You’ve written a novel, or a short-story collection, that you hope to publish yourself in print or online, or perhaps you plan to send it to an agent in the hopes that an editor at a publishing company will consider it. Or perhaps you have, or work for, a business that distributes printed communications, or you’re responsible for a Web site that posts lots of written material.
You know the content isn’t ready for prime time. You need an editor. What do you do?
Determine the Type of Editing You Want
First, clarify what kind of assistance you seek. Does your content need a substantive edit, copyediting, or proofreading? Substantive editing involves intensive attention to plotting, narrative, characterization, tone, and other holistic factors for fiction, and organization, logic, and effective messaging in marketing communications or other nonfiction. If your novel has been rejected for publication or your articles (or someone else’s you’re shepherding) lack the impact they require, you should search for an editor who performs substantive editing.
If you believe the content is basically sound, but you believe it needs revision for grammar, usage, style, and punctuation, find a copy editor. If you’re concerned only about typographical errors, hire a proofreader. (But realize this: You can probably get away without a substantive edit, but content that has been proofread but not copyedited is probably substandard.)
Identify the Project’s Scope and Schedule
Next, consider the parameters of the assignment. Is the project a single book, or a series of essays to be assigned over a matter of weeks, or an ongoing collection of articles for a Web site? Whoever you hire will want to know your time frame. Do you expect the assignment to be returned in weeks, days, or hours? Will it be delivered, and is it to be returned, all at once, or piecemeal?
Next, decide how you will compensate the editor. Will you pay by the hour, by the project (a flat fee), or by the page? Most editors work with an hourly rate, which is the fairest and the most effective, because it allows the editor to do their best work. You can, of course, specify a cap on how many hours the editor is allowed to bill for.
And how will you pay? By check, or money order? By PayPal, or another online service? Some editors may ask for a percentage of the total payment up front or after you receive a specified proportion of the edited material. You can ask the editor to complete a sample (paid) edit of one chapter or a single article that you evaluate before approving them to complete the assignment.
Obtain an Editor
Now, where do you find an editor? You can post physical or virtual notes in your area to solicit local teachers or English majors, but though they may be an economical choice, teachers and English majors are not necessarily good editors. You can put projects up for bid on Web sites like Guru.com, but it’s a complicated process, and many editors who offer their services on the site are underqualified or are not proficient in American English or British English. (And if you lowball the rate you’re willing to pay, you’ll get what you paid for.) Employment sites such as Media Bistro are effective for finding media professionals but not so much for obtaining help with fiction projects or small-scale assignments, and posting employment listings can be pricey.
Craigslist, however, remains an excellent resource, and job postings cost only $75. (And you needn’t restrict your search to your local market.) In addition, organizations such as the Bay Area Editors’ Forum
Consider the Costs
Substantive editing is likely to put you back $50 or more per hour, and the typical working rate is several pages per hour. Copy editors charge about $25 to $50 per hour, depending on their level of experience and expertise and on the subject matter, and they generally complete five to ten pages an hour. Proofreading costs less and is accomplished more quickly, but unless the content is online, you’ll have to mail the proofs, send them as a PDF Portable Document File (the editor will need an editing program), or have the proofreader complete the project on site or pick it up and deliver it on completion. (And remember, proofreading without copyediting is a risky shortcut.)
As you can see, hiring an editor is an expensive proposition. Engaging even a $25-per-hour copy editor for a 100,000-word novel will cost you about a thousand dollars. An experienced substantive editor could end up billing you a few hundred dollars for helping you craft a 2,500-word article for a specialized publication. Even having some Web pages proofread can easily become a three-figure expenditure.
But consider the return on investment: A literary agent is impressed with your tight, cleanly written prose. A periodical accepts your clear, concise, confident technical article. Your typo-free Web site (which your proofreader has also improved with some apt suggestions about format and design) attracts visitors, who may also become customers. It’s nearly impossible to quantify the effect of an editorial professional’s contribution to the impact of any piece of content, and in many cases, the editing you don’t notice is the best kind.
In a sense, it’s a leap of faith to hire an editor. There’s no guarantee that employing an editor (even one armed with an impressive resume or glowing testimonials) will result in publication of your content or any other definitive marker of success, and the process of obtaining an editor’s services isn’t effortless even in the best circumstances. But if you’re careful, you’ll reap the benefits of better content.