Freelance Editors: A Reemerging Profession

By D.T. Conklin

This might be a departure from other AISFP articles, but I’m new, so I hope you’ll all forgive me.  With the explosion of Kindles and Nooks, the self-publishing arena has grown in leaps and bounds.  Some people think that’s cooler than a cube of ice; others are a little more leery.  However, with that expansion, we’ve got to reexamine an old element in the game of publishing: freelance editors.

Some established writers fear freelance editors.  Let’s face it; they’ve acquired a bad reputation.  Too many scam artists and too many rip-offs have turned them into something like used car salesmen.  Sure, they’ll sell you something, but is it worth buying?  What if that axle is a little loose?  Did they even tighten the lug-nuts?  The bastards always forget to tighten the lug-nuts.

In addition, many editors at publishing houses frown on the use of freelance editors.  I’ve experienced situations at conventions where, as soon as I mentioned I use a freelance editor, they’ve almost run.  In many ways, they have some points—freelance editors aren’t always qualified, the advice they give is subject to scrutiny, and no one ever knows if they have their client’s best interest in mind.  An editor at a publishing house needs to make certain their writer is successful; their livelihood depends on it.

However, this particular contributor to AISFP believes there might be one or two decent freelance editors out there.  Maybe.  At least one, I’d guess.  His name is Lane Diamond and, after the quick stab of a red-hot poker, I’ve convinced him to offer some thoughts.

DTC: How long have you been a freelance editor, and how did you get into it?  Did you have experience as an editor prior to going freelance?

LD: I became a freelance editor in late 2008.  I got into it after developing a medical disability that made it impossible for me to continue working in the “real world.”  I chose to pursue it after a couple members of my writing group, upon reviewing the detailed feedback I provided them – and I mean detailed – asked if I’d ever considered being an editor.  I hadn’t… until that moment.

DTC: What authors/works have you edited that went on to be published?

LD: This is a tough one for me.  First, I haven’t been at it that long.  A couple projects are only now getting to the point where the authors are ready to pursue publishing options.  A couple others are still several months off.  A couple others have been there for a year or less, but have found it a difficult and frustrating slog.  I probably don’t have to tell your readers just how tight the publishing market has been these past couple of years.  Devastating economic times have been hard on the industry, making an already daunting process for first-time authors damn near impossible.  Those clients are hoping, as I’m hoping, that the market is poised to recover in the near – very near – future.

I have two former clients who went on to self-publish.  However, because they’re former clients, and because they chose to ignore a rather high percentage of my editing advice [insert sigh here], I’m not particularly anxious to attach my name and reputation to their work.

This will be different with my current projects, as my active clients are not only more responsive, but also more willing to allow me a final review of their work.  We occasionally agree to disagree, of course; that happens in any author/editor relationship.  Nonetheless, I’ll be thrilled to attach my name – if they’ll let me – to their works when they publish.

DTC: What kind of education do you have?

LD: I have a college education, but in Business, not English.  I also focused heavily on Math and Science.  So naturally, I became an editor!  I’m primarily self-educated in this arena.  I’ve read approximately sixty books on the subject over the years – still have about forty-five of them on my shelf – and more magazine and online articles than I could possible recount.  I have, you might say, been forged in the fires.  (Oh no!  Passive Voice!)

DTC: As the number of self-published authors grows, do you see an increase in the demand for freelance editors?  Does this scare you, excite you, maybe even bore you?

LD: I’m afraid my crystal ball remains a bit murky.  The problem with self-publishing is that anyone with a checkbook or a credit card can do so.  They needn’t pass any scrutiny, or meet any standards, in advance of publishing.  As a result, and let’s just be honest about this, the vast majority of self-published pieces are… well, not so good.  While many of them may be decent storytellers, few of them are writers.

Yet I think even self-publishers can be professional in their pursuits; indeed, they should be.  And that means having their work reviewed independently prior to publication.  However, I’m not sure how many will be willing to incur that expense.

Every serious writer needs an editor, for the same reason that even lawyers need independent representation when they’re on trial.  We writers simply cannot be openly objective about our own “case.”  This is a long discussion, and perhaps better suited for a different forum.  However, if I may use a metaphor that I revisit regularly: It’s rather as the old saw tells us, “Forest?  What forest?  I don’t see no stinkin’ forest.  All those damn trees are in the way!”

We writers just can’t see past our own trees.  It’s psychological.  It comes with being human; nothing we can do about that.

DTC: Personally, I think the demand will grow.  This scares me because of all the scams out there.  Writers will be given bad advice, perhaps even horrible advice.  So many writers—in the hope of that tin box with the shiny paint—will be handed a car without tight lug-nuts.  They’ll be expected to drive that car.  They won’t even know what’s missing.  They’ll merrily motor along, crash and burn, and everyone will mourn their failure.  Oops.


So, what makes someone qualified to be a freelance editor?  Do they need to have worked at an established publishing house to qualify?

LD: I feel this way about all endeavors in life: they need to possess the necessary skills.  Period.  Will you know that because he worked at a publishing house?  Will you know if the publishing house fired him for incompetence?  Experience and references are the optimal guides, of course, but there just might be a gem hiding out there, waiting for you.  Yet how can you know?

This is the reason (even though I now have references to fall back on) that I provide a risk-free sample edit to clients; indeed, I insist on it.  I want prospective clients to see for themselves precisely what I have to offer.  It’s the only way you, as that prospective client, can be certain of the editor’s skills in most cases.  If a freelance editor refuses to do a sample edit for you, of at least 1,000 words, before requiring money from you, run for the hills!

Once you receive the sample edit, let your reason and instinct guide you.  Not every editor is a good fit for every writer.  Find one that works for you.  Hire the editor for just a short, continuing segment, in order to minimize your financial risk.  Gradually build up to the project, until you’re completely comfortable with the editor.  Beware an editor who won’t work with you on that basis.

Finally, if at any point you think the two of you are just not on the same page, go your separate ways.  I’ve “divorced” three clients because we simply could not agree on too many points.  Were they wrong or was I wrong?  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  As I said, not every fit is a good one.

DTC: What services should a freelance editor offer?  Should they stick to just the basics—put a comma there, capitalize this, use the correct form of “lay?”  Or should they address strength of prose, characterization, and plot?  How in-depth should authors expect editors to go?

LD: There’s no easy answer to that question, because every writer brings a different skill-set to the table.  Is your natural word usage at the eight-grade level?  College freshman?  Fifth grade?  How good – or bad – is your basic grammar?  How well do you understand structure?  Do you even know what a Present Participle is?  Or Passive Voice?  Finally, given that money is always an issue, how much are you willing to invest?  As in any other business, you get what you pay for.

I tailor every editing job to the specific client, so I don’t have a single formula.  However, I expect to see the most common issues, in varying degrees, from every client: improper grammar (Americans are truly weak in this regard), confused punctuation, wordiness and repetition, too many weak verbs, passive voice, weak and indirect sentence structure, excessive participles (“ING”s), excessive and weak dialogue tags, rambling (dull) dialogue.  Additionally, I expect most writers to underutilize specific tools, such as building tension through structure, and using only occasional monologue (silent dialogue) to ramp up the emotion of specific scenes.

I concentrate on prose first (the trees), and deal with the essential story elements such as plot, characterization and setting (the forest) later.  It’s simple: No one is going to be able to enjoy your forest, anyway, if she can’t get past your trees.  Bad writing will cause a reader to put down a piece long before finishing, so let’s first address that.  We must walk a gray line together, as writer and editor, in this regard.  It is not my job to convert your voice into my voice.  It is my job to help you elevate (evolve) your own voice in a manner with which you’re comfortable.  If, for whatever reason, you can’t bring yourself to do that, I’m not the editor for you.

As to those essential story elements, these are tricky for an editor.  It’s not my job to write your story for you.  In this area, I can only tell you the points where most readers are likely to get hung-up, and suggest you cut/add/change to fix the problem.  As editor, I can tell you a specific part is boring, or inconsistent, or uncharacteristic, or insufficient in detail, or confusing.  Only you, the writer, can create the fix.  I would surely write the story differently than you do, but it’s not my story.  It’s yours, and I must respect that as your editor.  If I can’t bring myself to do that, I’m not the editor for you.

I let these three High Commandments of writing guide my efforts: show, don’t tell; keep it strong and direct; and make every word count.

DTC: Now, this is where it gets a touch muddled.  Many of us know the dangers of scam artist agents, but what should writers watch out for when shopping for a freelance editor?

LD: It’s simple, really.  Get references.  If the editor has done a good job with previous or active clients, some of them will be willing to say so.  Even then, demand a sample edit, and then judge for yourself.

However, you don’t want to pass on a possible gem just because you happen to be her first client.  In this case, you can do two things to protect yourself, or at least maximize the likelihood of success:

A)    Ask to see some of the editor’s own writing.  (I’ll let you in on a little secret: every editor writes, even if just in the closet in the dead of night.)  If she can’t write, she probably can’t edit.  She may be a better editor than writer (often happens), as the requirements are slightly different, but she should be a proficient, and technically sound, writer.  At the very least, if her grammar is poor or she can’t spell, take a pass.

B)    In lieu of references, ask for an extended sample edit—up to 2,500 words, for example.  And make it the first 2,500 words of your story/article/book.  If you want her to address story elements, she’ll need to start at the… well, at the start.

My success depends on your success.  That should be the attitude – always – that your editor brings to the process.

DTC: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to throw in that I haven’t mentioned?

LD: Just this: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy.

I’d like to give a big thanks to Lane Diamond for taking the time to answer these questions.  I’d also like to state that no salesmen were harmed in the writing of this article, and some of them are probably decent fellows.

Thank you.

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  1. Recently (early Jan) I was at a holiday gathering of a Philadelphia based writers group. The include, in their small (they have a upper # limit to membershiip) group, national best sellers, that is as far as I will say.

    One of the published, but far less well known of the group commented in my hearing that she was actually told by a major publishing house to use a freelance editor (and they gave her a name) and THEN resubmit her current manuscript. (The use of this freelance editor would be an out of pocket $3500 to her.) This… confused her, and the rest of us.

    (Caveat.. I am not a published author, or even a writer. I live with one. And sorry.. I will not state the names of the house, the writer, or the freelance editor in question.)

  2. Shaun Farrell says

    That is quite odd, Wrenn. I’ve never heard of a major publisher doing that. I wonder if it happens often.

  3. Wow, I’ve never heard of that either. Normally, I’ve heard the exact opposite. From what I understand of editors at publishing houses, they realllllly don’t want another editor–especially a freelancer–to touch a potential manuscript. What you described sounds almost like a scam. Like Shaun, I’d love to know if anyone else has any experiences like this.

    Thanks for chiming in, Wrenn!

  4. Just a quick little “for the sake of full disclosure” comment. Lane Diamond is also D.T. Conklin’s editor.

    Great interview, btw!

  5. A great article. I believe that the recent boom in self/indie publishing will drive a strong need for freelance editors. Also, the great upheaval at major publishing houses has freed up a lot of good talent. Authors should take advantage of this, and start working with editors who, under different circumstances, would never be available. Further, there are many published writers who also make themselves available as freelance editors. With a little research, it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone you can work with.

    However, make no mistake. Good advice is not free. So anyone going down this path should be ready to pay. And keep in mind that there is no path to immediate fame. Hiring an editor, one that you truly can learn from, will make you a better writer. Making it to the big time? Well, for that you must invest blood, sweat, and tears. Oh, and get some luck. Big basketfuls of the stuff 🙂


  1. […] ALL professional writers use editors; those who don’t remain amateurs.  And in this new environment, freelance editors are popping up all over the place.  Be creative in your dealings with them.  Pay a flat, up-front fee for the service, or pay a commission of sales, or offer some combination of both.  Surely, you’ll find someone who will work with you in an affordable, mutually beneficial way.  (For more on how to choose between them, see this article: Freelance Editors: A Reemerging Profession.) […]

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