How to Choose the Right Editor for Your Book

Hiring an editor can feel a bit like choosing a mate or business partner. Trust and shared vision are critical, and you’ll want to pair up with someone who brings the right strengths and assets to the relationship. Picking the right person will have a huge impact on your current happiness levels and your long-term success, so it’s worth taking the time to choose wisely. Here are some guidelines to help you find your perfect match.

1. Hire a pro, not your friend with an English degree.

Plenty of people can spell and use grammar properly. That doesn’t mean they can edit your book well. Editing calls for pedantic attention to detail, an ear for good prose, clear and tactful communication skills, and an ability to think into the void to identify what’s missing from a manuscript. But that’s not all. Your editor should be familiar with publishing industry standards and adept at marking up text, applying a consistent style, and flagging up content that may run afoul of copyright or libel law. They should also be able to help you frame your argument more powerfully, alert you to statements requiring better substantiation, and turn jargon into plain English that your audience can understand and relate to. These are specialized skills acquired through specific training and professional experience, so don’t expect a pro performance from an amateur.

2. Know what kind of editing you need.

Are you looking for someone to help you restructure your manuscript? If so, you need a developmental or substantive editor. Need some help tightening your argument or improving the flow and eloquence of your words? That’s called a stylistic edit. Only once all of the moving parts are locked down should you go shopping for a hawk-eyed, detail-obsessed copyeditor to clean up errors and inconsistencies. Although many editors can perform all of these tasks, very few are equally brilliant at each one, so ask your prospective editor about his specialties and preferences. Some editors are great at line-by-line mechanical editing but are less adept at reshaping an argument. Some have a knack for story, pace and structure but are a little less careful when it comes to dotting the I’s and crossing T’s. Others are exceptionally great at punching up flat sections of the text and smoothing out awkward transitions. The various phases of a book’s development are so different and their needs so distinct, it’s best to have at least two editors work on your manuscript — one to address the big-picture questions, and another to polish and perfect the text.

3. Consider the editor’s subject specialisms.

Ideally, you should choose an editor whose knowledge of your subject is similar to that of your target reader. If your book is highly technical and aimed at experts, you’ll want an editor with specialist expertise. But if your book is aimed at lay readers who may be new to your concepts, it’s actually better for your editor not to know the subject inside and out. Coming to the material with a fresh perspective, she’ll be better able to help you identify places where you’re talking over your readers’ heads, or missing crucial background information. But regardless of familiarity with the topic, you should always choose an editor who is used to working with your type of book. Even within the catch-all non-fiction category, there are dramatically different types of books that editors may specialize in. Children’s books, cookbooks, memoirs and journalistic or research-driven books all call for different skills and creative orientations.

4. Choose someone you feel you can trust.

As an editor myself, I have seen the vulnerability that almost every writer feels when sharing work-in-progress. Criticism can be hard to take, even when it’s constructive and delivered with great sensitivity. Good rapport matters a great deal to the results of your work together, so look for an editor whose communication style is compatible with yours. Don’t hire a hard-ass with a rough bedside manner just because he or she is smart or accomplished (unless you like that sort of treatment). Not only will the experience be a painful one, your writing will suffer — no one does their best work when they feel misunderstood. Your editor needs to be tough enough to tell you the truth, but kind enough to get it across in a way that feels supportive and empowering.
Maggie Langrick

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