Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Guest post by Jennifer Top

Lynn here: Our guest post today is from Jennifer Top, editor fabulaire. Jennifer and I met in a Northern Colorado Writers online writing group. The group is gone, but Jen and I have remained friends and writing buddies. I asked her to clue us in on what an editor does and doesn’t do, and to give us some pointers on working with members of the editor species. Read on, and learn… I sure did

So, What Does an Editor Do, Exactly?

I’ve been meaning to order business cards for about two years now, but I can’t decide what to put on them because the job description under my name keeps fluctuating: proofreader, copy editor, publisher--or self-publishing consultant? Book designer? Cover artist, critiquer. . . It’s no wonder there may be a little confusion among others as to what I do, so here’s an overview of my role as a freelance editor, as well as what to expect when you need one.
Jennifer Top, editor and publisher

My Editing Philosophy 

A common misconception I hear from writers who are looking for an editor is that they expect an editor to essentially assign a grade to their work. As in, they’ve been working on this book for a while, their close friends say it’s great, but they want to know if a professional would give it an A or B or C. It’s kind of fascinating to me in a psychoanalytic way, actually, but that’s a whole ’nother blog post.

I personally don’t have any interest in assigning grades to my clients’ work. In fact, I find the thought of that highly unproductive and judgmental. I view my role this way: You’ve written this work for a reason. My job is to read the work and give you my perception as to why it seems you’ve written this work. The remaining work to be done is in bridging any gaps between the two.

I’m extremely conscious of the fact that editors, writing coaches, critique groups, and even well-meaning friends can do real damage to a writer. Therefore my guiding philosophy when it comes to giving feedback is, “First, do no harm.” I begin with appreciation for the time and effort this writer has invested to create this brand new thing, with a purpose in mind, and my job is to help her accomplish that purpose. I also realize that once a story is loose, readers will interpret it in as many different ways as there are readers, but before that happens, we do the best we can to get to the author’s point.

Proofreading vs. Copy Editing 

Another question I’m often asked is, what is the difference between proofreading and copy editing? This distinction is clearest with my academic publisher clients. Books are sent to a copy editor in pieces, each chapter in a separate Word file. As copy editor, my job is to read for sense, sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation, and in some cases to tag the text for formatting (mark for A-level vs. B-level headings, extract quotes, etc.). Changes are tracked and sent back to the author for review, then depending on the publisher the text is cleaned up either by me or by someone “in house.” Then the book goes to the typesetter for formatting. Once the book has been formatted and there will hopefully be no more shifting around of any tables, charts, pictures, and such, the book is sent to a proofreader.

As a proofreader I’m looking for many of the same things in the text that I would if I had done the copy editing (generally the copy editor and proofreader should not be the same person for one book, as fresh eyes are more likely to catch mistakes). However, oftentimes typos are much easier to catch when the book is in book form versus in a marked up Word document, so both are crucial to a professional-looking book, in my opinion. As a proofreader I’m also looking to make sure there is overall consistency, which is often more difficult in the copy editing stage when every chapter is a separate document. This goes for both the text itself as well as book design. For example, I will look for correct running heads, page numbers in the right places, even for typos in the front matter and Cataloging-in-Publication data.

In short, proofreading is the last step before you send it out the door (unless you’re doing an index, which is done last to ensure page numbers won’t change), and I think it’s always a good idea, even if you’ve had a copy editor work on the book before it was formatted, to make sure the book is proofed in its final format.

More Fun with Publishing 

Part of my role with the writing organization Northern Colorado Writers is to coordinate their annual writing contests in short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I screen every entry, and after the judges pick the top winners, and I add my own picks, I publish the winners’ anthology, Pooled Ink, via CreateSpace. I do all the formatting and cover design and get the PDFs ready to upload for printing.

I can do the same thing for others who are self-publishing, including the editing and the formatting, or just one or the other, depending on client needs. Because of what I’ve learned from my academic publisher clients after observing their publishing processes, I strive to follow a similar pattern with my self-publishing clients. Thus, I will work on editing first until we have arrived at the text the author is happy with, and then we will move on to the formatting.

On Healthy Writer-Editor Relationships 

Professionalism is important on both sides of the equation. With my publisher clients that’s easy—they are a business, they have accountants, they have predetermined pay scales and budgets for each project that comes to me. I have a reasonable expectation of the quality and condition of the projects they will send me and I know that each one will require the same level of work, more or less. I submit an invoice and I know roughly when to expect my payment. It’s formalized and that is somewhat like the saying “good fences make good neighbors.” The boundaries are clear and so are the expectations and I’ve never had any problems or sticky situations because of it. They also just happen to be good clients, too.

For individual clients working with a freelance editor, there’s much more room for things to fall out of formality, but that doesn’t mean professionalism isn’t just as important. I think having a more relaxed relationship with your editor is perfectly wonderful and reasonable when both parties respect each other’s time and the expectations on both sides are clear.

I have been blessed with wonderful clients and I approach each one with gratitude for trusting me to help them with their stories.

A good working relationship usually begins with an email or a phone call (hopefully an email) in which the client explains their project with some background on why they wrote it, and I try to clarify what it is they need from me: copy editing, critiquing/story evaluation, formatting for publication, proofreading as the last set of eyes, or a combination of any of the above. We also discuss price. Some are fine with knowing simply that my hourly rate for editing is $30. Others want a more precise estimate (see the tips below).

Once cost and expectations are determined, they email their work to me when they’re ready, and when I’m finished I send the work back to them with my invoice. I go by a business standard of 30 days from invoicing until I start getting worried about payment.

A Word about “Free” Samples 

As writers, we must value our time. As an editor, I also value my time. In the past, potential clients have asked me for a “free” sample of my editing. I’ve even read editorials, from editors (!), saying you should have an editor do a “free” sample edit before you pay them.

Ultimately, I have found there is no way for this to not feel disrespectful. To me, this is like walking into a restaurant and saying, “I’m looking for a place to eat, therefore I think you should give me a free meal to decide if this is the place.” A restaurant has the accepted economic advantage of being able to scoff at you and ask you to leave. Editors are stuck in a difficult position. Should I be guilted into this rationale? Or do I put my foot down realizing there is no “free” when it’s my time, attention, and life force that I will never get back (hence the relentless scare quotes)?

As a professional, and as a human being making a living like most everyone else has to, I realized I had to make a decision. Then, as if to test me, just a week or so ago someone else I had never met emailed me on behalf of his writer client and asked if I do free samples. I rewrote my response about four times before whittling it down to this: “No, I don’t do free samples. I must insist on respecting my own time and effort.” And his radical response, for which I had to brace myself because the entire world must be crumbling if I’m being so mean as to actually say no I won’t give you my time for free? He said, “Okay. That makes sense.”

A Few Things to Consider When You’re Looking for an Editor 

Here are some tips to keep in mind for establishing a healthy and mutually respectful professional relationship:
  • If you’re unsure about an editor you don’t know and you don’t want to commit to hiring the editor for a large project, hire her to do two or three chapters first. If you are unhappy with the work, you’re not committed to paying for more and can keep looking. 
  • When asking for an estimate of cost, make sure the work is formatted according to industry standards: size 12 Times New Roman font, fully double spaced (not 1.5). When formatted this way I estimate that I can edit approximately 10 pages per hour (this is usually conservative). If your work is 100 pages and therefore your estimate is 10 hours, but I discover after receiving it that it’s single spaced and size 10 font, don’t be upset if it actually takes 25 hours. (I assume this is why many editors charge by the word, which I will also do if clients are uneasy about not knowing how many hours it will take to edit their work.) 
  • Be clear about what you want from your editor. If you have your story the way you want it and aren’t interested in feedback, don’t be afraid to say so. That way your editor won’t waste time on unwelcome comments, which will also save you money if you’re paying by the hour. Similarly, if you know your story needs work and you are anticipating substantial rewriting, there is no reason to have the editor mark up typos and punctuation mistakes when what you are really after is a story evaluation and feedback. 
As freelancers and artists in general we are free agents. We don’t have barcodes to show people what our time is worth. I think that’s a good thing. But it also saddles us with greater responsibility to understand the value of our own time and consequently that of others. Beginning with an appreciation of both will help ensure good working relationships across the board, so that rather than having to worry about who’s feeling cheated, both of us can focus our energy on putting forth the best work possible.

Jennifer Top is a freelance editor, proofreader, and publisher in Fort Collins, Colorado. She recently launched TulipTree Publishing, LLC, and is Editor in Chief of the new literary journal, TulipTree Review, which is currently seeking submissions for its inaugural issue! Learn more at www.tuliptreepub.com and www.jennifertop.com.


  1. "Free" never really is, is it? It seems only the creative professions are asked to give away work to earn the right to be reimbursed for our time and expertise. For writers, it can be necessary to accumulate the clips, but editing really is a different thing altogether.

    One of the reasons popular speakers ask for top dollar is not so much the money, but the fact that it keeps the demand down. We all have to guard our energy.

    Wonderful advice. Thank you!

  2. This is a super helpful description of all you do, Jennifer. A good editor is worth her weight in gold and I hear you're one of the best. Congratulations on your new project, too. Can't wait to read the first issue of Tulip Tree Review.

    1. Aw! Thanks, Pat! I can't wait either! :)

  3. Thank you so much for the clarification! I was never 100% sure what an editor did. And as a businessperson, I can't believe anyone would ask you to work for free! I guess a lot of people operate on the theory that it never hurts to ask. But I think it would be insulting and could affect how you see them as a client, and maybe cause you to determine that you don't want to work with them at all.


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