Finding the Right Editor

It’s common for people on forums and Facebook groups that cater to writers to post here that they’re looking for an editor — and many raise their hands to offer their services. That’s great… if they are the right editor for you and your book.

There’s a saying that being badly published is worse than not being published at all. The same is true of editing. There are no industry or legal requirements that control the knowledge and experience someone must have to call themselves an editor. This means there are “editors” soliciting you who have absolutely no qualifications. None.

Therefore, the onus is on YOU to determine if the person you’re considering hiring is actually capable of doing what you’re hiring them to do. When you reach out to an editor, you need to know what you’re looking for, and you need to know the questions to ask to determine if this is the right editor for you.

Know what you’re looking for

First, know what type of editing you’re looking for — developmental (story, not writing), line (writing style/choices), or copy (mistakes, proof reading).

  • Not all editors do every type.
  • Each type costs a different amount.
  • If your book is a mess, expect to pay a lot more.
  • Expect them to want to see a chapter from the book, so they can evaluate the amount of work to be done.
  • “Bargain” prices are usually offered by people who are new to editing. Do you really want your book to be their learning experience?

Ask the right questions

Here are some questions to ask the potential editor:

  • What’s your experience editing books in THIS genre?
  • When could you start? (Good editors often have a waiting list of several months.)
  • How long do you anticipate the job will take?
  • Are you a native speaker of the language this book is written in?
  • How did you learn to edit?
  • Have you worked for any traditional publishers? If so, which ones?
  • Which stylebook do you use?

Get a spec edit and references

Ask for a “spec edit” of a couple of pages or chapter to see their style. Also, ask for references in YOUR book’s genre:

  • Published references. Check out the books on Amazon.
  • “In your genre” is critical for dev edits especially. Different genres have different requirements, and if your editor doesn’t know that, they can do more harm than good.
  • Follow up with the writers of those books. Confirm that the editor you’re considering is indeed the editor who worked on the book.
  • Can’t get in touch with those writers? Big red flag!
  • No books edited by them on Amazon? Big red flag!

All editing and all editors are NOT created equal. Do your due diligence.

My personal recommendation?

I’m pursuing traditional publishing, so I haven’t hired a freelance publisher. I did, however, pay for an editorial assessment of the novel I’m currently querying. My choice was an editor at Reedsy. They are high-end, qualified professionals, many with experience in the traditional publishing industry. 

the right editor

The Art of Writing Professionally (part 3)

Before I get into this, some background. I am not a full-time writer, at least not of the type this article is discussing. I have had a nonfiction book traditionally published, had a screenplay optioned, and am querying a novel. So I've written at a professional level but not made it my full-time job. I was asked several years ago to write this article for an event on Wattpad.

Part 1, part 2.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you might have this stuff necessary to become a professional writer. But do you want to?

This Life is WORK

As I mentioned in the earlier parts of this series, professional writing isn’t all about getting that exciting first draft onto the page. It’s not unusual for the editing phase to take one, two, three times the amount of time (or more) that writing the first draft took. It can be a slog. You will get tired of it. You will get frustrated with it. You will have lots and lots and lots of shiny new ideas that begs you to spend time on them instead.

A professional writer doesn’t have the luxury of bouncing from project to project just because he’s bored. Although many professionals may have more than one project going at the same time, those projects are usually in different phases. One might be in the planning phase. Another might be in a heavy write/rewrite phase. Still another might be in pre-or post-production.

What professional writers really have is deadlines. Even self-published writers have deadlines. Audiences for self-published writers expect frequent content, and they expected on a consistent, predictable basis. If you have promised books on March 15, June 15, September 15, and December 15, your audience will NOT be happy if you get distracted by other projects or by real-life.

Day in the Life

So what does a day in the life of a professional writer look like? The answer to that is as varied as the writers themselves. Most have some combination of time spent writing, editing, marketing/promoting, and managing business issues, which range from choosing a cover designer, building the final digital file of the latest book, negotiating subsidiary rights, and managing distribution. Most professional writers will tell you that far too much of their time is spent on marketing and managing their business, and far too little is spent doing what they love, which is writing.

Professional writing is a job. Professional writing is work.

It’s also important to mention that professional writers almost never start off working exclusively as a writer. Most have full-time jobs or full-time families. That means there are far fewer hours available for writing, editing, marketing, and managing business issues. That means writing is an even smaller part of your day. When you do write, you have to write efficiently. You no longer have the luxury of writer’s block. If you are a pantser, you may find deadlines force you to work with an outline.

Being a professional writer sometimes means you don’t get to write only what you love. You have to study the market. If you are a traditionally published writer, you will find your agent and your editor have a great deal of influence on what and how you write. If you are self-published, you may find that you have to change what you write in order to appeal to enough readers to make enough sales.

No Guarantees

Probably the most sobering fact about writing professionally is that no matter how hard you work, you cannot guarantee you will become successful. The vast majority of traditionally-published writers do not earn a living wage. There are probably more self-published writers who are making a living wage these days, but those writers are a tiny percentage of the writers who self-publish. The percentage of self-published writers who are financially successful are those who “self-publish well.”

Self-publishing well requires a financial investment in your book. Professional writers put out professional products. Period. They do not EVER put work up for sale that has not been written to a professional standard. They invest in a professional, genre-appropriate cover and professional editing. Yes, this costs money. Sit on your heels and save your money. Running a business requires capital.


Many, many people dream of becoming professional writers. This is an incredibly exciting time to be a writer, and forming a career around something you love and are passionate about is a dream-worthy endeavor. 

The day-to-day reality of being a professional writer is not the romantic life seen in the movies. It’s not a life of sitting on the veranda type, type, typing away day and night. It take a lot of skill, and more than that, it takes a lot of work.

Are you up for the challenge?

a day in the life

The Art of Writing Professionally (part 2)

Before I get into this, some background. I am not a full-time writer, at least not of the type this article is discussing. I have had a nonfiction book traditionally published, had a screenplay optioned, and am querying a novel. So I've written at a professional level but not made it my full-time job. I was asked several years ago to write this article for an event on Wattpad.

Read part 1 of this article here.

In this part of the article, let’s look at some critical non-writing skills for those who want to become professional writers.

Professional Skills (cont’d)

You must be widely read.

Read every single day. It is as important as writing. Read good books and bad books, genre books and literary books. Read in your genre and out of your genre. Read best sellers and prize winners and classics. Read for pleasure, but also learn to read critically and analytically. Reading is vital to professional writers for several reasons:

  • First, reading is a critical part of the writing business. Professional writers read widely in their genre, because they need to know what’s being published, what’s selling well, what tropes are required, what tropes have been overdone.
  • Second, reading improves vocabulary. Although a thesaurus and dictionary should be well-worn, well-used tools of any writer, reading teaches you how and when to use those words.
  • Third, reading creates an understanding of what good writing “sounds” like. If you’ve ever sought advice because your sentences felt too choppy or been concerned that your pace was too fast or too slow, you developed these instincts by reading. (If, on the other hand, you don’t notice these things and a reader or editor brought it to your attention, that’s a sign you need to read more!)
  • Fourth, reading helps teach the craft of writing fiction by providing successful examples.
You must study the industry.

If you want to become a professional writer, you must study the industry and stay up-to-date on what’s happening within it.

Professional writers are running a business. You must understand the marketplace for your business. This includes both the traditional publishing industry and the self-publishing industry, regardless of whether you plan to publish only one way or the other.

Honestly, anyone who says, “I will only publish x way,” is already making a poor business decision. Some books are best suited for traditional publishing in today’s market. Other books are best suited for self-publishing. If you do not study the industry, you won’t know what’s best for your book at the time you release it.

When you’re ready to make the move to writing professionally, you need solid business skills.

Like it or not, you will have to become a savvy marketer. You will also have to understand literary contracts, rights and how to license them, and taxes.

Most writers hate this aspect, and many try to ignore it. Do so at your peril.

If you want to make money, you must approach writing in a professional manner, which means treating your career like the business it is.

Where do you learn these skills?

Do you need to major in creative writing in college? Writing is a career that does not require a college education. In fact unless you are interested in literary fiction, you may find that college writing courses hinder your goals, especially if you’re interested in writing for a commercial market.

There are myriad resources available to help you develop all of the skills required. Some are free, and some are not. If you want writing to become a profession, then expect to invest in it. Some of the resources you should cultivate or take advantage of include:

  • books on craft
  • traditionally-published books (which serve as examples)
  • industry blogs
  • critique groups
  • beta readers
  • writing conferences
  • writing classes
  • writers organizations
  • contests that offer feedback

Online writing sites are a great place to post work, get encouragement, and make friends. Do not mistake the comments on those stories for quality, critical feedback. Yes, you will occasionally have readers who offer quality feedback, but they are rare.

Do not limit yourself to those sites, and do not fall into the trap of believing the encouraging comments you’ve received mean you’re ready to publish or step into the world of professional writing.

In the conclusion of this article, we’ll look at the life of a professional writer.

non-writing skills

The Art of Writing Professionally (part 1)

Before I get into this, some background. I am not a full-time writer, at least not of the type this article is discussing. I have had a nonfiction book traditionally published, had a screenplay optioned, and am querying a novel. So I've written at a professional level but not made it my full-time job. I was asked several years ago to write this article for an event on Wattpad.

Before we can talk about how to become a professional writer, we have to define what a professional writer is. Is every writer who publishes a novel a professional writer? I don’t think so. Many writers publish a novel or two “just for fun.” Although they might fantasize about selling a million copies or making a lot of money, they don’t study the craft of writing, study the industry, or invest in a professional product. 

A professional writer, on the other hand, does all of those things and more.

By definition, professional writers are people who approach writing as a profession – whose goal is to obtain all or a significant part of their income through writing. Becoming a professional writer requires the same amount of study, time, effort, and even money that it takes to become any other sort of serious professional. It is not an easy path, and it’s not a guaranteed one, no matter how hard you work.

Let’s take a deeper look at how to become a professional writer and what the life of a professional writer is really like.

Professional Skills (Writing Related)

Writing is a profession build on words. It is the art of using words carefully and precisely to convey meaning and evoke emotions. Those who aim to be professional writers, then, need to master that art and the skills that comprise it.

You must learn grammar. 

You need to not only know the rules of grammar and how to apply them, but you need to understand the principles underlying those rules. Rules can be broken. The underlying principles cannot. Until you are able to break the rules without violating the underlying principles, you are not ready to break the rules.

When you eschew capital letters or choose to format dialogue incorrectly, you are not being edgy or pushing boundaries. You’re confusing your reader and marking yourself as an amateur.

You must study the craft of writing.

Writing is not only an art, it is also a craft. There are hundreds of books written about the craft of writing fiction. Some are general, and some focus on specific topics, such as structuring a novel, structuring a scene, writing dialogue, creating effective description and settings, or building realistic characters. Some books are better than others, but all have tidbits to teach.

Anyone who is serious about becoming a professional writer should be building a library of craft-related books, studying them, and practicing the techniques found within. Some techniques will resonate; some will not. But your skill and knowledge will increase.

You must write—and get feedback.

There is an old adage that the first million words you write are for practice. The idea behind it is that you have to write and write and write in order to become a good writer. That is only partially true. You do have to write and write and write, but you also have to get feedback on that writing, and you have to learn to use that feedback to make your writing better.

If you don’t get quality feedback, it is entirely likely that what you write after a million words is no better than what you wrote in the first thousand. Professional writers seek critical feedback.

You must learn to edit.

But… But… no one can edit their own work! That’s what editors are for!

Yes and no. There comes a point in polishing a final draft that every writer needs to hand off the manuscript to a second pair of eyes because it’s true, it’s nearly impossible to catch all of your own mistakes.

That, however, is not the editing I’m talking about. Creative writing – that first draft that gets the story on the page – is only about 10% of the “writing” involved in producing a complete and polished manuscript. The other 90% is editing.

Editing is more than copy editing, more than removing redundant words, more than tinkering with sentences. Editing includes analyzing character arcs and plot arcs, evaluating what should and should not be included in the final draft, and tearing a draft apart and rebuilding something stronger. Editing is far more difficult than writing the first draft.

Professional writers are made in the editing phase, NOT the writing phase.

In the next part of this article, we’ll look at the non-writing-specific skills you need to be a professional writer.

writing professionally

Fun Q&A from Kate Cavanaugh

On YouTube, Kate Cavanaugh did a Q&A with questions from her writing community. At the end she challenged her viewers to answer the same questions.

My Q&A responses

  • How do you shelve your passion projects that you know will never “make it” but that constantly invade your mind? I take notes on them, but don’t write them. 🙁 I play the story out in my mind as I go to sleep at night. I enjoy the story; it lives in my mind; but it never sees the page.
  • How do you stop thinking “I must make money from this or it’s a wasted effort”? I don’t think that exactly. I think that non-commercial projects take time and energy from commercial ones. And I pretty much don’t try to stop that thought.
  • Candidly, how many hours per day do you write? I count words, not hours. 500 words on workdays. 1000 on non-work days. I’m employed full-time and work a fair amount of overtime.
  • Why do you want to be published? (Fame, money, success, or something to say?) I don’t know. I’ve known since third grade that I was a writer, and being published is just part of the definition in my mind.
  • If you only had 3 days to write 80K words, how would you do it? I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Not kidding. Okay, I take that back. I would write nonfiction on clicker training. I know the subject inside and out and could vomit words at a ridiculous rate. But I expect I would still fail.
  • How do you overcome crippling perfectionism? I don’t. It’s part of who I am. I am a plotter, though, so there’s literally zero chance that a scene I’ve written will be thrown out.
  • Do you enjoy death scenes? HUH YOU MONSTER? Shrug. Depends on who I’m killing off.
  • How do you find the balance between reading, writing, and other hobbies/obligations? Priorities. I set a low word count goal, and once I reach it, I’m allowed to stop. I try to do those words early in the day, so I’m not torn between writing and other activities.
  • What was the benchmark you used for when to quit your corporate job and rely on writing? How should I calculate mine? I just wrote a blog post that talked about this.
  • How do you deal with Impostor Syndrome? (How often do you deal with it?) I just keep pushing on. I feel like an imposter in EVERYTHING I do. If it stopped me, I couldn’t even work.