Hiring an editor? Watch out for these 6 red flags.
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
You’re about to drop hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars on editing, so you want to be sure you’re getting quality work done from a professional.
However, editing is an unregulated profession. Anyone can set up a website and call themselves an editor, no matter their education or experience. There are no licenses, no national registries, no government-mandated examinations—just trust between editor and client.
So how can you be sure the editor you’re about to hire is legit? Here are some red flags to look out for. If you see any of these, I recommend you move right along.
1. The editor doesn’t do contracts.
This flag tells us that the editor is inexperienced at best, careless at worst.
Contracts are a vital part of running an editing business. They make sure the editor and client are on the same page when it comes to what work will be done, and they set up expectations for timelines, communication, and behavior.
Without a contract, either party can change the story at any time. The editor could initially agree to do a developmental edit, for example, and then turn in a line edit and tell you that’s what they meant all along. And a client could say they have a 50,000-word manuscript, then turn in an 80,000-word manuscript and expect the same price. The contract protects both parties by providing a document that can be easily referenced. That way the author can say, “No, I’m not paying for a line edit because this contract said you’d do a developmental edit.” And the editor can say, “Okay, I’ll edit the extra thirty thousand words, but you have to pay me more for it, because the contract says so.”
An email chain can count as a contract. It needs to specify the terms of your agreement—what work will be done, by whom, during which time—and include your consent, which can be as simple you agreeing to pay the editor for their work. So it doesn’t have to be a paper contract, but your agreement should be in writing somewhere. Be wary of editors who don’t even do email exchange contracts.
2. The editor makes big promises.
This flag tells us that the editor will do anything for a sale, including lying.
You’ve probably heard the saying “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” The same goes for editors.
Editors cannot guarantee that you will become a bestseller, that you’ll get an agent, or that all your reviews will be five stars once you’ve published your book. They just can’t. Even a book with the best editing ever may get none of these things. So if your editor claims they can guarantee any of this, they are lying, and they know it. Run, don’t walk.
Also beware the editor who claims they can find 100 percent of errors. That may be possible in very short writing, like blog posts or articles, but it is virtually impossible in something as long as a novel. That’s why publishing houses usually have at least three separate editors look over a manuscript—one person alone can’t find all the errors. It’s just a fact of nature. (I have a post about editorial accuracy, so give that a look!)
3. The editor edits “the way I write.”
This flag shows that the editor doesn’t understand one of the basic principles of good editing, which is to edit in the author’s voice, not our own.
I’m not saying that authors can’t be editors—there are plenty of fantastic editors out there who are also great authors—but just because you can write a great story doesn’t mean you know how to edit one you didn’t write. Editing and writing, though connected, are two separate skills, and both require practice and often some kind of training to master.
The editor who edits based on their own preferences and sensibilities is only a good match if the author’s preferences are the same. These editors tend to make too many unnecessary edits, such as removing curse words or changing a character’s voice, for no other reason than they don’t like it or they wouldn’t write it that way. These are the editors you see people complaining about on writers forums.
A truly professional editor focuses on the author’s intentions and the target audience’s perspective, setting aside their own preferences to help the author achieve their goal. I am very attached to the Oxford comma, for example, but some people don’t like it, and some style guides don’t want it used. In those cases, I don’t use it, my own preference be damned.
If you come across this type of editor, consider moving along. Or read one of their books to see if your writing styles are similar and go forward cautiously from there.
4. The editor edits “by instinct” only, and doesn’t use references.
This flag hints that the editor hasn’t had much training or done much self-education, and that they’re reluctant to do research on things they don’t yet know.
Most of us have an instinctual understanding of grammar, having grown up speaking English. However, while this innate knowledge helps to identify sentences or structures that sound slightly off, it doesn’t always help us pinpoint exactly why. This is where grammar education comes in. It doesn’t matter if the editor took a class or is self-taught—the point is that the editor should be able to identify what aspect of a sentence is wrong and why. And if they can’t figure out why, they should be willing to look it up.
If you’re the type of author who wants your editor’s changes to have specific reasons, then an editor who edits by instinct alone probably isn’t going to work for you, because they’ll just say “it sounded wrong” and not be able to explain further.
Besides that, instinct is sometimes wrong. There have been plenty of times where I was almost certain I knew how to spell a word, only to find when I looked it up that I’d actually spelled it wrong. In editing, “almost certain” isn’t certain enough. I don’t trust my instinct anymore. If there’s any doubt at all, I look it up, whether it’s a word’s spelling or a grammar point or a listing on a style sheet. Editors who rely too much on instinct can end up missing errors because they don’t take the time to look things up.
5. The editor has a lot of pet peeves that they’re vocal about.
This flag warns that the editor may let their opinions get in the way of good editing, plus they may be difficult to work with.
Editors are in the business of improving text, not tearing apart the author who wrote the text. Though it always hurts a bit to be edited, you shouldn’t feel like you’re being attacked or made fun of for the errors in your manuscript. If your editor is saying things like, “I hate people who don’t use the Oxford comma” or “What kind of idiot mixes up its and it’s?” then they’re not going to be nice to work with.
Editors who have a lot of pet peeves are similar to editors who edit “the way I write” in that they tend to over edit. They have a way they think things should be written, and they’ll edit that way even if their changes are unnecessary.
Disclaimer: This is not the same as hardass editors. These kinds of editors use their strict and blunt manner as sales points, and they target themselves to people who want to be raked over the coals. However, these editors still respect their authors’ writing, even though their bedside manner is a bit rough. And they make this clear from the beginning, even on their websites.
6. The editor is fast. Like, really really fast.
This flag tells us that the editor may not do a very thorough job on your book.
Editing is, by its nature, quite a slow process. It’s certainly slower than regular reading. In fact, my editing speed is about an eighth of my regular reading speed. It takes anywhere from 30 to 35 hours for me to edit a 50,000-word novel. Now, there’s a bit of leeway with this. Of course some editors are going to be faster than me, and some are going to be slower. But if you’ve got an editor claiming that they can get your 90,000-word book back to you in three days? Proceed with caution, or don’t proceed at all.
Editors who work this quickly often aren’t reading the whole novel at all. It’s called find-and-replace editing. What they do is search for commonly mistaken homonyms (its vs it’s, etc.) and common punctuation errors, and they fix just those parts, reading the bare minimum needed to make the fixes. That means a lot of stuff gets missed—things like inconsistent character details and style considerations. It also means that sometimes new mistakes get added because the editor doesn't have the context of the full novel.
If you’re looking for a truly thorough edit (something that looks like what you see in this blog post) that is done with care, then these kinds of editors will leave you disappointed. If you’re just looking for a quick, surface-level sweep, though, then they might be the right fit. Be sure to ask detailed questions about their editing process before you proceed.
Bonus: Other things to watch out for:
I didn’t think any of these needed their own section because they’re more general tips for any sort of industry, but I wanted to include them regardless.
Sales pressure. Of course editors want you to purchase their services, but if you’re feeling sales pressure to the point of discomfort, move on. This is especially true if the editor hasn’t even seen a sample of your work yet. This means they don’t care about your manuscript particularly, but just about getting you onto their roster.
Vagueness. If the editor won’t give you a direct quote, dodges your questions, and isn’t forthcoming with details about their editing or business, then walk away. Any businessperson who knows what they’re doing should be eager to answer your questions and make you feel at ease.
Lack of industry knowledge. I think this one speaks for itself, but if your editor doesn’t know basic things like what Track Changes is, you’ll want to move on.
These are, in my opinion, the top red flags to look out for as you’re searching for an editor. Any of these is a good enough reason to walk away on its own, but definitely run if you see more than one of these in one person!
Above all, talk with your potential future editor. Start a conversation with them, get them to do a sample edit, ask any questions you have. You want to work with someone you get along with, whose editing style works for you, and who you feel you can trust.
Think I’m the editor you’re looking for? Get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can discuss your project!