#16: When and How to Hire a Freelance Editor

Dear Story Nurse,

I wrote a novel (women’s commercial fiction) in 2008, and have spent the intervening years revising/editing/rewriting, including workshopping with a writer’s group. I got the piece to a place where I know it’s not 100%, but it’s as close to 100% as I can get it without serious professional help (editor/agent/similar). So I started trying to find an agent. I got a lot of positive feedback, a couple dozen requests for partial manuscripts, and two requests for the full manuscript. Both full manuscript requesters had the same feedback (writing is good, but there are—specific and clear!—issues, and those issues are too much for an agent).

Now I’m at a standstill while I try to figure out what to do. I think I need someone to tell me, “You need to walk away from this piece” or “You need to hire an editor.” Or SOMETHING. What is the next step when you know you’ve done all you can on a piece and it’s still not quite there?

—Jessica (she/her)

Dear Jessica,

I think a great next step would be for you to take a moment to assess what’s led you to seek outside advice and consider outside editing in addition to what you’ve gotten from your writing group and those helpful agents. You say you need “someone” to tell you what to do next. But you’re in charge. Hiring an editor, or not, is your call. Continuing to work on this book, or not, is your call. “Someone” is you. Sit down and listen to your gut. That process may be as simple as saying out loud “I want to walk away from this book” or “I feel like I should walk away from this book” and then seeing whether that statement rings true or makes you want to shout “NO! I’m sticking with it!” But you have to consult yourself, very directly and seriously, and not just rely on what other people recommend.

That said, I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from continuing on with this project. Two agents giving you identical, specific, and clear comments is terrifically useful, and tells you that this book has a lot of potential. Armed with that feedback, you could try doing another round of revisions yourself. Many authors who’ve revised and resubmitted in similar circumstances have gone on to get agents and be published, with no financial investment necessary.

You could also hire an independent editor. It’s not commonly done by new writers trying to sell their books to publishing companies, but it’s not unheard of. The best editors act as therapists and teachers too; like therapy and education, being edited can be emotionally difficult and a challenge to your skills, but if you bring your A-game and ditch your ego, you’ll get a whole lot out of it.

You may have heard the rule that “money flows to the writer” (also called Yog’s Law) and that writers should never pay anyone to edit or publish their work. This is true under many circumstances, but not all. Self-publishing has existed for as long as publishing has existed, and there are many very good reasons to self-publish. The same is true of hiring freelance editors, ghostwriters, book doctors, coauthors, and others who get paid up front to take your work to the next level.

If you decide to go this route, be warned that there are a lot of unscrupulous and just plain lousy editors out there, and it’s important to make sure you’re getting the best editing for your money. You also want to make sure that professional editing is something you really want to invest in at this point in your process. So, as a former freelance book editor, here’s how I recommend going about that:

  1. Eliminate the free options first. You’ve already done that, which is great! Beta readers, writing groups, online workshops, and agents (who take a percentage of what your eventual publisher pays for a book rather than being paid up front) can all really help polish a book. But if they haven’t quite helped enough, it’s time to look in other directions.
  2. Be clear about what you want an editor for, and make sure it’s a thing an editor can do. SFWA’s Writer Beware has a good summary of what editors can and can’t do for you. There’s no guarantee that an editor will turn your book into something an agent wants to rep or a publisher wants to buy.
  3. Determine your money budget in advance. The question here is: “What fee is so high that I would rather trunk this book and try writing another one than pay someone that much money?” You’re the only person who can answer that, based on your available funds and your passion for this particular project. Just do your best to figure out an answer before you start shopping around for an editor, keeping in mind that professional freelance editing can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the length of the work, the type of editing, and the editor’s level of experience. (The Editorial Freelancers Association has a handy rate chart to help you estimate.) Some editors will want partial payment up front, or partial payment after a small portion of the work is done and approved by you. Freelancers don’t always accept credit cards for payment because the processing fees are steep, so it’s best to limit your budget to what you can afford to spend in cash.
  4. Determine your time budget too. Finding the right editor takes time; editing and revising takes time. Your editor may do multiple rounds of editing, with you doing revisions in between; that can take months. When I was freelance editing, I had a very popular package deal consisting of an edit letter/critique (followed by revisions), an in-depth line edit (followed by more revisions), and a final read-through with comments. In your particular case, I’m guessing that you’ve gotten enough critique from those agents and you’ll want to move right along to the line edits. Just make sure you and your editor are on the same page about how much and what kind of editing they’ll be doing and how long it’s likely to take.
  5. Find a reputable editor. A good place to start looking is the EFA directory. Members of writing forums may also have personal recommendations. I list several editors I know personally and recommend highly on my freelancing website. Regardless of where you find them, your editor needs to adhere to the EFA’s Code of Fair Practice, and it would help if they have references you can check, a sample contract you can view, and set rates. You can also ask around on the Absolute Write water cooler or other forums to find out what sort of reputation someone has. Critters has very useful guidelines on avoiding publishing scams; read them closely.
  6. Formalize an agreement. It should cover what services will be provided and how and when, and what will be paid and how and when, and what happens if either of you fails to meet your obligations. You absolutely must get this in writing. The EFA has some sample agreements. When I was freelancing, I used this agreement format. It doesn’t need to be in legalese, but it must be clearly understood by both parties. I recommend asking for more time than you think you’ll need to do revisions between rounds of editing, and of course you should only commit to a payment schedule that you think you’ll be able to easily keep up with.
  7. Hold up your end of the bargain. Make your payments on time. If you’re doing multiple rounds of edits, complete your revisions on time. Communicate clearly and promptly, including about any concerns or delays. Be professional with your editor, and expect them to be professional with you, even when you’re struggling with the big feelings that come up when someone’s meticulously and thoroughly critiquing your work. (Remember: you are not your work.)
  8. Learn from being edited. Let’s say your professionally edited manuscript goes back to those agents and they love it. One of them sells it to a publisher in a three-book deal. Hooray! Now how do you complete those additional two manuscripts? You probably won’t have time to hire an editor again; you’ll be on deadline. Your agent has already made it clear that they can only offer limited guidance. Your publisher will expect your second and third manuscripts to be nearly as polished as your first (though not entirely; they know that many first books have gone through extensive revisions before an agent ever sees them). That means you have to really learn from the edits you’re paying for, and apply those lessons to your next books so those books are salable and publishable from the get-go. Conversely, if the agents still pass on your book and you decide it’s time to self-publish or trunk it and move on to the next project, learning from the edits on this book is the best way to get your money’s worth.

In short, this is not a small undertaking. If you hire an editor, you’re going to put in a lot of money, time, and effort. Of course, revisions would take time and effort regardless. The money buys you an experienced, thoughtful perspective to guide you and help you employ your time and effort more efficiently. For some people that’s absolutely worth doing. For others it’s not. And for some it’s financially out of reach, which is one of the reasons Yog’s Law is quoted so often; if you can’t afford to hire an editor, then take comfort in knowing that there’s a substantial structure in place to support pursuing publication without paying a dime. (These days you don’t even have to pay to print and mail your manuscript!)

Regardless of what you decide about whether or how to proceed with this novel, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of skill and a good Team You in place. One way or another, keep writing!


Story Nurse

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8 thoughts on “#16: When and How to Hire a Freelance Editor

  1. It’s hard to answer this question well without knowing what the “specific and clear” issues identified are. You have to ask yourself if you want to address them, if you’re capable of addressing them, and if you can find someone who can help you become capable of addressing them.

    My immediate inclination is that if they’re saying the writing is good, you’re already past what the vast majority of freelance editors do. Most of them are there to whip the writing into shape. If there’s somebody out there giving really good developmental edits, I don’t know about it. (Which is entirely possible.)


    1. I used to do very thorough developmental edits as a freelancer, and know a couple of other people who do; but you’re right, it’s not as common as a basic critique or a sentence-level polish.


    2. The specific issue is a poor ratio of dialogue to prose. I’ve known this is an issue, and I thought I’d worked on it, but I guess not enough, which is why my thought is that if I want to stick with this story, I need someone who can point to a scene or a chapter or whatever and say, “You need to put description here.” It strikes me as something an editor could do, especially if I tell them that’s what I’m looking to fix.


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