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MBM: 10 Things Your Freelance Editor Wishes You Knew by Sarah Belliston

Welcome to the fifth day of MARCH BOOK MADNESS! (Full explanation and schedule here.)

Today my sister-in-law, writing partner, and friend Sarah Belliston is here to help us with our editing, specifically working with a freelance editor, which she is. Sarah is incredibly smart and graduated from BYU with a degree in English when she was fourteen years old or something (okay, she was a little older, but not a lot). She’s been a huge supporter of my writing over the years, and I love her to pieces. She edits novels, picture books, doctoral theses, queries, and lots of other academic papers. She’s great.  So are you ready for some tips when working with a freelance editor?

10 Things Your Editor Wished You Knew by Sarah Belliston

Sarah Belliston:

1.  The difference between sample, content, line, copy, and galley edits.

Sample Edit – Before each job I edit 3-5 pages for each client (for free) to see if they like my style of editing. This is really important because you need to know if you are going to disagree with every single change the editor makes. I’d suggest doing this with a few editors before you hire someone to see how different people react to the same material.

Content Edit – This is the big picture edit where the ending can change, characters’ names are thrown around, plot holes are filled in, and all the threads of story are dealt with.

Line Edit – This is the detail edit where we worry about metaphors, dialogue, and if you use ‘funky’ 100 times. We reorganize paragraphs and sentences to make them less clunky and more readable.

Copy Edit – This is when we worry about typos, grammar, consistent use of em dash vs. en dash, whether your internal dialogue is in italics or quotations, and if you have put two spaces between each sentence or one. (Hint: the correct answer is one.)

Galley Edit – This is when the book is printed and you are holding it in your hands looking for all the things you missed while it was on a computer screen. NOTE: I rarely do just this edit. It is almost always attached to at least a copy edit. The upside is this is the quickest edit since I have already gone through the manuscript at least once.

2. Your budget.

I run my business by the hour, some do their work by page, some do a flat fee for the whole book. I have done different pay structures for different clients. I do a sample edit of 3-5 pages and send it back with an estimate of the time needed. However, if the client doesn’t know what they need (see #1) and they give me the most polished part because they are nervous for someone to see their work (we’ve all been there), then I can severely underestimate the time required. I try to have open communication with my clients and let them know where I’m at and how much time I’ve used. Then they have time to change their minds before I present a bill for twice as much as the estimate.

Also, I charge $20/hour. That’s on the low end because this is just a part-time thing for me. But don’t be surprised to spend $300-400 on a good quality edit from a professional editor.

3.  We are not gods. Our changes are not commandments.

Things like clarity and readability are completely subjective. You are paying an editor for their opinion of your work and the changes they suggest you make. Personally, I make notes in my edit and let my clients know which changes are to follow a grammar standard and which are because it sounds better to my ear. This is where the sample edit comes in (see #1).

4.  We will tell you things you might not want to hear.

You are the author, it is your vision, but you are paying for my opinion and I’m going to give it to you, good or bad. You may tell your editor that you just want a copy edit and they make come back and say, actually you need more than that because your space aliens end up as cannibalistic trees by the end of the book. They might say your main character isn’t likable or you have a big plot hole that ruins your ending or that 50 pages of the history of whales is 50 pages too much. Hopefully they say this nicely and with tact. It is your choice whether to believe them or not (though you did already decide to hire them because you liked their sample edits). Many great authors would have never come out intact after passing my desk (Moby Dick anyone?).

5.  Know your stance on the Oxford comma.

The great thing about English is its ability to be flexible and adapt over time. The bad thing is that it means nothing is really set in stone. Read any work of fiction and I’m sure you’ll find a split infinitive or a dangling participle or a sentence that starts with “and”. Even spelling goes out the window when you are dealing in slang and dialects. The only thing that matters is consistency within a work. Know what you like and don’t like. For instance, the Oxford comma is the last comma in a series (eggs, toast, and milk). Technically it is optional, though don’t say that to its supporters. As the author, you set that standard for your novel; and as the editor, I make sure you keep that standard.

don't mess with my Oxford comma

6.  We will not rewrite it for you.

An editor is like a colander, sort of. We sift out all your overused words, we organize a few, we help trim bad ideas, and let only the best remain. However, we do not create anything. I have reordered many words, even rewritten two or three lines, but never should an editor make a significant content contribution. We magnify your words and ideas, not insert our own. If you want someone else to make your changes for you, that is called a ghost writer and should be hired as such.

7. How to format a manuscript.

Formatting will differ with different editors. We all have our quirks. Mine are pretty standard. Manuscripts should be double-spaced, 1 inch margins, size 12(ish) font, with indents instead of tabs, and page breaks instead of returns to make a new page. File converters are free online and you should know how to get a document from a Mac to a PC and vice versa. You should know how to use track changes and how to comment in a document. Without these features it is hard for us to do our job on the computer and make our edits clear, especially after a few rounds of drafts. NOTE: Formatting for submission to self-publish is also specific and it would benefit you to pick up a book on it or better yet, hire someone to do it for you. Submitting to agents is another bag of cats and you should read each agents blog/site/twitter feed carefully to see what they like.

8. We have lives too, and probably other jobs.

Expect a few weeks to a few months delay when hiring a professional. Either they are doing this full-time and already have jobs queued up for a while, or they are doing this part-time on top of another job and/or running a household. I’m the latter. Some weeks I have no time to work, while others are magical weeks where my children go to bed on time and I’m not exhausted and able to access the smart area of my brain.

9. We are not all created equal.

When possible go with a referral from someone you trust. Almost all my work is from friends of past clients or people who know me personally. I’m cheap because this is part-time and I have no overhead for office space or advertising. Other larger groups have some benefits because more than one person will review the work, usually two or three people. However, you pay for that as well.

Then there are the people who just aren’t that good at editing. You should be able to see that in a sample edit, though if you don’t know your semicolons from your parenthetical statements then have someone who knows grammar look it over as well.

Worry if someone says they’ll do it for $100, worry if they say they have less than a week turnaround (books need to marinate with an editor for a while), and worry if you don’t have open communication after the job has been contracted (i.e.: they don’t contact you as much as they said they would). I’d worry if they ask for payment in full beforehand, but a deposit is normal.

Use your judgement.

10. Our job is to make the book better, not make a bestseller.

No one can promise you their edit will earn you money. We cannot take a rough draft and turn it into the next Grisham. Freelance editor are not like editors from a publishing house, we do not have directives from someone else for what the novel should be or accomplish. We follow your lead, we help the manuscript fit your vision.

Final tip: If you choose to self-publish, getting an editor is a MUST. Having a designer do your cover wouldn’t hurt either. If you want to be published with a house and plan to get an agent, you can probably do without an editor. The agent will change what they think is necessary to sell the book, and then the house editor will change what they want as well.

Rebecca’s Thoughts:

Thanks for these tips, Sarah. As more and more authors turn to self-publishing, they hear about the importance of hiring an editor for their work. It’s nice to hear the other side of this equation, what to look for, what to ask, and what to expect. (And thanks for editing/reading/helping my books all these years!!!!)

Have any tips on finding or working with a freelance editor? Comment here.


See you tomorrow!



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