The top 7 questions every freelance book editor should ask

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June 28, 2021
5 minute read

Editing is a sacred step in the writing process. It’s when words on paper become vibrant mental images and a story becomes a journey for the reader. This is especially true in book editing, where there is no opportunity to click onto the next post for more information. Working as a freelance editor, your job is to bring out that journey and evoke those mental images, so it’s critical you ask the right questions. Here’s why asking questions is necessary and the seven questions every book editor should ask.

Why asking questions is crucial

Asking the right questions makes everyone’s life easier.

For authors: A book is like a baby. Talking with an editor before they dive into the work is critical for trust building and feeling more confident that you are the right person to do the job. Further, an editor asking questions helps authors clarify their stance, their needs, and their work process, which is catharsis for authors as much as it is convenient for editors.

For editors: Asking questions gives you a glimpse into the author’s world, which is exactly where you need to be. You gain space for clarification and a better understanding of what the author wants and needs from you. It sets expectations and provides context that will feed the whole process. It can also help you identify knowledge gaps you may need to fill with editing courses or other helpful resources.

1. What’s the elevator pitch for the story?

Asking the author for a succinct elevator pitch that includes only the key points necessary for understanding is essential because it serves as your guiding light throughout the editing process. Once you have this framework, as you work your way through the book you know all other details have to feed into this narrative and fit cleanly within the framework. Having a strong elevator pitch allows you as the editor to confidently figure out what fits and what doesn’t.

2. What’s your writing process?

Another important question to ask your author is about their writing process, since this helps identify where you as the editor need to plug in (or not). For example, some authors prefer to have edits done as they write, while others won’t let anyone look at their work until they’ve completed the whole chapter. Whatever the author’s writing process is, understanding it will help you as the editor know when you’re needed, when you’re not, and how to work symbiotically with the author.

3. Who is your ideal reader?

By asking the author who their ideal reader is, you can understand who the book is speaking to, and help make the words connect to the reader in a more effective way. For example, if you’re writing towards an academic audience, you probably should edit out any turns of phrase or colloquialisms. Similarly, if writing for a young adult audience you should edit out overly complex or twisted metaphors that won’t make sense to someone without significant life experience.

4. Why did you write this book?

Authors write books for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s to have their personal story told, sometimes it’s to help others travelling on the same path they once did. Other times it’s simply to entertain the reader.

Whatever the reason, it is your job as the editor to uncover it and learn the motivation behind the writing. If the author has a clear motivation, take it and run. However, sometimes the author cannot give you a clearcut reason, and or in some cases their reasons might even seem selfish. Take this as an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with the author. A seemingly selfish reason for writing a book usually means there is an uncovered vision that can help with the editorial process—you just need to find it.

5. What journey do you want your readers to go on throughout the book?

Whether a book is fiction, non-fiction, autobiographical, educational, etc. it will always take the reader on some sort of journey. As the editor, you need to understand what the author wants this journey to be. Is it meant to be a journey of exploration? Understanding? Self-knowledge? Inward analysis? Anger? Something else? Whatever it is, having a good knowledge of the intended journey will enable you to make the story weave together to cultivate this experience.

6. What authors do you admire from a writing style perspective?

As humans, we tend to mirror what we admire, and writing is no exception. Asking the writer what authors they admire from a writing style perspective gives you a sense of what they’re aiming for in their own work. It also provides comparisons to work from throughout your editing process, which will provide not only inspiration during the process but something of a shield if your author is upset by edits you’ve made. You can point to quotes from authors that your client admires if your client is concerned about any of the edits you've made.

7. What feelings do you want the reader to have after finishing the book?

Similar to the intended journey, chances are the author has a goal of how they want the reader to feel after they’ve finished the book. Regardless of what this feeling is, having this knowledge as the editor helps you know the tone you’re vibing at. It also provides guidance on how the aforementioned journey should end.

Your job as an editor is to question

As the editor, your number one job is to bring out the best possible version of your author’s story, to highlight the right moments, and ensure the reader is taken on a journey. This cannot be achieved without asking questions, and more specifically, without asking the right questions. The author might have finished writing the book, but if you don’t ask questions before beginning the editing process, you’re only getting half the story.