I talk with a lot of writers in my role as an editor. Most of those writers come to our conversations with great questions, some trepidation (which is totally natural), and reasonable expectations. Sometimes, though, I meet writers who are either so new to the writing world that they don’t know quite what to expect (and how would they?) or so misguided about the role of an editor that I have to do a lot of explaining about what an editor can and cannot do for a book.

I also know a lot of editors, and sometimes we aren’t really clear about what services we provide in what ways with what expected results. Sometimes, we just expect people to know how all this works, which isn’t really fair. So I’m hoping this post will help clarify things for authors and help you find the right editor for your work. (Next week, I’ll be writing about how to choose an editor that’s right for you, so stay tuned.)

Five Reasonable Expectations of an Editor

Here, then, are five things that are reasonable for you to expect of your editor.

  • She/he/they will provide a clear description of their services – i.e. types of editing, method of commentary, timelines, costs – either in writing on their website or via email or through a conversation (and then probably verified in writing thereafter in a contract or formal email.)
  • She/he/they will deliver the editorial feedback you requested in the agreed-upon timeline unless they have a true emergency or you gave them a manuscript that did not meet what they expected (which is something they can clarify by reading a sample of your work) and thus requires far more work than they allowed time to do. In either case, the editor should communicate with you as soon as possible about the delay and give you a new, expected date when you will receive your manuscript.
  • She/he/they will provide references for their work either in the way of testimonials on their website or through direct references with clients who have agreed to act in that capacity. (Note – ethical editors will not violate their previous clients’ confidentiality by providing a sample of work they’ve done for someone else. That’s not a reasonable expectation.)
  • She/he/they will provide clear feedback that fits the type of editing on which you agreed. For most editors, developmental and content editing will include comments or questions in the margins and perhaps a few in-text editors that are clearly marked, often using Word’s track changes function, and often line editing and proofreading will include mostly in-text corrections or clarifications – all clearly marked using Track Changes or a similar tool. It is not reasonable to expect an editor to simply “fix” your manuscript. Our work is to show you what you need to fix and then empower you – with information and suggestions – to make the adjustments yourself. If you want an editor to rewrite, revise, or clean up your manuscript without your involvement in the process, you need to be hiring a ghostwriter or co-writer, not an editor.
  • She/he/they will be available – in a previously agreed upon format – to answer clarifying questions after you have reviewed their feedback. Note – this does not mean they should make themselves available to read another draft or even part of a draft for free, unless that was stated at the beginning. But they should be willing to answer questions to explain what they meant or to give you a bit more detail about a suggestion for a set period of time in a set way – i.e. via email or phone call of a certain duration.

Any ethical, reputable, experienced editor will work within these expectations. So don’t be afraid to ask for these things and clarify any aspect of what they will or won’t do if you want further information.

Three Unreasonable Expectations of an Editor

I get asked for these things quite often by well-intentioned writers who have been told that these are “required” for a good editor. But here’s my wisdom on this: if an editor promises these things, find a new editor.

  • It is not reasonable to expect an editor to guarantee a certain level of success for your manuscript. I wrote more about this here, but let’s just say that there are far too many factors involved for any editor to promise any level of sales or notoriety based on the role they play in your book.
  • It is not reasonable to expect an editor to write a review for your book or promote it (unless promotion is agreed to at the outset). For most places – including Amazon – reviews from your editor are considered a conflict of interest and could result in your book being removed from sale, and in terms of promotion, many editors don’t have the bandwidth or ability to share your book reliably, and often, we don’t have the kind of following that would fit your kind of book.
  • It is not reasonable to expect perfection from an editor. Editors are people. We miss things, and sometimes, particularly with developmental and content editing, we have to focus on the most pressing needs of a manuscript first, leaving lesser issues for the author to deal with on their own or to have us or another editor address in a second round of editing. The editor should deliver high-quality work, but perfection is simply not possible.

Be very cautious about hiring anyone who promises these things.

I hope you find this helpful as you seek out an editor. We really are here to help you make your book more of what you want it to be, and it’ll be easier for you to find someone if you hold these expectations in mind.

What questions do you have about the expectations of an editor? Anything about cost? About timeline? About form of review?