Questions to Ask Your Editor Before You Spend a Dime

For the most part, you have two choices when it comes to getting professional editing for your book. Option one is to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a solid, professional editor who will find every typo and awkward sentence. Option two is to spend a fraction of that on Fiverr and hope for the best, often hiring two editors for less than the pro would cost, and trust that nothing major would get missed by both of them. 

Before you do either, though, you should ask the editor a list of simple but important questions. These will keep expectations clear, and save you from paying for a bad job done by somebody who’s knowledge of grammar or attention to detail aren’t what you need them to be. 

Question 1. What Kind of Editing Is Your Specialty?

One of life’s great ironies of the publishing world is the fact that, in an industry based on communication, the word “Editor” can mean so many different kinds of things. Some of the most common definitions include:

  • Somebody who proofreads sentences and words for small errors.
  • Somebody who looks at your sentences and paragraphs for flow and elegance.
  • Somebody who gauges your story as a whole for big-picture issues.
  • The person in charge of a writing project.
  • The executive in charge of a publication.

Most of the time, you’ll be dealing with one of the first two. Make sure you know the difference in what you want, then find out which kind any editor is before paying them. You want the right person for the right job. 

Question 2. Can I See a Before and After Sample of Your Work?

This question weeds out three kinds of bad editors. Those who are simply bad at their jobs won’t want to show you any samples because they’re afraid of what you’ll see. Those who are talented but inexperienced won’t have amassed a collection of solid samples yet. Finally, editors with unprofessional work habits might have spent many years never putting together a strong portfolio. 

All three are at best a red flag. If the answer is no, you’re better off hiring somebody else. 

Question 3. What Are the Names of Three References?

This is simple, and like the work samples above a refusal should send you running to another editor. Even a brand-new editor getting their first assignments will have samples from nonprofessional gigs like academic papers or a favor done for a friend. But there is a downside.

Nobody in any industry is going to provide a reference who was unhappy with their work. The editor will cherry-pick their happiest clients for you to talk with. Beat that by asking the clients who else they know the editor has done business with that. Repeat for three to five layers, and you’ll find somebody who had a less ideal experience. Listen to what they say, then ask the editor about it. 

You’re not looking for a professional with 100% customer satisfaction. Those don’t exist. You’re looking for the kinds of trouble their clients have had, and more importantly what the editor has to say about those problems. 

Question 4. What Do You Charge?

It amazes me how often people put off asking this question, but it’s an important one to get out of the way early. If they’re too expensive, you want to know that as soon as possible so you don’t waste your time. If they’re too cheap, that’s a warning sign the quality might be substandard. 

Ask this early, and find out how they calculate charges. Is it a flat rate? Price per word? If per word, is that words of the original manuscript or words once they’re done with it? Do they have extra charges for certain tasks, and what are those? Get all the details you can, so there are no surprises on the other end. 

Question 5. How Do You Structure Turn-In?

Find out how they like to turn in work. Do they want to turn in a bit at a time, or all at once? Are they open to a midpoint checkin to make sure everything’s up to par and there were no miscommunications? Find out what file type they plan to hand over, and whether they’ll send that as an email attachment or upload it into cloud storage.

There’s no real right or wrong answer to this question, but their ideas should match yours. At the very least, you should have a clear picture of what they plan to do, so you can check to see it’s done and make sure your next steps have all the software and memberships you’ll need to access the finished product. 

Question 6. How Do You Structure Payment?

This question is much like the one just above, in that there aren’t any truly wrong answers. What’s important is that you both understand and agree on how and when payment is due so there are no hard feelings or problems as the work is finished. 

Be wary of editors who ask for all the money up front. This isn’t always a sign of a scam, but does give you very little power in the event of poor work or missed deadlines. Instead, negotiate a multi-stage payment. Half up front and half on completion is common, but you can further subdivide if that makes sense for everybody. 

Question 7. Can You Meet My Deadline?

If you know when you want the work finished, it’s smart to ask directly if the editor has room in their schedule to meet that deadline. Like many questions here, this one learns more than one thing. 

Naturally, if they say they can’t you need to find somebody who can. Or (and this is often wise), adjust your schedule so you can work with an editor honest enough to turn away work and not make an empty promise. 

Listen to how they answer this question. An immediate “yes” without pause for thought could warn you the editor either doesn’t have much work, or is willing to overcommit. Both are red flags. Contrariwise, if the candidate opens up a calendar and does a little mental math before giving an answer, that’s a sign of a real professional gauging their capabilities honestly.

Question 8. What Happened the Last Time You Couldn’t Meet a Deadline?

Be suspicious if somebody tries to tell you it has never happened. Any professional who’s worked for more than a few years has had something go wrong on one assignment or another. You’re not looking for a perfect record.

Instead listen for what they did. How quickly did they inform their client? How resourceful was their solution? Did they deal with the problem honestly and respectfully, and keep any new arrangements to the letter? A perfect record is no sign of a real professional, but what happens when things go wrong often is.

Question 9. What is Your Cancellation Policy?

About 60% of editors you speak with won’t have an official cancellation policy. They’re one-person shops who work out details like that person to person. Don’t worry if they hem and haw while answering. Instead, worry if they sound like they’re not interested in a cancellation option, or they promise 100% satisfaction every time. 

Those are red flags that the editor will be unwilling to walk away from the project if things aren’t working. You want to have that option, without losing out on too much of the fee, if you’re simply unhappy partway through the process. A good editor will understand this is realistic, and make a good-faith arrangement with you.

Question 10. What Is Your Favorite Kind of Project to Work On?

This is one of the most fun questions on the list. Ask the question, then let the editor ramble on for as long as they like. Anybody who’s been in the business for a while has a favorite kind of project, or a single project they have great memories of.

You don’t need to hear any particular answer, but listen for the passion with which they speak, and the details of the project. How closely related is it to your gig? Do you think they can capture similar feelings toward working with you?

Question 11. Tell Me About the Worst Gig You Ever Took?

Much like the last question, you’re not listening for the words in this answer. You’re listening for tones and theme. Does the candidate seem bitter and angry? Or do they describe the situation professionally, as a series of problems that got solved? What lessons did they learn from the experience?

More importantly, listen for how they assign blame. If they tell the story like everybody was at fault but themselves, that tells you something about how they work and take responsibility. If they tell it as a situation where everybody made mistakes, and pitched in to fix them, you’re dealing with a candidate showing real potential.

Question 12. How Did You End Up in This Line of Work?

Here’s where they talk about their background, experience, and qualifications. Take notes about the specifics, for comparison to other candidates. Beyond that, listen closely for any specific things that might make them better or worse suited for working on your project. Do they have experience or interest in your topics already? Do they come from a pursuit that has a bias against some of your key points?

Follow up with two or three leading questions, and see where the conversation  takes you. You will be surprised how much you learn.

Question 13. What’s Your Best Strength As an Editor?

You should come to this stage in your writing with a solid understanding of where your self-editing game is weakest. The best editor for the job should be strongest in exactly those areas. 

This is maybe the simplest question on the list. Listen carefully to the answers.

Question 14. What’s Your Biggest Weakness As an Editor?

You want to pay attention for two factors for this question. The first is the flip side of the strengths answer above: does the editor have weaknesses that might miss the effects of your weaknesses. If you’re both bad with commas, you want a different editor. The same goes for passive voice, or sticking to a schedule. You want to hire somebody who shores you up where your skills sag.

Also pay attention for the kind of weakness they offer. If they say something like “I try too hard”, or “I’m a perfectionist”, steer clear. This is a dishonest answer given because they don’t want to talk about what they really are bad at. It shows either a willingness to fib to you, are an unwillingness to be honest with themselves. Either way, it’s a red flag. 

Question 15. What Style Guides Do You Use?

You might be attached to Chicago Manual of Style, APA, or some other specific style manual for your writing. You might not. If you are, then making sure your editor is familiar with that guide is vitally important. You don’t want to work with somebody who needs to learn your set of rules. 

If you’re not attached to a specific style, still ask this question. Listen for how familiar and comfortable they are with different styles. It will tell you a lot about their level of experience and professionalism.

Question 16. Tell Me About Your Process?

Don’t ask this question and wait for a perfect answer that matches how you would edit your manuscript if you were doing the job. It’s not your place to micromanage your editor. Instead, listen for how they describe their process. 

Does their description show they keep regular work hours? That they’ve thought about their process meaningfully and made adjustments as they’ve learned? Are they flexible when they need to be? Do they seem too attached to a specific mode of work, and likely to break down if they can’t use it? What you’re really asking here is about their approach to work and organization, and if it’s one you can trust. 

Wrapping up…

We encourage you to print these out as a guide the next time you hire an editor, or to copy and paste them into an email. Watch both for what they give as answers, and how they seem to feel about being asked. An editor who gives all the right responses but who seems put out at the interview process might be a worse candidate for somebody who give mostly right answers but seems more game and open to collaboration. 

If you want to learn more about working with an editor, check out training #242 with Pamela Cangioli from Proofed to Perfection.

Pro Tip:

Want to get the best return on your editing investment? Make sure your book is in the best shape you can possibly make it before handing it off, so that they can focus on what they do best and not spend their time recommending fixes to things you could have done yourself first.

In training #470 (Book Editing for Authors), we help you figure out what kind of editing you need in the first place amongst the various different types, as well as how to go about doing a self-edit for each style yourself. You may also want to check out training #387 (A.I. Editing Software for Authors), which goes over some tools you can take advantage of first.