Professional Editor: Is Your Book Ready for an Editor?
A professional editor is the one collaborator that no author can do without — even blockbuster writers with dozens of publications to their name. While writing the first draft is often a solitary affair, the process of revising a manuscript eventually requires the objective eye of someone who knows the ins and outs of storytelling and the written language.
Over the last six years at Reedsy, we have helped over 30,000 authors (both experienced and novice writers) connect with freelance editors. In that time, we have noticed something that writers still struggle with: knowing when their manuscript is ready for an editor. Hiring one too early could mean spending more than they should; getting one too late might mean doing a lot of work that won’t make the final cut.
In this post, we will help you understand when you’ll be ready to hire an editor.
What does a professional editor do?
The work that professional editors do will fall into one of three categories:
- Developmental editing (sometimes called structural editing or story editing)
- Copy editing
The developmental editor will address big-picture issues like story structure, character development, and pacing. They will rarely correct grammar or rewrite your sentences for clarity — that will be the job of your copy editor, who will hone your sentences in a way that helps you achieve your storytelling goals.
The proofreader arrives at the final stage of the process: their sole responsibility is to identify any errors that will have slipped past the copy editor and the interior designer. They’ll correct typos and awkward formatting, but won’t make any stylistic changes to your text, as a copy editor does.
Is a professional editor actually essential?
If you’re asking this question, you’re probably looking to self-publish (traditional publishers will always insist on editing). As an indie author, you’ll have to cover any costs you incur while publishing your book — and editing will commonly be the most expensive service you’ll need. So, naturally, the question will arise: can I get around paying for an editor?
But the fact of the matter is, if experienced authors like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood rely on professional editors to refine their books for readers, it’s hard to imagine why first-time writers and self-published authors shouldn’t do the same.
If your book is intended for paying readers, professional edits are non-negotiable.
Yes, this is unfair for writers without disposable income, savings, or a benevolent aunt with an open checkbook. But publishing is a business. Self-publishing authors are small business owners — and paying for editing (along with cover design and marketing) is the cost of doing business.
If you’re asking people to read your ebook in exchange for $3.99 and seven hours of their lives, it’s your responsibility to deliver the best reading experience you can muster. And to do that, you need the help of a professional editor.
A 6-Step Editing Timeline for Self-Publishing Authors
Getting an editor too early is almost as bad as doing it too late. You want to bring them in precisely at the point when their feedback and edits can have the biggest impact. With that in mind, you should always make sure you’ve done all that you can by yourself before you consider hiring a professional editor.
What we’ve outlined below is a basic plan that will help you determine when to hire a professional editor (and when you should simply stay the course of self-editing).
Note: These steps assume that you aim to self-publish. If your ultimate goal is to secure a book deal from a publisher, there’s a section at the bottom just for you.
Step 1: Revise your manuscript by yourself
Never hand over your very first draft to an editor. In fact, don’t let anybody else read your first draft at all — there’s plenty of work you can do on your own to improve your story’s structure, character arcs, and pacing.
Here are some free resources that will help you with the first stages of revision:
- How to Edit a Book (Guide)
- How to Revise Your Novel (webinar and transcript)
- Story Editing: How to Assess and Fix Your Draft (webinar and transcript)
- Story Editing for Authors (free online course)
- Novel Revision: Understanding the Craft (free online course)
At this point, you’ll want to go through your manuscript to identify those big-picture issues and try your best to fix them. The thing you want to avoid is paying a professional editor to tell you something you could have figured out yourself.
Step 2: Get a developmental edit
Once you’ve revised your structure as best you can, you should be thinking one of two things:
a) “Wow! This book is amazing! I don’t think it could be any better,” or
b) “My manuscript still isn’t working, but I don’t know what the issue is.”
Either way, this is your cue to find a developmental editor. Once they’ve been through your draft, they will be able to validate where you’ve made great progress, pinpoint where your manuscript is lacking, and suggest creative, detailed solutions for those problems. Your developmental editor will return a digital copy of your manuscript with comments in the margins along with a written review that will guide your next set of revisions.
Top tip: Clean up your grammar and spelling mistakes before you get any sort of edit. A manuscript riddled with basic typos is distracting and hard to read. Passing this on to your editor will potentially increase the cost of your edit, affect the quality of your feedback (if the editor is unsure of your intentions with certain sections), and decimate any respect they have for you. Make use of your word processor’s spell checker.
Step 3: Action your editor’s suggestions and edits
Ideally, your developmental editor’s advice will make sense to you. Your next few rounds of revisions should be guided by their suggestions. Perhaps you need to cut the first two scenes and make sure the inciting incident happens earlier. Maybe you need an extra character — a close cousin — who can reveal more about your protagonist’s upbringing. By actioning the feedback in your developmental edit, your manuscript will hopefully start to click on a structural story level.
Step 4: Start revising on a sentence level
Before this point, you needn’t tinker too much with your sentences and paragraphs. After all, you don’t want to spend hours writing and rewriting a confrontation between two characters, only for your developmental editor to tell you that the whole scene needs to go.
But now that all your scenes are in place, you can focus on your manuscript at a micro-level and line edit — slicing away unnecessary exposition, paring down your dialogue, and finessing the language. Again, you want to self-edit as much as you can, until you hit that point where you don’t think you can do any better by yourself.
For guidance, here are a couple of self-editing resources:
- How to Punctuate Dialogue: 12 Rules for Writers (guide)
- How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript Like a Pro (free course)
Step 5: Get a suitable copy editor
Now, you could have technically skipped the previous step and hired a copy editor as soon as you’d finished actioning your developmental edits. But again, if you want to get the most out of your professional editor, you don’t want them to waste time on things you can fix yourself.
If you hand a copy editor a sloppy manuscript, they will clean it up for you. Give them a manuscript that’s already clean, and they will make it sing.
Top tip: Always search for editors with experience in your genre. A talented business book editor can ensure that your fantasy novel is free from grammatical errors, but they won’t necessarily know how the characters should speak and what readers expect from the prose.
Step 6: Hire a proofreader to iron out the creases
This final step is seen as optional by many indie authors, though it shouldn’t be. It’s technically the copy editor’s job to iron out typos and grammatical errors — but of course, pobody’s nerfect, and getting a final set of eyes before your launch date is crucial to uncovering small mistakes.
In traditional publishing, the proofreader comes in after a book is formatted. This allows them to pick up on any formatting issues — like the tragically named widows and orphans — and identify mistakes that may have been introduced since your last edit. If you are formatting the book yourself, using the Reedsy book editor or any other tool, you may want to do the same and hire a proofreader to give your formatted book a thorough once-over.
However, if you're planning to hire a professional interior designer (sometimes called a typesetter), you will want to get a proofread before they format your book. In fact, many designers will flat-out refuse to work a book that hasn't been professionally proofread. When the author inevitably spots something wrong in the final version (that would've been ironed out by a proofreader), they'll have to re-hire the typesetter to go back and fix the mistakes — which could potentially throw off the layout of the whole book.
What if you’re planning to publish traditionally?
When you publish through a traditional press, editors will be assigned by your imprint. Developmental edits will often be conducted by the acquiring editor, while copy editing and proofreading can sometimes be outsourced to trusted freelancers. Agents will often guide your rewrites before you even pitch your manuscript to editors. This is all to say that authors who publish with reputable presses will find themselves with no shortage of editorial help.
Still, if your goal is to traditionally publish your book — and you’ve never had a book deal before — consider hiring your own editor before you start querying agents and publishers.
When you ask an agent for representation, you have one chance to impress them with your completed manuscript. Many agents pride themselves in being able to see the potential in an early draft and will work with authors to refine their books. But if you send in a manuscript with a lot of fundamental story issues, the agent is more likely to take a pass.
For this reason, many first time authors will hire professional editors before querying agents. Not only will they ask for a high-level developmental edit of their book, but they might also get a query letter review to give them the best chance possible of impressing potential agents.
We hope you now have a better understanding of the role freelance editors might play in both an indie and traditionally-published author’s career. Some writers can judiciously self-edit, while others aren’t so lucky. For those writers, an objective outside opinion is what they need — and something that is available to them, should they choose to look for it.