Cheap and Fast is Never a Good Sign: How to avoid crummy freelance editors

*This is a post I wrote for my LinkedIn followers, but I thought with so many good writers here on WordPress that this would be knowledge worth sharing so that you don’t get screwed over on your first try at self-publishing.


The Danger of Cheap and Fast

Today I was approached to take on a manuscript edit for a woman who’d had several “terrible experiences” with freelance editors. In the course of paying for several editors to do a terrible job, she dwindled away her budget. She was looking for me to do a quality edit with what was left of her budget, and I sadly had to turn her down because she could no longer afford my services.

I don’t know all the details of this woman’s previous experience, but I am willing to bet she was swindled by freelance editors who boast dirt-cheap prices and a ludicrously fast turnaround.

If you care about your manuscript and producing a high-quality self-published book, avoid the Cheap and Fast Freelancer at all costs. That person is not worth wasting your money on.

If you want anywhere near quality work, you can only have one or the other: cheap or fast. For instance, when I first started editing manuscripts, my rates were pretty low. I even took an unpaid internship doing it. I worked for cheap because I was fresh out of college with no samples or “real world” experience. However, I always made sure I was given a reasonable deadline that would allow me to actually dedicate time and care to every sentence, every word of the manuscript. The time it took back then was significantly more than it takes me know because I was new to the process and I was very nervous about messing up, which made me take even more time than was really necessary to read a page. So, if you go for a freelancer who is cheap because they have the right background but not the experience, expect it to take more time to get your manuscript back.

If you are looking for an editor and need that manuscript back like yesterday (I wouldn’t recommend this, no matter what editor you choose), then expect to pay a whole lot more if you actually want the work done right. A quality freelance editor with enough expertise to do a super fast turnaround probably has plenty of other jobs lined up besides yours. In order to give you a fast return, he or she will have to prioritize your manuscript over all his or her other jobs, and you can probably expect to pay through the nose for that kind of special treatment.

How to Weed Out the Cheap and Fast Freelancer

1. You need to understand average pricing and turnaround times. This can be a little tricky.

Writer’s Digest has a pretty well-rounded guide to how much a good freelancer should charge: The prices for book editing are on page 5 of the PDF (pg. 72 of the actual document). Note that there are different types of editing: content editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Before you hire a freelancer, you should know which type of edit you need. A proofread is the most basic, looking for grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes. A copy edit is the middle range and the most debated when it comes to what it includes. My definition is that in a copy edit the editor will rewrite sentences when necessary for clarity or awkward syntax, check facts, and do the smaller edits included in a proofread. A content edit includes the services of a proofread and a copy edit and also gets farther down into the manuscript, identifying and fortifying themes, strengthening character development and dialogue, pointing out plot problems, etc.

Hint: If the freelancer you are considering doesn’t know the difference between the editing types and/or doesn’t ask you about the type of edit you want, that’s a sign that you should walk away. That person doesn’t really know what they are doing.

This list provides low, average, and high prices. Any editor who charges any of these rates is probably a good bet, or at least a step in the right direction. A good editor knows they are worth a professional price. The people who work for dirt-cheap do so because it’s harder for a client to complain about the work quality when the price was so low.

Editors with good samples and knowledge, but fewer years in the trade (like myself) will probably lean towards the lower end of the Writer’s Digest pricing spectrum. So if you are on a tighter budget, these kinds of editors are who you should look for.

As for turnaround, that’s a little dicier. It will heavily depend on what type of edit you need, how long your manuscript is, how clean your manuscript is, and how many other projects the editor has. I have done a proofread of a 300 page book in two weeks, but that manuscript was very clean and only needed a proofread. I also only had one other small project going at the time. On the other hand, I have taken between one and two months to do an edit before. Even though it was only a proofread, that manuscript was very dense, very long, needed a good bit of polishing, and was one of my first. I also had a fiction ghostwriting project going on at the same time.

Just use common sense. If an editor promises you a week turnaround on a copy edit for an 800 page novel, call BS. Same goes for any editor who promises to get an entire manuscript back to you in a matter of days, no matter the editing type, unless your book is only 50 pages long or so.

2. When in doubt, make the editor prove his or her metal.

If the editor you are interested in doesn’t have any serious samples or testimonials, be wary, but don’t write them off right away. Present the editor with some simple “tests” to see if he or she is the real deal.

  • Ask about education or background. If the editor has a degree in English or has certifications in editing and writing, you can bet that person knows a thing or two about the English language even if s/he doesn’t have that much experience. Just know that you are getting someone green.
  • Ask for a personal writing sample. It doesn’t have to be anything serious, just a paragraph or two about anything. Look it over and see if any errors are blatantly staring you in the face. You may not be an expert editor, but you can rest assured you are more likely to find errors in someone else’s writing than your own. Also, if you are a writer, you aren’t entirely oblivious to how grammar works (hopefully). This is a great way to weed out the countless editors who don’t even speak English fluently (and there are a surprising number of these advertising services out there). That person may be a great editor in his or her native language, but that’s not really going to help you out. As a side note, be sure to ask whether your editor is from the U.S. or U.K. depending on what you need, because punctuation and spelling are different in each. Some editors are familiar with both, but they probably have more experience with their native style.
  • Administer your own test. This one takes just a little more effort on your part, but you can quickly weed out the false advertisers. Write up a paragraph or two and deliberately put some mistakes in there. Send it to the editor, and ask for it back with edits made in Word’s track changes. Did the editor find those deliberate mistakes? If not, walk away. However, if there were a few corrections made that you didn’t anticipate, ask the editor to explain why that edit was made. They may know something you don’t (that’s why you need an editor, right?). If they can articulate why they made unexpected changes using English grammar and punctuation rules, they probably know what they are doing. You can always double check them with a Google search.

3. Quality is always worth the money.

If you are serious about self-publishing the right way, don’t shy away from paying a professional rate for an editor. I know that when I read a book description or short sample on Amazon that has a lot of errors in it, I lose interest. To be taken seriously as an author, your manuscript needs to read like a bestseller. Lots of errors make you look like an amateur, and you aren’t going to have much success with that book unless you want to make it free. In order for readers to shell out money for your book, you need to shell out the money for a real editor. No matter how good of a writer you are, you are going to miss things in your book. Your brain knows what that sentence should say, so it often fills in that missing word or jumps over that missing apostrophe. You need someone with fresh eyes and adequate knowledge to look it over. You may think your book is the greatest thing in world (come on, you can’t help but be biased), but you may not realize that the dialogue of a certain character isn’t ringing true with other readers or that you have a glaring plot hole. That’s why you need an editor. An editor who actually knows the ropes.

Don’t be lured in by the Cheap and Fast Freelancer. You’ll only waste money and your manuscript, that beautiful thing you’ve labored over for so long, will suffer. We both know your characters deserve better than that.

3 thoughts on “Cheap and Fast is Never a Good Sign: How to avoid crummy freelance editors

  1. Babz says:

    Hey, I’m glad that I stumbled on to your blog. The few posts that I have read so far are great. I found this one in particular to be really useful and informative. I definitely look forward to your future posts.

    • IJustWanttoWrite says:

      Thanks so much. That’s why I created the blog in the first place—to help people avoid my past headaches and actually get some straight answers for free—so I’m very glad you found my posts useful. Happy to have you as a follower.

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