For more than 20 years, I’ve overseen and provided substantive editing, copyediting, and editorial proofreading both as a managing editor and senior editor. I’ve worked with teams to turn out sparkling text for reports, online trainings, newsletters, speeches, and promotional materials covering youth policy, child welfare, substance abuse, health policy, international development, and other policy areas, usually on tight deadlines.

About Editorial Levels

Freelance editors should understand the type of editing the client is seeking. Below are definitions of the editorial levels and the time required for each:

Substantive Editing

Speed: 4 double-spaced pages an hour

Editing at this level requires the most judgment and experience. Where needed, a substantive editor makes major revisions in a document’s structure to ensure that it achieves its intended purpose. The editor corrects for the following, at a minimum:

Organization and logical flow between sentences, paragraphs, and sections
Clarification and simplification of language
Active/passive voice
Word choice
Sentence length


Speed: 6-8 double-spaced pages an hour

A copyeditor checks for adherence to established rules. Two good copyeditors working from the same style guide should make roughly the same revisions. The copyeditor corrects for issues related to the following, at a minimum:

Adherence to company or project style
Widows, orphans, and other formatting
Use of abbreviations and acronyms
Consistency in how terms are used
Missing words
Inconsistent text spacing
Accuracy of the table of contents

Editorial Proofreading

Speed: 10 double-spaced pages an hour

Editorial proofreaders step in just before the document is released to conduct a final read, normally checking only for egregious errors. Proofreaders keep corrections to a minimum because each new change can introduce a new error elsewhere. Proofreaders check for the following and for any other issues that the client thinks may have been missed at previous stages:

Missing words
Noticeable formatting errors, such as extra spaces between words or lines and bad page breaks
Noticeable grammatical or stylistic errors, such as lack of subject-verb agreement or inconsistent use of numerals or spelled-out numbers

What To Expect From Your Freelance Editor

What should you look for in a freelance editor? Good editors have relationship skills that match their technical proficiency—they show grace under pressure, respect deadlines, and know how to take direction. Successful freelancers also do the following at a minimum:

Edit at the Requested Level

It may seem obvious that editors should work at the requested editorial level. In fact, it sometimes requires restraining their editorial instincts and understanding that there is a bigger picture—a budget shortfall, a compressed production schedule, or externally imposed limits on the managing editor’s authority all can affect what can be done to the document editorially. Successful consultants understand those realities and adjust to their clients’ wishes. It’s often helpful to have a consultant edit a small portion of the document and send it to the client before moving forward so that both sides have clear expectations.

Keep Style Questions in Perspective

The strength of good editors is attention to detail, but it can also be our downfall. The small issues that an editorial consultant may have with a client’s house style—like whether to use “e-mail” or “email” or to allow split infinitives—are important to raise if the editor thinks they’re critical to readability. But if the client disagrees, editors need to accept the decision and move on. Good editors understand that clients may have multiple conflicts to negotiate daily and that they’ll be happier if disputes over minor editorial issues aren’t among them.

Communicate Succinctly

Skilled editors know how to communicate in a way that maximizes the client’s time. For example, they group their queries into a single e-mail instead of sending multiple individual queries; they phrase their queries such that the client can say “yes” or “no” (instead of asking open-ended queries); and they edit their queries so that they’re clear.