There are so many posts out there (often on blogs like this one) written by editors for authors detailing how to choose the best editor for you. I might write one myself if I find something to say that hasn’t already been said. (And if I was certain it wouldn’t sound like a shameless plug for my own services. That’s not what this blog is about.) But the issue that I am going to be tackling today is the fact that on so many of these lists, you find “requirements” that weed out many very capable and successful editors. I am not the only editor to take umbrage at this.
Not all of these posts mark these things as “requirements,” but they are strong recommendations and will definitely sway the reader towards favoring these characteristics. Some of these include the editor having a website (that’s the #1), having formal training, and having obvious (and perhaps lengthy) experience and references. A lot of these things are what you might expect from the best of the best; someone who’s been editing as a career for years. They usually stop short of having a certification (not to be confused with a school-granted certificate), likely because it is so difficult to get one. They don’t offer a general one in the US, and the next closest general one (in Canada) does look quite intimidating. I actually don’t know any editors off the top of my head who have a general one, and I know of one who has a specialized one in the US. I may have big dreams for myself (including getting a certificate) but I’m not sure if certification will ever be a real goal of mine.
I think a lot of these post writers are forgetting (or conveniently ignoring) the fact that everyone has to start somewhere. Once you have these things, or at least a few of them, it is easy to think “Well I’m certainly worthy of my clients now, and it is clear that I know what I’m doing because of all these things, so these must be the keys to success for every editor.” It is easy to look down on those who don’t have a website, who get work only from word of mouth, who haven’t had any in-house experience, etc. It is easy to look at all of your clients, who have chosen you over other editors, and determine that everything you’ve done to improve your skill and credibility has been the reason for your success.
In Defense of the Inexperienced
I think the main point of this article is clear. These post writers must remember that there are others who are just getting started, who are doing the best to get to more successful editors’ positions. They want lots of clients and financial stability, and they are being pressured to follow in the exact footsteps of others to get there. Do I think that it’s a great idea to have a website and formal training? Of course. But do I think that that should be the main factor (or even a really important factor) in choosing an editor? Absolutely not. Do I think that an editor is less capable because s/he does not have these things? Definitely not.
There are plenty of editors who don’t have these things. It’s not even those who are inexperienced and just starting out. It might be people who grew up without all the technology that pervades our live today. It might be people who prefer not to have a website because they get just the right amount of work from word of mouth. It might be because they can’t afford formal training, and yearly memberships, and annual conferences, and all the best tools of the trade. It might be because they have only one of these things and that works well enough for them and gets them the kinds of clients they are looking for. Everyone has their own reasons for making the choices they make.
Having all of the things on these lists does not mean you are a better editor.
It might just mean you can afford more, or you choose to spend your free time on professional development instead of hobbies, or you are just going through the ropes to appear a better candidate even though your skill is only minimally better. (And perhaps the people who choose not to pursue professional development might even outperform you if they did. Who can say?) The best editor in the world might have absolutely none of these things. They might not even have a steady client base yet. They might not even know they want to pursue editing as a career.
So how can you find this editor-in-the-rough?
The Most Important Factor
I’ll tell you right now what I think the most important factor is when choosing an editor: the sample edit. I’m not saying that every editor should offer one, but I think it’s one of the best ways to set the tone for the author-editor relationship and determine if they are the best fit for each other. The author sends a sample to the editor to edit (sometimes paid, sometimes free) and this way the editor can see firsthand the shape of the manuscript and how much editing will truly be required. This is helpful in estimating a fee. The author in turn can see how the editor thinks and the sort of corrections they make and miss. Some authors prefer a heavy-handed editor. Some editors only take an author who needs only a few corrections per page as opposed to a manuscript that will be dripping in red by the end of the first chapter. Some authors will veto editors who query every single choice the author makes or editors who fix everything themselves without asking first (and then later charging for it). Some editors will refuse to work with authors who can’t communicate in a timely manner or pay on time. Sometimes both parties will disagree about the state of the manuscript and the price of the project.
Why is money not the most important factor?
Firstly, not all editors post their fees online. Some charge by word and some by hour/project. (I currently post my fees and they are by word, but in the future I might switch to hour/project.) Authors might be tempted to look only for editors who post their fees online and have the lowest prices. This isn’t the best idea, because while inexperienced editors who have low prices to start out may not be incapable, some of them indeed are and might not give you what you need from an editor. Don’t rule these editors out, but search for a wide variety of editors and request sample edits from each one. If the cheapest editor returns the best edited sample, then you’ve certainly struck gold. Just be aware that they may use the experience from your projects to boost their prices down the line. (I know from experience.) If a more expensive editor returns the best edits, remember that you are paying for quality work and good editing is quite valuable. It is not to be discounted or dismissed as an easy task that you only can’t do because authors should never edit their own work. It is a skilled art that people often make a living by, and if they are good enough to do so, you must be able to pay them what they are worth.
Important side note: Just because an editor is not making a living off of their work does not mean they are not professional or not to be taken seriously. They might be freelancing as a side hustle or while they are still in school. They might be doing it to gain experience until they have enough of a client base to quit their day job. They might just be doing it as a hobby, but one they are really good at. The only thing you should be judging an editor by is their compatibility with you and your work (which you will find out through a sample edit).
The Truly Unprofessional
Now that I’ve defended the inexperienced, I have to mention the unprofessional. As I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to explain, not having the things on these lists does not mean an editor is unprofessional. (It might not even mean they are inexperienced.) An unprofessional editor is one whose business is probably less successful for a number of reasons. The editor is not organized and not punctual. The editor cannot communicate well or in a timely manner. The editor refuses to work with the author and states that all the changes they make are objectively right. The editor has never opened a grammar book and consistently misses typos and simple mistakes. An unprofessional editor may have any or all of these traits, and some more I haven’t mentioned. The fact that an editor does not have a website or a professional-looking contract does not mean they don’t know the difference between their, there, and they’re.
The best way to find out the difference between the inexperienced and the unprofessional editor is through a sample edit. Then you can make your own judgment.
Happy editor hunting!