As an editor, one of the most common questions I get is, “When should I hire an editor?” This is not a question with one concrete answer that is going to work for everyone or fit every book project. If you’re trying to get the advice of an editing professional, there are a few questions that you need to answer first. Here is my list of things to figure out before finding an editor:
1. What sort of book are you writing?
When you’re writing a book, you are asked the same question all the time: “What is your book about?” Writers get used to describing their story in a few lines, highlighting the genre, main audience and the main plotline. But, there is more to finding out where exactly your book fits on bookshelves other than just knowing the basic genre and logline.
The first thing you need to understand is the conventions of your genre. This relates to things like the style of writing, point of view and general plot structure as well as the common length of pieces within that genre, current industry trends and tropes or repeated themes.
You should know where you adhere to genre norms and where your book differs. What is going to make your book stand out? But also, what will make fans of the genre feel comfortable and engaged within your writing. Every writer wants to be original. But, it is important to understand the rules before you start breaking them.
This is also important before choosing an editor because you are going to want to select an editor that really understands the genre that you’re writing in and your ideal audience. If you’re writing a YA Speculative Fiction piece, that might mean working with someone quite different than if you were writing a memoir or a graphic novel.
2. What stage of writing are you in?
Different stages of the writing process come with their own challenges and every writer has their own point when they want guidance from an editing professional. Before you can find the best possible editor, you need to understand what stage your manuscript is at and what you’re expecting of your editor.
Most people writing fiction pieces will have a manuscript completed before they hire the help of an editor. You might have gone through several drafts on your own and be stuck on one issue or just want a professional’s opinion on the entire piece. Some like to bring in an editor earlier when they are mapping out their story – to avoid wasted time on scenes that should never make it into the final draft.
If you’re planning to traditionally publish, you are likely just looking for a manuscript evaluation, possibly with page note comments throughout for further insight. Getting a professional's opinion could help you stand out to the right agent or publisher. Once you have those, further editing will be paid for by your publisher.
Those who are self-publishing will want a longer relationship with their editor that goes through several drafts. So, you need to find someone who does full substantive edits rather than someone who can simply offer a critique. You will also need to hire your own copy editors and proofreaders.
Non-fiction books are sold on proposal, meaning you will want someone who understands the structure of writing in this style and the business end of selling such a piece. An editor can help you craft your proposal, which is somewhere between a synopsis and a business plan.
3. Have you taken advantage of free tools?
If you’re going to invest in a real professional editor, it likely will cost you several hundred dollars. It is something that takes years of training, keen skill and takes several hours to do right. So, you certainly don’t want to pay them too soon and get back an edit with info or corrections you could have taken care of on your own.
Some of the best tools are going to be other books in your genre. Read the greats. Read books that were not successful. Find out what works and what doesn’t and do your own research to find out why.
Take advantage of writer’s groups and beta readers. This is a great way of working out smaller problems within your story and is ideal for testing the market to see if your book can compete with what is currently out there. Just remember that this is not a replacement for a professional edit. While it will show you some issues, beta readers are not invested in helping you find solutions and offering all of the suggestions that an editor can.
4. What do you want help with?
Like with any other professional, each editor has their own set of skills, talents and interests. You will find some that concentrate on a few genres while others take on different projects all the time. Some worry more about the artistry of the storytelling while others are more business minded and want to help get you sales.
Before you hire an editor, understand exactly where you most need advice when it comes to your story and selling it in the current market. Do you have a plot point that is not working? Is your pacing dragging in places? Are you having a difficult time balancing world building, character building and plotting at the beginning of your story? Do you need help understanding current market trends and what agents are looking for in your genre?
Once you pinpoint what your story needs, you can better direct your editor search. Don’t be afraid to ask editors how well versed they are in your genre or with dealing with the issues that you know are within your manuscript.
5. What is your goal for this book?
Publishing is an industry that is changing all the time. It is getting easier and easier to get days of entertainment to consumers in seconds, ranging from streaming services to podcasts to video games. More people are choosing alternatives to traditionally publishing novels. There are opportunities in self-publishing, audio books and audio serials, literary magazines and online writing and more.
An editor can be your first partner in turning your writing into a product to go out in the world. So, before you choose the right one, you need to understand what sort of audience you want, where you want to sell and what success looks like to you in terms of your manuscript. If you’ve written a memoir or cookbook that is mostly meant for family, you might choose to work with someone very different than if you’re hoping to be the next James Patterson or J.K. Rowling.
6. What is your budget?
Once you understand what you want out of your own writing, you can better decide what your budget should be when hiring an editor. If you are planning to traditionally publish, having a manuscript evaluation will likely be the only stage of the editing process that you will have to pay for out of pocket. Once you sign with a publisher, the deal is that they cover all of the costs in exchange for a percentage of the rights.
If you are self or hybrid publishing, more of the upfront costs will be your responsibility. Like with any business, you should take the time to assess what you’re able to put into this venture and what you’re hoping to financially get out of it.
Keep in mind that there is a huge correlation between cost and quality when it comes to editing. While there are editors who charge only a couple of hundred dollars to edit an entire manuscript, you will likely finish with a less thorough and trustworthy critique than if you went with someone who charges industry standard.
Know what you’re willing to pay and make sure an editor’s experience matches their rates before signing on. If you’re on a tight budget, you might have to decide whether you have the time to save up to work with someone great or need to act now by gambling with someone with less experience and a lower price tag.
7. What stage of editing do you need?
Did you know that there are four different stages of editing that every book should go through before it is published? When you’re looking into editors and their pricing, you will discover that some forms are more expensive than others. This is because it takes much longer to properly copyedit a manuscript than it does to proofread. There are also different skills and experience needed for each stage.
When you’re asking for quotes or looking up editors, you should understand exactly what service you need from them. Are you looking for notes and an evaluation or someone to fix grammar and spelling issues? Mistakenly asking for the wrong level of editing can get you a quote that is off by several hundred dollars. So, make sure you know the lingo and what you need.
8. What credentials should you look for?
It can be difficult to sift through the long list of editors that are available to help you get your book to the next level, especially when you sometimes only have their own website bios to go off of.
Getting a recommendation from someone else you know can be a great way of finding a quality editor. If you’re a member of a writing group, check to see if anyone works with someone that they trust. You can also check to see if the group has editors that they endorse or have vetted.
When looking at an editor’s bio, check to see what sort of formal training they have. Editing standards are updated every few years and there should be some clue that they are up to date in their knowledge. You should also be able to see that they are currently active in some way in the industry at large. This will give you an indication that they know the trends and current market dos and don’ts.
Look to see what sort of clients they have had in the past. They might be associated with writing organizations, agencies or corporate clients. They might also have testimonials on their site from authors they have worked with. Be wary of bios that are vague and don’t offer any look into their past client base. While they likely won’t list every project they have worked on, there should be some indication of what their specialties are and how much experience they have.
9. What is your timeline?
The last question to ask yourself before choosing an editor is what the timeline is for your book. It is not uncommon to find that the best editors have a waiting list of several weeks or even months. If you’re eager to send out a manuscript that is time sensitive or are preparing to submit to a major contest, you will want to discuss that with your editor before signing on.
Don’t be afraid to discuss delivery dates when you’re working out the details of your contract. This will not only help you plan your writing and submission schedule but it will also give you peace of mind while you’re waiting for that edit to show up in your inbox.
Hiring an editor can be one of the best decisions a writer can make when looking to turn their book into a business venture. But, you need to choose the right person if it is going to be a success. The more you understand what you need, the easier it will be to find someone who can offer it to you at a fair price.
Jessica De Bruyn is our in-house editor here at So You Want to Write? Working with her will help you improve your book, write a great query letter, and get published. Check out her services here.