In a May 2012 blog posting, Vetting an Independent Editor, author and blogger Victoria Strauss makes a compelling argument against hiring a freelance editor. At Beaumont Hardy, I have long argued for the benefits of a freelance editor. However, Ms. Strauss’s argument makes several points that are worthy of further discussion. In the Comments section after her blog, several freelance editors disagree with the author’s argument, and I explain some of my own disagreements below.
The main point of Victoria Strauss’s argument is that authors should beware of fly-by-night freelance editors who charge—often very high fees—for services they are ill-equipped to provide. She warns of the people who try to capitalize on the recent self-publishing boom by setting themselves up as online editors. She recommends that authors verify the skill level of potential editors by asking about their membership in professional editing associations or by requesting a list of past clients and projects. Underlying Ms. Strauss’s argument is her assertion that many authors do not need a freelance editor at all.
Writers and editors often disagree about the type of training or certification a reputable freelance editor should have. Some claim that only people with advanced degrees or degrees in a particular subject are qualified to edit in a freelance capacity. However, while degrees are commendable and impressive, they do not necessarily indicate that the degree-holder appreciates the fundamentals of good writing. Academic study, even in a particular field, does not automatically confer an ability to edit. Similarly, membership in a freelance editing association, while indicating a level of interest and commitment, also does not conclusively prove that someone is a good editor.
I believe that what determines a good editor is the ability to efficiently spot the weaknesses in a text and correct them in such a way that the author’s voice and ideas remain fundamentally unchanged. It is the practice of editing, not the preliminary degrees or certificates, that determine an editor’s qualifications. For that reason, at Beaumont Hardy, I offer a free sample edit to every client. Usually five pages in length, the sample edit shows the client exactly the type of changes I will make to their work and, I believe, is far more illustrative of my abilities than a certificate or degree. In fact, I make no mention of my degrees on my website, and few clients have ever asked me for this information. I will, of course, willingly provide it.
As Ms. Strauss indicates, a freelance editor’s former clients and past projects can be very helpful to a prospective client who wants to know about the editor’s success rate. However, some editors are unable to provide much information about former clients. For example, I work with academics and job applicants who prefer not to publicize the fact that their work has received a final professional edit. Similarly, people whose business letters I write and edit often request that their projects—many of which contain sensitive information—remain confidential. Most prospective clients, I believe, understand the importance of confidentiality in the world of editing and might realize that full client lists are impossible to disclose.
Fundamentally, though, I differ with Victoria Strauss in her notion of the purpose of a piece of prose. She suggests that only self-published authors need to consider the option of hiring a freelance editor. I agree about the importance of a freelance editor for self-published books; too many readers have been disappointed by the unedited text in self-published books they have bought. But self-published work is not the only work that benefits from the objective eye of a freelance editor. I have edited the autobiographies of clients who write only for the purpose of leaving a personal, unpublished history for their families. They do not intend to publish but want to leave behind a piece of informative, well-edited text. Similarly, owners of restaurants seek editing help for their menus and flyers, even though nobody will ever pay to buy this written work. And students at all levels ask me to proofread or edit their assignments, destined only for a course instructor. These writers all recognize the enduring quality of text, regardless of whether anyone ever publishes it. They hire a freelance editor to leave behind a record of polished and streamlined text, even if it will only have a few uncritical readers. While Victoria Strauss might not argue with the need for an editor in each of these situations, she believes that a writer can usually find a friend, relative or fellow writer who can provide a solid edit for free. Effective, unpaid editors of this type probably do exist, but I believe that no friend or colleague can replace the objective eye of an experienced freelance editor who knows how to efficiently read and deftly improve a piece of text.
Hiring or not hiring a freelance editor is, of course, a personal decision that each writer must make for him or herself. But the hiring decision need not be as complex or as fraught with pitfalls as Victoria Strauss suggests. A writer need only find someone with a clear understanding of the written word. Many honest, scrupulous editors exist online, waiting to help writers create their best, most compelling written work. Beaumont Hardy is among them.