Why You Should Hire an Editor (And How To Find One)
Learn more about the different types of editing, and how to find an editor for your manuscript.
Writing a book and editing a book are two very different tasks. The value of an editor is in their ability as an outsider to evaluate a manuscript with a critical eye. They have the know-how to break down the story arc-by-arc, page-by-page, line-by-line and word-by-word to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a novel.
While self-editing is an important skill, and one used to some degree by all self-published authors and those traditionally published, it can become easy to become blind to a typo when you know what it’s supposed to say. To make the best book possible, writers at all stages of development, from novices to best-selling authors, can (and should) take advantage of professional editing to help improve their story.
Why work with an editor?
Imagine you've just published your first book. After months or even years of writing and fine-tuning your unique story, the reviews start rolling in. Amongst your accolades are a few two-star reviews. Prepared to take the criticism on your plot, you find out that the review is not about your story, but rather on the instances of head hopping and grammatical errors the readers found in your book.
Readers today have certain expectations regarding standards of readability, grammar, etc. in the novels they purchase. Your book deserves to be judged on the merits of your story and your writing style, not sidelined because of preventable mistakes.
The relationship with your editor is more than just fixing mistakes. Unless you have an amazing critique partner, no one else will be as familiar with your manuscript as your editor, thus helping you to improve the story and become a better writer. The best editors provide feedback but can also be a partner in overcoming any plot holes, or fixing any character development issues.
Can’t I use AI?
There are some amazing programs out there today that can take your writing to new levels. Grammarly and Pro-Writing Aid offer the power to assess your manuscript and identify common grammatical errors. They are a good starting point for a first draft. However, these computer-generated editors are limited to the rigid rules defined by their programmers. They offer cookie-cutter solutions where experienced editors can provide customized feedback unique to your genre, story and style.
Types of Editing Services
Also called structural or substantive editing, this type of editor takes into consideration the entirety of your manuscript. They look at the big picture, checking for things like a balanced structure, plot holes, pacing and character development. They may also do some fact checking to make sure the book has no glaring errors.
At this stage, the editor should be able to assess your story from a publishing standard point of view. This honest and unfiltered opinion of your book can provide a perspective on your story that your alpha or beta readers who are already primed to provide helpful feedback cannot. Most developmental editors will provide a detailed report outlining the manuscript’s strengths and opportunities for improvement, in addition to leaving comments within the manuscript.
Often referred to as stylistic editing, line editing clears up your writing with the goal of making it more engaging. Removing disembodied talking heads and undefined descriptions, this level of editing happens at the paragraph and sentence level. They focus on line structure, word choice, and flow between sentences and paragraphs.
Line editors check for:
Point of view: first-person, third-person, etc.
Tense: present, past, etc.
Voice: active or passive
Action: confusing stage directing
Transitions: cliff-hangers or choppy cuts
Length: run-on sentences
Rhythm: sentence length or bland words
Often confused with proofreading, copy editing takes into consideration the basics of language with the goal of making your manuscript readable. Grammar is looked at here involving:
Consistency is checked across your document to ensure that names don't change for characters or places. Depending on the subject of your novel, a good copy editor will also look at facts to ensure that historical details are accurate.
Proofreading is the last and final stage of the process. Here, the editor will ensure that your manuscript is as polished as possible, focusing in on fine details and style aspects, including:
Widows and orphans
Which type of editor do you need?
This is a tricky question to answer because it's unique to every writer but also to every book.
If this is your first story and you plan on publishing, it might be a good idea to try all four editors. The developmental editor can help you determine if your structure follows “sellable” guidelines. The line editor can help you with head hopping and other common issues beginning writers trip over. Copy editing can make sure that your main character's name is spelled correctly across all formats and proofreading will ensure your manuscript has fewer rounds of formatting as you or your readers uncover minor mistakes.
If you are a more established writer, you may choose only two or three of these options. For example, if you have a good alpha or beta team of readers, they may be able to act as your developmental editor, giving you feedback on where the story drags or certain factors that are confusing or misleading.
Is there a course for that?
Of course, you could decide to become your own editor. There are various online courses or even books that can help you become an expert in any one of these editing roles. However, a word of caution; sometimes as writers we can't see the forest for the trees, and it helps to have an outside perspective on our work. No one knows your manuscript as well as you, and sometimes that makes you blind to potential issues.
Working with an editor can be a little bit like taking a master course where you are the only student, and your work is the only thing that is discussed. Plus, at the end of the process, you have a fully edited book to show for all your work.
Where to find a professional editor
Check the acknowledgments of books you like. An author who has had a good experience with an editor will often list them in the back pages of their books. It's a matter of a little online research which may lead to examples of their work and their contact information. Reach out to them and mention the book you found them in and what your needs are.
Note: Some book editors work in-house full-time for traditional publishing companies, and may therefore not be available. But it never hurts to try.
Ask your fellow writers. If you have writer friends or even just a member of a writing group on Facebook, a quick shout out will probably garner multiple responses. It's also likely that editors are in these groups and will approach you to offer their services.
Talk to people in the business. Your cover designer or book formatter may work with an editor. Maybe your mentor has some suggestions, or a literary agent you had a connection with knows a well-respected editor. Chances are if you like that person, then they hang around with people who are similar.
Listen to others. Follow podcasts or search YouTube for editing recommendations. There are many groups on Clubhouse where professionals offer an opportunity to ask questions and popping into one of these is sure to elicit suggestions for editors who might meet your goals.
Research a professional. Sites like Reedsy make it easy to find freelance editors, both in your price range and with the level of experience you're looking for from an editor. Check out professional groups such as The Editorial Freelancers Association.
How to Pick an Editor
Unfortunately, unlike some professions, there isn't a certificate required to be an editor. This means you may have to do some investigating to determine the right editor for you. Here are a few things to consider before signing a contract with anyone.
While a degree is not needed for someone to consider themselves an editor, it’s a nice bonus. A good understanding of the basics of the English language is an excellent starting point. Has this person done the kind of editing you are looking for before? Do they have relevant publishing industry experience, either as a freelancer, or for working for a publishing house?
Note: Although it may look impressive, having a book or a couple short stories published does not qualify as experience editing. In the land of self-publishing, anyone can publish a book. The opposite is also something to consider. Just because someone is an editor, doesn’t mean they can write a best-selling book.
If you found your editor through other writer friends, you most likely have the beginnings of a reference. It's still a good idea to take a look at the editor’s website and see what others have to say about their experiences. Another option would be to ask the editor themselves to provide references that may reflect the type of editing that you're looking for. Have any authors talked about their experience with this editor on social media? (If so, those opinions are likely to be highly positive, or especially negative, so take them
A good editor will tell you that they can edit anything. However, there is value in having an editor who specializes in the genre of your book. They will be better able to understand the ins and outs of genre expectations and understand how they apply to your story. For example, a developmental editor would look at a high fantasy plot structure much differently than they would a contemporary romance. A copy editor with a background in the medical field may be better suited to a thriller or horror story, and able to give advice on details within the book.
While it may be tempting to hire one editor who claims to handle all four of the editing levels mentioned above, be cautious. Hiring someone with expertise in a specific field may be more beneficial.
Talk about your book
Some editors might be available for an introductory call or video conference. Take advantage of the opportunity to have a conversation with your potential editor. They should be able to tell you about their process and answer any questions about the type of services they offer.
Get a sample
Any decent editor should offer what's called a sample edit. This is usually something like a review of the first chapter of your book, where the editor can showcase the value they bring. It's a bit like taking the editor for a test drive. There should be no charge applied to this evaluation. Also, at this point, you should not be required to provide your entire manuscript. Beware of anyone who asks for the full document without any contract signed.
Note: This works best for proofreading and line editing. It can be a lot harder for a developmental editor to assess your work from one chapter and provide useful feedback.
Working out the logistics
Every editor has their own process and way of working. To determine if an editor is right for you, make sure you understand how you will work together.
How an editor works is just as important as what they do. At the end of the day, you need a document back that you can work with to move forward. A couple of questions to ask are:
What is their editing process?
What do they need to begin a project?
How many rounds of review will be included?
What writing software do they use and what format do they require to review your manuscript?
Understanding how an editor will mark up your document is crucial. Most editors will have an established process where they will define how they will interact with your manuscript. Some may physically move text around in your document. If that's something that bothers you, it needs to be defined upfront.
Many editors book at least a few months out, so pre-planning is important. A quick turnaround may be possible, but remember that quality is more important than speed. Get a good understanding of:
Availability: When can they start?
Turnaround: How much time between rounds do you have to review and revise
Timeframe: What are the deliverable milestones?
How do they prefer to communicate?
Do they like to hop on a phone call and chat, or will they provide a detailed report in an e-mail?
Will you be discussing the book along the way, or only after they’ve read the book in full?
Each editor will set their own specific rates. Those rates usually come down to a cost per word, and depend on various factors including their level of experience, familiarity with the topic, the needs of the manuscript, the genre of the story and the timeline for the edit. Each of these elements can increase what an editor may charge.
The price can be determined by:
Per word is the most popular. Developmental editing can be the most costly because it is the most labor intensive, and a ballpark is around .025 per word. Proofreading on the other end tends to be more straightforward and can run around .013 per word.
There is no doubt that hiring editors comes at a cost. Think of it as an investment similar to your book cover or formatting. It’s part of the business of writing.
Any reputable editor will clearly state their terms up front, most likely in the form of a contract.
Read the contract carefully to ensure that you fully understand what services the editor will be providing. Look at what they have agreed to do and also what they have defined as what they will not do. If this is not clear, take the time to make sure that you understand what you will be paying for in clear terms.
What to expect when working with an editor
What is or isn’t working
Assuming you've decided to work with a developmental editor, you should get a good understanding of what in your book is a “must keep,” and where there are opportunities to strengthen or improve the story. Structure, plot and character development should be analyzed with the backdrop of publishing best practices in mind.
Their report should be fair and balanced, with a mixture of the good and the areas of improvement. Is the editor's job to point out what you are doing well so that you do more of it and use it as an example in the other areas that need improvement.
A qualified copy editor or proofreader can point out any rules of language or style that are not appropriate. This list will not only improve the quality of your book, but should be kept for future reference as a learning resource.
Offer a solution
A good editor should be able to point out areas where your story is not aligned and suggest potential solutions or be open to discussing options. Their role is not to rewrite your story, fill in your plot holes, etc., namely because they are not in a position to revise your manuscript. That is for you and you alone to do. You are not hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, an editor can guide you toward potential satisfying conclusions that fit your needs. This back-and-forth is part of the process and is often defined under the terms of the contract.
Copy editors and proof-readers will offer more defined questions, like “Who is talking here?” or “Where is this taking place?” or “Do you mean X here.” They will also help ensure you have the correct word (think there and their or you’re and your) in the correct spot.
Advice, not instructions
One important detail to keep in mind when working with any editor is that their feedback is, and always will be, just a suggestion. As the author of the story, you have the final vote on what changes are made. However, you’re paying an editor for their time, experience, and feedback, so it’s worth taking their advice seriously. Think of feedback, good and critical, as growth opportunities for your writing. Or an opportunity to explore a new avenue and have a discussion with your editor. Take the time to understand why they made the suggestions they did.
Even when it comes to the laws of language at a proof reading level, there are variations between the Chicago Writing Style and AP Writing Style. Different countries have different quotation mark styles.
Ultimately, the decision is yours on whether to implement an editor’s suggestions or not.
A better manuscript
No editor is perfect, and at some point you need to stop adjusting your manuscript. While there is no guarantee your book will be a bestseller because of the editor you chose, you should feel like you are in a better place after going through the editing process.
Note: No one wants to see red marks or cross outs or comments littered throughout their manuscript. However, it is important that there is a substantial amount of feedback on your story. Even bestselling authors with numerous books published still receive detailed changes from their editors. This is a good thing, as they are taking the job of improving your book seriously.
Time to Edit
Book editing is both personal and impersonal. There are established rules of writing readers expect when they choose a book, but under the right circumstances, these can successfully be broken. A good editor will become a member of your team, a reliable partner where you can ask questions and expect honest answers. They will give you the feedback you might need to uncover the diamonds in your story and steer you around plot holes.