The writer-editor relationship, part 1: Editors preparing writers

By Nina Munteanu

The writer-editor relationship, part 1: Editors preparing writers

As indie publishing soars to new heights and successes, writers are looking more and more to freelance editors to help them create works of merit that will stand out in the market. Whether this process is seamless and productive or fraught with difficulties depends on the relationship established between editor and writer at the outset and throughout.

The writer-editor relationship, like any relationship, works best when communication between parties is transparent and clear. What ultimately drives misunderstanding—or, alternatively, harmony—is expectations and how they are met. Clarifying expectations on both sides is paramount to creating a professional and productive relationship with few hitches.

Realizing expectations

Indie authors often come to editors with unclear and, at times, unreasonable or unrealistic expectations on services. Many writers know very little about the kind of editing we do and the different levels of effort (time and associated fee) required. They do not understand the difference between “copy editing” and “structural editing,” particularly as it pertains to their own work. In fact, many indie writers don’t even know what their manuscript requires. This is because of two things: (1) they can’t objectively assess their own work, particularly in relation to market needs, and (2) many authors haven’t sufficiently considered their “voice” or brand and matched it to a relevant target market. Both of these will influence how the writer comes into the relationship and the nature of their expectations.

It’s best to be upfront about everything, from understanding a writer’s work and market expectations to establishing your time, fee, and services. This is why a savvy editor will ask for an example of the author’s writing (one to several pages in length) prior to offering editing services and finalizing the contract. Such an exchange may, in turn, include a sample of the editor’s work for the writer to assess. This exchange helps clarify the process for both parties.

A savvy editor will want to establish with the author the following prior to taking the author on as a client and embarking on the actual editing task:

  • The nature of the writer’s work. A writer’s work should harmonize with that of the editor to achieve a good fit. For example, I edit fiction and non-fiction; however, I do not edit horror, because I simply can’t relate to it and don’t care for it. More on this below.
  • The author’s expectations and target market. This is key to establishing the kind of editing required for the author’s piece. Is it good enough to just provide a copy edit or will the piece require substantive edits to succeed in the identified market? This often requires open and frank communication between editor and author.
  • Procedure for and times of submission to editor. These help establish a schedule.
  • Schedule and deadlines for deliverables. These are based on the editor’s own work schedule and the type of editing required.
  • Nature of communication. Establishing the form and frequency of communication ensures that the writer doesn’t accost you with a barrage of emails, texts, or phone calls.
  • Form and cost of deliverables. This includes use of Track Changes, the inclusion of a summary letter, follow-up meetings, and so on.
  • Fee, fee structure, and payment details. Both parties must know the fee, how it is calculated, and when payment is due.
  • Inclusion and nature of contract. This may include a non-disclosure agreement, if desired.

By clarifying these, you and the writer create realistic expectations to which you both agree.

Fitting writer with editor

The right fit for editor and writer includes more than harmonizing genre, writing styles, and expectations. The fit includes personality. A professional editor and colleague of mine recently shared in an email forum his experience as both a freelance and an in-house editor. The editor stated that a majority of writers respond to his edits with comments such as, “Finally, someone who just comes out and plainly tells me what’s wrong!” However, others complained, “Why are you so mean?” The editor admits to using humour liberally in his edits and was described by one client as “playfully harsh.” While the work of this editor is, no doubt, impeccable, the added humour may not be a good fit for some writers, particularly those who are not highly confident in their work.

Knowing your own brand of editing, and being up front with it, is part of achieving a good fit with a writer and can avoid huge headaches down the line for both of you.

Toward honesty and moral integrity

Some of my editor colleagues and I have encountered indie writers who have come to us with “already-edited works” that they believed only needed proofreading but, in fact, called for substantive editing and story coaching to fulfill market requirements. The previous editor had either done a poor job of editing or the author had done a poor job of incorporating the edits. Either way, I was now in the position of informing this author, who had already spent several thousand dollars on edits, that their work required more than a “trim job off the top” to meet the standards demanded by the market.

A colleague suggested it’s unethical to copy edit a manuscript that obviously requires structural editing or has serious story problems. I’m inclined to agree. The key lies in the writer’s expectations and the intended market. The editor’s knowledge of “matching work to market” becomes a critical part in deciding whether or not to take that writer on as a client. I talk more about this in a previous Boldface article, “The moving target of indie publishing: What every editor (and writer) needs to know.” Honesty is best. Following the path of moral integrity may not put food on the table today, but it will maintain your reputation as a quality editor, which will keep the roof over your head in the long run.

Below is a general response to a writer’s inquiry for manuscript help.


Dear [Writer],

Thank you for your interest in my editing services. I’m still taking on clients and would be happy to help you.

In your initial letter, you included a brief description of your story. It sounds intriguing and interesting. [Insert genre] is my passion; I’ve helped publish [insert number] books in the genre so far.

Before we proceed, I need a few things from you to ensure we are a good fit and to help me do the best I can for your project. First, kindly send me a short sample of your work (two to three pages) and a very short summary. From this I’ll be able to confirm the kind of editing that best suits your project. For the kinds of editing/coaching services and associated fees I offer, please refer to this page on my website: [insert URL].

Would you also answer the following questions:

  • What is the genre and premise of your book?
  • How do you intend to publish this book (traditional, indie, self-publish)?
  • Who would you say is your intended audience and market?
  • Does the book stand alone or is it part of a series?
  • Is the book complete (first draft or more)? If not, how much is written?

From your answers, I’ll suggest the kind of editing (and coaching) required to best fit your needs. This may be one or a combination of the following:

  • Evaluation/assessment at $X/page
  • Copy edit (with some substantive editing) at $X/page
  • Story coaching at $X/hour

As outlined on my website, I provide digital commentary (line by line) in your manuscript (in Word through Track Changes), accompanied by a summary letter with recommendations. You can find examples of what I do on this page of my website: [insert URL].

Once I’ve determined what services best suit your work, and you are in agreement with the services and fees, I will draw up a contract for you and me to sign. The contract will stipulate a reasonable schedule that you and I can agree on for the process and deliverables.

Once the contract is signed by both of us, please send me your material along with a PayPal payment for the first half of the agreed total fee, by the date stated in the contract.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

[Your name]



Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories, and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto.

This article was copy edited by Michelle Schriver.

5 thoughts on “The writer-editor relationship, part 1: Editors preparing writers

  1. Excellent article. I ask many of the same questions in your introductory letter in a form on my website that I invite authors to use when first contacting me. In that form, I also ask authors to send me a sample of their writing. The form is very efficient in filtering out inappropriate “fits” at the same time as saving time on initial e-mails.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. Excellent point. Authors generally have unrealistic expectations around timing and deadlines. This is likely to be an ongoing conversation between editor and writer throughout their professional relationship.


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