Before You Hire an Editor, Know What You Need

Edited Prose PathWhen you start thinking about hiring a freelance editor, you need to decide what type of editing you need right now. It’s also good to know what types of editing you’re going to want in the future; sometimes you can work with the same editor through the whole project, or you can at least work with people your editor refers you to.

You need to know what type of editing you need because editors are not wizards. You can’t take a book you think isn’t quite there, hand it off to an editor, and get it back magicked into complete perfection. Editors can help you improve your writing and hone your craft, but they can’t force absolute quality on you. The clearer you can be about the type of help you want, the better an editor can help you. An editor cannot effectively edit everything from commas to character arcs all in one go (if an editor says they can, what you’re going to get will be okay at best, and never excellent).

Writing a story or nonfiction piece means creating a path from beginning to end, and ideally that path will have scenic vistas and exciting sights to see along the way. Editing involves trying to make that path clear and enjoyable for your reader. If you take the path-making metaphor a bit farther, you’ll understand why you can’t have someone do story-level developmental editing and sentence-level copyediting at the same time. You don’t hire a lumberjack to pull weeds; you don’t hire a golf-course divot-fixer to move boulders. Understand the task you want to hire out so you can hire the right person.

Developmental Editing (Story Editing)

Developmental editing is large-scale editing. In this type of editing the editor makes sure there are no redwoods blocking the path you’re trying to create for the reader. It also includes pointing out any opportunities you may have missed. Perhaps you could have pulled more tension out of a character’s relationship; maybe you ignored an argument your opponents will make; then again, maybe you just have a big plot hole or lapse in logic. A developmental edit involves multiple editorial passes and a lot of editor–author interaction to hone and develop your plot or argument, tone, characterization, and more. This is the lumberjack-and-boulder-removal level of editing. If a developmental editor also tried to do copyediting along the way, he or she could easily miss some uncharacteristic dialogue because he or she was more focused on the punctuation of a nonrestrictive clause.

Learn more about developmental editing from this Looseleaf blog post. Another editing service that is related to developmental editing is the manuscript evaluation or critique.

Substantive Editing (Line Editing)

Substantive editing goes into more fine-tuning than moving boulders: it’s more like clearing the path of hedges and shrubbery and making sure it’s as direct as possible. Substantive edits cover organization, logical flow, word choice, internal consistency, and more. It can go as big as reordering paragraphs and as fine as tweaking a word to sustain your tone. Often a substantive edit can include a lot of copyediting because it is more sentence- and word-based than developmental editing. However, it should not be confused with a true copyedit. Substantive editing involves a lot of tweaking, reordering, and decision-making from the author. By the time the edit is done you’ll have changed a lot of text, and any time you make lots of changes you need to go back and make sure the details of those changes are clear.

Learn more about substantive editing from this Looseleaf blog post.


Copyediting looks at the potholes and pebbles along a manuscript’s path. The editor shifts word and punctuation debris so readers won’t twist their ankles while enjoying your story. Everything gets edited for grammar, spelling, punctuation, style, consistency, and adherence to your chosen citation format (this could be everything from the color of your characters’ eyes to how you capitalize certain words and phrases). Sometimes copyediting isn’t necessarily a right-or-wrong type of thing. There are some language scenarios in which you’ll have more that one option. It’s a copyeditor’s job to make sure you remain consistent in which option you choose.

Learn more about copyediting from this Looseleaf blog post.


Proofreading is a lot like copyediting in that it’s concerned with potholes and pebbles. However, a proofread is performed on the final version of a publication. It should always be done by someone who hasn’t previously edited your work (Looseleaf uses some trusted subcontractors to do the proofreading on projects I’ve already edited). The proofreader catches last-minute errors and items that you, the author, would change yourself if you had your attention drawn to them. Proofreaders also catch formatting errors like over-spaced lines, misplaced hyphens, widows and orphans, word stacks, and inconsistent typeface use. Anything that will disrupt the reader’s final experience gets caught during proofreading.

Learn more about proofreading from this Looseleaf blog post.

An Editorial Relationship

If you want a long-term working relationship with a particular editor, make sure you can get all the types of editing you’re going to need from that editor or from professional acquaintances of that editor. By working with one individual or a collection of close contacts, you’ll be better able to retain your vision and voice across the different stages of editing. For example, when I hire out final proofreading on projects I’ve edited, I review the proofreader’s changes to make sure they don’t go back on anything the author and I have previously talked about. This helps retain the author’s intentions and goals for the project.

Before you hire, know what you want. You’ll be happier with your final product and you’ll save a lot of negotiation with your editor if you can articulate what it is you want him or her to do.

Image by Rob Wiltshire via