Advice · Editing · Writing

How To Hire A Copy-Editor

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to hire editors; I suggest you read it. But for what it’s worth, let me throw mine out there.

Last week, we talked about why you should hire a copy-editor (and I am very pro-copy-editor.) They do stuff you can’t, they polish your manuscript to a shine, they’re experts with expert knowledge. You’ve decided this is for you, and you totally want to hire one. Great!

Uh, so how do you find one?

Obviously you do what everyone else does, which is go to google and search “copy-editor.” If you want to be fancy, you can add the genre you write in to the search.

…Except, that’s not a great way to do it. Because remember, this is the internet. I could tell you, right here and now, that I’m an editor, and that means diddly-squat. Words are just words, and let me tell you, there are a lot of fake copy-editors out there. Okay, maybe fake is a harsh word, but how about bad. Yeah, bad.

Copy-editing often seems like an easy job from the outside. Fix a few commas, sort some spelling, awesome! “I was great at English, I can do that!” someone thinks. And so you will get a fair few folks who have set themselves up as editors because once upon a time, they did English in university. They mean well, but unfortunately, as we talked about last week, there’s more to to the job than properly indenting paragraphs. Because if that’s all there was, I could do the job, and I’m probably the last person you want copy-editing for you. So that’s one thing to watch out for: the unequipped.

And then there are the genuine predators. The people who are out to line their pockets rather than line-edit your work. The ones who don’t even have a well-meaning smile to offer. They often look very slick, offer low, low rates, guarantees, tell you to get your manuscript proofed before sending off your query letter. They have software that edits! They have five stars across their header, and to the unknowing eye, they are very, very convincing.

Both the unequipped and the predators are problematic in their own ways, but luckily, with a little practice, you will be able to spot and avoid them both.

Professional copy-editors worth their salt will have all of the following things:

Accreditation. There’s a few societies out there that copy-editors belong to. If you’re in the US, there’s the American Copy-Editor’s Association and the Editor’s Freelance Association. Canada has the Editor’s Association of Canada, and the UK has the Society For Editors and Proofreaders. There are plenty more organizations like this–these are only a few of the major ones–but a legit copy-editor will be a member of at least one, and often more than that. You can look them up on said website if you’re not sure.

Experience. Now, there are copy-editors out there just starting out who have finished their classwork, but have little real-world experience, and that’s fine, but most free-lance editors will have something on their resume to let you know that they’re good. They worked for a publishing company, or a magazine, they teach copy-editing, whatever. But something says “I’ve been at this for a while and I know what the heck I’m doing.”

High school newspapers, for the love of god, don’t count.

Testimonials. On their website, a legit copy-editor will list the books they have edited, and you can go and look through them. These books will hopefully be doing moderately well on Amazon, and the sample pages offered will be clean and nice.

A word for warning. Plenty of scam sites will also offer testimonials. Read those sample pages. Read them thoroughly. That’s all I can say.

A decent website. Copy-editing is all about looks. A decent copy-editing website will not look like it was dragged off of Geocities circa 2001. It doesn’t have to be fancy (because I’m equally suspicious of the ultra-slick) but it shouldn’t be, well, sucky. You want a copy-editor who is both in touch with the world and organized, after all.

If you find typos on the website, run. Just… click away. This is so obvious I almost feel like I’m insulting you all by saying this, but man. Man. Do not touch that. And yes, before you ask, I’ve seen more than one like that, and you know it’s bad when I can spot the typos.

A free sample. Guess what? A real copy-editor does not take on just anyone! Because the fact is, they might hate your book, or your book might need more than you think it does. Therefore, they will offer to edit a small sample for you, for free. One or two-thousand words, three or four pages, something small like that. This benefits them because they can see what you’re about, and it benefits you, because you can get a taste of their style.

You don’t pay for the sample. If they ask you to, run, don’t walk.

And finally, what all legit copy-editors have is…

A hefty price-tag. Copy-editing is expensive. Very expensive. Visit your country’s editorial society’s website to see the per-hour charge they recommend, now compare it against the rates the copy-editor is listing. It should match up pretty closely. Too high? Who knows, maybe they edit best-sellers, check their credentials. Too low? Go carefully. It could be they’re just starting out…

Or you’ve found the most common scam of them all. Too good to be true? Yeah, we all know that one. Sigh. Those people are the most likely to have happy customer testimonials, too, because who doesn’t love a good bargain?

Have you ever hired a bargain handy-man? How about a cheapo electrician? Ooh, or my favorite, the friend of a friend who can put up that porch for you for half what the big guys are charging, yeah, sure, you betcha, what do you mean, building codes?

Alright. So you know the scams, you understand what you’re not looking for, great. But what, exactly, are you looking for?

Someone who edits your genre. Someone who you feel comfortable with. Someone who shares your position on the Oxford comma. Someone who is interested in your project for what it is, who will stay engaged throughout the many reads, because good editors read it more than once. Someone from whom you are willing to take criticism.

I can’t emphasize that enough. There are all sorts of other things to look for, but this is the most important, because you are hiring someone to whom you are sending your precious writing while saying, “Tell it to me like it is, baby.” (I mean, not literally, I hope. Though if you do, email me screenshots of what happens.) That sort of honest feedback’s nerve wracking enough coming from the nicest, fluffiest person in the world. From someone who you feel uncomfortable with?

Seriously, don’t do that to your manuscript, and don’t do that to yourself. Editors are people, and you will get along with some, but not others, and that’s okay. Read those websites, and read them again. Do you feel like this is a person you can talk to, or does their prose grate on your nerves? Do you feel like they can help you, or do you feel like they will overwhelm you? How do you feel?

Because that’s important. Someone who makes you uncomfortable will never get the best from you, and in order for your book to succeed, it needs to be the best it can be. Don’t hamstring yourself out the gate. Find someone you respect and who respects you.

And really, that’s the most important thing I can say here. Yes, hiring a copy-editor is a big deal, and there’s all sorts of ins and outs and do’s and don’ts and it can all get a bit overwhelming, but in the end, it comes down to you. Who do you want to work with?

Okay? Got a name or two? Maybe three?

Great! Fill out the form on their website or shoot them an email. The ball is rolling. And really, that’s all there is to it.

Okay, I lied. Go read thirteen “What to look for in a copy-editor” lists and dunk yourself in knowledge. Obsess. Fret. Write and re-write that intro letter. But at the end of the day, make sure whoever you’ve found is who you’re happy with.

Are you planning to hire a copy-editor anytime soon? Have you already done so? How did your experience match up with mine? Any extra tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them below!

PS. (Oh god you know what’s coming) So I have this story I just put out! It’s “elegant” and “dark AF.” It’s called “The Foreigner’s Loneliness.” Why not go read it? It’s right here.

Okay, now I’m done.

Thanks so much for reading, and most of all, I hope this helps.

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