The internet is afloat in advice about the different types of editing your book could use: developmental editing to optimize the story, line editing to polish the writing, copy editing to steer the usage and style, proofreading to catch remaining errors … I’ve got one of those articles on the types of editing on my site, too.
The problem is that most people assume the right editing package—the “best” one—means as much spit and polish as they can afford. They think the best editing is all the editing they can afford and then some.
But that’s not the way it works. The right editing approach for your book is all about your personal publishing goals.
If you can afford a good editor who can give your manuscript the works, of course, your book will almost certainly emerge the better for it. I encourage new authors who are still learning the ropes of storytelling, writing, querying, and selling books to give themselves as many opportunities to learn and improve as they can. But full edits covering every stage of the manuscript aren’t practical for every author and every budget.
How then do you know what your book needs and what it can do without? The answer lies in all the decisions you make before editing. Here’s what to decide—and what not to decide—before deciding on professional editing.
Decide Now: Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing
The editing needs of a strong novel destined to make the rounds with agents and publishers are different from the needs of a manuscript by a first-time writer who plans to self-publish. Know your publishing options and then commit to a path. A publishing plan that sounds like I’ll query agents for a few months, and if nobody wants it, I’ll probably self-publish leaves your book dangling without goals or an actionable plan.
Is professional editing worth it for an author who’s pitching their manuscript to agents? If you’re an exceptional storyteller and writer, you may land an agent with nothing more than a thoroughly self-revised manuscript and a polished query letter. More likely, you may make a stronger impression with some professional guidance first.
Agents and publishers have different views on whether a manuscript should get professional editing before a query. How many manuscripts have you written before? Is this your figuring-out-how-to-write-a-novel book, or is this a marketable novel? Have you workshopped and beta-tested this manuscript? Have you learned enough from your edit that you can execute revisions on your own, or will you be rudderless without someone to advise you how to proceed? Will you be frustrated if you devote considerable time and budget to editing your novel, only to be signed by an agent who requires major revisions before they’ll even send it out on submission? Do you think your novel is strong enough to compete with other submissions out there?
Self-publishers have a different set of priorities. Self-publishing means you’re now in business as a professional publisher, and it’s up to you to bring professional standards to your product. What you don’t know about writing and publishing will hurt you, and you could do considerable damage to your reputation if you make a bad impression with an amateurish first book.
Decide Now: How long to support this manuscript’s development
Finishing a novel is only the very first step of the notoriously lengthy publishing process. Completely developing, revising, and editing your book can take a year or more. Then along come production and marketing, demanding a different type of focus.
If you’re hoping to traditionally publish, how long are you willing to wait to get this book on the market? Signing with an agent typically takes a year or more (not a repetition error; it really takes that long all over again), and that’s only finding someone to help you make the sale. Do you have the stamina to take your manuscript through months of queries and potential revise-and-resubmit requests? How long will you continue to query? If nobody shows interest, will you trunk your manuscript and move on, or will you self-publish as a fallback?
It’s said that most authors write four novels before producing something compelling enough to earn an offer of representation from a literary agent. Are you willing to put this book aside to work on the next? Are you willing to write four or more books before you even get a foot in the door?
If you’re not willing to go the distance, there’s not much point in pursuing traditional publishing. If you’re prepared for the long haul, consider a manuscript critique that shows you the strengths and weaknesses of your efforts. But there’s no need to pay for copyediting on a trunk project. Get the critique you need to give it a good shot. If it earns representation, it will get more editing if it needs it; if it doesn’t get picked up, well, you should already be writing your next book.
If you’ll be self-publishing, are you prepared for many more months of work to get your product on the market, or did you blow your entire load of energy writing your first draft? Revision and editing won’t go any faster just because you’re in charge, and of course now you’re the project manager, too. Design, production, marketing, fulfillment—all of these are on your plate. Are you ready for the long game?
All your choices at this level have a direct impact on the editorial services that will best support your project.
Decide Now: Genre and target audience
Before you spend time and money editing your manuscript, make sure you’ve written something readers will be interested in buying. If you can’t define your genre and identify your core readers, your book isn’t ready for editing.
Creative writing can be written for your own enjoyment, but novels are written with readers in mind. A commercially successful novel needs a target audience and a genre. Genre isn’t designed to keep readers out; it’s designed to invite them in. Genre helps readers put a finger on the type of books they like to read.
If you can’t define where your book fits into today’s market, don’t rush ahead blindly anyway. An editor can help you define your concept and genre. Figure that out first, before you leap into manuscript editing.
Decide Now: Your editing budget
You get what you pay for—this is true in editing as much as anything else. The level of service, experience, skill, and resources you’ll receive from someone who charges a fraction of a penny per word for editing is drastically different than what you’ll receive from someone who charges more.
Prioritizing your expectations is up to you. Do you care more about saving money or the quality of the services you receive? One simple way to determine whether you’re paying a realistic rate is to figure out about how much the editor will be making per hour for your job. Is it a livable wage? If not, you’re either looking at a hobbyist or part-time editor, or someone who has some other motivation for drastically undercharging. People don’t voluntarily undercharge for no reason. Find out how much time the editor plans to spend on your book and what they’ll specifically do for it.
The rates you pay for editing are within your control to a large degree. You could pay an editor to clean up, revise, and even lightly rewrite sloppy writing, but why would you? Save money on editing by preparing your manuscript completely and thoroughly.
Decide Now: Hiring the right editor
Would you rather have your book edited by a neighbor who got As in English ten or twenty years ago or a professional book editor who applies contemporary publishing industry standards to your manuscript? The choice is yours, and finding a qualified professional is the first step in getting your manuscript the support it needs to evolve into a book. Use the Author’s Guide to Finding and Hiring an Editor to make an informed decision.
Choosing an editor isn’t only about qualifications and experience. Are you looking for a particular type of editing? Comprehensive editorial development? Turnkey project management all the way through production? Are you looking for someone who can schedule you in on the fly, or are you willing to wait for the right person who’s the perfect fit for your publishing team?
It’s also important to connect with an editor who clicks with you on a creative level. You need to find a compatible editor who fits your style.
Decide Later: What types of editing
Deciding what kind and level of editing you need before you get it is like going to the doctor with a diagnosis already in mind. You might be right—but you might not, and if you’re already settled on a particular course of action, you might end up wasting time and money.
A good editor will look over your book and talk to you about your writing and your publishing goals before making a recommendation and quote for your project. An editor who’s sensitive to your needs and goals will work out a proposal specifically designed for you and your book.
Decide Later: Cover design
My heart sinks when a new client excitedly emails me with a cover design before we’ve even edited the book. It’s not uncommon to see a story shift titles and even genres during development and editing.
What if the story you always envisioned as YA turns out to be MG, but you already dropped your budget on a cover featuring a teenager? What if you pay a professional illustrator to create a map of your world, but editing uncovers story issues that mean those mountains to the east have to be five days closer to the city?
Editing comes before production. Plan ahead for cover design and marketing, but don’t leapfrog your book’s development process. The story comes first.
Decide Later: Interior book layout
Please don’t send out your manuscript set on a twee custom page size with gap-toothed margins and leading and a quirky font you think makes your book look just like a professionally produced book layout. Editors, designers, literary agents, acquisitions editors, and other publishing pros need to see what you’ve got in a standard presentation that’s easy to read, easy to parse, and easy to work with.
In order to make sure it doesn’t contain any typographical inconsistencies or issues, I’ll strip special formatting and scrutinize it in basic, industry-standard manuscript format. Hang on just a little while longer. It won’t be long before you can make your creation look as beautiful as you please.
Decide Later: The rest of the series
There are many reasons why your first book should not be part of a series—it’s like trying to start your athletic career at the Olympics. I would strongly encourage you to work with a story that’s confined to a single book when you’re getting started. A series is harder to write, more expensive to edit, harder to sell, harder to make money from, more demanding to follow up on … It’s a serious handicap for any emerging author.
A series can give you impressive sales boosts, but mistakes along the way will be compounded. Get several complete manuscripts under your belt before you query or self-publish a novel or launch a series.
Read more about decisions to make before editing
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