So you’ve written a book. Firstly, congrats! That’s a huge accomplishment, and no matter what comes after, that’s worth celebrating.
But what does come next? There are so many options and paths to take, and it can be hard to know where to go. I often hear people ask, “Do I need an editor?”
The short answer: It really depends.
If you’re planning to query, the short answer is “no.” The nuance is that your book should be as polished as possible, and it should have had eyes other than yours on it multiple times. That doesn’t mean those eyes need to be an editor’s, though. Most agents don’t expect your book to be perfect. In fact, traditionally published books often undergo many rounds of edits prior to publication after being picked up by a publishing house.
That being said, I know many people who hire editors to refine their work before querying, and it really does help. Especially if that editor has an industry background.
There are specific things that agents look for in various genres. For young adult fantasy, most agents are looking for an inciting incident within the first ten pages of the book. Advice like that is something an editor can help with.
Not to mention, publishing is a business in and of itself. Suppose your book is nearly perfect and needs virtually no edits. In that case, that’s a financially smart business decision for agents and publishers because they don’t have to put as much work into themselves–meaning less money they have to spend.
If you’re planning to self-publish, you also don’t have to hire an editor, but it is highly recommended. An editor will pick out all the little inconsistencies that get overlooked from being too close to a project. They’re going to help with flow, pacing, and word choice, depending on the type of editor you hire.
So, how do you know which type of editor you need?
Well, there are different levels of editing, and what stage your book is at determines which editor you might want to work with.
In a general sense, the process is as follows:
- Developmental/structural edits
- Line/stylistic edits
- Copy edits
Developmental (Structural) Edits
Developmental and structural edits can differ slightly in definition from editor to editor, but the main concept is an edit that looks at the big picture of your book. Dev edits focus on plot, character, pacing, flow, worldbuilding, etc. All the things that make a book particularly enjoyable. They don’t look at word choice or clarity (unless it’s a larger-book problem).
This would be the type of edit you would want after the first few drafts. Some people might hire a dev editor after the first draft, and some might want to do a few drafts. This edit simply comes before all others to make sure that your story feels like a complete story. There’s no point looking at grammar and syntax if new scenes are going to be added or old scenes deleted. It’s a lot of added work for little to no return, and it will mean going back and forth between editors multiple times.
Some editors will combine copy editing with line editing (like myself), while others will offer them as separate services. The difference is subtle but important. Line edits come first, and this edit is focused on clarity and understandability. Line editors will look at your story line-by-line to consider:
- Word choice (Is annoyed the best choice in this sentence?)
- Tone (Does this line stand out as too happy for a darker scene?)
- POV (Are we head hopping or is the narrator consistent?)
- How the sentences fit together as a whole, among other things.
They are concerned with the author’s style, which is why line edits are sometimes referred to as stylistic edits.
A line editor does not look at grammar and punctuation.
This edit follows a developmental edit. Most editors won’t line edit a piece unless they know it’s already had extensive feedback for big-picture items.
The reason many editors choose to separate their copy edits is because they really are separate functions, and it can help to focus on one thing at a time. A copy editor will also view the story on a line level, but they look for things like grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. If there is a style guide in play (like MLA or APA for academic edits), the copy editor is the one who ensures the piece follows the style guide. This is a more technical form of editing, and it has little to do with structure or style and more with consistency.
I like to put these together because I often can’t think of one without thinking of the other as well. A misplaced comma can have a big impact on the understandability of the text.
This is the second-last edit in the process. One might pursue a copy edit when they’re happy with the story and the tone/voice/clarity. I wouldn’t recommend doing this before finalizing the book as one whole story.
The final step. A proofreader’s job is to read through to catch any technical inconsistencies or notes that may have been missed in other edits. (Though it doesn’t touch on anything developmental.) This edit is the final pass to prepare a piece for publication.
Have you ever been caught in a book with a missing word or improper apostrophe usage? That was probably missed at every level of editing, but most notably by the proofreader and author.
It can be helpful to have fresh eyes for a proofread because the more you read your own work, the more likely a misplaced comma will slip through the cracks. Sometimes, we can be too close to our work to see those imperfections.
But, realistically, editing can be quite expensive and may not be feasible for every author. So, what are some ways we can cut down on costs and still receive the best feedback possible?
Get other eyes on it. Preferably, a few rounds of beta readers or critique partners before sending it off to a developmental editor. With multiple rounds of feedback, most of the tough stuff will have already been dealt with. This often means less work for the editor, and it can lead to lower costs.
This note is true at any stage. Even copy/line edits benefit from prior feedback so long as those giving feedback have your story’s best interest at heart. (Just because it’s industry-standard information doesn’t mean that it will always apply to your work.) I recently worked with a client who had received tons of helpful information, but not all of it applied to their story, and it led to a convoluted plot that wasn’t the story the author truly wanted to tell.
Cut your word count. Many editors charge per word these days, meaning the longer the project, the higher the cost. It helps to be conscious of what the industry standard for various genres is so you can see where your project fits. For example, YA Fantasy tops out at 100,000 words (even that is quite high, most sit between 80,000-90,000). But if you’re working with a YA Fantasy that’s 100,000 words plus, that can be a good indication to look for things to cut before sending it off. Contemporary Romance can be anywhere from 50,000-90,000. Sometimes editors are consulted to help cut those words back, but if you’re already aware of things that need to go, that can save you a good chunk of change.
Get feedback on part of your manuscript rather than all of it. While having an editor look at all your work is ideal, even having the first 10,000 words edited can give you a baseline to get through the rest on your own. I know for my early drafts, I got feedback on my first chapter that vastly changed the trajectory of the rest of the story. At that point, it wasn’t worth my reader going through the rest of the book when I knew almost every chapter would need to be revised. The same goes for copy and line edits. If the editor notices some consistent mistakes in the first few chapters, those likely continue throughout the manuscript. And if you know what to look for, you can make those changes yourself.
Be strategic about what type of edits you want and which ones you might be able to go without. It would be great if we could all afford to pay four different editors at every stage, but that’s not financially realistic for many writers. Sometimes, we have friends who are really good at knowing what to look for with characters and others who love grammar. Maybe that means you can get away with only hiring a line editor. Just be conscious of the type of finished product you’re looking for and what your publishing goals are.
Find an editor with payment plans. While this may not actually lower the cost, it does limit how much you’re paying at once. Some editors will have payment plans for up to 12 months. This can make a large price tag more realistic.
Look for packages. If you know you’ll want more than one type of editing or even multiple rounds of developmental edits, look for editors who offer package pricing. This can help reduce your costs because many will discount multiple edits with the same editor.
There you have it! I hope that the concept of working with an editor is a little less daunting. (And maybe even more financially feasible!) If you have any specific questions about working with an editor, I’d be happy to answer them through the contact page on my website.
Thanks for reading, and happy writing.
About E.A. Whyte
Erin (E.A.) Whyte is an author/editor hailing from Southwestern Ontario. She’s written eight books in the genres of young adult fantasy, sci-fi, and contemporary. In the editing-scape, she works mainly with fantasy and sci-fi works in young adult and adult (although she’s always down for a good heist/spy novel).
If she’s not reading, writing, or editing, she’s consuming a conservative amount of coffee at local coffee shops and taking mini road trips to historic towns–or as historic as Southwestern Ontario really gets.