Books elicit different responses from different people, so it’s no wonder that the feedback we receive from critique groups and beta readers can be varied and even contradictory. As an indie author , it can be hard to discern good advice from bad or know whose feedback to trust—especially when that feedback is yanking your story in different directions. You can make change after change, only to find that your critique partners are never quite satisfied. If you’ve reached this stage with your work in progress, it might be time to seek the advice of a developmental editor.
Unlike a line editor (who focuses on the granular details of your story, like grammar, sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, tense, fact checking, and voice) or a proofreader (who is usually the final set of eyes and is on the lookout for any mistakes that were overlooked during previous rounds of editing), a developmental editor focuses on big-picture items, like plot and characterization.
I hired a developmental editor before publishing my novel, Empty Arms , and the experience was transformational. With the help of my critique partners, I’d taken my manuscript as far as I could on my own, but something wasn’t quite right and none of us could put our finger on it. After my editor read my manuscript and compiled her notes, we met at a café in upstate New York to discuss her feedback. She showed me structural elements that weren’t working and distracting subplots that could be cut out entirely. She questioned my characters’ motivations and authenticity and helped me identify the true heart of the story.
When I left that meeting, my head was spinning and I faced a serious revision. Rather than wishing me luck and sending me on my way, she encouraged me to revise my outline and send it to her. It took some time, but I did. Again, she showed me what was working, what wasn’t, and why. She offered thoughtful suggestions for improvement, and I revised it again. We spent a few weeks going back and forth until the outline was tight, which made tackling the revisions more manageable.
Since publishing Empty Arms, readers have come up to me, grabbed my arm, and said things like, “I LOVED that book” and “I didn’t see that ending coming.” While compliments like that fill my heart with joy, I know they wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my developmental editor and the massive rewrite she inspired.
While hiring a developmental editor isn’t cheap, their expertise can be invaluable. But it’s critical that you find the right person for your project. Today, I’m going to share my process for doing just that.
Step 1: Do your homework
Compile a list of editors who specialize in projects like yours and have the qualifications to back them up. Research what titles they’ve worked on, how long they’ve been in the business, what type of training and credentials they have, and whether they have any client testimonials on their website. Here are some resources to get you started:
- Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi)  – membership required
- Book Editors Alliance 
- Editorial Freelancers Association 
- The Editors Circle 
- Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA)  – membership required
- Independent Editors Group 
- Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents 
- MediaBistro 
- Words into Print 
Once your list is complete, send each candidate an e-mail detailing your project (include word count, genre, log line, etc.) and request a time to speak on the phone so you can get a feel for his or her process and pricing. While most editors will be willing to speak with you, a few may be too busy to take on new projects, have a long wait list, or only work with referrals.
Step 2: Interview prospective candidates (and shortlist the good ones)
Treat these phone calls like job interviews in which you are the employer. Don’t be shy about broaching topics like past experience, pricing, and references. A qualified editor will be happy to provide you with this information.
Here are some examples of the kinds of questions you should ask:
- Can you tell me about your editing process? What will you expect from me? What can I expect from you?
- What is your experience in the industry?
- Tell me about a recent client success.
- How does your pricing structure work? What would you charge me for my specific project?
- What are your payment terms? (50% upfront and 50% upon completion? Payment in thirds?)
- Is there a waiting list for your services? If so, when is the next available opening?
- If we end up working together, can you provide a letter of agreement that will outline the terms of our relationship? If not, are you willing to sign one that I create so we are both clear on the terms of our agreement?
- Can you provide three references that I can contact to discuss your work?
If you’re satisfied with the answers you receive AND the candidate is willing to provide you with references, move them to your shortlist. (One editor told me she could not provide me with any references because of “client confidentiality.” While that may have been true, it made me uncomfortable. So, I crossed her off my list and focused on the editors who were happy to provide references.)
Step 3: Do a reference check
Once you receive the editor’s references, take time to set up phone calls with each of them to get a truer sense of what it’s like to work with the person. My general rule of thumb is to e-mail each reference a brief introduction, tell them you’d like to learn about their experience with Editor X, and request a few minutes to speak on the phone. While it might be easier to ask your questions via e-mail, I like speaking with references on the phone because I can pick up on subtle cues that would be imperceptible in an e-mail—a deep sigh, a long pause. Plus, it allows me to ask clarifying questions and dig deeper into their answers.
Here are some questions to get the conversation started:
- What type of project did you hire Editor X for? What type of editing service(s) did Editor X provide (e.g., developmental editing, line editing, proofreading)?
- Why did you choose to work with Editor X over other editors?
- Do you feel Editor X’s feedback was worth the price you paid?
- What was the outcome of your project?
- What do you feel was the biggest benefit to working with Editor X?
- What could Editor X have done better?
Try to ask open-ended questions to give them a chance to talk about their experience in detail. And be sure to throw in a question like #6 to give the person an opportunity to air any dirty laundry.
Step 4: Make a final decision
Once your reference interviews are complete, you should have a better sense of which candidates might be a good fit for your project. Pay attention to red flags and that nagging little feeling that something isn’t right. The final decision will likely come down to price, timing, and/or gut instinct.
The editor I chose soared through my process with flying colors. She wasn’t the cheapest and she had a considerable waitlist, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that working with her just felt right. We had a great connection on the phone, my project was in her wheelhouse, and past clients raved about their experience with her. Now, every time a reader grabs my arm and compliments my book, it’s confirmation that she was the perfect choice.
Are you thinking about hiring a developmental editor? What questions do you have about the process? Or, if you’ve already worked with a developmental editor, what helpful tips or resources can you share?