A freelance or independent editor, sometimes called a book doctor, is someone who, for a fee, will undertake to read your manuscript for structure, style, plot, character development, continuity, and grammatical and technical errors. They may rewrite your ms. to fix problems, or provide notations and detailed advice so you can address them.

What’s the difference between a freelance/independent editor and an in-house editor (an editor employed by a publishing company)?

  • An in-house editor works with authors on a publisher’s behalf, editing books prior to publication. She edits to her own taste but also to the publisher’s standards. Any book acquired by a reputable publisher will be edited in-house. This is part of the publication process–the author should not be charged for it.
  • A freelance or independent editor is an independent contractor working directly for, and paid by, the author. What kind of editing is done, and how extensive  it is, is entirely up to the author.

Most freelance editors offer different levels of editing. These may include:

  • Manuscript assessment or critique. A broad overall assessment of your manuscript, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses. Specific problem areas may be flagged, and general suggestions for improvement may be made, but a critique won’t usually provide line editing or scene-by-scene advice on revision.
  • Developmental editing (also known as content or substantive editing) focuses on structure, style, and content. The editor flags specific problems–structural difficulties, poor pacing, plot or thematic inconsistencies, stiff dialogue, undeveloped characters, stylistic troubles, flabby writing.
  • Line editing. Editing at the sentence level, focusing on paragraph and sentence structure, word use, dialogue rhythms, etc., with the aim of creating a smooth prose flow.
  • Copy editing. Correction of common errors (grammar, spelling, punctuation), incorrect usages, logic lapses, and continuity problems.
  • Proofreading. Checking for typos, spelling/punctuation errors, formatting mistakes, and other minor mechanical problems.
Scholarly Editing and German Literature

Editing terminology is fluid. Some editors define the above terms differently, or use different terminology. Others simply provide “light”, “medium”, and “heavy” editing–light being on the order of copy editing, medium and heavy being some combination of line and content editing. It’s important, before hiring an editor, that you’re clear on exactly what services they provide.

When Do You Need a Freelance Editor?

Hiring a freelance editor can be an expensive proposition. A thorough content edit from an experienced, credentialed editor can cost four or even five figures. Is this an expense you really need to incur?

If you’re self-publishing, and are serious about building a readership, I think the answer is “yes.” The self-publishing field is highly competitive, and if you want to stand out, not to mention give good value to readers, it’s essential that you present a professional product. Editing and copy editing are an important part of that.

A qualified freelance editor may also be a good investment if you’ve written a nonfiction book on a subject in which you’re an expert, but you aren’t a professional writer. Especially if you’re seeking traditional publication, an editor may make the difference between publishable and not.

Or perhaps you’ve been submitting your polished manuscript to literary agents for some time and are getting positive comments, but still racking up rejections. Something’s wrong, and you aren’t quite sure what–or the rejections all seem to identify the same problems. A good freelance editor may be able to help.

If you’re just starting to submit for publication, though, or are self-publishing but don’t care about starting a career, the benefits are less clear. Before you pull out your wallet, investigate alternatives–a friend who’s not afraid to criticize, a local writers’ group or critique circle, an online writers’ group, a creative writing course or teacher, a professional writer with whom you’re acquainted. Any of these may be able to give you the help you need, free of charge or at a fraction of the cost. (You should be seeking such sources of feedback anyway–no writer is capable of being completely objective about his or her work, and outside viewpoints are essential.)

Whatever your situation, hiring a freelance editor shouldn’t be like taking your car to a mechanic (e.g., you go away for two hours and when you come back your car is fixed). You’ll get the most out of your experience if you treat it as a learning opportunity–a chance to hone and improve your own editing skills. Self-editing is an essential part of the writer’s craft; if you’re really serious about a writing career, it’s something you need to master. In fact, investing in a writing course, or joining a critique group, may be a much better initial investment for a new writer than springing for an editor.