of this like a review. You know how important those are to the success of your book, right? Well references are equally as important to an editor’s continued success. If you were happy with the result of your time with the editor, let them use you and your work as a reference. It actually benefits you both. It will boost the editor’s portfolio, allowing them to attract new clients, but it also acts as free advertisement for your book. Win-win, no?

Those are the basics. A lot of them are really just common sense, or should be. The writer/editor relationship is just that, a relationship. It involves two human beings, and is subject to all the follies that implies. Realize that, and you should be able to conduct yourself in a manner which generates professionalism, mutual respect and even friendship.

But there’s one thing I haven’t covered, and I would be remiss if I didn’t– how you go about finding that perfect editorial partner. Since you aren’t working with a traditional publishing house, it’s your job to vet their qualifications. And as Dr. Gregory House used to say on Fox’s House, “Everybody lies.” Especially in job interviews. So here are a few things you can look at beyond the obvious resume and references.

Things to Look for When Hiring a Freelance Editor:

  • Samples. I mean samples of their own writing. A lot of freelance editors are also authors in their own right. So see if you can find a sample of their work. It will give you a more solid feel for their understanding of the craft, as well as a sense of their particular style and voice. The second can be a good indicator on whether or not you will work well together. If someone’s writing is too dissimilar from your own, you might end up with a clash of vision. But if they are similar to you, then chances are good they’ll be able to see your work the way you do. Plus, you don’t want to hire someone whose own work is riddled with typos and errors, do you?
  • Willingness to Listen. Just like you should have an open mind when it comes to receiving criticism, your editor should be open to listening to your concerns, opinions and ideas. So pay attention to the way they correspond with you initially. Are they respectful? Do they seem open to what you have to say? Or do they seem pompous and full of themselves, coming off like you should be honored they’d be willing to work with you? There is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. You want someone that seems sure of their abilities, but not someone that seems like they know everything about everything. A good editor will take your directions into account and add them to a list of things they already look for.
  • Contract. Always work under a contract. Always. This is a no-brainer for serious freelance editors, so if the candidate you’re considering doesn’t seem interested in talking shop over the details of a contract, you’d be wise to save your money. Contracts are the easiest way to keep everyone on the same page. They should detail not only what the editor will provide, but how much they are charging, the payment terms, the deadline (if there is one), and a clause protecting the author’s rights to the work. Any editor worth their salt will negotiate the terms of the contract well before any money changes hands or any work is started.
  • Gut Instinct. First impressions are often correct, so listen to your gut instinct when considering candidates. Oftentimes, something intangible will warn you away from someone who won’t be a good fit. The same goes for finding that perfect editorial soulmate. If you find yourself being drawn to one person over the others, go with it. There’s probably a reason and you might even end up with that coveted writer/editor relationship every author dreams of. And if not, hey, that’s why there’s a termination clause in that contract you signed. 😉

I hope I’ve helped demystify the process of working with an editor at least a little bit. It really isn’t that hard. All you have to do is remember that the editor isn’t out to get you; isn’t hell-bent on destroying your work and watching it burn in a massive bonfire while they laugh at your misery. Quite the opposite. Your editor believes in you, in your work. They wouldn’t have taken you on as a client if they didn’t. So trust that they’ll make your work the best it can be. When everyone behaves with respect and professionalism, the end result could easily be the bestseller both parties hope for.


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