Monday, March 26, 2012

When to Hire an Editor

When do you hire a line editor? A copy editor? A developmental editor? Any of these? And what are these?
  • Line editing means making changes in the language at the sentence level.
  • Copy editing is about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Also flow and whether the flow makes sense.
  • Developmental editing is the term often used these days for an edit that covers structure, style, overall assessment of consistency and flow and whether the story works or not and how to fix it if it doesn't.
At both ends of the spectrum there are additional options. Proofreading on one end, for example, or manuscript development at the other.

If you are talented enough and lucky enough to be picked up by a good agent, and you then get a book deal with a good publisher, you don't need to hire an editor—the publisher will provide one. But if you are among the as-yet-unpublished writers who have either chosen to self-publish or have not yet gotten that agent and publisher, then it's a good idea to consider hiring an editor.

But when?

The biggest mistake we writers seem to make is to hire an editor too soon. You don't want the editor until your book is polished to the point that you know you cannot improve it any more on your own or through beta readers or workshops. That is a higher standard than it may sound at first. It means you've spent a tremendous amount of time and energy learning the craft, and you've done everything you can to make your book as good as you can make it (including working with those betas and workshops). This usually takes a year or two of work, and probably more. If you've done all this, but you still haven't had success getting an agent, or you want to self-publish, it's time for an editor.

So, are you at that point? If the answer is yes, and you're interested in finding an editor, then look for a really good one. There are lots of freelance editors out there. Luckily for us, many of them have years of industry experience with good publishers. These are the people you want to find, particularly if your interest is at the developmental level where you want experienced professional input on whether the book works overall and if not, why not, and what is needed to fix it.

Go to editor websites and check out their histories and client lists (if they don't have one, that's a red flag). Ask professional writing associations (like the Pacific Northwest Writers Association) if they know of anyone they would recommend.

The personal recommendation can be great whether it's from a professional association or a personal acquaintance, if you know and trust the recommender. Sometimes it's enough on its own. I think it is sufficient (without the editor having years of experience with good publishers) if the editing you seek is copyediting, for example. There are writers who also edit, who are often known to other writers whom you might know—perfect for asking about a recommendation. Those who've got degrees in English or a related field tend to be excellent in the spelling and grammar categories.

So how much does it cost? It can be from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand. If your manuscript is pretty clean and you are interested in a copy edit, you might spend $200-$400 or a bit more. (The length of your ms. makes a difference, of course.) If you want a developmental edit, it can easily cost $1,000 or $2,000 (if the story is in good but not excellent shape) to $4,000 or more (for more extensive editing recommendations). You obviously want someone with excellent credentials with whom you feel you will work well.

These are not small numbers, but we are making an investment in our writing careers. Times have changed. Agents are overwhelmed with so many of us wanting to be published. Many of them recommend that the writer hire an editor for a project they might want to consider. The tumultuous status of the publishing industry has had other painful results, too, including the loss of many editors in house and therefore an unwillingness to take on a project that needs much editing. And if you're self-publishing, you cannot afford not to spend on good editing if you want to achieve your best work.

I've read quite a few blogs on editing lately, and this post reflects some of the opinions from them as well as my own. Everyone has different experiences, though. What have yours been? Maybe you believe it's a waste of $ to hire an editor? Do you have some ideas to share?

~ Linda


  1. I did hire an editor once and it was more for copyedits and it was about $400. Wow, I can't imagine spending thousands though...that's what my crit partners are for!

  2. Crit partners can be fabulous, Lydia, I agree! I love mine, and the price is certainly right. That is the best way to take care of business, if it works to achieve your goals. More power to you! I think the costs of editing have entered the same realm now as the costs of attending conferences and sort of fit a similar profile--expensive but can pay off nicely.

  3. This is such a great question, and an excellent post. It can be really hard knowing when, or if, one needs to do this. I highly recommend it once a manuscript is as polished as the author can make it. I like to learn from an intensive edit.

    1. Me, too, Heather. It makes a huge difference to see your work through someone else's eyes once it's at that point, doesn't it?

  4. Linda, I didn't realize the difference between copy edit and line edit. I'd always thought they were the same thing. Sometimes I think you need at minimum two edits. But now I know there are three perhaps they should be made in sequence. Developmental first, followed by line then copy. With each change due to an edit, it's nice to have that second set of eyes. The value is priceless.

    1. Yeah, Karlene, that sequence does make sense. Editing is a lot more specific and complex than I ever thought it was before I checked it out!