24 January 2016 by Published in: Uncategorized 9 comments

I am asked with some regularity how to go about selecting a good editor.

My approach to qualifying an editor is much like the one I use for everything: treat all claims skeptically, and demand proof.

There are a lot of authors who tried to make a go of writing and selling books, failed to do so, and have now hung out shingles as editors in an effort to make money from something writing-related. While some might be competent, most are no more so at editing than they were at writing. It’s important to understand that when a market matures as the ebook market has, there’s a rush to sell picks and shovels to the miners when it becomes obvious that the actual business of mining kind of sucks.

So here are some basic tests guidelines and questions to ask:

1) What background in editing does the editor have? Have they worked for a traditional publisher? If so, that’s a leg up, because it presumes the trad pub did some diligence and the person’s at least marginally competent.

2) Verify their claims. Get references and check them.

3) Understand that getting an MFA no more qualifies one to be an editor than teaching English as a second language to second graders. Actual experience, preferably years of it, trumps any degree. Remember that in all classes, there’s a bell curve distribution of competence and intelligence, and with your luck you’re dealing with the slowest in the class, not the shining star. As a general rule, editing is a craft that one improves at with time, and that requires considerable experience to do well, just as does any trade or specialized skill. Declaring oneself to be an editor is akin to declaring oneself to be a physician – there’s a bit more to it than that, and a smart customer checks for substance to the claims.

4) Who else have they edited, and how happy are those authors with the process? Read a few chapters of the last three books the editor worked on via the Look Inside function. Are they unreadable crap? Ask authors whose work you admire who they use. Never a bad place to start.

5) Do they edit in your genre? Every genre has conventions that you need to be aware of. It’s better to have someone who works in your field than someone who is trying to apply broad rules of grammar unilaterally.

6) There’s no free lunch, and you generally get what you pay for. You don’t look for the best deal on heart surgeons, attorneys, or parachute makers. You look for the most competent. Ask around, get an idea of what the norm is for costs, and expect to pay that. You have exactly zero reason to expect you’ll get a sweetheart deal from anyone competent – because competent folks generally have a full book of business and don’t have to discount much, if at all.

7) Narrow the field to your top 3 picks, and ask each to do a few pages of your work (same pages) to see how their approach works with your voice and expectations. As a note, many beginning authors fear an editor will stifle their voice. With someone competent that’s bullshit, just as having a singing instructor won’t stifle your singing voice – it will focus it, train it, and make it better. But a crap editor can ruin your work. So avoid bad ones.

8) You want the truth, not validation. People who will tell you the truth are rare, and valuable. Treasure them.

9) Understand what kind of editing you want. Many confuse proofreading with editing. It’s not the same thing. A proofreader will catch typos, punctuation errors, and occasional grammar issues. An editor will work on sentence clarity/structure, echoes, idea repetition, plot holes. A developmental editor will work on story flow, character arc, plot, pacing. Determine which you’re after and don’t expect one to do the other’s job. They are different skills.

10) A good editor makes you a better author. Finding one is a process. There are many poor to mediocre folks touting services, and there are good ones. As with most things, buyer beware. Skeptical examination of claims, requiring and checking references, and ensuring the editor is a good stylistic match are musts.



  1. Sun 24th Jan 2016 at 5:08 pm

    Outstanding article Russell but I just want to tell most new career authors about #6, There’s no free lunch, and you generally get what you pay for. Most really good editors are beyond your budget. You can;t afford them at $1.75 word. Stephen Kings former editor for example. It’s like a $100 haircut. If you hunt around you can find a $5 haricut that is just as good. If you are like me and don;t have a lot of time to hunt for editors you might want to look into Kirkus Reviews. They now do editing and their stable of editors are all top NY editors. They’re standard rate. $65 hour. But Russell is absolutely correct- There are a lot of authors who tried to make a go of writing and selling books, failed to do so, and have now hung out shingles as editors or literary agents in an effort to make money from something writing-related.
    Buyer beware.

  2. John L. Monk
    Sun 24th Jan 2016 at 8:30 pm

    Great, as usual. I speak the truth. Now “treasure” me 🙂

  3. Dorothy Zemach
    Sun 24th Jan 2016 at 10:09 pm

    I’d say too that you should find someone you like. You don’t have to be best friends, but if you’re going to be working intensely on things close to your ego and your heart, I think you’d want someone you feel comfortable with.

    It’s standard (and smart!) to ask an editor for a sample edit of a few pages. This will let you know not only what their editing looks like (and it’s rare that any two editors would send back those pages in exactly the same condition), but what the process is like. How is the speed? What’s the tone of the emails? Do you have similar styles for handling tracked changes? For example, I prefer to make hard changes and have the author check them, rather than putting everything out in a comment bubble and saying, “Perhaps you could consider trying a synonym here.” Some authors dislike seeing too many hard changes, though, and would rather just have questions highlighted. Neither way is ‘better’ than the other, but they’re different.

    Hopefully, your relationship will last for more than one book, so it’s worth spending the time to get a good fit.

  4. Mon 25th Jan 2016 at 2:37 am

    100% correct Russell. Having owned a publishing company in Australia for 30+ years (now retired) and editing all the hundreds of books we published I recently got back into editing mainly to help newbies. The aim of my editing is to prevent “jarring.” Example: suppose you’re an American and you’re reading a British book. You’re deeply immersed into the story (almost in a trance) and suddenly a misspelt word leaps out at you. It takes a few seconds to realise that this is in fact British spelling. But it has jarred your concentration. As you progress through the book the same thing happens frequently. You are constantly “jarred” out of your deep focus. What I try to do is edit the document so that there is no “jarring” of this nature and readers can enjoy the story….not the mistakes. Works most of the time.

  5. Thu 28th Jan 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Great advices Russell. Thanks.

  6. Lee Dennis
    Sat 30th Jan 2016 at 9:43 pm

    Your Point #9 did not end with the word “sets.” Somebody’s a good editor!

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 31st Jan 2016 at 1:38 pm

      I don’t edit my own work. I leave that up to God to sort out.


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