“Do I have to hire an editor?” is one of the most common questions I hear from unpublished authors, and as with so many questions, the answer is . . . it depends. Useful, I know, but authors come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, and what you’re planning to do with your manuscript makes all the difference in the world. The biggest determining factor is whether you’re planning to publish your book yourself or go the traditional route.
If You’re Pitching to Agents or Publishers
If you’re trying to get your book traditionally published, editing might or might not make sense for you. If you want to make sure your manuscript is the best it can be—or if you’ve been shopping it around for a while with no luck and want to get a second opinion or increase your odds of success—then having it developmentally edited could be helpful. An experienced editor can improve the flow and structure of your book, and one who’s plugged in to the part of the publishing industry you’re trying to get into can also make suggestions as to why you’re not having any success. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw (and everyone’s heard the stories of now-famous authors who were rejected hundreds of times before getting signed), but maybe there’s something about your manuscript that’s turning agents or publishers away. That said, the vast majority of publishing deals involve a developmental edit, so your book doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect to be acquired.
Meanwhile, having a copyedit done is almost always a waste of money for querying authors. Any real, reputable publisher will either have your book copyedited in-house (something that usually only happens at small presses) or send it out to a freelance copyeditor (almost always the case with medium and large publishers, most of whom don’t have in-house copyeditors anymore). Beyond that, not every copyedit is the same—most publishers have special style requirements for their own books beyond the Chicago Manual of Style or other style guide that a freelancer might be using, so if you hire an editor yourself, the work they do could end up being undone or redone before it gets to press. Outside of a couple very narrow situations, if a publisher tells you that you need to pay for any kind of editing yourself, that’s a sign you’re dealing with a vanity press or other pay-to-publish operation.
So, in a nutshell, developmental editing can be useful but isn’t always necessary if you’re trying to get acquired, and copyediting usually doesn’t make sense at all.
If You’re Planning to Self-Publish
On the other hand, if you’ll be publishing your book on your own, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t hire an editor. Maybe you’ve really written an amazing novel or an insightful nonfiction book, but if there are typos, inconsistencies, or unnecessarily confusing passages in it, you’ll lose credibility fast. There are a few different services self-publishing authors can benefit from:
- Developmental editing (also called substantive or content editing) is the “big picture” stuff. A developmental edit looks at things like organization, sentence structure, and quality of writing. For fiction, it includes things like plot and character development; for nonfiction, things like argumentation, clarity, and citations.
- Copyediting is the nitty-gritty mechanical and continuity stuff. Do you have any errors in spelling, word usage, grammar, or punctuation? Are your style and formatting consistent throughout your manuscript? In fiction, are character names and descriptions consistent throughout your novel? Do timelines match up? In nonfiction, do you have your facts right? An eagle-eyed copyeditor will make sure all of your figurative i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed and can save you from potentially embarrassing mistakes in the process.
- Proofreading is the last step before publication. The manuscript has already been edited, and you’ve been through it with a fine-tooth comb. You’re pretty positive you’re ready to hit print, but before you do, a proofreader will check for any missed text errors—it’s almost impossible to catch every typo in your own work, and it only gets harder the more times you read it—as well as layout-related things like incorrect page references, mismatched captions, orphans and widows, spacing or font issues, and more. Depending on your workflow, a proofreader can also check to make sure copyedit or other corrections were all correctly made.
At most traditional publishers, manuscripts go through all three of these steps, and there’s a reason for that—each one serves a different important purpose. The quality of editing is one of the big things that separates the average traditionally published book from the average self-published one, but unlike other advantages that big publishers might have (like a huge marketing team with connections at the New York Times), it’s one that self-pub authors can compete on if they have the means and the desire.
Not all self-publishing authors will be able to afford all three of these services, but I strongly recommend budgeting at least for proofreading and, if at all possible, copyediting. What you save in skipping the freelancer you might well lose in sales if word gets out that your book has mistakes in it. (If you decide to do only a proofread, keep in mind that many freelancers won’t take on a project if there are too many errors in it, since that starts to get into copyediting territory—and there’s a reason copyediting costs more than proofing.)
So, do you need an editor? Maybe or maybe not. Either way, the first step is knowing which way you want to go from manuscript to published book.