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  • Writer's pictureCatie Phares

Finding the right editor: Green lights and red flags

If you don’t yet have the funding to work with a results-oriented, experienced editor who specializes in your area of study (like our team)—what’s your next best option? 

Sometimes a tight budget has to be the top priority for academics, in which case I often recommend seeking an experienced freelance editor who prefers slower turnaround times or has less specialized experience in business research, as these factors should lower the price. 

And yet I always worry when I have to send someone off to seek another editor—far more than I’d like. The online business realm remains the Wild West of transactions: how do you know a company or freelancer will even do what they say, let alone on time and to a high standard? I’ve heard some heartbreaking stories over the years. People who deposited hundreds of dollars into a random PayPal account and never heard from the “editor” again. People who paid for specialized academic editing from a journal-recommended company but ultimately received something that was just run through Grammarly (if that). Or even worse—stolen IP, identity theft, and more.

That’s why I created the following table, based on my 14 years of experience in this industry: to help academics with various budgets navigate the process of finding a reliable editor (by looking for green lights) and avoid the dodgy ones (by avoiding red flags).

Area of Consideration

Green Light 🟢

Red Flag 🚩🚩🚩


They’ve helped other clients get the result you want before. They have a portfolio of work and/or will perform a sample edit of some length to show you what they do.

They don’t or won’t discuss the real results that their work has helped achieve. They won’t show you past work or edit any length of text without charging.


They do not take any money up front, or they take a partial deposit before the work starts under the terms of a very clear contract that protects you and them if things don’t go to plan. They’re also able and willing to accept the most legitimate and secure forms of payment, like major credit cards, bank transfers, or cheques. 

They require more than 50% of the estimated job fee up front, or any amount of money with no clear contract/terms in place. (EXCEPTION: larger projects like books should involve advance payment—but again, with a clear contract in place.) They won't invest in being able to accept the most legitimate and secure forms of payment.


At least 3 years’ experience editing your specific type of document and in your area, so they know the basic norms, terminology, aims, requirements, etc. that will help improve this document’s chances of success.

Less than 3 years’ experience editing your type of document and in your area.


They numerous positive testimonials from others in your specific niche, or from a wide range of people and disciplines.

They have no testimonials, a few positive but vague testimonials, or testimonials only from a niche that isn’t yours (e.g., many satisfied science fiction authors, but your document is an innovation research grant application).

How you found them

By asking your colleagues who they use for editing (the ideal); by searching a professional directory of editors with your area of research as the keyword; by personal invitation/outreach if the editor already has other satisfied clients at your institution.

By searching large freelancer platforms; by conducting an online search for academic editing generally (the biggest and not necessarily best firms will come up); by seeing ads for them (again, only the biggest firms can afford this, and in my experience, they put way more money toward advertising than securing top-tier editors).

Official qualifications and memberships

They emphasize client results and point to their professional memberships or qualifications as supporting information.

They emphasize their professional memberships or qualifications but have little or no client results to mention.


They seem easy to work with and passionate about helping people.

They seem difficult to work with and passionate about correcting people.


Their communications with you use correct and professional language and punctuation; typos are rare in their copy, comments, and emails. (In my experience, good editors are hyper-aware of the need to present polished communications, given the nature of our work).

Their communications with you are terse or vague, and/or typically contain at least one mistake.


Their primary focus is you: your goals, needs, preferences, schedule, and how they can make your life easier.

Their primary focus is them: their needs, preferences, schedule, and how you can make their life easier.


When an obstacle or conflict arises in the relationship, they remain polite and eager to help resolve it.

When an obstacle or conflict arises, they become cold, dismissive, angry, or abruptly terminate the relationship.


Medium to very high (especially for demonstrable, high-value results). Any less than US$0.05 per word would have me wary, unless the editing is extremely light (proofreading only) and the turnaround time relatively slow.

Very low to very high; in other words, a high price doesn’t guarantee the work will be good, but a low price virtually guarantees that the work will be bad.

Turnaround time

Cannot accommodate more than approx. 7000 words per 24 hours, unless the editing is extremely light (essentially proofreading—even so, I'd be wary about just how careful the proofreading can be at that speed).

Readily accommodates more than 7000 words per 24 hours (extra red flag if that’s a promise about heavier types of editing, like line editing and developmental editing).


They treat your writing and information as highly confidential and can cite at least a few measures they’ve taken to protect client data when asked.

They don’t seem to have thought of security measures, either for your information or their own.

Company structure

Sole proprietor/freelancer or specialized agency with most (ideally all) of the above green lights—especially glowing testimonials and proven results. 

A sole proprietor or agency with very few green lights, or a large, faceless company—even one that’s been around a long time and has good reviews (the bigger they are, the easier it is to cherry-pick or fabricate these). EXCEPTION: A company that offers academic editing only and hires academics in your field as their editors; these types of firms will not be cheap and should, ideally, still be tried and approved by someone you know personally before you send them a document or deposit.

NOTE: Before a bunch of editors get really upset with me, let me clarify: one red flag isn’t a deal breaker, and one green light isn’t a stamp of approval. (In fact, I myself fell under the “red flag” side on turnaround time for years, because I’ve always liked to work in sprints and was happy to try and accommodate emergency jobs.) Rather, it’s more like the presence of one red flag should be a signal to check for others—and more than a few is too many. 

And if you’re reading this list and reflecting, sadly, that the only editors you’ve ever found in your budget have exhibited several red flags, my honest advice would be this: don’t hire an editor yet. Instead, (1) use resources like my blog and classes and other editors’ excellent books on writing to become a stronger writer and self-editor (in the long-term); and (2) use the tech that’s available to help you edit your own work (in the short-term)—even the free version of ChatGPT is better than some editors like to admit if it’s given clear prompts. Naturally, neither of those two options is a substitute for the transformation that a professional editor can bring to your document. But the long-term aids are a fraction of the cost as well as a solid investment in your ongoing success, given the importance of strong writing skills to a career in academia. 

-Catie Phares


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