Wanted: How to Find Your Best Editor

by | Jan 28, 2015

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Recently, New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Work Week) put out a call for a managing editor. Curious, we decided to see what kind of editorial help he was looking for, to determine if there might be lessons for self-pubs everywhere. After all, this is a guy who has figured out a few things about publishing.

So, what did Ferris do? He created a questionnaire that would help him find the best editor for his writing projects. In studying his questionnaire, we learned that a well-designed editor questionnaire requires the author to be clear on a few important points.

  1. Know what kind of writing you need help with.

    What motivated Ferriss to create a questionnaire? We’re willing to bet that he created it out of a practical need to meet a personal writing goal.

    Ferriss has content that wasn’t included in his previous books, and he’s looking for a way to repurpose that content on his popular blog, which gets between 1.5 and 2 million readers per month. Michael Ellsberg, author of the Tim Ferriss Effect, suggests that blogs with large readerships can sometimes encourage more book sales for indie authors than traditional media outlets. Because Ferriss’ blog is one of his best book marketing tools, it makes sense for him to seek out an editor to help him manage it.

    Tip: Set your writing goals with your book marketing plans in mind. Determine what kind of writing you’d like an editor to help you with, and then find an editor who has experience with that kind of writing.

  2. Decide which tasks you’d like your editor to perform.

    Ferriss is clear about the kinds of tasks he wants his editor to perform. What he may not realize is that he is asking for a

    • project manager (blog, podcast, social media platforms and other content)
    • social media coordinator (setting up interviews with celebrities, sourcing guest posts and podcast guests)
    • writer/content creator for upcoming book and video projects
    • ghostwriter or developmental editor for his newsletter
    • marketer (managing SEO, improving traffic)
    • stylistic editor
    • copyeditor
    • proofreader

    Although Ferriss doesn’t explicitly ask for applicants with copyediting and proofreading skills, it’s implicit in his request that the successful candidate will manage other writers and the work they produce (he’s looking for a managing editor). Content quality will be an important aspect of management, and attention to copyediting and proofreading details ensures a good reader experience.

    If you’ve been following our posts on this blog, you’ll know that Ferriss has hit on all four levels of editing in his questionnaire and job description, (in addition to tasks that fall under the social media coordinator/ marketer umbrella — but we’ll focus on the editing tasks here).

    While some editors do have experience with each kind of editing, they usually don’t perform all levels for one project. Why? If you’re doing a developmental edit on a piece of writing, at some point you’ll find that you’re no longer able to be objective because you’ll be editing your own writing. (Even editors need editors!) If timelines allow an editor to set a writing project aside for a “rest,” and if proofreading tools are part of an editor’s arsenal, then this problem is surmountable.

    Tip: As much as you’d like your editor to be all things (and as much as an editor might wish to be all things), it might not be a reasonable expectation. List three essential tasks that you’ll require your editor to do. That will help you to pinpoint what kind of editor you’ll need.

    Editors: More and more, editing can include a lot of nontraditional skills. Pay attention to what indie authors are asking for, and see if you can leverage your social media and tech skills.

  3. Jot down a list of skills you’re looking for.

    Once you’re clear on the tasks your ideal editor will do for you, think about the skills associated with those tasks.

    Ferriss appears to be looking for an editor

    • who can manage multiple projects
    • with developmental editing skills
    • with strong writing skills
    • who can work to firm deadlines
    • who is familiar with WordPress
    • who has strong interpersonal skills

    What skills are you looking for in your ideal editor? Take a few minutes to draft a list.

    Tip: Use this list of skills to shape the job description of your ideal editor.

  4. Find a way to assess an editor’s skills.

    Publishing companies create tasks to assess an editor’s skills. Editors are often asked to complete a copyediting or proofreading test to be considered for an editing project. Ferriss assesses his ideal editor’s skills with his questionnaire. For example, he asks:

    “Please add links to the 2–3 most popular articles/posts you’ve written or edited (unique views or social shares). Include any key stats you can share.”

    Here, Ferriss’ request for writing samples indicates he’s looking for an editor with strong writing skills. Note, too, that social media is also important to Ferriss’ writing goals, so social shares serve as data that will help him assess an editor’s ability to get his writing in front of readers.

    Ferris also asks, “what software or method do you prefer for organizing editorial calendars?” This is a smart question because it will help him find an editor with project management experience. There’s an added benefit, too: he’ll collect a whole list of tools used for successful project management. Even if he doesn’t hire an editor at the end of this process, he will have gathered valuable information. (By the way, we use Trello, Google Docs, and Google Sheets for writing project management. Feel free to add your favourite project management tools in the comments below).

    Tip: Draft a list of questions that will encourage an editor to demonstrate or offer proof of an acquired skill. Also, consider what the responses to your questionnaire might teach you!

  5. Set the tone for your working relationship.

    Ferriss’ approach to finding an editor suggests it will be a wild and wonderful ride. He’s clear on his immovables (deadlines), but writes the job description in a humorous and casual way. This isn’t the job for every editor, but it could be a dream job for the right editor.

    Written communication is the ideal medium for establishing the tone of a working relationship. After all, Ferriss’ editor will be working remotely—possibly on another continent—and much of their contact will likely be in writing. Ferriss needs to know if he and his editor are “reading” each other accurately.

    We can’t understate the importance of developing a good relationship—which begins with clear communication—with your editor. State clearly what you’ll expect and encourage candidates to do the same. Communication foul-ups can be costly, and heading these off at the pass can help ensure that both you and your editor are confident you’re working towards the same goals.

    Tip: Be yourself. We’re not the first to note that the process of finding the right editor is a bit like online dating. If you have a corny sense of humor or you keep to a nocturnal schedule and expect replies to your email messages at three in the morning, don’t try to hide it. You have a better chance of finding the right person if you’re transparent from the start.

Why It’s Worth the Trouble

It does seem like a lot of trouble, doesn’t it—all this assessing, evaluating, clarifying, and finally communicating your requirements as you search for an editor. But consider the possible consequences if you don’t do your homework before handing your book to a stranger.

You are in a sense the project manager for your book or writing project, and it’s best you know everyone’s job description—including your own—from the start. Gathering and organizing this information will most certainly mean a better end product, and you can use it as a checklist for evaluating what kind of editing your project needs. Even if you never use it as a job ad per se, creating it will make you think about your writing more objectively and bring you closer to your writing goals.

Did Tim Ferriss find the editor of his dreams? Time will tell. You now know how to find yours.

Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla DouglasCorina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing are Contributing Writers for The Book Designer. They are also authors, copyeditors and proofreaders who work with and instruct self-publishing authors.

You can learn more about Corina and Carla here.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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  1. Kathleen Jones

    It’s so hard to find the right editor, especially for new writers. Thank you for posting this. A number of other things can help writers to find the right editor: finding an editor who has experience with your type of book (fiction or non-fiction), getting testimonials about the editor’s skills from published writers; and asking the editor for a brief sample edit that demonstrates his or her level of skill.

  2. Aleta K. Dye

    This information was very helpful to me. In my naivete, I thought editors marked up your manuscript and made notes in the margins to show you where you needt to revise. I have learned something here.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Aleta,

      Thanks for your comments. Glad this information was helpful.

      Editors still do their fair share of marking up manuscripts and making notes in the margins, believe me! But the shift to digital technology, and the fact that it’s constantly changing, have meant that editors are often expected to do much more than they were a decade ago. Managing social media for clients, which frequently requires writing and editing content, is just one of the tasks editors are doing.

      And while many editors have a passing familiarity with a wide variety of editorial tasks, most would not be proficient in all kinds of tasks. Our post on this blog from April last year—4 Levels of Editing Explained: Which Service Does Your Book Need?—outlines much of what typically happens when you hire an editor. It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in learning about different editorial tasks. You’ll find it here: https://owl.li/Ih8sZ

      Good luck with your writing projects, and thanks again for commenting.



  3. Aleta K. Dye

    This article was very helpful to me. Editing is so much more than what I thought. Thank you for sharing. I also will share on my sites.

  4. Laura Roberts

    Thanks for calling attention to Tim Ferriss’s methodology! I really enjoyed taking a peek at his application form, as I’m currently struggling with a similar issue, and need a good way to test potential editors. (I would REALLY like to read the answers to his question about needing to interview The Rock, stat!)

    I think the use of these hypothetical questions, inviting applicants to use their problem-solving skills, is key. After all, there’s usually more than one right answer to real-world problems, and finding out how potential team members’ think through a crisis is really helpful in evaluating just how well you’ll work together as a team.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks for your comment, and I’m happy you found this article both timely and helpful. I’ll admit it was fun deconstructing Tim Ferriss’s questionnaire!

      You’ve made such a good point about his attention to problem-solving skills. I used to do research for a literacy agency. In addition to trying to improve people’s reading and writing skills, we were looking for ways to accurately assess their problem-solving and interpersonal skills, for the reasons you’ve implied: most people don’t work in isolation and need both hard and soft skills to succeed. We found that pre-employment tests that included some scenario or “what would you do in this situation” questions helped ensure a better match in the hiring process.

      That’s my long way (sorry!) of saying that Ferriss has covered his bases well, and he should get a fair idea of how various candidates will interact with him and respond to job challenges. A meeting on Skype or Google Hangout could accomplish this too, but wouldn’t provide the same opportunity to judge a candidate’s writing skills. It’s tricky!

      Good luck in your own search for an editor—may you find the right match without too much difficulty!

      Thanks again for taking the time to send a comment,


  5. Ricardo Fayet

    I think it was Joanna Penn who I read recently saying that she worked with 5 editors before finding “the right one” for her. So it’s definitely no easy task.

    I think the key is definitely transparency and effort from the author, basically what Tim Ferris has done and inspired other authors to do. You have to be clear and precise on what you expect and what your book is like.

    From our early experience on Reedsy, we’ve found out that when authors reach out to several editors to ask for a quote, they don’t give enough information, or are quite unclear on what they want. Of course, editors (at least the good ones) are going to make the effort to research/assess the book, read a sample, etc. before offering a quote, but that is very time consuming for them and authors can save them a lot of time by doing the job on their side and detailing their book, their market, their expectations, etc.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hey Ricardo,

      Thanks for your comment. You have a unique perspective—you’re able to observe the interactions of many authors and many editors. And you’re right: It is a lot of work, but being able to communicate all these expectations from the start will save the author time, money and grief.

      Sometimes the details of what an author wants and needs for his book are ironed out in an editing contract or agreement. Other times, however, expectations aren’t communicated clearly until the project is nearly completed. And this is where a relationship can turn sour.

      I wonder if more self-publishing authors might consider drafting a questionnaire, next time they’re in the market for an editor. At the same time, it’s not a bad idea for editors to create a similar checklist, just to make sure everyone’s pointed in the right direction.

      Appreciate your thought on this!


  6. Michael N. Marcus

    No editor is perfect. Choose your editors carefully and check the edited work. The cover of the book shows the author’s name, and she or he will be blamed for any errors committed by other members of the publishing team.

    Sometimes an editor will assume that an author writing in an esoteric field or even writing something that’s merely personal must know what’s right and does not correct the author’s error.

    Sometimes an editor assumes the author was wrong, and then changes right into wrong. The author may not notice, or might assume the editor was right.

    A book project requires communication, collaboration and verification.

    In Orange County Choppers: the Tale of the Teutuls, there are several really stupid mistakes that were missed by five co-authors and the support army at Warner Books.

    “Paul Senior” said his parents charged people to park in their driveway on Cooper Street in Yonkers when they went to baseball games in Yankee stadium, which was within “walking distance.”

    The stadium is about 8.5 miles south. The 17 mile round trip is not “walking distance” for most people. I hope Paul calculates more precisely while building motorcycles.

    He mentioned his house in “Muncie,” New York. Muncie is in Indiana. The Teutuls lived in MONSEY (which is pronounced like Muncie). Someone besides me should have noticed.

    In Release Your Writing: Book Publishing, Your Way!, Helen Gallagher says that POD printer Lightning Source is owned by Amazon. It’s not. Maybe Helen’s editor assumed that Helen knows her subject better than she really does.

    Editors should not assume authors are experts, but authors should not assume that they are experts either. Back in 1976, I accused a co-author of BS-ing when he wrote about a “baobab” tree in a book we wrote for Doubleday. I was sure that there was no such thing. There is.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Michael,

      Right—no editor is perfect, and most won’t claim to be an expert or even be proficient at all the tasks you might want them to perform. You sum it up well: “A book project requires communication, collaboration and verification.”

      You’ve touched on a couple of other editorial tasks that we didn’t mention in this post—fact checking and continuity. Fact checking often takes place at the copyediting stage. It’s time consuming (although not as onerous as it was before Google), and you should mention it specifically, and in advance, if you want your editor to fact check. Most copyeditors will query the author if they come across facts that appear questionable, and often an editor’s background knowledge will alert them to facts that need verification.

      Copyeditors will also check for continuity—the sequence of events, internal logic of the story, making sure things “add up,” and they’ll flag anything that sounds questionable. Many will do this as a matter of course, but it’s a good idea to discuss it ahead of time.

      In short, if you have special concerns about your story, communicate these in advance. You may decide to seek out an editor with a particular expertise in your genre or subject area.

      This is another area, too, where beta readers can be helpful, especially if you choose them carefully and assign them specific tasks. For example, ask that they skip the typos and focus only on whether the story hangs together.

      As you’ve pointed out, embarrassing errors make it all the way through the publication process. With good communication and a sound plan, many of these can be avoided.

      Thanks for your comment,




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