Using a book editor: How to get more value

This is a guest contribution by publishing network Reedsy, a succinct guide to working with a book editor. If you’re not quite at the editing and publishing stage yet, join Now Novel for help planning and finishing your novel.

This is a guest contribution by publishing network Reedsy, a succinct guide to working with a book editor. If you’re not quite at the editing and publishing stage yet, join Now Novel for help planning and finishing your novel. 

How many editors does it take to change a light bulb?

The answer? Zero! They’re used to working out of the spotlight.

Don’t feel sorry for editors. They choose to work their magic out of sight, helping authors to shine, and ultimately giving the readers of the world a better experience. They’re the elves to the author’s Santa Claus. What they provide is not just an extra pair of eyes for insurance but also objectivity, a knowledge of the craft, and an understanding of what would make a better book in your genre. “Overnight successes” like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Hunger Games didn’t emerge fully-formed from the minds of their authors: they would’ve sunk without the help of their first editors.

But if you have yet to secure a publisher, where do you start with getting an editor, and how can you make sure you’re not doing it all wrong? In this post, I’ll share my top tips for working with freelance editors so you can a) get the most for your money, and b) produce the best possible book. Ready?

1. Know the different book editor types, and which services you require

Broadly speaking, a manuscript goes through two types of editing before it goes into production: developmental and copy editing.

In the developmental stage, an editor will look at the broad brush strokes — the characters, the story arc, the pacing — as well as things like your use of language. They will often go so far as to edit on a line level (rewording your sentences for clarity), but in general, a developmental editor will give you “big picture” feedback, asking questions like:

  • Are your characters authentic and consistent?
  • Is your plot paced properly?
  • Does the climax need more buildup to be effective?
  • Is the theme clear and articulate?
  • Is the premise marketable?

It’s a rigorous, thoughtful, and in-depth edit of your book by someone who knows the craft of storytelling and, critically, knows ways to bridge the gap between what your book is and what you want it to become.

Once your “big picture” problems are resolved, the copy editor takes over. They’ll tighten up your manuscript, clearing up issues like spelling, grammar, consistency, and factual errors. After that, for an even more polished final product, you can turn to a proofreader.

When editors work for traditional publishers, they usually specialize: copy editors don’t often work as development editors, and development editors very rarely proofread. Many professional editors hit the freelance market to spread their wings, so always check out an editor’s profile to see what their background is (or even better, just ask them). You might nab an experienced editor at a reasonable price if they’ve only recently moved into a focus area.

Here’s an extra tip: If you’re looking for a copy-edit and you hear, “Your manuscript would benefit from a developmental edit at this stage,” you should sit up and listen. In fact, if you’re going straight to a copy edit without development work, I would urge you to reconsider. No successful author goes straight from self-editing to a copy editor. If you do that, you will miss out on a crucial creative step and risk a possibly amazing story transformation.

Developmental editing questions via Reedsy | Now Novel

2. Get the most mileage for your money

If you’re the one holding the purse strings on your edit, you probably want to know what it’s going to cost you, right?

Well. . . the answer is complicated. Firstly, it depends on your manuscript’s needs — and what type of editing it requires, as discussed in the previous section. Then it also depends on an editor’s experience, and other factors like turnaround time. To find out the ballpark range of freelance editing costs, you can take a gander at the infographic embedded in this post on the cost of self-publishing.

As for getting the best value for money, keep the next three tips in mind:

1. Start off with a developmental editor

Too often, I’ll see authors rushing through the editing process. They’ll hire a copy-editor off the bat, only to realize that their book needs substantial character or story changes. So they end up paying for a copy edit, then making major changes to their manuscript before going in for another copy edit. This is, as you can imagine, not an effective use of your time or money.

2. Take your manuscript as far as you can by yourself

Don’t pass an editor your first draft while the ink’s still wet. Take time to comb through the manuscript a couple of times yourself. Pass it around to trusted beta readers, then re-write and edit it to the best of your own ability. By the time you give it to an editor, they can focus on advanced issues — the sort of thing only they can spot.

Consider an editorial assessment if you’re not sure. If you’re short on funds, I would urge you to request an editorial assessment instead. It’s a “big picture” report on your manuscript from a developmental editor that provide a lot of in-depth feedback on your manuscript. It will guide further rewrites while also being more cost effective than a full developmental edit.

3. Do your homework

Just as there are no black-and-white rules when it comes to writing, the same goes for editing! Editors may have a lot of experience, but each one has an individual working style that might or might not be compatible with your writing. Since not every editor is right for your manuscript —or for you— you first need to figure out what’s important to you.

In my opinion, you need to ensure that you and your editor a) share a common vision for your book, and b) that the two of you ‘click.’

Consider these questions in your research:

  • Does the editor have experience in my genre?
  • What books did they previously work on, or are in their repertoire?
  • What kind of publishers did this editor work for previously?
  • Have they edited self-published books before?

If you’re working on a developmental edit, it’s also important to try to get a feel for their working style. Ask for a sample edit before you sign on the dotted line and pay close attention to the kind of feedback they give. Do they give feedback by asking questions, or suggesting solutions? Is their feedback direct or couched in encouragement? Do they tend to directly edit manuscripts? You might be working with this editor for some time, so finding their personality and style of critique a good fit matters.

So where can you get in touch with wonderful editors? Do they hang around in a cafe somewhere, waiting for authors to approach them?

Well, you could head to Reedsy, a curated marketplace of top publishing professionals. You can ask fellow authors in your genre for recommendations — not only are they trusted sources, but it’s also a great way to start building a relationship with them for future cross-promotions.

Questions for choosing an editor via Reedsy | Now Novel

4. Trust, trust, trust

When I talk about ‘trust’ between authors and editors, I’m not asking, “Is my editor going to steal my story?” Granted, it’s a common concern, but story theft just doesn’t occur. A simple accusation of intellectual property theft would be disastrous for an editor’s reputation. Instead, what I mean by ‘trust’ is a belief that the editor is doing what’s best for the book and for you.

When you get your manuscript back for the first time, don’t be alarmed if it’s covered in red pen marks (or, in a digital copy, comments) — that’s what you paid the editor to do. Just because they have a lot of comments, it doesn’t mean they didn’t love your book. But in the end, it’s still your book: if you disagree with your editor’s suggestions, you should always push back. Ask your editor to provide the reasoning behind the edit, or discuss why the editor felt that there was a problem in the first place. There needs to be two-way communication. That’s why we call this a collaboration.

An editor is an important figure in the making of any book. When you get the right one and approach your collaboration with an open mind, you’re taking the first couple of steps towards your shared goal: creating an awesome book that shines.

About the contributor

Martin Cavannagh is a writer and team member at Reedsy, a professional publishing network dedicated to helping authors and publishers create better books.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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