Working with a Freelance Editor to Boost Your Writing Career

Holly Lyn Walrath
Jan 1, 2019 · 8 min read

Let’s face it, the book publishing world is different than it was 10 years ago. In 2017, roughly half of US print book sales came from Amazon. 7 out of the top 100 selling eBook authors in the US were indies. While publishing with a traditional publisher is still a common way authors get their books in the world, it’s also much more common these days for authors to publish their own books.

What does this mean for traditional publishers? It means they’re taking fewer risks on new authors and instead focusing on more established authors, or books that are more “commercial.” Agents and publishers are looking for authors with the whole package: a complete, edited manuscript with commercial potential, a detailed marketing plan, comp titles that show an awareness of the market, and the start of a promising online audience.

And indie publishing is tough too — the increase in popularity of indie books means there’s more competition for authors to put out a stellar product.

If you’re a new writer, you’re probably reading this with a bit of fear and anxiety. I’ll never be that good. I don’t know where to start with marketing. How can I build an audience if I haven’t even finished revising my book? And do I really have to spend money on an editor in order to get published?

Let’s demystify some of the myths around freelance editors and the impact they can have on your career:

Hiring an editor is expensive. The truth is, there are a lot of different types of people in the editing field, and many of their rates will vary widely. As a freelance editor, I base my rates off of the Editorial Freelancer’s Association guidelines. This means that depending on the project, my rates can be as high as thousands of dollars. But I’ve got five years of experience and limited time, which means I have to charge more to fit in new clients. But for a less experienced editor, prices might be less. And I often discount my rates for new writers and writers from marginalized backgrounds. I give discounts to repeat customers and have a rapid turnaround. It’s important to price out different editors and see where their rates land.

I don’t need an editor for a self-published book. One of the biggest mistakes indie authors make is not hiring an editor. Thankfully, most of the authors I work with are self-published and they know how important it is to get a second set of eyes on a book. These days, the most successful indie authors work with editors, sometimes for each stage of the book. Which leads me to my next point…

There’s only one way to edit a book. Every editor has a focus. Some work on the bigger picture, while others are proofreaders able to focus on the tiniest of details. There are three basic levels of editing you might consider for your manuscript:

Developmental Editing: In a developmental edit, an editor reads your manuscript from top to bottom. They might make comments in the document as to where changes are needed, and they’ll usually provide a letter of feedback. Developmental edits focus on the story, narrative, characters, and bigger picture items.

Copyediting: In a copyedit, an editor will go through your manuscript with a keen focus on language. You’ll receive a line edited document with corrections for voice, tone, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and all those lovely things that make a manuscript sing. This option is usually best for authors who’ve already done a developmental edit, or who feel their manuscript is strong already. In this stage, an editor might provide a style sheet (a document tracking names, dates, histories, and other world-building details).

Proofreading: Proofreaders edit your manuscript for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other errors. They can work on print-ready PDFs to catch last-minute errors before publication, like page number mistakes or misprints. If you’ve got a strong voice and a keen idea of what your story is, but you struggle with nitpicky details, proofreading might be best for you.

Editors only edit. Not true! Editors may also offer other services such as:

  • Submission advice and agent query packages
  • Reference citation and endnote/footnote creation
  • Help starting with Scrivener and learning how to use it
  • Formatting books and eBooks
  • Creating a social media presence
  • Creating a website
  • Guiding career goals as a writing coach
  • Marketing and outreach

Not every editor does everything on this list. We all have our focuses! The best approach is to think out what you might need from an editor. Do you have amazing writing skills but aren’t sure about how to get your online audience going? You might benefit from a coaching session. Are you a stellar self-promotor but not so great at spelling and grammar? You might hire a proofreader.

The Editor is Always Right. Just because someone is a professional doesn’t mean they’re the right editor for you. And even if you’re working with an editor you know and respect, there are still going to be elements of their edits you disagree with. The best editor for a work is the author. When I’m working with an author, I tell them if an edit doesn’t ring true, they should ignore it. Always stay true to yourself and the work.

Now that we’ve got those myths out of the way, let’s talk about the process of working with a freelance editor.

Working with an Editor

Every project varies, but this is the basic steps for working with an editor:

1. Research editors who work with your genre. If you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, you’ll want someone who understands what readers of that genre want. Romance is a particularly tricky genre with accepted conventions and tropes. Find an editor who focuses on what type of editing you need. If you’re on a budget, it might be useful to explore editors willing to split editing into portions — say having them edit the first half, then the second half of a manuscript. The two main sources for finding a professional editor I recommend are the Editorial Freelancers Association (where you can put out a call for an editor) and Upwork, a freelancers site.

2. Once you have a few editors in mind, ask for sample edits. Yes, this is a thing! Most editors will give you a 3–5-page edit for free. This is supremely useful for determining how an editor works, how fast they are, whether they are reliable, and whether their style of editing works for you. Read the sample edits carefully and take note:

  • Is the editor following the guidelines you gave them (i.e. are they focusing on the big picture if you asked for a developmental edit?)
  • Did they respond to you in a timely manner? (For most editors, a one-week response is average.)
  • How did you feel about their edits, and did they explain their reasoning?
  • Do they understand your genre? Have they worked with other authors in this field? Can they provide links to books they’ve edited?

3. Once you’ve picked an editor, ask for a contract. An editing contract should specify several important agreements:

  • A date of delivery/deadline for editing
  • How payment will be sent and when
  • What happens if the contract is terminated for any reason
  • A statement that the author retains their copyright
  • Any other information pertinent to the project

Having a contract gives you protection, so be sure to ask if your editor doesn’t provide one.

4. Tell the Editor What You Want. Editors are not mind readers. If you have a certain need, tell your editor! We love knowing what you think is a problem with your manuscript, or if you feel like you need particular help in an area. It helps the editor shape their comments. If you’d like ideas on where to submit a manuscript, ask for that too.

5. Send a Formatted Manuscript. Some editors like to receive manuscripts formatted a certain way. But most don’t care as long as the document is easy to navigate and read. For best practice, use Standard Manuscript Format. Fancy fonts or strange spacing doesn’t add to a work, and when you submit your manuscript to an agent or publisher you’ll have to format it anyway. If you aren’t sure how to format, just keep your manuscript in plain 12 pt. font.

6. Receive Edits with an Open Mind. It can be really scary getting a professional editor to look at your work. Will they like it? Is it any good? You might find yourself feeling nervous when you receive the edited manuscript in hand. Take a deep breath. Don’t look at the edits until you are in a place where you can sit and read them carefully. Then, take about a week-long break before you come back to them again. This break can help you process the edits.

7. Ask Questions! So many writers take edits and then feel completely deflated about how to enact them. If you’re struggling with an edit, ask your editor why they made a choice or what suggestions they might have. Ask for a phone call or skype call if it helps. Most editors will include one phone call in their cost. Just be careful not to be a nuisance — remember, editors need to be paid for their time.

8. The Questions an Editor Asks are Rhetorical. Many writers get confused when an editor asks questions in a manuscript. They think the editor was confused or wanted to know more. Not so! Questions your editor leaves are for YOU to answer for yourself. They’re meant to stoke your imagination and get you thinking about something you missed. Answer them in revision, don’t reply to your editor with your answers.

Hiring a freelance editor can give you an edge when you’re submitting. It can also help boost your career because editors are often willing to answer questions, share your work when it’s published, and help you think out your next steps.

Got questions about working with an editor? Leave them in the comments!

Originally published at

Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.

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On Writing, Books, Reading, and All Things Literary

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