At some point in a writer’s life, we’ll likely wonder whether we should hire a professional editor for our manuscript. I’m an author, as well as a freelance editor, so I wanted to chime in with my opinions and advice on this subject.
Most articles fall squarely in one or another category: YES you ALWAYS need an editor, or NO, they’re a WASTE OF MONEY. In this piece, I’ll discuss both the pros and cons, as well as how to choose an editor if you decide to get one.
If your goal is self-publishing, you probably want to hire at least one editor. Successful indy authors often hire two: a developmental editor, and a proofreader. You will feel more confident about your manuscript if you go through an editing process before publishing, and readers will thank you with their dollars and positive reviews if you do.
I personally would never publish a book without having it go through an editing process, even though I’m an editor myself. We truly can’t see our own work with objective enough eyes to be sure it’s our best effort. Hiring an editor isn’t cheating, or selling out your voice. It’s just part of the process of publishing, and of creating good art.
However, if your goal is getting traditionally published, you may be on the fence about whether you should get an editor before querying. After all, if you get an agent, they will often give developmental critique, and a publisher will always put your manuscript through an editing process before publication. So, why should you bother paying for one yourself?
Hopefully this article will help you decide whether it’s right for you.
If you’ve spent any time being a writer, you’ll know the value of getting other eyes on your work. No matter how skilled or talented we are, it’s difficult to be detached enough to see our own errors, weak spots, and inconsistencies.
Critiquers and beta readers are invaluable in the revision process, and help us to spot our story’s weaknesses and strengths. However, even if these folks aren’t our family and friends, they might have difficulty being fully up-front with us about our work. If we’re also helping them with their own manuscripts, they don’t want to risk angering us. And besides, who wants to be mean?
Editors, however, are professionals. We get paid to be honest about your book. That shouldn’t mean we’re rude or cruel, but we have no qualms about telling you exactly what we think; after all, it’s our job. You expect it from us. And, we have a vested interest in seeing you published, because that will be another notch in our headboard, so to speak: a point of pride, and a means of getting further clients.
Whenever one of my clients gets a request or an offer, I feel almost as if I’d gotten one myself. I put some of my heart and soul into their book, and my clients always (so far) put me in the acknowledgments when I’ve worked with them. If my name is on something, I have a huge investment in making sure it’s the best it can be.
As much as I enjoy being a CP or beta, it just isn’t the same.
Editors also have more experience than critiquers or beta readers. Our experience can come in a lot of different forms; some of us worked for publishers before hanging out our freelance shingles. Others have degrees in English or Literature. Some, like me, just got our starts with a lot of practical experience such as writing books, short stories, queries, and pitches; judging contests; and being involved in a million critique partnerships.
This experience matters a lot. Writing and editing aren’t innate talents, like some seem to think; they’re skills that we hone through practice, and an editor will bring this skill to bear, helping you craft your novel into something you can be even more proud of.
Be sure you choose the right editor for your manuscript, however. If you get one who isn’t right for your book, it will be a waste of your money.
Being “right” for your book doesn’t always mean someone who is expensive, or even someone with decades of experience. It means they believe in your manuscript and share your vision for it. They need to have a good handle on your personal voice and style, and be willing to work with you instead of against you.
They also need to be good at what they do, however. The only true way to know this is to do your homework before hiring them.
Always research potential editors, ask for references, and have them do a free sample edit (usually first couple pages of your manuscript) to make sure they are not only qualified, but a good fit for you. Make sure they seem enthusiastic about your book, and that their sample edits make sense and seem right (give them time to sink in before deciding this, because often the best editors will strike a nerve, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep from getting defensive when that happens). Email a few of their references and make sure they were happy with the editor’s work. Triple bonus if those clients got requests, agents and publishing contracts after working with them.
Make sure you’re really comfortable with someone before you give them money and hand over your word-baby. A good editor will give you the space and the information you need in order to make the decision, and won’t hound you.
A NOTE ON SENSITIVITY READERS:
There is a lot of bad press out there about sensitivity readers lately. I am myself a sensitivity reader. I’ve worked with many clients, including some of the Big Five publishers, on books containing neurodivergent/mentally ill characters, and characters with addiction issues. I love sensitivity reading, and I’m willing to die on this hill to defend the process.
If your manuscript has a character who is marginalized, and especially if you don’t share that marginalization, please consider hiring a sensitivity reader. We aren’t here to censor your book, but to make it better. We want your book to succeed. A good SR won’t be defensive and actively looking for problems. We will fact-check, and bring more soul, more feeling, and more humanity to your marginalized characters by virtue of our lived experience. Being a marginalized person is complicated, and it’s not something outsiders can easily understand. We can help you to understand, and your book (and your life) will be richer for it.
Most writers would love to have an FBI agent read over their manuscript with an FBI agent main character, correct? They’d delight in having someone to help them on the small details, and let them know how it feels to be in certain situations. It would help the narrative to really come alive. So why is there pushback over hiring sensitivity readers?
The answer, unfortunately, is often bigotry. People are defensive and frightened about confronting their prejudices and misunderstandings which might come through in their writing. That’s normal, and it’s okay, because you can’t grow without confronting these things. Don’t be scared. A good sensitivity reader won’t spend their time berating you. They’ll be relieved you reached out, and will genuinely want to hold an open (if sometimes difficult) conversation about your characters.
Again, be sure to connect with a SR before hiring them, to make sure they’re a good fit for your book, and that they communicate in a way that works for you. Always be respectful of the amount of emotional labor it takes to be a SR, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. As long as you’re truly listening to us, we’ll be happy to answer.
There can be cons to hiring an editor, believe it or not.
If you put effort into finding good critique partners or beta readers, and put a lot of time and thought into revising your own book, you can get an agent and/or publisher without getting your manuscript professionally edited.
The most obvious argument against hiring an editor is the expense. I haven’t yet engaged an editor prior to sending a book out to agents or publishers. It’s not that I don’t believe in it, I’m just very poor. If you have a few hundred bucks you’ll never miss, you don’t have much to lose by getting professional eyes on your manuscript, but few of us have that luxury.
Another con is that an editor is only one person, and their opinions, while hopefully informed, are opinions and are therefore subjective and personal. Even if their critiques and suggestions make sense to you, that doesn’t automatically translate into revisions that will land you a contract more easily. I have gotten suggestions from professionals (both editors and agents) which resonated with me, only to have a different agent tell me they didn’t agree with that advice, or give me the exact opposite suggestion. So who should I listen to?
There is no right or wrong way to write. This is a subjective business. Being careful in choosing an editor—finding one who is both skilled and shares your vision—can mitigate the amount of “bad” advice you get, but even if you find the perfect editor for your book, not all of their suggestions will resonate, and you can never consider their opinions to be foolproof.
Developmental editors aren’t there to “fix” your manuscript; they are artists, like you, and can only be a partner in crafting your story, not a doctor who cures it of any ills.
Those are the only cons I can think of, but you definitely should take them into consideration.
Hiring an editor is a personal decision. If you’ve already been querying and have had little to no success; if you’re getting conflicting advice from betas and CPs; or if you really want to have full confidence that your manuscript is ready for querying, an editor might be the answer.
Please let me know what pros and cons I failed to touch on. I always love to hear from you.
Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor/writer. You can find her on Amazon.