Finding the Right Editor – Sarah Barbour | Guest Post

A good editor should know the norms of the genre and edit to those norms—not try to turn a story about vampire space aliens battling zombies into Faulkner. 

—Survey respondent 

A couple of years ago when I was writing my first book, The Copy Editor’s Guide to Working with Indie Authors, I ran a survey among self-publishing authors asking about their experiences with the editors they’d hired. Although I heard many stories of praise, I was dismayed to also hear from authors whose experiences hadn’t been so positive. They grumbled about editors who missed deadlines, were condescending, failed to correct obvious errors, got defensive when questioned, and—the most consistent complaint of all—insisted on changing the author’s literary “voice.”

It occurred to me then that there might be room on the market for a book to help self-publishing authors navigate the process of selecting an editor. However, it wasn’t until I’d written a total of four books myself (three self-published and one through a traditional press) that I felt that I’d seen enough of the process from the author’s side to be able to write even a short guide on the subject. It was as an author that I began to appreciate the frustrations that other authors dealt with—like the proofreader who completely ignored my three-sentence style guide, or a copyeditor who volunteered that she’d found half a dozen errors in one of my published books. It was well intentioned, but as five of the six weren’t actually errors, it made me wonder what kind of work she was turning in to her clients.

I wrote Edit Me! How to Find, Hire & Work with an Editor in hopes of clearing up some common misconceptions and making it easier for authors to get their money’s worth when working with an editor. In it, I explain why editing is important, give overviews of the primary types of editorial services, and tell readers where to find editors, what to look for, and how to ensure a smooth and productive working relationship.

Most authors know they need an editor, but the process of finding the right one can be frustrating, and it’s made all the more daunting by the fact that editing is usually the most expensive part of the self-publishing process—mistakes can be expensive! Judging from the conversations on writers’ forums, there is no shortage of confusion among authors about what they should expect editorial service providers to do, at what stage in the process to hire one, how much to pay, and how to judge if someone is right for a particular job.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of vague, misleading, or downright bad advice floating around. New authors are sometimes unaware that there is more than one type of editing service. Authors with one book under their belt assure newcomers that $60 is plenty for professional proofreading. A popular book on self-publishing informs authors that two weeks will be more than enough time for both content and copy editing (regardless of book length or quality), and advises them to hire the same person for both. And I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard the advice to hire English teachers because they’re good with grammar and usually come cheap. (Nothing against English teachers—some really are great editors—but teaching English is a different skill than editing, and being good at one is no guarantee you’ll be good at the other.)

To be fair, freelance editors don’t help the situation much. There is no specific training, certification or license necessary; if you say you’re an editor, then you’re an editor. There are no standardized definitions of services—one editor’s “content edit” might mean something completely different from another’s, and the line between copy editing and line editing has become so blurred as to be meaningless. Finally, there is an enormous range of fees for similar services. I’ve seen proofreaders who charge one-tenth what I do and also some who charge double. How is an author to know what a “fair” price is?

Wading through dozens of websites and hundreds of service descriptions can be frustrating, confusing, and intimidating. Edit Me! is designed to cut through some of the confusion by telling authors what to expect from each type of editorial service as well as giving them guidelines for selecting the best service providers for their projects.

References and recommendations from other authors can be an important first step in vetting an editor, but they shouldn’t be relied on completely. They can usually give you a sense of how reliable and professional an editor is, but they can’t tell you how well an editor will work for you and your book. Someone who comes highly recommended as the developmental editor of a romantic comedy won’t necessarily be the right choice for your crime thriller. While references are important, it’s worth digging a little deeper.

Throughout Edit Me!, I emphasize the importance of getting a sample from a prospective editor. The majority of freelance proofreaders and copy editors offer samples of 1000 words or so at no charge; this is an invaluable opportunity for both the author and the editor to get a feel for each other’s work and make sure they are a good fit for one another. Getting a sample edit for a proofreading or copy editing job is pretty straightforward. Getting a “sample” developmental edit can be a bit trickier since the goal of a developmental edit is to look at the book in its entirety. Even here, though, your editor should be able to give you some feedback at the chapter level or be willing to discuss the project with you, which can help you assess whether they’re a good fit for your project.

Though it’s not unusual in the freelance world for a single person to provide editing, copy editing, and proofreading services, I suggest hiring different people for different services whenever possible. No one can be expected to see the book objectively after they’ve read through it several times. If I’ve done multiple passes as a developmental editor, I am too close to the project now to be able to catch the typos and punctuation errors that a fresh-eyed proofreader will. Yes, it’s extra work to find and vet more than one ESP, but your book will benefit from having as many different eyes on it as possible. Take the opportunity to get them!

Whether you’re planning a single book or you’re a career author, having an editorial team that you can trust is a vital part of your book’s success. I hope the tips in this article will help you as you start to assemble your dream team. It may take some trial and error, but keep working toward it; it will pay off in the long run.


Barbour HeadshotBio

Sarah Barbour is an editor and book coach who has worked with dozens of self-publishing authors. As an editor, she specializes in fantasy and romance. As a book coach, she specializes in helping entrepreneurs who want to write a book but feel overwhelmed by the process go from an initial idea to a finished book. Sarah is also an author and writes both nonfiction under her own name and fiction under the pen name Thea Dawson. You can visit her at

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