The heart of it all

What do people look for in a copy-editor? It seems nuts to say it, but the full importance of this question didn’t really sink in until recently. Not to any kind of depth. The basic needs are obvious: (i.) to catch your mistakes before publication, and (ii.) to help improve your writing. But what makes an editor shine? We’re going to dig into that a bit today.

I don’t know how much time you’ve spent digging around for an editor, but we’re not exactly hard to find. If anything, you have too much choice when it comes to hiring help, so you’ve kind of got to wonder why it’s taken me this long to ask that first big question.

Well, when it comes right down to it, I didn’t need to before. I was just a hobbyist – earning a bit of pocket money, honing my craft, chipping along.

Now take another peek out there. I mean, if you thought there was a glut of editors for hire, you should see how many writers there are! There’s a cornucopia of talent out there, with shiny new prospects popping up every day – endless work for professional pedants, so who needs to worry?

Me, of course.

Because that was all before the pandemic hit. Before Brexit bit. I literally can’t afford to take my income for granted, nor the time it takes to earn it. I’ve got food to put on the table, bills to pay, a family to support and so on. It’s all started to get a bit serious.

So what do people look for in an editor? I mean, the job’s the job, right? Bosh!

Ye-eah … But also very much no. There’s a world of difference between completing a task and fulfilling a role, but I’ll get on to that in a bit.

Last year, I produced a Top 5 list of tips for my ‘Editors Save Arses’ workshop at Indie Fire: aspects that any writer (or business) should consider when seeking an editor. I’ll lay them out here for you in reverse order of priority, and then I’ll tell you my conundrum.

5 – Cost.

It’s tight times, so you want to spend your money wisely. Prioritise a low cost and you’ll likely get low-quality results. Bung an ill-advised bank loan our way and you may end up feeling fleeced. Tricky. My remaining tips should help to guide you through to a more solid decision.

4 – Communication.

Are they responsive to you? The editor may not be able to jump to your every whim, but do they demonstrate that they care? Are they respectful? Professional? Acting with integrity? Do you get the sense they are actually listening to you?

3 – Reputation.

Testimonials are a great way to judge an editor, whether they are written down or heard on the grapevine. What do people say about the editors when they’re not around? How do these *reported experiences match with your needs?

2 – A Personal Recommendation.

Trust is a massive factor when you hand your book-baby over. It’s intensely personal and, for many people, it represents their career prospects. That’s why the word of somebody you actually know (and respect) tends to sway more than the testimonial of someone you don’t.

1 – Ask for a Sample Edit.

This is a small-scale demonstration of the editor’s work so you can see the breadth and the depth of their observations, and also how they communicate these to you. This is a **low-cost way for you to dip your toe in and test the water.

Are these points useful to you? I hope so.

Maybe you can help me now, because I’ve been driving myself crazy recently, trying to pin down my Unique Selling Point – that je ne sais quoi which will help me stand out from the crowd.*** I don’t want some conveyor belt of random clients, I need the right kind: people who will use my services regularly, who will pay a proper pro-rate, people whose recommendation alone will help to attract other clients.

So what on earth is my USP? What can I use to pull people in? (Answers on a postcard…)

This then, is the heart of it all – the meeting place where our mutual needs are fulfilled – because, as I said earlier, it is the role, not the tasks that matter.

Speaking to my clients and going back over my Testimonials, it’s clear that what they value is my own combination of being personable and professional. In other words, it’s not just the job but how it’s done. All well and good.

That working relationship – individual, tailored, cultivated – underpins the whole of the editing profession. It is the air we breathe, the blood in our veins, the key to any success we may claim and, thankfully, it cannot be faked.

But there’s no shiny ‘special-relationship’ paper I can wrap The Fine-toothed Comb in, nor ‘special-relationship’ decorations I can stick up in the windows to advertise the fact. Editors are supposed to be invisible. (You ain’t seen me, right?) When your business-aim is to make other people shine, the spotlight stays on them.

That’s how it should be.

So anyway.

Do you need any editing done? I know this guy, Dion. You might have seen him around. Bald fella. Ridiculous facial hair. Goes by The Fine-toothed Comb…

If you’d like to share your own thoughts and experience on this topic, or if you have any practical suggestions to help raise The Fine-toothed Comb’s profile, why not post a Comment below? Alternatively, email with the ‘USP of the F-tC’ as the subject heading. Thanks xxx


*Health warning: If unscrupulous authors can fake reviews for themselves, there will be people in other professions doing the same. It’s wise to look at the aggregate.

**Sometimes the service is free – it depends on the editor. I charge for sample edits because my time holds value to me. I have to earn a living. That said, if we then work together on the full manuscript, I deduct the cost of the sample edit from the invoice.

***It’s not all about the facial fuzz, you know. Your work, elevated.

Further reading:

If you’re interested in how I got on in the first Quarter of my full-time freelance life, I gave myself a review in Taking Stock.

If you’d rather get some writing tips, I’ve started a series called Parsing Judgement that might be for you.

Follow #ParsingJudgement on social media and contact me with your conundrums.

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