There’s a joke among editors that it’s obvious when we’ve done a poor job, but when we do a wonderful job, we’re invisible. It sounds like a slight—as if our work isn’t important or noteworthy. But invisibility is every great editor’s goal. I’ll explain why.
Our task is to provide edits and offer feedback that allow the author’s story to become the very best version of itself. If we’re attuned to the author’s language and voice and consistent in our application of grammar and style conventions, the author hardly “feels” the edits we’ve made. Our queries and suggestions are returned with comments like “Perfect” and “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.” (Oh, the joy!)
When we achieve it, this editorial synchronicity feels like electricity, flows like water, and looks like art. It’s the point guard’s pass to the forward for the slam dunk. It’s the sous-chef’s execution of the famous chef’s vision.
The satisfaction that comes from successful, productive teamwork is why editors love their jobs. And it’s that spirit of collaboration that will make the production process a pleasure, rather than a headache, for authors.
If you’re thinking about hiring an editor for your book project, here are some factors to consider that will increase your chances of enjoying a partnership that’s headache-free.
Seeking out an editor with experience may seem like a no-brainer. While the word itself is very general, a book editor’s qualifications are actually extremely specific.
Your ideal editor must:
Specialize in editing books. Not newspapers, magazines, blog posts, corporate reports, legal briefs, advertising copy, college papers, or any other type of writing. While people with those backgrounds may have a good grasp on grammar and punctuation, there are conventions and requirements for book publishing that they simply are not aware of. The danger in hiring one of them to edit your book is that they don’t know what they don’t know—and therefore they can’t help you with it. Hiring an editor who doesn’t work on books would be like hiring a basketball coach to guide your baseball team or ordering your wedding cake from a barbeque master. The basketball coach and barbeque king may know their stuff, but their efforts are not going to get your job done right.
The publishing industry also uses a very specific guide for editing called The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s a tome of more than a thousand pages of rules governing every aspect of language treatment. It can’t be learned overnight, or even in a week or a month. A professional book editor knows this and has had years to internalize all those brilliant, maddeningly specific guidelines. And the consistent application of those guidelines results in a polished and professional book with your name on it.
Know your genre. As you’re researching editors, it’s important to look for ones who are familiar with your particular genre. It’s disappointing for an author to go through a round of edits only to feel like their editor didn’t “get” their book, and this happens most often when the editor hasn’t done a lot of work in a particular category.
Romance plots have different elements and expectations than mystery plots or fantasy plots, for example. And business books are very different from memoirs. If the editor you hire has worked with authors who write the same types of books you do, you can feel confident they’ll understand your goals and be able to advise you correctly where your manuscript has weak spots.
Have worked for a publishing house. Editorial work is a bit old-fashioned in that the nature of our jobs demands an apprenticeship. There is no degree, certificate, or membership that automatically makes someone a seasoned editor. Generally, editors start at the bottom of the ladder as an intern or editorial assistant—making small notes and edits and getting feedback from the veteran editors reading behind them—and then they learn best editorial practices over time and with practice.
This means that your next-door neighbor’s son with a newly minted English literature degree is not equipped to edit your book. Editors are not hobbyists; they are experienced professionals. When you’re reviewing editors’ résumés and websites, look for the name of a reputable publishing house among their credentials. (If you don’t immediately recognize the name of any publishing house listed on a resume, please, please Google it.)
It’s great if your prospective editor spent time on staff at a publishing house, but it’s also fine if the résumé lists freelance work for one of these publishing houses. And while “Big Five” experience at places like Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster is awesome, some of the sharpest, hardest-working editors I’ve ever known came from small independent presses or university presses. Those small presses usually have tiny staffs and not a lot of resources, so the editors who cut their teeth there are often skilled at multiple editorial stages, quick learners, and adaptable.
Experience at or with publishing houses demonstrates that your potential editor is truly a professional and is accustomed to working to a set of quality standards and on a deadline.
Personality & Communication Style
The editorial process can be very personal. You have poured time, energy, and passion into a collection of pages and are about to let a total stranger read your work. And while critical feedback is inevitable, it is also invaluable. A good editor knows how to judiciously dole out criticism because they understand that your feelings are involved.
For these reasons, it’s important to find an editor with the right personality and approach for you. Before you start interviewing editors, do a little self-evaluation and ask yourself these questions:
- Do I respond best to a soft communication approach or a more direct one?
- In stressful situations, does a sense of humor make me feel more relaxed, or do I find it irritating?
- When I don’t feel confident in a matter, do I want to be educated so that I can make a decision, or do I prefer to “trust the expert” and have the decision made for me?
Once you know the answers, then you can ask these corresponding questions to the editors you’re interviewing:
- What made you want to be a book editor and what do you like best about working with authors?
- How would you characterize your communication style?
- Will your feedback come in the form of an editorial letter that accompanies my manuscript or will you leave notes in the margins of the manuscript itself? Both?
- When you encounter a problem that might require my input, do you usually query before making changes? Or do you make the change and insert an explanatory comment?
If you’re still feeling unsure about whether an editor is a match for your project, it’s a good idea to ask to see some sample editorial feedback (like an editorial letter with all the previous author and project information removed), so you get a sense of this editor’s tone and method of author communication.
Before you begin working with an editor, it’s important that you agree on a timetable for the work and a firm final deadline. Full-time freelance editors work on one book right after the other, so don’t be surprised if the editor you want to hire is scheduled out for several weeks or months. Decide if you want to wait for that editor and how much flexibility you have in the timeline for your project.
There are also many wonderful freelance editors who have day jobs at publishing houses or universities, or in other career fields, or are parents who may only have nights and weekends to work on your book. They may be able to start work on your book right away but need several months to finish. Again, availability might not be a dealbreaker, but you’ll save yourself stress if you begin the relationship with clear and realistic expectations.
If you’re lucky enough to find more than one editor you want to work with, you could make your decision based on additional skills they have that could further your publishing goals. Some examples of other services professional editors often provide include:
- help writing or editing your query letter or book proposal for submission to agents or editors
- help writing or editing promotional copy, like your book description and author bio
- formatting for e-book
- consulting on the market for your book or offering self-publishing guidance
Because of the creative nature of the collaboration, the author-editor relationship is one part business, one part personal, and it may span several weeks or months. It’s in your best interest to take your time choosing the right partner. Ask questions, and don’t settle if your instinct is telling you this person isn’t the right fit.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of researching and interviewing editors, you also have the option of working with an editorial services firm, like my team at Kirkus Editorial. The benefit of working with an editorial firm is that it has a staff who can interview and vet editors for you, make sure you’re getting matched with the editor who has the best and most relevant experience for your book, guide you through the entire editorial process, and provide resources for next-steps once your editorial work is complete.
So maybe that old joke about great editors being invisible is only half true: the best editors are invisible to your readers, but their support of you and your work will be unmistakable.
—Lauren M. Bailey is the director of Kirkus Editorial.