When Should You Start Working With an Editor? - Editing and Expectations

Editing and Expectations is a new blog series about the entire editing process, from figuring out when and how to start working with an editor to getting the most out of your edits - and everything in between. This is the first in the series.

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So you’ve written a book! Or you’re writing a book! Or you’re thinking about writing a book!

Awesome! Go, you!

Now that you’ve got your book (or your book-to-be), you want to get it published. But of course you want to make sure it’s perfect before it can get out into the world. Whether you’re traditionally publishing or self-publishing, you know you need an editor on it at some point. But when?

Well, it depends on a few things:

  • What are your goals?

  • Where are you at in the writing process?

  • What kind of editing are you looking for?

Traditional or Self-Publishing?

There are a lot of pros and cons for both options, which I’m not going to hit on here (you can figure out which one is best for you and your book). But let’s say you want to traditionally publish. Do you need an editor?

If your goal is to have a press put out your book, you might be working with an agent and you will definitely be working with an editor from the press once your book is accepted. So why would you want to spend the money on an editor now when you expect to have one later on who you don't have to pay for? I’ll be straight up with you: I get that it might be difficult to justify finding money in the budget for editing when this is the case.

However (you knew there had to be a “however,” right?), an editor can help you polish your manuscript so that you will be able to garner interest from an agent or a publishing house. I feel if you have the money to spend or can scrounge it up, an editor – or a proofreader at the very least – might be worth it to get you where you want to be.

If you’re self-publishing? Then no question: yes, you need an editor. Readers expect a professional, polished, properly edited book and are very vocal when it's not. Editing is a non-negotiable when it comes to self-publishing.

At What Point Does an Editor Come In?

You can get an editor at any time in the writing process. But you want to be strategic about it. What makes sense for the way you write? At what point are you comfortable showing someone your work? Again, how much do you have to spend on editing?

If you’re a plotter who knows exactly where your story is going and you’re confident in the strength of your story, finish your manuscript and then assess whether you want to revise, send to beta readers for feedback, or get an editor at that point.

If you need someone to keep you on track and help you flesh out the plot and the characterizations, then you should consider engaging an editor earlier in your writing process. This can get pricey, but this collaboration with an editor can absolutely pay off with a stellar book at the end.

I most often work with authors once they’ve finished their manuscript and are raring to go publish. This is also usually when people feel most comfortable sharing their work. Some come to me immediately after finishing the manuscript; some have had their story go through beta readers before they see me and/or feel that it’s pretty much ready to go and only needs another set of eyes on it to make sure. Editing slows things down on the path to publishing, but it’s a necessary step in delivering the best possible product at the end.

What Kind of Editing Do You Need?

There are many, many terms for different kinds of editing, some of which are used interchangeably, and these definitions are often determined by individual editors. There are no hard and fast rules for terminology in the editing world. The way I break down editing might be very different from someone else’s; be clear exactly what’s involved each editing package when you’re looking to hire an editor.

So, a broad overview:

  • Manuscript critique: This is generally a report that an editor writes after reading the complete manuscript. The report looks at the big-picture issues of the story: what’s working, what’s not, what may need to be tweaked, how the whole thing holds together. I might lightly mark up a manuscript to point out small errors or suggest a quick fix, but the bulk of my work is in the report itself. I personally don’t think a manuscript critique can stand on its own in terms of the editing that a story requires; some kind of editing package should go along with it.
  • Developmental editing: Developmental editors look at how the whole story holds together and get very specific on how to change the things that are preventing it from fully taking shape. They can jump in when the story idea is just in its infancy or after a manuscript has been rejected from a press and needs a significant overhaul to make it work, or any time in between. They work closely with the author to finesse the storytelling so that it’s cohesive and everything is on point: the plot, the characterization, the themes, etc. I love developmental editing; it’s such a transformative experience for an editor and an author to watch the story evolve and improve.
  • Content editing: This is pretty heavy editing of the text to improve the flow of the story, the rhythm of the words, the consistency of characterization, and overall clarity. This is the most common kind of editing I do.
  • Copyediting: This targets spelling, grammar, and style issues as well as internal consistency, formatting, and adherence to a style guide. I tend to lump proofreading into this category too, though some people would say proofreading should stand alone and occur after a copy edit.

Which one you choose will depend on the quality of writing, timing, budget, and the needs of the story. Carefully weigh your options and be honest with yourself how much attention your writing or your story needs before it's in publishable shape. A good editor can also help you determine what kind of editing would be best for you, usually with a diagnostic sample edit.


Interested in a sample edit to see what kind of editing would work for you and your story? Let’s chat!


Next week: how do you find an editor who’s right for you?


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