You’ve slaved over your novel, and now you’re ready to send it out into the world. Should you consider hiring an editor, and if so, what kind?
- If your novel needs help with plot and characterization, hire a developmental editor.
- If you’re shaky on facts and need someone to check your dates, proper names, timeline, or geography, hire a copy editor.
- Writers who need help with sentence structure should seek out a line editor.
- And, finally, spare yourself the embarrassment of having a book full of typos and hire a proofreader.
This article walks you through the services each of these editors offers. You’ll learn where to find editors and how much to pay them.
Poorly Written Manuscripts
Hiring an editor can be a painful experience for both the author and editor. That’s because expectations don’t mesh with reality. The editor hopes to receive a manuscript that’s basically sound and well written. The author expects the editor to fix problems and make the manuscript the equal of books published by New York publishing houses.
On LinkedIn and SheWrites I often read comments from authors who’ve been disappointed in the editorial help they’ve received. “I hired an editor,” some say, “but I’m still getting one- and two-star reviews.”
First off, no editor can rescue a poorly written manuscript. That’s why celebrities penning their memoirs hire ghost writers. Ghost writers know how to structure a story. They can capture the celeb’s voice and create a balance between scene and summary.
Sadly, quality can’t be injected during the editorial process. Editors do the best they can, but they must work with what’s on the page.
A developmental editor looks at plot, characterization, voice, and setting. Writers can do themselves a favor by seeking the help of a developmental editor early in the game. How early? After the first or second draft. (If you’ve never written a book before, be realistic about the number of drafts it’s going to take to get the book in shape for publication. Six or seven is the minimum, and that number can go much higher.)
If you hire an editor early in your writing process, you’ll find out where and what to revise. If you need to kill off a character or add scenes, you can “re-envision” your plot.
Perhaps your novel would benefit from a point-of-view change. Instead of the tedious “I” voice nattering on and on, a limit-third point-of-view could give your novel the spark it needs.
Possibly an editor will suggest that you shift the tense from present to simple past. (“I’m going to bury the body right now” versus “I buried the body yesterday.”)
Maybe the story doesn’t even “belong” to the protagonist, but to a minor character who stands to one side. (Think of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.)
Judgments about narrative strategies are subjective, but like doctors at a university teaching hospital, developmental editors have seen a lot of manuscripts: They can prescribe remedies.
If authors wait too long to seek such input, it’s likely they’ll be “locked in” to the manuscript as it stands. It’s human nature to resist advice that suggests you might need to tear apart your magnum opus when you’re sick of it and just want it to be published.
When you’ve dealt with the novel’s structural issues, your manuscript can still benefit from editorial help. A copy editor checks facts and looks for inconsistencies. One of the biggest inconsistencies is that of the novel’s timeline. Plot changes can introduce errors. The backdrop of historical events may be off by a year, or the sequence of events in your protagonist’s life may have changed as you moved from draft to draft. If you don’t fix these errors, your readers will notice.
A second potential problem has to do with setting. I’ve seen manuscripts with scenes that took place in Champaign-Urbana, IL, a place I lived for twelve years, and it was clear that the authors had never once set foot in downstate Illinois. The travel routes were wrong and descriptions of landmarks flawed. Factual inconsistencies threw me out of the story, and I immediately began to dislike the book. Could a copy editor have fixed this? No. A copy editor might catch an inaccurate highway number, but they won’t rewrite passages that are just plain wrong.
Copy editors excel at catching grammar and punctuation errors. Misplaced modifiers are one of the most common errors they’ll flag. A copy editor will catch homonym errors. (If you’ve written “pour”–meaning to fill a glass with milk–rather than “pore”–meaning to read a newspaper intently–then your copy editor should alert you to the problem.) And, a copy editor will also catch errors with dashes, ellipses, semicolons, and quotation marks. No doubt your copy editor will also fine-tune your use of the Oxford comma.
The copy editor’s Bible is the Chicago Manual of Style, otherwise known as CMOS. If you don’t know that publication (or its website), you should get acquainted. Also, you should become familiar with Proofreaders’ Marks. You’ll need to understand what your copy editor is advising you to do.
Line editors concentrate on the quality of the writing in your sentences. They may move clauses or trim dialogue. Their job differs from that of the copy editor in that they aren’t fact-checking. What they’re doing is trying to make your writing more readable. Sometimes, a line editor and a copy editor will be one and the same person, but often their skills will differ slightly. If your sentences are hard to read aloud, then hiring a line editor to go over at least one chapter of your manuscript might be a good investment.
Many authors skip hiring a developmental editor and copy editor. Instead, they go straight for having their novel proofread. I think that’s a mistake. You want to save the proofreader’s sharp eyes for those errors no one else has caught. If you’ve hired a copy editor to go over your manuscript before it’s typeset, a proofreader should find only the occasional grammar problem.
However, even with a relatively clean manuscript, proofreaders will still find glitches. When I was proofing my short story collection, Bonds of Love & Blood, I found an occasional extra space at the start of a line of dialogue. I don’t know how those got there because I never tab my paragraphs.
I do use two carriage returns to signal a section break, and my copy editor found one instance where the section break occurred at the bottom of the page. The typesetting had to be adjusted so that the text would flow properly.
Errors like this will only be apparent after the manuscript is typeset.
How Much Will It Cost To Hire An Editor?
Before you commit to an editor, make sure that person is going to be a good fit for your kind of book. If you’ve written a romance novel, make sure your editor has worked with other authors in that genre. See if the editor is willing to look at 20 to 25 pages.
Does the editor send feedback promptly? One of the major complaints authors have is that the editors they hire do not return the edited manuscript when they say they will. You need to make sure the person you hire is capable of doing the work in a businesslike fashion.
The Editorial Freelance Association has put together a chart that shows what you can expect to pay. Costs range from $30/hour to $60, depending on what kind of editor you need to hire. But where do you find such people?
Joanna Penn, a top-selling author and guru in the self-publishing world, has put together a terrific list. Jane Friedman, another blogger with wonderful resources for aspiring authors, has this helpful article.
One of the writers in my Tempe writers’ group has very good things to say about The Editorial Department. In addition to all of the editorial services mentioned above, they can provide a crash course in editing. (See the “craft teaching” tab on their website.)
One of my favorite “go to” editors is Wendy Tokunaga. She’s an excellent developmental editor, and she can also help you craft a dynamite query letter.
A Judgment Call
Very few authors get any financial payback for the toil they put into the writing. Hiring one or more editors means you’ll be shelling out money before your book even goes to press. Will spending $1,000 to $1,500 on editorial services be worth it? Only you can decide.
If your goal is to write a quality book, one you can be proud of, then, yes, you should hire one or more editors. Writers who want to find an agent should definitely have a developmental editor weigh in.
What about the other types of editors? It depends on your writing skill. If you’re new to writing, then you will definitely benefit from hiring a line editor.
In an ideal world you should have your book copy-edited before it is typeset. After the book is typeset, you would then need a proofreader to go over the galley copies, meaning the typeset version of your manuscript. Of course, you will go over it, too, but by this time, you’ll be so familiar with your manuscript that you won’t see small errors.
If your goal is simply to get a book up there on Amazon and you don’t care about quality, then try to find three or four grammar sticklers to go over your book.
Hiring an editor can make all the difference. If you want your book to do well, then perfect it before you let it out of your hands.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.