Best Practices for Working with an Independent Editor

By Lisa Poisso

Most writers have read the wide-eyed articles from newly-agented writers detailing the pressure of revising and returning edits on a tight schedule and working with an assigned editor. But what if you’re the one hiring the editor? By their nature as entrepreneurs, every independent editor’s business practices vary. Ask your editor about these common expectations and practices before agreeing to any work.

Before Your Edit

1. Agreements about the business details of your project protect you both. An agreement needn’t be a formal printed contract signed in person; an email constitutes a legal agreement. The agreement should define the scope of work, start and finish dates and other relevant deadlines, total cost and payment schedule, and a clear explanation of what happens if either party cancels or breaches the agreement.

2. New writers often mistakenly believe they need a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to protect their material. Your work is legally copyrighted the moment you commit it to print, making NDAs cumbersome, unnecessary, and often a sign of professional mistrust.

3. Most editors require a deposit to get your book on their calendar, customarily ranging from a flat fee of $100 or more to the first half of the total fee. You can expect to pay your total editing bill in full before the editor releases the edited manuscript.

4. If you can’t or don’t want to use your editor’s preferred payment method, aren’t located in the same country as they are, or prefer a slow payment method like personal checks, ask if your choice will create any issues. Allow enough time to process payments without holding up the project.

5. Missing your editing date by even a day or two could leave your manuscript without time to fit into its scheduled slot, if the deadline is tight or your editor is busy. Communicate as soon as you suspect you may have a problem hitting your scheduled editing date.

6. The time it takes to edit a manuscript varies widely, depending on your manuscript’s needs, the type of editing, and the editor’s schedule and work practices. Developmental editing usually takes the longest. Line editing is slower than copyediting, and proofreading is the fastest editing service.

If there were such a thing as a typical editing rate among all these levels of service, it might run from 20,000 to 35,000 words per week. You get what you pay for. If all the editor has time for is a breakneck race through the manuscript, that’s precisely what you’ll get.

Don’t try to reverse-engineer what you think an editor’s editing rate should be based on words or pages per hour. Manuscript speed doesn’t account for writing an editorial report or letter; creating a style sheet; formatting and preparing the file; running automated software and macros to check mechanics, formatting, and style; an initial read-through; a follow-up read-through; or book mapping and structural analysis. If there’s no time for these (or if your editor prices the edit without them), you’ll be missing many aspects of a thorough professional edit.

7. Submitting a manuscript that’s as error-free as possible allows your editor to spend their time on elements that require professional skill and judgment. If the writing needs extensive spelling, grammar, and punctuation cleanup, those things are exactly where the editor will spend their time. Leaving messes for the editor to clean up costs money—your money. Clean manuscripts give editors elbow room to help you elevate your story and writing.

8. Don’t jump the gun with fancy formatting or graphics. It’s not time for your manuscript to look like a book yet. Standard manuscript format—12-point double-spaced Times New Roman, one-inch margins, first-line paragraph indents instead of tabs, one space (not two) between sentences, and no line space between paragraphs—lets your editor get right to work.

9. Although most editors spot-check facts and look for obvious errors (mostly for narrative and internal consistency), factual accuracy—including science, geography, history, and foreign languages—is your responsibility as the author.

During Your Edit

10. Some editors consider work complete when they return the edited manuscript to you. This is typical for edits designed to inspire revision and new writing, such as developmental or line edits. Other editors ask that you review and approve or revise their edits and return the manuscript for final adjustments; this is more typical for polishing edits like copyediting or proofreading. These editors will review some or all of your changes; the first sort consider that a new round of editing. Neither way is wrong or superior. Included follow-up rounds generally mean higher rates; many editors who don’t include follow-up rounds offer deep discounts for additional rounds. Ask your editor what’s included.

11. Especially early in your writing career, your manuscript could need multiple rounds of the same type of editing. If a developmental edit leads to significant changes, for example, you could need a second round after revisions. Don’t let this possibility take you by surprise.

12. Expect to work using Microsoft Word and tracked changes. Most editors use Word because it permits the use of editorial tools that increase the accuracy and quality of the edit, a benefit you very much want for your manuscript. Agents, editors, and other publishing professionals will also expect to receive your manuscript as a Word file, not as a PDF or “compatible” file. Word and tracked changes look intimidating but aren’t difficult to learn, and working with them is part of a writer’s baseline skills.

13. You may not hear much from your editor while your edit is in progress, or they may contact you with various questions. Both are normal. Editing isn’t a sequential process that starts with chapter one and finishes at “The End.” Editors work in layers. There’s often not much to say about an edit in progress beyond “Yep, still working.”

14. For anything but proofreading, edits are the beginning of the revision process, not the end. Reviewing a copyedit is relatively straightforward, but line and developmental edits are designed to steer you toward deeper, better writing. It’s up to you to follow through with the work.

After Your Edit

15. Editing is a subjective process, and you’re free not to take every edit and recommendation. It’s your book and your vision. Most editors include follow-up time to review points of confusion or disagreement. Disagreeing with the substance of the feedback, however, does not entitle you to a discount or refund.

16. A full-length edit can generate hundreds of comments and tens of thousands of edits. Considering this scope, the final manuscript will inevitably contain some residual errors. You can minimize these by starting with a manuscript as clean as you can possibly manage and finishing with a professional proofread.

17. Just as you wouldn’t want your editor to discuss or share your manuscript with others, it’s unprofessional to share your edits online or kvetch about the specifics with other writers or editors. The edited final product is yours to do with as you wish, but the edits, comments, and editorial feedback themselves are intended for you alone.

18. If you find yourself rejecting most of the edits and suggestions in your edit, you may have hired the wrong editor for the job or pushed for a level of editing your manuscript wasn’t ready for. More often, you simply need some emotional distance from the feedback. Putting away a difficult edit for a while can help you regain objectivity.

19. American authors, don’t file a 1099-MISC for editing fees if you paid using a service such as PayPal. Payments made with a credit card or payment card and certain other types of payments, including third-party network transactions, must be reported on Form 1099-K by the payment settlement entity under section 6050W and are not subject to reporting on Form 1099-MISC

20. Want to thank your editor? Recommend them in writers’ groups. It’s the editorial equivalent of posting a reader review online. And consider sending a signed copy of your book. If your editor doesn’t have space to keep it, they can donate it to a Little Free Library—more readers for your brilliantly edited creation.

This article does not constitute legal or financial advice; for specific issues and questions, you should seek advice from a qualified attorney or financial professional.


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