The 10 things a book editor wants you to know

OK, so here’s why the blog went on hiatus for a while. I spent around half a year editing self-published books for a budget book-conversion company (#freelancelife, y’all). In those seven months, I read manuscripts ranging from really short children’s books and recipe books to massive novels with six-digit word counts. Considering my usual annual reading output’s just 10-15 books, hitting up to three digits is a whole damn lot already.

Now that I’ve eased up on that line of work (still taking a few jobs, though!), I’ve been thinking about the 10 editing-related things I would’ve told clients off the bat if I could’ve. Well, some of these things, I did say during the process. Most, I had to keep to myself. This is a bit sad because I think these tips would help authors, particularly those going into self-publishing.

Keep in mind that these are my preferences. Other editors would agree with some items, maybe disagree with a few, and/or want to see different things on the list.

Book editing is always a brutal affair.
This is how we used to do it in the old days: with pencils and markups. I don’t miss those days at all. (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

The word ‘editing’ doesn’t always mean what you think it does.

You have to be specific with what type/level of editing you want, and know the differences between each. An editor can do one, some, or all of these tasks. But if you explicitly ask for one thing, you can’t change your mind at the last minute and demand another thing.

  • If you just want someone to check your work for misspelled words and consistency in your use of capital letters and punctuation marks, you actually want proofreading.
  • If you want the editor to do proofreading and also get into grammar, factualness, and style, particularly if you’re following a specific style guide (e.g., Chicago, MLA, AP, APA, AMA, NYT, etc.), you actually want copy editing.
  • If you want the editor to also evaluate how you’re telling the story – from what tone/voice you use to the flow of your sentences/story, your use of language (and any overused words/phrases), and any unclear portions or those that need extensive fact-checking, you actually want line editing.
  • If you want all of the above – and you’re still in the early stages of writing your book and you know it needs a lot of work – you actually want developmental or substantive editing.

(Thanks to Manuscript Editor Online and NY Book Editors for the distinctions! Even I forget sometimes.)

Book editors specialize in certain topics/genres, and even languages and slang. We don’t do ‘free sizing’.

For example:

  • I can edit in both Tagalog and English, and I like code-switching in my own work.
  • I grew up with both as my primary languages, and with a great love for and familiarity with exported American culture. So I can understand the different nuances and contexts of manuscripts coming from Tagalog- and English-speaking or Western countries. (Still pretty bad at millennialisms, though.)
  • I previously worked in academic and scientific publishing. This means I’m quite familiar with textbooks and research journals.
  • But I’m also experienced in editing fiction (I love sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, and historical and alternate-history fiction!) and nonfiction (auto/biography, travelogues, textbooks and workbooks, historical, sports, food, and drink) manuscripts.
  • Poetry? Sure, but I’m not as comfortable with it as fiction and nonfiction.
  • I absolutely refuse to edit romance and religious manuscripts, mainly because I don’t like reading them. I can and I have, but I won’t anymore. That, and I’m definitely not the romantic or religious type.


Other editors would have specific niches or have an even wider coverage. There are also editors who will take only romance and/or religious books. If you’re in those categories, you’d do much better with them than with me.

So do your research on which editors work in your niche. And if possible, look at their previous work. That way, you’ll get a great match.

High level of editing required = Higher price + Longer turnaround time.

Some authors would ask for a rate or price outright. I prefer looking at the text first, asking you what you want to be done, and then pricing and timing the editing work. Why?

Many writers and self-publishers are good at what they do and don’t need much help. But many also aren’t, and obviously need the assistance. Nor do the latter cite their sources properly (we’ll get into that later), or follow the basic rules of writing and real-world logic. And not all writers have English as their first language or even know any English words. In some instances, the book was written first in their primary language and then translated, which makes the text lose more of its original nuances.

Whatever the case, this means I’ll have to read the text, make sense of it, and figure out the author’s rhythm and style way before I start editing. That takes more time than you think, and more mental work to get it right for you and your readers.

And editing isn’t just done once! Editors read your book several times: on the initial pass, a once-over before it’s sent back to you, again after you give your input and changes, again while fact-checking and smoothing out those changes, and then one or two more times before you get your manuscript back… just to be sure. By the end, editors will actually know your book better than you do.

TL;DR: Are you asking more of us? Pay us more, and give us more time. Your book will benefit from it. We need to make ends meet, too; and we’re definitely worth every cent.

Communicate well and have reasonable expectations.


Please, go ahead and ask all the questions you want before we start. And if you have a list of non-negotiables for us, please give us that list. It’s much better for us to have everything ironed out at the start than us being halfway done or even done with the whole thing, and then we find out you weren’t satisfied with our work. All we ask is you hear us out when you have your own questions or disagree with our edits.

If you didn’t say it, write it, or make it, don’t use it.

I’ve edited so many manuscripts that include song lyrics, lines, and stanzas from popular poems, dialogue from classic movies, and extensive content from other websites. This won’t be a problem if these are classified as “fair use” or out of copyright, and/or the copyright holders have given you written permission to use them in your self-published book.

But usually, new writers and self-publishers take huge chunks of copyrighted popular content and use it without the proper permissions. It’s a copyright infringement or plagiarism lawsuit waiting to happen, people. Most think that “borrowing” a few words/lines for their self-published book isn’t a big deal. It is, especially to those who work with words for a living. Don’t do it.

And one more thing: Paraphrasing doesn’t make it OK. You’re still taking something you didn’t create and passing it off as yours.

(Read these articles to start with, or let good ol’ Google guide you. I personally like Jane Friedman’s primer on how to self-publish your book.)

…But if you really want to use it, cite your source properly – and get the source’s explicit permission.

This involves getting the necessary legal permissions (which can be expensive, so heads up!), and/or properly and completely citing the original creators of the source work. Again, Google your country’s copyright laws and rules on usage.

As for academic/scientific papers, there are multiple free citation tools online. Check out Citation Machine or EasyBib.

And like today’s instructors and professors, we use plagiarism checkers, too! But we can also tell if sentences and entire paragraphs have been lifted from somewhere else, or at least, badly paraphrased to look original. We’ll definitely tell you once we spot them.

Don’t format your book yet!!!

I know it’s tempting to see what it will look like all jazzed up. But please, don’t!

Send me a manuscript with just the basics on it – title page, chapter/section headings, content, bibliography, dedication, author info, etc. Everything else – table of contents, index, formatting (like special margins and page breaks), and other sections – will come in after editing, and these can be finalized and polished more quickly and easily. And please, don’t use fancy fonts or put your entire content in boldface, either! Readability is key, people.

Well… fine. If you really want to format it already, I suggest following these rules from The Write Life.

Your word is final.

Editing's our job. Deciding's yours.
You’re the boss. (Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash)

There are stubborn writers who insist on us not editing certain parts of their manuscripts. Some willfully ignore important questions; or want to revert to the problematic original sentences, paragraphs, or sections.

You know what? It’s not my book; it’s yours. I’ll try my best to convince you or argue against whatever you don’t want to give up or change. But ultimately, as both the author and publisher of your book, it’s your call – and you will assume all legal responsibilities related to your book.

Consider yourself warned.

Editing is not personal. It never is personal.

Editing books is my job, and that’s what I’m hired to do. Nothing more, nothing less. But especially in self-publishing, editors will hear certain comments that just rub us the wrong way.

Let me make some things crystal clear. We are not shaping your book to be like how we’d write it. We’re not hell-bent on making your life difficult by asking all these questions and flooding your manuscript with track changes, comments, and deletions. We’re not doing it because we don’t like you or your work; or God forbid, because we’re jealous.

No, no, no! We want you to succeed as much as you want to succeed. Why would we jeopardize your chances of selling your books and being read by people around the world? Besides, we want bragging rights, too: “Hey, we edited that bestseller! We liked reading and working on that book, and we’re proud of it!”

I’m not above making editing mistakes, either. But rest assured these are honest mistakes, never ever intentional. And I’ll always apologize for what’s within my control.

Speaking of control…

Editors are not magicians, miracle workers, or fairy godparents.

There’s only so much we can do with your manuscript, and we’ll always ask first. We cannot write your book for you and/or decide for you (especially if we’re hired to do developmental editing) – that’s your job.

Again, please set reasonable expectations. At the same time, we won’t promise you the world – just the most polished and accurate version of your manuscript.

Need an editor for your upcoming book?