Note: I shared this in the very popular 20Booksto50k author group back in 2019, and a lot of authors found it useful. I’m also sharing it here because these same issues keep coming up when I talk to authors or potential clients who have had bad editing experiences, and finding a post to point them to that is two years old in a very popular FB group is getting cumbersome. So, some of you may have read this before, but I it’s worth a review, and it’s good information to have.
Real talk: editing advice from an editor.
I would like to start this post by stating up front, I believe fully in the importance of having eyes other than your own edit your books, and that having a good editor can be the difference that elevates your book to an absolutely polished, professional quality. I would ask that the comments please not devolve into “I use an editor/I don’t believe in editors”. Some people don’t use them. That’s fine. It’s a choice. Some authors write really clean, and can publish books that have few errors even without an editor pass. This post isn’t about the pros and cons of editing. Disclaimer: Yes, I work as a freelance editor. No, I am not currently open to new clients without a recommendation from someone I already work with. This post has nothing to do with that, and everything to do with what I see as an editor working in this industry.
First of all, be very careful when hiring an editor. Find someone who has clients who recommend them. Find someone who can point to real, published books they have edited, who can get you a solid testimonial from real authors. There are SO MANY scam artists out there. People who CLAIM to be editors, but who in actuality just run the manuscript through something like Grammarly if you’re lucky, and charge you hundreds of dollars for that. Here’s the thing: Grammarly and other proofing programs are not the same as a good copy edit or even a good proof. They miss tons of things that they should catch. They flag tons of things they shouldn’t. I use sentence fragments as part of my voice sometimes. Grammarly hates that. I have had multiple clients come to me AFTER receiving an edit from someone else, and I can ALWAYS tell when that edit was done with software. It makes me so mad when I hear of someone being charged $700 for an “editor” to run the manuscript through Grammarly and send it back. They can’t even USE that edit, because see my previous comments about software. Authors who use it have to go through each suggestion and then know that there is also tons of stuff the software missed.
I had someone approach me recently looking for a developmental edit (also known as a content edit). Developmental edits are extremely expensive. A good developmental editor drills down to the craft foundations of your book and tells you what needs to be fixed, what can be improved, and usually offers suggestions of how to do that. It is usually genre specific and is there to basically be a one-on-one craft workshop of your novel designed to elevate you and your book to be better. Examples of what can be addressed: why is your MC unlikable? Why does your book lack tension? Why does the ending fall flat and feel unsatisfying? How can these issues be addressed, specifically? These are just a few.
But here’s the thing. You can ALSO get a feel for these things FOR FREE from good beta readers. Usually beta readers aren’t going to know how to fix it. But they can tell you “I just don’t feel connected to the MC” or “I’m not feeling hooked in the opening” or “That ending feels boring”. Beta reads are not editors, but they can give you an idea of what is working and what is not. Please, if you are a newer writer and you don’t use beta readers, but you are considering a developmental editor, find some betas first. Save yourself what could be well over $1000 price tag and see what feedback you get from betas. Study the craft you need to fix the problem. There are books and classes out there devoted to teaching you how to “write addicting characters”, just as an example.
The person who approached me is on a fixed income. Not only that, but she had already been burned in the past by two bad editors. People she paid good money to who completely, utterly scammed her, and in one case, stole from her. And here she was, looking for another editor, NOT giving up. Which is GREAT! She wants to improve her craft and make sure the book she’s working on is, well, working. But I am not going to take someone’s money to do something that a good team of betas could help them with. That is NOT okay to me.
I can already hear the question “But I don’t have any betas, how do I find them?” Honestly, from your readers. If you don’t have any readers yet, start with friends and family, or go to reader groups or forums and ask. Alternatively, you can find a good online writing workshop. Friends and family are a stop gap on the way to finding betas. Typically, it can be harder to get real feedback from them. They like to say it’s great and be supportive. And yes, you’ll have those who agree to beta and then you never hear back. Realize that asking someone to commit to reading your 100k word book and give you feedback for free is a huge undertaking, and not everyone will follow through. Don’t dwell on it. It’s not personal.
So, when does it make sense to get a good developmental edit? Say you’ve got good betas. You’ve listened to them, you’ve done what you could, to you, the book is as good as you can possibly make it. But your reviews and sales are both “meh” no matter what you try. Deep down, you know something is missing. AND you can afford to spend the $ on a dev edit without putting yourself in financial crisis. Now might be the time to find a good developmental editor.
Things to keep in mind about ANY type of edit: it’s not enough to find someone good with words, grammar, and story. You also need to find someone familiar with your genre, and someone who works well with you, ie has the right chemistry. If their editing style doesn’t mesh with you, don’t use them. If you’re going to resent what they tell you, or HOW they say it, or if they don’t understand your voice and try to edit it out of the novel, neither one of those scenarios is worth your time or your money. I cannot stress enough how important this is. DO NOT work with someone who tries to edit out your voice. A good editor recognizes author voice. One of my current clients worked with an editor for several books. After each one, it would take my client two weeks to put her books back together again. Because the editor had stripped the books of her voice. She didn’t realize this was happening until the first edit I did with her. The difference was that stark and obvious. So, don’t spend money before you have to. When you do spend money, take the time to find someone who works well with you.
And, to close, please remember that editors are people. We make mistakes. We have good days, and bad days. We are not automatons, we cannot work in unreasonable schedules if you want quality work. We enjoy praise just as much as you do. And yes, the occasional typo slips by us.
ETA: I want to add for all of the new writers here who have never used an editor, please send your editor the most polished, best self-edited manuscript you can. The phrase “that’s what editors are for” is an oft-used and often misunderstood idea, and it is not in fact our job to polish your rough draft. So, rule of thumb: hiring any kind of editor is your LAST step after all other revisions and editing are complete and the book is as close to final as you are capable of getting it yourself. A very brief and simplified definition of the various kinds of edits, at least as I define them and several other editors I know. Note, several of these are often conflated and different editors may have different definitions. For example, some people think of copyediting and proofing as the same, some people think a substantive edit is the same as a developmental. This does not mean they “aren’t a good editor”. Even in the profession, people bandy about different terms. Just check with your editor and make sure you are both clear on expectations.
Proofread: catching typos, spelling errors, and punctuation. Light grammar editing.
Copyedit or line edit: a deeper version of the proofread, with more intense focus on grammar and sentence structure.
Developmental or content edit: a deep dive into story structure and craft. This is big picture stuff, please relate to my post above for more detailed description and examples.
Substantive edit: this edit focuses on the prose itself. Sentence structure, paragraph, dialogue, what’s too purple and what needs fleshing out?
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.