How to Hire an Editor, Not an “Editor”

Molly McCowan The Art of Editing 15 Comments

“Editors” are a dime a dozen these days. Plenty of people think that just because they: a) read a lot, b) are good at spotting typos, or c) picture themselves wearing a tweed jacket and teaching Shakespeare to enraptured students on the coiffed lawns of Harvard, they can sell their services as editors.

Some of these people will take your money, run spell check and/or grammar check on your document (something you can do yourself for free), and send it back to you. These “editors” are more than likely doing this as a way to make quick cash on the side, and many have no training whatsoever.

In order to help you avoid swallowing the bait and hiring a wolf in sheep’s clothing, here are some ways to vet your potential editor—using, if you haven’t already noticed/groaned/rolled your eyes, idioms, because they’re fun to abuse. (Call it a word nerd’s guilty pleasure.)

Stay Away from an “Editor” Who:

Talks the Talk, but Doesn’t Walk the Walk

If you find more than a couple of typos or grammatical errors on the website of your potential “editor,” be wary. The same goes for her emails to you (a couple of typos can slip by anyone in a rushed email, but a good editor usually won’t have more than two).

Will Work for Peanuts

If an “editor” charges extremely low rates (say, $50-$100 for copyediting an entire novel), steer clear.

Has No Strings Attached

If the “editor” doesn’t talk about their process or ask you to sign a contract for larger projects, tread with caution. (Note: some freelancers won’t write up a contract for small, quick projects, but the larger ones, like a full manuscript edit, should have a contract.)

Keeps a Low Profile

Can’t find any information about the “editor” online? No website, social media account, or any kind of online presence? It could be that this person is just starting out, but be careful. If he or she won’t provide you with full contact information (at least a phone number) upon request, stop, drop, and find a professional.

Talks Big, but Can’t Back It Up

No resume? No previous experience? No problem…for these “editors,” that is. Feel free to ask your potential editor about her background: where did she learn how to edit? What editing jobs has she held? What are some of her past projects? Any professional editor would be happy to share this information with you.

Thinks Rome Was Built in a Day

Use your common sense here: if an “editor” can return a full manuscript to you in one day, something’s up. Time to high-tail it out of there.

Offers the Best of Both Worlds (Not)

If an “editor” offers to edit your work for dirt cheap and promises to get it back to in record time, it won’t be good work—it just doesn’t happen that way. I made a nifty Venn diagram to show this dilemma in action:


Bottom Line: Actions Speak Louder than Words

If you hire a so-called “editor” and receive files back that have barely been touched, along with emails that include typos and grammatical mistakes, you’ve most likely been duped.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. Vet any editor you’re considering hiring, and trust your intuition. Here are two more potential red flags to watch out for:

Red flag #1: The “editor” says negative things about other editors.

Namely, that their prices are too high, their services aren’t worth the money, etc. After all, they can do the same job by running spell check, right? (Wrong.)

Red flag #2: The “editor” won’t provide you with a sample edit if asked.

(Don’t ask for more than a page or two, and don’t expect to get it for free, although many editors will offer a brief sample edit at no extra charge to you. Also, keep in mind that a sample edit is really only useful for copyediting, not developmental editing.)

A fool and his money are easily parted, as the saying goes. Don’t be that fool! Spending money on quality work from a professional will be worth it, so don’t mess around when you need your next book, paper, report, or article edited.

Learn the value of a good editor.

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Editors, what shady practices have you come across? Writers, have you worked with freelance editors before? Are you still wondering how to hire an editor? What questions can I answer for you? Let me know in the comments!

This post is part of the Word Carnival series of monthly blog posts. Click to read more posts on this month’s topic, “Dirty Deeds and Due Diligence: What to Watch Out For in 2015” written by other whip-smart entrepreneurs, bloggers, and marketing masters.

Image from Flickr user janwillemson.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.
  • Great tips, Molly. I wasn’t aware you could ask for a sample edit. Will definitely share that with my clients who are writing books!

  • Sharon Hurley Hall

    Excellent advice, Molly, and those tips apply to hiring many freelance professionals.

  • Annie Sisk

    Great advice Molly! “Never underestimate the value of a good editor” – something … OK, I haven’t actually ever said out loud before but will totally make a thing now, for sure.

  • These are awesome tips Molly. I’m working on my second nonfiction book, and finding an experienced editor is critical for success. I give a thumbs up on all your guidelines. I have one thing to add to the list. The editor understands and respects your voice. The sample edit is a good way to find that out.

  • smallbusinessfinanceforum

    These are awesome tips Molly. I’m working on my second nonfiction book, and finding an experienced editor is critical for success. I give a thumbs up on all your guidelines. I have one thing to add to the list. The editor understands and respects your voice. The sample edit is a good way to find that out.

  • Molly your Venn diagram made this article for me! Good, cheap, and fast—I learned this lesson myself when my husband and I remodeled our historic home. Quality, Money, and Time–you get to choose at least two, but it’s extremely rare, if ever, that you’ll get all three. You’re so right, this applies to editing too!

  • This is pretty universally true for every service provider! Avoid the cheap, be wary of the invisible, watch out for the slick talk. And most definitely pay attention to anyone who paints the competition negatively. That can be a dead giveaway. It’s ok for service providers to say “watch out for X when you hire someone” but NOT ok to point fingers or complain about other people.

  • Kudos and cupcakes!
    Oreos and accolades!
    Dropping colorful confetti
    On your editing parade

    In other words, I love this post, Molly. 🙂

    It aggravates me to no end when 1.) People want something for nothing; not willing to pay fair market value for a job well done and professionally executed and 2.) When someone gets royally taken advantage of; buffooned; snookered; taken for a ride.

  • Molly, my husband is an editor. What I loved about this article is that it validates the value of a good editor. Something that with the advent of self published books and a rash of wannabe editors piling onto the bandwagon, has been sadly lost. We’re handed so many self published books and it’s often a little cringe-making reading them. My husband says an editor’s first duty is to save an author from embarrassment. Too true!

  • OH, MY, they are out there…
    Years ago, I attended a “writers’ conference” (as in: not a real writers’ conference) where one originally planned editor/speaker had been in an auto accident and had been replaced with an “editor”. Ahem.
    Although I had not planned submitting anything at the gathering, I decided since the new guy was begging for submissions, I’d give him a go by asking for advice on my one-page. He walked the line in that session, and acted rather interested in my work, but when I heard him speak, he was cruel, CRUEL to the other editor/speaker present. First clue.
    I decided to check him further, though, since he had nibbled, after all, and entered a contest to win his book, and WON! The cover was red and purple. As in firetruck-lipstick and grape-popsicle. As in this hurts my eyes, so I’d better open it or get sunglasses. Second clue.
    Once I got home, I read the book, quite a bit of it, actually. I was enraged that such a work could even be between covers! I was enraged that such an editor could even dare to show up at a “writers’ conference”. I threw the book away after I’d had to sharpen my red pencil twice. Third clue.
    Thanks for writing this great post! Thanks for writing on WordPress! And thanks to Jim Bessey for making you known to me!
    I’ll be back. 🙂

  • So much great stuff here, not the least of which is that a tweed jacket does not an editor make.

    Just like owning a copy of Photoshop does not make you a graphic designer, neither does owning a keyboard attached to a screen. Real editing takes time, effort, and an eye for CONTEXT, not just typos – but the message that’s trying to be conveyed. The important aspects of editing almost always rise far above and beyond the realm of typos, commas, and hyphens and into word choice and word order.

    Great editors can take utter garbage and make it readable garbage with a story.

    All in all, great tips on how to catch a fraud, Molly.

  • Adria Laycraft

    Great article! I always offer to edit the first five pages and return it with a proposed contact. That way we each get a taste of the other’s work…and I avoid surprises that way!

  • Lee Diogeneia

    This was a good article. How about giving it a 2017 update with some more tips on what business practices are used by real editors or some additional “editor” things to look out for. 🙂

    One of my favorites is the person who has self-published a few one-review novels and is now an expert editor. Oh! Even better, the one that has started a small press in his/her basement and now believes s/he’s a certified full-scale editor from proofreading to developmental. I have uncovered so many of these in my latest adventures. They are a bit more difficult for novice writers to figure out.

    • Thanks, Lee! I would be happy to update this post; I’ve added it to my editorial calendar for this year. Thank you for the suggestion!

      I run into “editors” often, and you’re absolutely correct: newer writers don’t always see the red flags. I often have to rescue or salvage books that have been edited by one of these “editors.” It is definitely frustrating, and I always feel terrible when I see an author have an awful experience with one of them. Often, they can’t get their money back.

      • Lee Diogeneia

        Yep. We’ve been in the same boat. Thank you for your service to the writing world. It definitely needs more editing! 😉