An editor receiving messages and packages from all directions.

What the in-house editor is looking for

by John Pettigrew

Editors are demanding people, and if you’re working with one then it helps to know what they need. Here are my top tips for the care and feeding of in-house editors.

When an in-house editor is sending work out of house – whether to a freelancer or a contractor – there are some obvious things they want. Familiarity with the subject or market. Good grammar. Not too expensive.

Freelancers often, understandably, fixate on the last of these when negotiating for work. And some publishers do pay woefully low rates to their freelancers. But to the editor placing the work, the headline rate matters much less than freelancers often think.

So, if price isn’t the be-all and end-all, what are in-house editors really looking for from their freelancers? Here’s my top three.


When sending work out of house, the editor isn’t surrendering control. They can’t – they are still responsible to the business for how the work goes. This means that, beyond competence in the basic skills, editors prize professionalism in their freelancers.

Behaving professionally means more than using appropriate language in emails and phone calls. It means being able to estimate how long a job will take, and telling the editor well in advance if your estimate was off – and why. It means asking the important questions in good time rather than returning work full of queries that could have been dealt with.

More than anything, it means living up to what you promise – deadlines, budget and quality. If you perform predictably well and make the editor’s life easier by the way to conduct projects, they will give you more work.


This is, in a sense, part of professionalism but it deserves its own heading. Few of us would actively lie to get work (as I said above, it doesn’t work in the long term anyway) but a lot of people are economical with the truth. Perhaps you know the project will take three weeks but you promise to deliver in two because the editor asked you to – and then have to take three weeks anyway (or, worse, deliver in two weeks but with only half the job done). Or perhaps the editor emails to ask whether chapter 4 will be with her today and you reply “Yes” because, after all, no one likes to disappoint the client – but you don’t finish until the next day.

Editors place repeat work with suppliers they trust. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re never disappointed (surprises can happen to anyone). It means that, when things go wrong, they’re always informed and that the freelancer suggests solutions that they actually deliver on.


Freelancers shouldn’t be on time only when they return completed jobs (although you should absolutely do that). Remember that the editor’s trying to save their own time, probably because they’re extremely busy.

That means that you should respond to emails and phone calls – preferably the same day. You’d be surprised how many times editors contact freelancers only to receive a stony silence in reply!

It can be hard to justify carving out the time from a day’s paying work to do admin like emails. But if you don’t maintain your relationship with the editors, they’ll stop trying to place work with you. And devoting 15 minutes a day to dealing with these requests is effort well spent.

That’s my shortlist of things I look for in a freelance. What are your top tips?

About the author

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has over 15 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.

Join the conversation


 Ciara – March 31, 2014

The number one thing I look for in an editor is consistency, in the editorial sense of the word. And applying house style. The points above are obviously important but secondary, for me.
Anything else just means you spend as much time checking and correcting as you would have just editing it yourself to begin with. That said, when you find an excellent copy editor it’s a dream!

     John Pettigrew – March 31, 2014

    Absolutely – “get the job done right” is a good mantra for any editor.

 Mikel – March 31, 2014

As the managing editor for each book project, I need proofreaders who are absolutely perfect in their work and who take enough time to check and double check their work before sending it back to me. Unfortunately some proofreaders rush through a job, trying to grind out more work in a week, I suppose. I never give them a second chance.

     John Pettigrew – March 31, 2014

    Thanks, Mikel. I couldn’t agree more – getting it right is the foundation of the job. And you can always tell when someone has rushed the job. Finding people who understand that we want them to spend the time (and effort) needed can be tricky, but I’ve had the good fortune to work with some fantastic freelancers. Having those people available to help makes life so much better.

 Walking the tightrope: life as a freelancer – October 7, 2015

[…] Don’t forget, in-house editors aren’t just looking for the cheapest supplier. They want someone who’s going to make their life easier. […]

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