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  • Writer's pictureSiân Smith

5 questions editors should ask authors

When I finished my first two proofreading qualifications with the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) I thought I had a pretty good grounding in how to discuss a potential author’s book so that we’d both know what the project would involve. But when I started creating my template of questions and wanted to check if I’d missed anything, the only posts that came back when I searched ‘questions an editor should ask an author’ were ‘questions an author should ask an editor’.

While there is plenty of crossover here, the questions an editor asks an author in that first discovery call can really help clarify things from the outset, saving confusion for either party. It’s also worth mentioning that an editor and author work together. So although these questions are important – and need addressing – it’s just as important that you both seem to just ‘get’ each other during that first call. (I’m very bubbly and enthusiastic, which some people will love, and some won’t!)

A woman with blonde, wavy hair, wearing gold, round glasses. She's wearing a blue and white stripey top underneath some dungarees. She sits on an office chair with a filled bookcase behind her.
Hi there! I'm Siân, a non-fiction book editor and proofreader. Photo credit: Siân Smith

1. Ask about the basics

OK, OK, OK … so this is really a series of questions, and although most proofreading courses advise you ask these fundamental questions at the start of every project, I knew I had to include them! Every editor should find out the following answers to these questions:

  • What is the format of your manuscript? (Microsoft Word is standard for copyediting, PDF is common for final proofreads.)

  • What will the final word count be?

  • Is there a deadline?

  • Are you self-publishing or sending your book to a publishing house?

  • Is there a style guide to follow? If not, are you happy for me to create one? These basic, but crucial, facts provide an accurate turnaround time and project fee.

2. What stage is your work at?

When most people or authors think of ‘book editor’, the image that comes to mind is of an author and their book editor, heads together, pawing over a manuscript, red pen in hand. Or perhaps discussing the book with a whole team across an impressive table, with lots of coffee and pastries.

This is covered more in point 3, but finding out what stage an author’s manuscript is at will alert you to whether your author is querying ahead of time to incorporate editing costs into their projects, or might be looking for a writing coach, beta reader, or developmental editor. I try to make it clear I work with finished manuscripts because my three services for authors are manuscript appraisals, copyediting, and proofreading – all of which require a finished manuscript.

3. Have you used an editing service before?

Asking this question serves two purposes: (1) you get to explain about the differences between various editing levels and (2) you can ask about their experience with other editors.

  • Explain the publishing process and which of your services fit in where

It’s important your author understands the publishing workflow and where your various services sit:

Of course, your author will also need to consider book cover design, and ISBN allocation and registration.

I’m very upfront with my authors and understand that many self-publishing authors don’t have the time and budget for every single stage of the above publishing workflow. Structural changes to books occur before either copyediting or proofreading but can make a huge difference to the clarity and readability of a book. It's important authors understand that copyediting means going through the whole book line-by-line to make sure that every word choice has been thought about or changed if necessary, whereas proofreading is done right before publishing and only looks to amend errors.

Once I’ve explained what my different services involve, most authors decide which one they feel will make the most difference to their book. For example, I’m currently working with an author who is such a brilliant writer we have decided to do two rounds of manuscript evaluations followed by a final round of proofreading once the book has been formatted as a PDF, instead of a copyediting round. Many authors choose one detailed copyediting service.

  • What was your experience like with other editors?

Finding out whether your author has ever used an editing service before is extremely eye-opening.

Some authors will have never used an editing service and therefore have no idea what to expect. You may need to hold their hand throughout the process but just be sure you also remind them what is within your remit – else scope creep could occur.

Other authors may have had a negative experience with previous editors. I’ve worked with a few authors who found their book changed too much after editing, causing them to lose all confidence in publishing it. In these situations, I know they’re looking for a thorough but lighter touch with editing.

I’ve also worked with authors who have previously published through a publishing house and have chosen to self-publish their next book. Again, it’s important they understand how far your role can go. It’s not that you don’t want to help, but you should outline the timeframe and budget and make sure you’re both happy with what can be achieved.

4. Has your book been influenced by other authors? Or, are there any comparisons to other books on this subject matter?

I love asking this question as it helps identify both their own authorial voice and their intended reader. It’s just as important to ask if there are any books on the subject matter that they DIDN’T like, and why. Was it the way the information was formatted/presented? The style of writing?

Sometimes I’ll ask if they’ve read a book that their project reminds me of, to see whether that’s the sort of book they’d like to be associated with or avoid. I try to get hold of both types of books (the ones they love and the ones they hate) so I can get some ideas on formatting and voice style, as well as ensuring there aren’t any copyright issues.

A bookcase with the title 'Mind, Body & Spirit, full of colourful books
Has your author's book been influenced by other books? Photo credit: Siân Smith

5. Are you happy for me to tag you on my social media?

This is a final but really important question to ask. Most of my clients find me through my social media, so we both understand the value of marketing through social media. Asking your author whether you can tag them on social media ensures you don’t cross a line with any privacy they hold surrounding their book. I would say, however, that marketing a book starts before it’s published, so even if your author doesn’t want to give anything away about their book, personally I think authors should let their audience know they’re writing a book and create a decent buzz about it. I usually offer this approach: ‘I can just tag you on my social as your book editor. I don’t need to mention the subject matter, and certainly not the title!’

Another reason to encourage your author to get used to talking about their book can be to get them used to opening up about the subject matter. I work with a lot of women writing about mental health and wellbeing problems they’ve faced and overcome. Getting used to talking about this beyond the pages of the book is scary for a lot of authors, but the more you do it, the less scary it becomes.

Finally, I want my authors to celebrate and enjoy being an author! Writing and publishing a book is a huge achievement and I want them to feel supported by their followers, family, and friends throughout the whole process. Way before the actual book launch.

Two books held by a white hand with blue nail polish: 'The Book You Were Born to Write' by Kelly Notaras and 'Dare to Write' by Steph Caswell
Two books filled with cheerleading for authors: 'The Book You Were Born to Write' by Kelly Notaras and 'Dare to Write' by Steph Caswell. Photo credit: Siân Smith

Find out more about my non-fiction editing services or see what other authors think of my editing approach by reading my testimonials. If you think we might be a good fit, then email me ( to arrange a free discovery call. If that goes well, I’ll edit up to 1,000 words for free, so you can check you like my editing style. These two stages are offered so you can be absolutely sure we’ll make a good team!

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