When Does A Writer Need An Editor?


To round out this short series of posts on editing, I want to add something on the occasions when writers might think about forking out on the services of an editor for either developmental or structural editing, copyediting or line editing, or proofreading. I sometimes, for example, come across writers who are asking for copyediting, but after closer discussion that might seem premature, as any copyediting might be carried out on a draft that could still gain from revision. Copyediting is basically a tidy-up done to an otherwise final and agreed manuscript.

As I need to maintain the gardening analogy: when do you need the help of a landscaper, a tree surgeon, someone to mow the lawn? (In this instance, let’s say you’re too close to the grass to spot the daisies. Okay, bad analogy, but you know what I mean.)

* If you are preparing to submit a manuscript to an agent or a publisher with a view to getting published:
It should not be necessary at this stage to hire a copyeditor or a proofreader. If you know your spelling and punctuation are really dreadful, you might want to get a beady-eyed friend to pass an eye over the text to help your work look more professional. But an agent or editor is at this stage more likely to be looking for a compelling story told by an engaging voice, rather than prose that’s had every single error removed (along with most of its life). Lots of sloppy errors will, however, simply make you look … sloppy. But it’s hoped that you don’t need a professional copyedit to avoid looking sloppy.

Writers who are preparing to submit might gain more from a manuscript critique from, e.g., a book doctor or an editor. This could address matters of developmental and/or structural editing, depending on the stage you’re at in your drafting: be clear what you’re looking for. You might in fact already have this sort of input from beta readers, and feel confident enough to submit anyway – a critique is hardly a requirement. Having been read by another good reader in whatever form is a good idea, though. Sometimes even experienced and agented authors solicit the services of an independent opinion, e.g., for a fresh project that might be something of a departure.

Another alternative would be to attend a writers’ conference or similar event where writers can share a sample of writing or pitch a story idea with an agent, editor, or book doctor (as a book doctor, I meet writers in this capacity when I take part in the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York or their Getting Published Day in London). Only a snapshot of your writing might be read, along with a synopsis, but this can give a good indication of the strengths and weaknesses of a project, in the manner of a diagnosis of its strengths as well as areas for improvement. Plus feedback will be discussed with you directly, and little beats a face-to-face discussion, however brief it might be.

If you feel your style needs some serious help, maybe you are not quite ready to submit yet? Agents and editors can sometimes go for strong ideas and help you out editorially, especially with nonfiction, but help with your prose is something of a long shot and they’d have to be pretty committed to your concept in order to devote this much time to your writing. A freelance editor could help fix obvious mistakes and even tighten some of your baggy prose, but this does beg the question about the work writers need to be able to do for themselves. For me, style is vital to the way in which individual writers convey their personalities in writing, whatever genre they’re working in, and there are no quick or easy editorial fixes for that sort of thing.

So maybe there’s further work to be done in developing your own voice? And note that I don’t talk about finding your voice, as I don’t believe in that – you already have a voice, and it’s more a matter of using it confidently and working out how to put it into your creative writing. It might, for example, be worth taking some time to read widely in your genre (and others), figuring out how a particular style is achieved by another writer. You might also want to conduct a few experiments in voice and style, e.g., I Remember is a great exercise for this. And you could try your hand at some short stories (which of course have a value all of their own – a short story is not just trainer wheels for writing a novel). You might even want to do some broader studies in creative writing.

Also, though, matters such as style and voice are often quite subjective. You might just have to test your manuscript and wait for some reactions. At a certain point, you simply submit – try out your manuscript on the world. (Another post on that later.) You can always do further work, depending on any feedback you get.

* If you are preparing to deliver a contracted manuscript to your agent and/or editor:
Some contracted authors do have longstanding relationships with independent editors and might get a critique or some help with drafting or even a bit of a line edit. But on the whole editorial work is usually done in relationship with the publisher (and sometimes the agent too).

Any submitted project is likely to go through further editing and revising: maybe some developmental or structural editing with agent and/or commissioning editor, and definitely rounds of copyediting and proofreading with your publisher’s editorial department. Occasionally authors have preferred freelance copyeditors, and even though they have moved publishers they continue to work with the same copyeditor for all their books.

At the time of delivering your manuscript, it is worth asking how your book will be handled – keep channels of communication clear and open, and know what to expect and when. I always think it is a good idea for authors to see a copy of the copyedited manuscript before it is typeset (and I am surprised at how often this seems not to be the case).

Note: authors should not be charged for editorial (or other) work done by a publisher, unless you are working with a vanity press, which is basically self-publishing (see below).

Sometimes an author will be delivering a draft of a manuscript to an agent who hopes to sell it to a publisher. An agent should not require payment for reading a manuscript or other editorial work; an agent earns a living by taking a percentage cut from any deals made on the author’s behalf. Scams have been known; though in practice such dealings are rare, they can make writers unduly wary. In fact, agents do sometimes recommend the use of an independent editor for a critique or a fresh view or some other editorial input, and this can be sincere and helpful for the writer. As in all business relationships, this is a matter of trust.

It can be reassuring and informative for writers at this stage of their careers to join professional or genre organisations that can give advice on matters such as working with agents and editors. Sometimes a bit of networking or lurking on Twitter or other social media can be instructive (though I recommend that discussions about personal transactions are conducted privately rather than in more public forums). And you’ll also find many similar resources on writers’ blogs and websites.

* If you are self-publishing:
If you are self-publishing, do make sure you have at some point shared your writing with other readers before charging money to book-buyers or giving it away for free. Beta readers or professional editors see errors and incongruities that you miss in your own text. They will help you to improve your own work and avoid any embarrassment.

If you are publishing in print formats, certainly make sure your book is copyedited as well as proofread; typos and spelling errors make your book look amateur. Before that, you might also want to have done some sort of structural editing, or have taken the book through revisions after getting feedback from beta readers. It will undoubtedly be a good idea to make sure that at least the proofreading is done on hard copy. The human eye catches different things on a printed page.

If you are publishing in both print and ebook formats, you should also aim for a structural edit, a copyedit, and a proofread. In practice, the work for both editions can usually be combined.

If you are publishing in ebook format only, again aim for structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Though the work is being published in a digital format, it is still worth introducing a hard-copy read of a print-out for either the copyedit or the proofread. It might also be worth having a final proofread on files converted for reading in their ultimate format on an ebook reader or tablet.

When briefing an editor, be clear about whether you want a light or a heavier copyedit – you might discuss this with the editor and even ask to see a sample of editing (which might need to be paid for) to be sure that any work done is to your liking. You might also ask a proofreader to look out for specific things you might feel need double-checking, e.g., a change to a variant in spelling that you made after the copyedit was done.

Editing and proofreading are often offered by many of the self-publishing operations that also provide design, formatting, printing, and distribution services. It’s worth inquiring about who’ll actually do the work, and again asking for samples. In some ways, though, it can make sense to arrange your own copyediting and proofreading – it will give you more control over the outcome. It might be a little more expensive to use an experienced editor, but it can make a real difference to the work that’s done.

Whatever else you do (even more important than copyediting – and it pains me to say!): hire a good designer to create a striking cover image that will look good on screen as well as on a print copy (print copies need to be sold online too).

Of course, you don’t have to do any of the above. As I often stress, if you want to be published, you don’t have to write a good book as much as a book that other readers want to read, and we know there’s no accounting for taste, right?!

* Who to hire?
A personal recommendation is ideal – ask around, particularly of writers working in your field. It’s a good idea to know the editor’s track record: books they’ve edited or proofread, and publishers or writers they have worked for (sometimes discretion is required).

Rates vary significantly. I tend to quote on a job basis after seeing a sample of work, for example, while other editors set a page rate or an hourly rate. Don’t be afraid to say that you have a certain budget to work within. Don’t be surprised if an editor turns down a job, but too sometimes an editor can read opening chapters and a synopsis instead of a whole manuscript: this might help steer you in the right direction, whether this might be further work on your book, or some studies in creative writing.

I don’t give direct recommendations for editors on this site, though I do have various experienced associates whose services I can suggest, depending on the sort of book that needs help.

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