I see this a lot. Authors regularly come to me with books that just aren’t ready for me to look at the way they’re hoping. That isn’t to say I can’t help, but they’re trying to put the final polish on a book that hasn’t yet been cut, so to speak. While I’ll do the job they ask of me if they’re sure that’s what they want, it isn’t usually the best option.
So, in order to answer this question to its fullest, let’s start with discussing the types of editing available as well as other services that are related to this whole mess. I’m going to do this in order of where they come in the writing process, earliest to latest, so that way you can gauge where you are and see what you might need.
A book coach helps you find your way through the process of writing a book. I provide this service to clients who are looking for organization, guidance, and structure. While coaching is unique for each client, it often looks like us meeting every week or so and discussing where an author is, what challenges they faced that week, how much they’ve written so far, and tackling things that are keeping them from making the progress they want. I also typically give lessons on structure, critique scenes or chapters, and help them stay on track with regular check-ins, even if we aren’t meeting every week.
This phase helps you put together the bones of your story. Hiring a developmental editor is for a manuscript that is pretty early in the process. A developmental edit addresses structural changes to a story–things like pacing, characterization, character development, and other such broad stroke items. That isn’t to say a developmental editor will make chop suey of your manuscript. Recently I worked with a client who was struggling with structural problems between acts one and two, and I advised that they add some scenes. The issue for them was they weren’t super clear on where the exact break between the acts was supposed to be. I didn’t advise the client delete anything wholesale.
I had another who needed a lot of structural work for pacing because partway through the story they didn’t know exactly where they were going. They figured out the thread toward the end of act two, but there was a lot in the middle we had to work out. We cut out the chaff and zeroed in on the things that needed doing.
If this sounds like a big, scary process, I promise it doesn’t have to be. A good developmental editor is there to help you tell your story the best they can in your voice. We aren’t trying to tell it in ours. If a developmental editor feels like they don’t get your book or aren’t giving you feedback you need, it’s totally okay to cease work (though it’s best practices to pay people for their time) and find another editor who you mesh better with.
To go back to the analogy of gems, this is where we start examining the quality of a raw gem to see what we can help you create out of it. We see the promise; we just need to get out of the surrounding rock.
If this sounds like a big, scary process, I promise it doesn’t have to be. A good editor is there to help you tell your story the best they can in your voice.E. Prybylski
Line editing is going through the manuscript line by line (hence the name) and looking at things like word choice, sentence structure, and clarity. This is the phase where we iron out how many adverbs you really need (yes, you’re allowed to use them), help you use stronger verbs, give you insight into how to use your voice to its fullest advantage. This is the kind of editing people usually think of when they think of editing. It typically costs more than developmental editing and copy editing because it is the most labor-intensive for the editor in terms of hours spent because we need to evaluate every single word of the manuscript.
As before, of course, the intent of this is not to sanitize the author’s voice. Your voice. I’ve done blogs on author voice in the past, though I can’t find any more recent than 2011, so it’s probably due for an update. However, the long and short of it is: your voice is the way you write that makes you unique from any other. It’s not about whether or not you use adverbs or semicolons or what have you. It’s bigger than a sentence or word.
In order to really change or alter an author’s voice, I would either have to rewrite the entire thing myself or make such substantial changes to every single sentence that it is unreadable. These changes are bigger than punctuation or correcting inaccurate grammar. They’re also bigger than helping an author avoid passive voice, flying POV changes, and other such things. Don’t fret.
In the gemstone analogy, this is where the gem is cut.
Copy editing is the highest level of editing. At this point, the editor doesn’t care if you used too many adverbs, if you wrote the entire thing in passive voice, and so on. Well, that’s mostly true. It’ll still make our hair stand on end, and we might leave you a comment, but we aren’t going to fix it for you because we’re not being paid to.
While in some parts of the editing community, line editing and copy editing are smooshed into a single service (I often do both at the same time), if someone just pays for copy editing, that’s what they are going to receive. If you are hiring an editor for copy editing, a few things are expected: you have either self-edited to the point where you are confident your book says what you intend or you have had another editor(s) review the book already to your satisfaction.
As you can see, this is also pretty far down the list in order of what happens when. Hiring someone to copy edit your book too early (if you plan on adding/changing scenes or doing a line edit) will just mean having to pay for one again later. While, yes, copy editing is less expensive than line editing, I wouldn’t skip that phase unless you really know what you’re doing. I have clients who come to me just for copy editing on their fiction, and they are extremely good at what they do. They’re experienced authors who don’t really need me to go word by word to make sure everything’s where it ought to be.
If you aren’t an experienced author who really has a good handle on all the bits and bobs of writing, I wouldn’t skip around. However, you might be able to find editors willing to work with you in your price range, so if money is an issue, shop around and see who’s available and at what price. That said, editing is one of the industries where you tend to get what you pay for. If you see someone charging a fair chunk of change, there’s likely a good reason for that.
In our gem cutting metaphor, this is the polish phase.
If you aren’t an experienced author who has a really good handle on all the bits and bobs of writing, I wouldn’t skip around. However, you might be able to find editors willing to work with you in your price range.E. Prybylski
Finally, we get to proofreading. This is done when the book is formatted to make sure everything is caught and clean. If you are doing an ebook only, it may well be done in Word, but traditionally it’s done either in print or in the software the book is being formatted in. This can include things like making sure leading and kerning are correct, catching widows and orphans, and fixing up any last-minute typos. It is the very last look before something goes to print.
Proofreading is the absolute final step in review before your book is published. This is the final pass, and the last pair of eyes. Ideally it should be different from whoever did the other rounds of editing. I always advise two editors look at a project before it goes out. Even if one has done the rest of the editing process, having a fresh set of eyes to catch typos and find last-minute errors is invaluable.
When publishing novels through Insomnia, we always pass them back and forth to another editor in the company for this final run before the book is published for realsies. While this step may not be doable for all authors, I cannot overestimate the value of it.
All of that explanation out of the way, when should you hire an editor? The real answer, at the end of the day, is: It depends.E. Prybylski
All of that explanation out of the way, when should you hire an editor? The real answer, at the end of the day, is: It depends. Where you are in the writing process tells you what kind of editing you want and who to look for. Absent you hiring a book coach to help you get your work on track, however, you should wait until you’ve finished your first draft and done at least one round of self-editing.
That means you finish it, have a celebratory glass of your favorite beverage, wait a few days, or a week or more for some folks, and then re-read what you wrote. Take notes. Outline your book again based on what you wrote (that’s a blog for another day that I’ll do) and really evaluate your novel. Then maybe send it to a beta reader or twelve. Once you’ve done that, then see where you’re at. If your story structure is solid, and you don’t think you have any pacing problems? Start looking for a line editor.
When in doubt, too, you can contact an editor to tell them where you’re at, what’s going on, and ask them what you need. Many editors perform manuscript evaluations for a reasonable fee in order to give you specific feedback about what you need, where, and why. They may pitch specific services to you, also.
I’ve had authors come to me for a line edit and I’ve told them what they really need is developmental or copy editing. It can go either way. While a manuscript evaluation may feel like an extra expense, the reality is it can save you a lot of money in the long run, and it’s worth considering if you’re feeling wibbldy about where you are in the process.
For what it’s worth, and to plug my services down here at the bottom, if you are interested in any of these types of editing, want a manuscript evaluation, or just in general are looking for help figuring out what you next step is, you can contact me through my editing website, and we can talk through what you need. If I’m not the right editor for you, I know many in multiple genres who may be able to help. I have resources to help you find what you’re looking for. That service is free. I’m here to help, not wring every penny out of you.
E. Prybylski has been in the publishing industry as an editor since 2009, starting at Divertir Publishing and eventually partnering with her close friend Richard Belanger to begin Insomnia Publishing.
Ever since childhood, E. has been an avid reader and writer of fantasy. The first chapter book she remembers reading is The Hobbit, followed swiftly by most of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. In high school, she perfected the skill of walking while reading without slamming into anyone. Mostly.
When she isn’t reading or writing, E. is an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and has a B.A. in European history from SNHU. In addition to her many historical pursuits, E. is a musician of multiple instruments, a cat mom, and a loving wife to her husband, J. E. also speaks out for the disability and chronic illness communities being a sufferer of chronic migraines and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.