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What do editors do anyway?

So you’re interested in hiring an editor to polish your manuscript before you publish it or submit to an agent. But you’re not really sure exactly what they do, how they work, or how to know if they are qualified enough to help you.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is an editor? In a nutshell, an editor is a professional who has developed a certain set of skills through years of training, education, and practice which enable them to go through an author’s book line by line and help fix any mistakes they find, as well as offering advice on how to make the book better.

What kinds of services do editors offer?Every editor offers a different variation of services, based on their own personal set of skills and expertise. Some may offer only one kind of service, while others offer a variety. Here’s a breakdown of the most common types of editing services available:

Proofreading – a quick review of a manuscript intended to catch typos, spelling errors, missing commas, and other minor errors
Line Editing – a thorough review of the manuscript where the editor fixes not only spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues, but also offers suggestions on avoiding repetitive words, overuse of adjectives/adverbs, sentence structure, word choice, and more.
Content Editing – a thorough, but broader review of the manuscript where the editor will provide feedback on the content, structure, and development of the novel, including pacing, character development, plot issues/holes, and more.
Ghostwriting – this service is for authors who cannot write their own book, or choose not to, so they hire someone to put their ideas into words by writing the story idea they have for them based on their notes and outline
How much do editors charge?This is a tricky question, but one we feel should be addressed honestly and thoroughly.When authors seek out editors, they’ll likely find a wide range of prices for their services. Some are priced so high ($3 – $5k or more), it’s a wonder any writer can ever afford to hire them. Others are on the far opposite end of the spectrum and offer editing services (especially on sites like FiverR) for cut-rate prices (as low as $100). We urge you to compare prices, just as you would with any other service provider. Never pay more than you have to, but at the same time, be wary of anyone who charges extremely low rates. Remember, you get what you pay for. Anyone who claims to be able to edit your novel for anything less than $500 is, in all likelihood, either no good at their job, or they are a scam artist. That’s just the brutally honest truth.

The average editing job for a book of, say, 70,000 words should run you anywhere from $700 to $1,500, give or take, and depending on whether you are seeking just line editing or content editing, as well. There is no “industry standard,” as it varies based on many factors, including: the editor’s experience level, the word count of the book, and how extensive the edits must be. But remember, this is an investment not only in your book, but in your writing career. Publishing a non-edited book or a book you attempted to edit yourself will only bring you misery, bad reviews, and low sales (read THIS POST for more information on the science behind this).
Many honest editors (like Top Shelf Editing) know that editing is an expensive venture for authors, so they accept payment plans wherein the total fee is broken into two to four payments, making it more affordable for most authors.
Finally, a good, quality editor will offer you a FREE sample edit before they will work with you. This works two ways. One, it allows the editor to gauge how much work would be needed so they can adjust their rate accordingly. Two, it shows the author exactly what the editor can do and is capable of bringing to the table. We recommend NEVER hiring an editor without a free sample edit first, and NEVER pay for a sample edit.
How do I choose the right editor and know they’re the real thing?As we just mentioned, the best way to answer this question is to ask for a free sample edit. That will show you exactly what the editor can or can’t do for you. Be wary if you get back your edits and there are just a few commas added here and there and very few edits per page. Even the best writers will make mistakes they don’t even realize they have made. A typical sample edit for us, even with the best authors, will see about a dozen changes or suggestions per page on average. On the converse side, if an editor totally destroys your sample pages, that may be cause for concern, too. It may be a sign that this editor is not someone who is willing to keep your vision intact, and/or they may just be very difficult to work with and hypercritical. Who wants to work with someone like that?
Another thing I get asked often is what training and experience an editor should have. And do they need to have a specific degree or certification? The answer is no. Some of the very best editors out there do not even have an English degree, though it can be an added bonus if they have one. And there is currently no certification requirement for editors providing services to authors. However, many organizations do offer their own certificates like and These things are bonuses, but not necessarily required.
As an author, you should look for someone who has been editing for at least one year, if not more. And, most importantly, they should have testimonials listed on their website and referrals waiting in the wings to sing their praises. Always ask for at least 2-3 referrals from their current clients. Someone who teaches courses or speaks on panels (like Top Shelf’s Christina Kaye) is another example of someone considered highly skilled and experienced in their trade. If others in the industry trust them enough to invite them to teach or speak on subjects like writing, editing, and publishing, that’s a sign that they can be trusted and that they know what they’re doing.

Lastly, research the editors you are considering. Do they have a website or at least a Facebook page that looks professional and that clearly states their services, rates, and testimonials? If an editor doesn’t have a website, we suggest you steer clear. A successful editor who has dozens and hundreds of satisfied clients WILL take the extra effort to create a website. Editors without websites make me wonder why they couldn’t be bothered to have one. What are they hiding? Also, do a bit of cyber stalking. Look at their website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and even Instagram page. What are they saying when they post? Do they give off a professional image? Or do they rant and rave and cuss and act foolish? Stay away from so-called editors who can’t maintain a respectful and professional image. Another warning sign would be if there was little to no online presence or very few posts on their pages. A good, experienced editor will not only talk about their amazing clients and projects, but they will often offer free tips, tricks, and advice for authors. Finally, make sure there is nothing negative or foreboding posted about this editor online. While, yes, we all get that one crazy, dissatisfied customer every blue moon who might rant online about us, if you see one of the editors you’re considering being bashed left and right on social media and websites, it’s time to pump the breaks. There’s clearly something wrong.
How long does editing take?This is an easier one to answer. The average turnaround time for editors is 4 to 6 weeks, though most editors will be able to complete your project in less time than that. Here at Top Shelf, we ask for four weeks, though we typically finish most average-sized books in 2 to 3 weeks. A good editor will stay in contact with you throughout the process and maybe even ask questions from time to time. They should allow you to check in with them often to see how things are going and get an update. But emailing them every day asking for a status update is a little unfair. A good rule of thumb is once a week communication.

We hope we’ve answered all your editor-related questions. If we forgot any, or there are things we did not address that you’d like us to answer, comment below or email us at
And, as always, if you are ready to take the next step in hiring an editor, and you’re ready for a free sample edit and quote, contact us at and simply type “Free Sample Edit Request” in the subject line. Talk soon,Christina Kaye Co-Owner/Editor of Top Shelf Editing