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I Invested in Myself: I Hired a Copy Editor to Improve My Writing

I invested in myself.

I hired a copy editor to review a 4,000-word draft I was working on. 48 hours and $180 later, he had left 439 edits and comments on my draft, along with a gold mine of feedback on how to improve my writing skills.

Why care about writing? In these times of continued lockdowns and remote work, more communication happens in written form, whether it’s emails, messaging, or long-format reports and articles. More than ever before, your mastery of the written word can boost your career in unexpected ways.

Besides, writing skills will be useful to you in any job you’ll have in the future, and regardless of industries. It’s one of those skills that’s entirely transferable, like public speaking and negotiating.

Hiring an editor to review your writing and giving you feedback is one of the best gifts to offer yourself.

Here I share my experience doing it along with tips on how to make the process as fruitful as possible, hoping it will help you too.

Why did I do this in the first place?

Writing has always been something I considered important. I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years, and I hope I can claim that the quality of my writing has improved.

In a couple of instances, my blog propelled me at the top of the Hacker News board, a sort of specialized online forum for the tech and startup industry. The first occurrence brought me a lucrative consulting contract, and the second one landed me a job interview that turned into a job offer for which I relocated to Amsterdam, where I still live today.

I had wanted to keep working on my writing, but like for many things, I was giving myself excuses and didn’t act on it. I also thought it would be cool at some point to hire a copywriter and get feedback to improve my writing, but didn’t act on that either.

That was until I stumbled upon an upvoted article on Hacker News, titled “I Hired a Freelance Writer for My Blog,” in which the author shares about hiring a professional and getting feedback. So I thought, this guy did it, it doesn’t sound too complicated, I can do it too!

At the time, I was working on a 4,000-word article about my journey of keeping my tech skills sharp after transitioning to a managerial career.

Because this article was my first after a long break from writing, I wanted a professional editor to help me make it as engaging and impactful as possible, and to give me a self-confidence boost with releasing it.

Below I describe how the process of hiring and working with an editor went for me, along with best practices, broken down into three stages for more clarity. Let’s get started!

Where do you find copy editors?

If it were 1994, I would tell you to place an advertisement in your local newspaper. Thankfully, today we have the internet and it solves the problem for us through websites such as Upwork.com, Freelancer.com, FreeeUp.com, and Fiverr.com.

After I looked at all four websites, I decided to go with Upwork.com. But really, check them all and trust your gut feeling.

Your first step is to get in touch with someone who has the skills for the project, and it starts with writing a proper job ad.

Stage 1: job posting and applicant filtering

I wanted to attract top talent, and for this, I had to convey I’m not a difficult or annoying customer. I decided to be succinct and explicit about my goals, so I made sure my job posting included:

  • A title with exactly what I’m looking for.
  • How many words my article contains.
  • That it’s a one-time assignment and not a recurring job.
  • Why I posted this ad.

Here is the posting I wrote:

Title: Copy editor needed for a tech-related article (one-time assignment; 4,000 words) 

Hello,

I’m trying to grow an audience in the tech industry. I wrote a 4,000-word article that describes an approach to learning and maintaining tech skills for busy professionals, and which I’ll be publishing on my blog and broadcasting on various social media platforms.

As a one-time assignment, I want to hire a professional editor to make the article as bulletproof and engaging as possible, and in the meantime, also provide me with general feedback on my writing so I can improve.

If you reply to this job ad please fill in the screening questions, and also mention your hourly rate, availability, and how many hours of work you think this will take you.

Thank you,

Emmanuel

I also searched for “interview questions copy editor” to get an idea of what to ask applicants, and I distilled it to the following five questions:

  1. How did you get trained to acquire editing skills and do this job?
  2. What’s your working experience?
  3. What type or genre of writing is your specialty?
  4. What’s your personal editorial style, and which style guide do you use?
  5. What are you best at, and do you struggle with?

About the style guide question, if your applicants don’t know what it is or reply with anything other than CMS, AP, or MLA, then you know they are not legit. It’s as if someone applied to a software development job and didn’t know how a for-loop works—and in case you’re wondering, yes, some people do that.

These acronyms respectively stand for the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), and the Modern Language Association Stylebook (MLA). They are the most common style guides used across the industry. 

After less than a day of my job being posted online, I already had a few applicants. However, I must admit I was disappointed that mainly non-professionals had applied, some of which were not native English speakers.

One of them wrote: “Sir I have top Quality skill and will deliver the Best VAlue for you.” I kid you not, someone applied to an editing job with that.

I didn’t find the strength to reply to him. All I could do was facepalm, Picard style.

I posted the job on a Saturday, so the timing likely limited the number of applicants, which in turn explains why fewer of the top talents applied.

I decided to take the matter into my own hands: Upwork.com has a feature to search for professionals based on skills, ratings, and so on, which I used to find native English speakers with top ratings, and I invited three of them to take a look at my job posting.

One of them replied within two hours and applied. It was clear that writing was his profession, so I decided I would take him to the next stage of my selection process: clarifying expectations.

Stage 2: clarify expectations before closing the deal

Before I closed the deal with my top applicant, there were a few things I wanted to clarify, to make sure the mutual expectations were clear and to avoid surprises for him and me.

It comes down to the following:

  • Ask your applicant for a rough estimate of how many hours the job will take.
  • Ask how many back-and-forth feedback rounds are included in the job.
  • Be explicit in case you have a timeline in mind.

Never put these in the initial job posting, it would be too much at once. Keep your job posting lightweight, and then ask clarification questions once you’ve narrowed down your pool of applicants.

You don’t have to hire the applicant at this point, you’re still assessing them. If after a short conversation you have a bad feeling, then politely decline and try with someone else.

After exchanging a few messages with my applicant and clarifying the points I mentioned, I was confident he was the right person so I gave him the job. The entire process, from posting the job to screening applicants and negotiating my needs with one of them, took less than 24 hours.

As a rule of thumb, expect to pay between $35-45 per hour for a professional who is a native English speaker. Most platforms show hourly rates, so there won’t be any surprises.

Some copy editors charge as much as $55-60 per hour when they’re specialized in a particular niche or domain of knowledge. Ask yourself if you need that much specialization. If yes, go for it, but if not, go for someone cheaper.

In terms of pace, it takes about an hour for a serious copy editor to review around 1,000 words. Regardless, ask your applicants for a rough estimate to align expectations as I mentioned earlier.

All which I described so far covers only the selection and hiring stages. Once these are done, you have to collaborate with the person. But how do you guide a copy editor to get the results you need?

Stage 3: work effectively with your copy editor

Before my editor started the job, I gave him guidance on what I wanted to achieve with my article, and what I wanted the readers to take away from it.

If you plan to post your article on social media to drive traffic, you can also ask your editor to mark which paragraphs and sentences he finds to ring true or sound catchy. That way you can later reuse these excerpts as microcontent.

Some editors will send their notes in a PDF file which you’ll have to open side-by-side with your draft to make the connections. This is inefficient and confusing.

Instead, use a Google doc and have your editor enter his suggestions at the locations where they belong. Keeping everything in one place will make the conversation and integration a more pleasant process.

This is what I did for my article: I agreed with my editor that we would be using a Google doc and that he would be adding his edits in it.

After 48 hours, the editor was done as per our agreed timeline. He had spent four hours and twenty minutes on it.

As I opened my doc, what I saw blew my mind.

The outcome was worth it

The editor had left 439 suggestions to make the article better, and on top of that he also gave me actionable feedback on how to generally improve my writing.

I am sharing below some of the advice he gave on my writing in general, which I can apply to all my future writing.

I broke up some of the larger paragraphs for the sake of readability. Generally, if something appears on your blog, then you’re going to want to limit paragraph length to no more than six lines. Four is better. But there’s no such thing as a minimum amount of lines for a paragraph. A paragraph can be one word, if you want to bring a lot of attention to it. So generally if a paragraph can be broken down, go for it.

The word “just” can almost always be omitted. It’s often a bit of a filler word. However, it’s fine to use it when it’s absolutely critical to the meaning of a sentence. In this case, the word “simply” already serves the same purpose earlier in the sentence, so “just” is not needed.

It’s best to leave out filter words like these because they soften your authority on the subject. This is your article, and we’re here to learn from your experience and recommendations, so there’s no need to tell us that you recommend something. Just tell us, and we’ll understand that it’s your recommendation.

It’s best to avoid “etc.” whenever possible. Instead, either add more items to the list or make it clear that the list is not exhaustive. It’s pretty clear this list is not exhaustive, so there’s really no need to use it here.

How to make the most out of this experience?

I just paid US$180 (which is €140) for feedback on a Google doc.

I told myself I better take advantage of this! Sure, the editor helped me make the article more solid and engaging, however, I also wanted to turn this into an opportunity to level up my writing skills.

Just as the editor finished and before I started integrating any of his suggestions, I created a full copy of the document, including all his comments and suggestions.

That way I get to keep the full history of the suggestions and I know I can revisit them in the future if needed. For this I did the following in Google doc:

  • Go to File => Make a copy
  • Check “Copy comments and suggestions”
  • Check “Include resolved comments and suggestions”
  • Uncheck “Share it with the same people”

I also decided to go one step further, and to create a document to keep track of the feedback and of my recurring mistakes, which I plan to update as I work with other editors in the future.

For example, in my file I have multiple categories:

  • Some of the English idioms that I keep getting wrong:
    • Take a decision => Make a decision
    • Make yourself a favor => Do yourself a favor
    • This is the case of => This is the case with
  • General mistakes and alternative wordings I should pay more attention to:
    • There is two => There are two
    • Whatever => Any, anything, other
    • Learnings => Learning
    • Super important => Incredibly important
  • Filler words to avoid:
    • Really
    • Going to
    • Even
    • As to
    • Very

By working with this one editor on my 4,000-word article, I was able to collect eight pages worth of mistakes and advice, which I can now use as a general checklist to edit my writing in the future.

For example, this very article you are reading went through a few passes of editing which I did myself based on what I learned with this professional editor and using the checklist I built.

Alternatives to hiring an editor

If you can afford it, go hire an editor. I was lucky to find someone talented in such a short time, and you may not be as lucky with your first experience. If this happens, do not lose faith and try again with someone else at least once, or ask your network for recommendations.

I plan to hire the same editor in the future to further improve my writing, and to hire other people as well to get some diversity of advice. I certainly cannot afford to do that for every article I write, but a few times per year sounds feasible.

Then, of course, not everyone has the luxury of spending $180 on a copy editor. If this is your case and you’d like to improve your writing, below are cheaper things you can do starting today.

First, you can join an online community of writers, and receive feedback on your writing in exchange for your feedback on theirs. Some active communities are critters.org and subreddits such as r/DestructiveReaders/.

Second, you can use a tool like LanguageTool.org or Grammarly.com to get feedback on your writing from an algorithm. It doesn’t replace the human touch, but it’s free and it will catch a lot of mistakes rapidly. Due to privacy concerns, I recommend that you do not install their browser extension, and instead use the service like a web app by pasting your text into it.

Second, you can pick a couple of books on writing, and apply their advice diligently to your writing. My two favorite books on the topics are The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk Jr., and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, both of which are light reads and provide generic advice that beginner-to-intermediate writers will benefit from. I find myself going back to them regularly.

I hope you found my story useful, and that it will inspire you to write more!

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Published inAlgorithms and Programming

4 Comments

  1. Alexandre Alexandre

    Hi Emmanuel,

    Very interessant reading, once again. And I can confirm what you say : writing is one of the soft skill which can help you in any job !

    Do you have similar hints for French writing? Like a method to ask or a site to look at?

    In my current job, I write more French document than English ones.

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