What do I want a copy editor for??
If you need your writing to do a job, it is worth hiring a copy editor. (See paragraph 2 for my reasoning.) That person’s job is to check for mistakes, consistency and accuracy. So what do you look for? What kinds of things should you consider so that you find a good fit for your writing?
You probably read that first paragraph in about 12 seconds. If you have 12 seconds to capture the attention of a reader, the language has to be at a minimum correct and ‘frictionless.’* Even better if it can be suited to your readers and if it can be pleasing or even beautiful (that part is mostly up to the writer though!) The copy editor makes sure it’s right.
Where do I start?
Think about how much editing you want. Copy editors can point out mistakes, or correct them for you, or propose changes for you to approve/disapprove. It’s up to you to control how many changes are made to what you wrote.
You can try someone you find online or by recommendation to see how it works out. That can save you time up front. It can be a great way to get to know how someone works. Or you can talk with your prospective copy editor first and ask them how they work, how they would approach your text, and see what you think.
Extra thoughts from a copy editor
As a copy editor myself (in English, so my thoughts may be most relevant to English copyediting), I have some extra thoughts on what makes a good copy editor. Tell me if you think otherwise or if I am way off the mark.
1. Someone who has tools and uses them. A style guide (I use Chicago Manual of Style but there are others), a good dictionary, Ngram viewer (for words that may no longer be current) are important. Ask a prospective copy editor what tools they use. They should be able to give a satisfactory answer.
2. Someone who can commit the time you need. Do they take time to think about the words and the text? Are they available with reasonable notice? And it seems like an obvious thing, but if you sometimes need your texts edited at short notice or over a weekend, find out if they can do that.
3. Does that person have some experience with your industry, audience or the topic you are writing about? For fiction, that may be nature, animals, psychological conditions. For business, it might be sustainability, finance, or science/engineering. Experience of that kind may not be essential, so you don’t have to ignore a copy editor you otherwise like. But do ask if they are comfortable working with that kind of language. (I would not take on a seriously scientific text because I have no background in serious science, for example.)
4. Languages — if you are not a native-English speaker and you write in English, it can be helpful if the copy editor has some sense of ‘what you mean’ because they know a bit of your mother tongue. It is not critical and the copy editor does not have to be fluent to do a great job in English, but some familiarity with your mother tongue can smooth the way. For example, by catching some literal translations or “we would never say it that way” constructions and knowing what you meant. I can only imagine being a copy editor in China and working with texts in Mandarin or Cantonese written by an English writer (!)
And the best advice to achieve a good outcomand a great experience - is to build trust into the relationship from the beginning. Say what you expect — as much as you can — and be clear about deadlines, payment, and expectations. If problems come up, talk about them as soon as possible so that they can be resolved and neither party is left with an unsatisfied feeling. This applies both ways.
If you have questions I might be able to answer, give a shout. I am available on Twitter @atelierenglish and at www.atelierenglish.com
Good luck with your writing.
PS I did not check my style guide for the use of asterisks (**), specifically how to handle them with quotation marks and full stops. I don’t always do the research I should until I need to. Mea culpa.
*Frictionless. “Achieved with or involving little difficulty.” Mistakes that make for friction are my pet peeve. If you have spent time and effort writing, you want the text to flow smoothly. A mistake will break the flow for the reader, like a DVD skipping while you watch a movie. It’s distracting and can throw off the whole experience. People might just give up on you. So watch those mistakes and typos! (I make them too; we are all human. But a careful proofread is imperative.)