So you’re writing your book and it’s going great guns, and now you’re thinking about engaging an editor to help you. But you’ve never met one before, and you’re not sure what information an editor needs when you get in touch with them.
Well, here’s how not to do it.
It’s a friendly, polite email, but it tells me absolutely nothing that will even begin to help me answer Amy’s questions.
There are many pieces of information an editor needs before they can decide whether they may be a good fit to work with you – everything from word count to audience, and lots in between. Let’s take a look at them now.
1 What is the word count of your writing?
This is my first indication of how long a project might take, how much I might charge for it, and whether there could be room in my schedule.
You might be tempted to tell me how many pages you’ve written, but that isn’t much help if I don’t know how many words are on your average page. There’s a traditional figure that some editors use that defines a page as 250 words, but depending on your page margins, line spacing, font and type size you could have upwards of 400 words on a page.
Not all pages are created equal, which is why I prefer to work with a word count. You can find it on the bottom left of your screen if you’re working in a Word document.
2 What file format have you used?
There’s no doubt that, for copyediting, Microsoft Word is the industry standard that the vast majority of editors work with. And if you’d like me to copyedit your writing this is the format I will use.
Of course, you may have a guide or report already designed and laid out as a PDF, and if you’re looking for a quality assurance review before printing then that’s perfect.
You may have copy in an Excel spreadsheet, or in Pages on your iPad, or already in your website’s content management system. Giving me a heads up about that helps me understand more about what you’re looking for and whether it’s a format I’m comfortable working with.
A word about Google Docs. Teams love working in Google Docs because it’s great for collaboration. But generally, once you’ve got an editor on board the tweaking of content has to stop while they do their job, otherwise you can get into a real pickle with multiple people revising the copy. So having a clear workflow in place that everyone respects is important if you’d like me to work in this format.
For longer documents my preference is to download the file from Google Docs, work on it as a Word document and then upload the edited version to your Google Drive folder. This is because there are tools and functions available to me in Word that make my work more efficient and accurate, but which I can’t access in Google Docs.
So file format is a key piece of information an editor needs – help me out by including it in your email!
3 What’s the topic?
This is so important. Many editors work on a variety of genres or subjects, but some are very specialised and work only in a particular niche. So your prospective editor needs to know up front what you’ve written about.
I’m a non-fiction editor, so if you’ve written fiction of any kind then I’m not the editor for you. (But I’d hope you’d have spotted that from my website and social media profiles!)
Within the vast category of non-fiction there are many specialisms, niches, nooks and crannies that editors find themselves focusing on because they have a strong interest, academic background or practical experience in the field. I specialise in education and business, very broadly speaking, but I don’t work with maths and science within those categories. Other than that I’m open to self-help, how-to, narrative non-fiction, allied health and all sorts of other categories under the non-fiction umbrella, so the more information you can give me, the better.
4 Have you already had some editorial input?
If your book has gone through other rounds of editing, this is information your editor needs to know. It helps me to understand whether what you’re asking me for matches what I think might be required.
So if you ask me for proofreading but I’m the first person to set eyes on your finished work, then I might be thinking that you may need a copyedit at the very least. This is not an absolute, of course, but it does mean I’ll want to dig a bit deeper for more information.
On the other hand, if you tell me that you’ve worked with developmental and line editors and had critiques from your writing group and beta readers, then I know you’ve had a significant amount of help by this point, and a copyedit or even a proofread is more likely to be appropriate.
5 What level of editing do you think you need?
This brings us to the next piece of information an editor needs – what type of editing you want. Although some authors are experienced and know what the different stages of editing are, not everybody does.
Whether you need developmental or structural editing to get the big picture clear, line editing to improve flow and pacing, copyediting to improve clarity, concision and consistency, or proofreading as the final quality assurance check pre-publication, I need to know what help you think you need.
But don’t get too hung up on the definitions – even editors struggle to agree on what exactly is involved at each stage. What’s more important is that you let me know what it is you want help with – what problems do you want me to fix? We can get into the details further down the line, but an indication of your requirements now helps me to get a clearer picture.
If you’re not sure about the different levels of editing, this episode of The Editing Podcast will help you get a clearer picture of what’s involved at each stage.
6 Who are you writing for?
Who is your audience? The mass market, a journal, the delegates at your speaking gigs, or just your family and friends? Are you trying to get a publishing contract or representation by a literary agent? This information helps me to work out whether the type of editing you’ve asked for is appropriate.
For example, let’s say you’ve written a memoir and asked me for a proofread, but you’ve not had any structural or line work done and just want it tidied up. Knowing that it’s just for distribution to your family and friends will help me to say yes.
On the other hand, if you were planning on self-publishing to the mass market I’d be much more likely to suggest that you commission other levels of editing first, before we get to the ‘tidying up’ stage, as your audience will expect that your book meets publishing industry standards and engages them without distractions. The last thing you want is for readers to get tripped up by poor structure, illogical sequencing, gaps in your argument or clunky writing – that’s just asking for negative reviews on Amazon.
And if you’re an academic writer, knowing what journal you’re planning on submitting to tells me that I need to familiarise myself with it’s submission requirements and preferred citation and referencing style, which affects how long the edit will take.
7 What is your timeframe for publication?
This is a biggie! When do you want the work completed by, and is there any flexibility? If your publication is tied to a particular event or a special date then it really helps me to know that. I can get booked up quite far in advance, so if I know the what-by-when of your publishing schedule I can quickly decide whether I can potentially fit you in, and so continue the conversation with you or refer you to a colleague. In this episode of The Editing Podcast, Louise Harnby and I ask How long does editing take? Why not give it a listen for a more detailed chat on the subject?
8 Have you written anything else?
If you’ve written other books, it helps me to see what your writing style is like and begin to work out how I can help you. Google Books and Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature are very handy in letting me have a quick peek at what you’ve already put out there. So don’t be afraid to include some links.
And if this is your first time publishing a book, you may have written in other formats – perhaps you have an established blog with years of content on it, or you’ve written guest blogs for others, or articles for online publications, or maybe you’ve created detailed lead magnets that are available from your website. Again, include the links to make it easy for me to find them.
Seeing what your writing style is like is another piece of the jigsaw falling into place.
9 Can you send me a sample of your project?
Before I can give you a quote I need to evaluate your writing and work out if we’re a good fit. Ideally I like to see your whole manuscript, or as much of it as possible. I don’t expect you to attach it to your initial email to me – in fact I won’t open an attachment in an email from someone I’ve had no previous contact with, so it’s actually best not to.
If you haven’t been in touch with me before, just let me know that you’re willing to send me your manuscript for evaluation and calculation of the project fee.
When you do send me your sample, if it’s not the whole manuscript please resist the temptation to send the section you’ve worked on the most. It’s not likely to be representative of the whole project and could lead to me giving you an inaccurate quote. If we do decide to work together, my terms and conditions allow for renegotiation of the fee if the final manuscript I receive is significantly different from the sample I based my quote on.
Apart from your writing style, as a non-fiction editor I’ll also be evaluating the different elements of your book as they can add significantly to the time needed for editing. Are there lots of figures, tables, lists, call-out boxes and other design elements that will need tagging and styling, for instance? Are there dozens (or hundreds) of footnotes and references? Is there an extensive bibliography to be checked and styled consistently? These are important factors that need to know about early on in our discussions.
10 How did you find me?
This isn’t strictly information an editor needs to help you directly, but it’s incredibly useful to know where my clients learned about me and my services. So when you get in touch, if you’d be good enough to let me know how you found me I’d be very grateful as it helps me to run my editing business more efficiently.
And actually, it can benefit you and other authors indirectly as if, for example, I’m getting lots of contacts from one particular source then I’m more likely to add useful information there that’s of help to you and others on your publishing journey.
If you’d like to understand more about what copyediting involves, I’ve written a guide on Everything you need to know about having your book copyedited, and I also have some guidance on Why I might not be the right editor for you.
How do I book in with you?
If you’re interested in working with me, I look forward to learning more about you and your book. Let’s get started! You can send me a message here and we can begin our conversation! Dont forget to include the information I’ve been talking about!
I’m not ready to work with you just yet. Can I stay in touch?
Of course! The best way to do that is sign up for The Editor’s Note here, and you’ll receive monthly updates from me.