When You Shouldn’t Hire and Pay For a Professional Editor

Today’s guest post is by Sarah Moore (@newleafwriter), a professional copywriter and the owner of New Leaf Writing.


At certain times in a writer’s life, professional editing is a very good idea: when you’re trying to make an excellent impression with a query letter; before you hit “publish” on an independent book; when you’re breaking up with someone via email and want to get it right.

… Just kidding. You don’t need to edit your breakup emails that carefully. (Also, what are you doing ending things via email? Text is definitely easier.)

But while it’s lovely to be an established—or even aspiring—writer who can afford editing, that doesn’t mean you should turn to it every time you need to make a piece sparkle. Such an approach amounts to wasted money, as well as wasted opportunity to practice a valuable skill. Yet you might be surprised how many people do it, and how many others advise it.

Many good reasons exist to hire a professional editor, but there are also valid arguments to hold off until later, if not forever. Even if the editing seems like a good idea, here are some times to skip the expense and go it solo.

When the Situation Does Not Call for It

It can be harder than you think to identify situations that don’t call for professional editing—and will most likely lead to wasted money. Some of the most common include:

  • When you finish the first draft of a book and really need to revise it yourself
  • When you want to clean up a novel or nonfiction book for beta readers
  • Any time you guest post on someone else’s blog
  • When it’s just for school or work (yes, people do pay others to edit for this)
  • When you have just finished anything and have not yet reviewed it yourself several times
  • When you’re only using an editor to sound fancy, impress an agent or give your work an extra push—usually, this doesn’t help much unless the work can stand on its own

Moreover, “professional” editors don’t always make your work better. Perhaps you hire a friend who edits for free (a sure sign of a novice), someone from a budget work-for-hire site or an unvetted freelancer. These folks, while usually well-meaning, often bring your work down conceptually, and may even do so even technically. In situations like these, rely on yourself and save the money.

When Your Work Isn’t Close to Final

A few months ago, I got a pitch accepted on a big blog. A big-big-big blog, in my very specific niche. I was thrilled and nervous all at the same time, determined to make the best possible impression. So I paid an editor to look over the 3,000-word post and polish it to a high sheen. She did an amazing job, I was happy with the results and the price was very reasonable. The more so when compared to how much the post would pay and the enormous exposure it would have brought me.

Only problem: The full piece didn’t get accepted, which shocked me. I thought I’d had it in the bag, but I didn’t. Sure, I can shop it around now, but I’m a freelancer who works on tight margins. I can’t afford to pay for less-than-sure bets, a fact I was blinded to at the time. I lost money.

Plus, if the piece does get accepted by another publication, that editor is likely to want changes. In my excitement I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that even if the original editor had wanted the full piece, she would have made adjustments too.

So any time you’re submitting a piece that is likely to change quite a bit, don’t pay for services. The exception to this is a book manuscript. If it gets picked up, it will assuredly be edited, probably beyond current recognition. Nevertheless, making a good impression is critical in this situation and may warrant the expense.

When You Haven’t Yet Given Your Work Room to Breathe

Right when you finish drafting a novel or pounding out a 2,000-word piece is not the time to send it off to an editor. You’re tired; you’re too attached to the prose; your objectivity is shot.

In other words, the work probably isn’t as good as you think it is. If you pay an editor now, you’re wasting money—it’s probably not even halfway there yet. Don’t commit the Writing 101 blunder of submitting something the moment you bang it out; wait.

Neither should you make the mistake, however, of waiting a certain amount of time before you dive back in. A fresh eye is not guaranteed after the recommended 2-week resting period, nor do you have to wait that long to get one. In fact, I prefer to do several rounds of edits only a few days apart. For me, waiting too long severely diminishes my interest in a piece. Delay, and an article I was really, really excited to submit can become about as interesting as brushing my kid’s hair. That lost passion costs us writers even more than professional editing does, so when you feel ready and eager, dive back in.

When You Can Do It Yourself

Again, this might sound obvious … we’re all, like, awesome writers, right? We know when we need a pro to step in, or else we wouldn’t use one. Right? Right?!

Thing is, many writers, especially newbies, feel uncertain about their own skills and want the reassurance of a “real” editor. Usually that’s unnecessary. For instance, you have the ability to check for the following:

  • Repeated words (and phrases): No matter how cool a new piece of vocabulary is, don’t use it more than once. Anything unusual sticks out, and triply so when you use it twice.
  • Words you “mostly” understand: If you aren’t 100-percent sure you know what a word means, either look it up or give it a pass. Probably the latter.
  • Words that tax your reader: Even if it’s appropriate, it could still be exhausting. The concept of antidisestablishmentarianism can be expressed in eight short words or less; do that.
  • Insider words you haven’t explained: If you’re going to use lingo, make sure your audience knows what you mean … even a highly educated, niche audience can quickly get lost with too much shop talk.

You’re more than capable of scanning your work for verbal tics as well. For instance, I am terribly, horribly, predictably prone to overusing adverbs, especially of the –ly persuasion. If you see this suffix in a word, it’s safe to take another look at that word. Do you really need it? Most verbs don’t need to be modified. If someone is running, you can assume they’re doing it quickly. Crying? Probably miserably. Readers can fill in these blanks, so you can save your word count for what really matters.

Same goes for editing suggestions such as “use more precise adjectives.” You can do this easily on your own: “Elfin” may be more descriptive than “little.” “Captivating” might be better than “pretty.”

And instead of paying someone, spend time deliberately improving the editing craft. Learn all the little tricks that increase the readability and punch of your writing, such as removing “really” and a number of other unnecessary phrases.

But … Know When to Pay for a Good Editor

All that said, a professional editor is, eventually, necessary for books headed to publication. This means you should hire an editor for a manuscript prior to self-publishing, and you may want a professional to help smarten up a query letter. When it’s do-or-die time, call in the big guns and don’t cheap out. Your work will be so much better for it—yet another reason to save your bucks for when they matter.

In the meantime, don’t fear the editing beast. The more you increase your revision skills, the more confident you will become and the happier your bank account will be. Godspeed.

Oh, and feel free to send me your breakup emails so I can edit them for you. Let me just find the popcorn … okay, go.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.
Sarah Moore

Sarah Moore

Sarah Moore is a professional copywriter and the owner of New Leaf Writing, where she helps clients and other writers get their messages across more effectively. She just published a book on creativity, Get the Hell Over It: How to Let Go of Fear and Realize Your Creative Dream.

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42 Comments on "When You Shouldn’t Hire and Pay For a Professional Editor"

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Amy M. Reade

Great post. Do you have any tips on the best places to find professional editors? I’ve seen ads for so many my mind is reeling.

Jane Friedman

Here’s some advice on that front: https://www.janefriedman.com/find-freelance-book-editor/

I also list editors on my resources page: https://janefriedman.com/resources

Amy M. Reade

Thank you!

Tim Desmond

Thanks for a piece that is crucial in this business. I hadn’t thought of hiring an editor for blog posts and guest posts. However, I know that I’ve submitted manuscripts that were in need of better and more editing. While I thought that they were as clean as possible …uh uh. Even if the manuscripts were flawless with typos, punctuation, usage and such, I’ve had editors want plot changes and rewriting. I usually go along as I feel everybody is more or “better read” than I am.

Nathalie M.L. Römer
I actually do pay attention to what my editor says about my writing. I’ve noticed something interesting about my writing because of the notes, and she noticed it editing my second book (yes, I’m one of the authors living in the Catch 22 limbo of I need editing to get a good book out there, but I need a good book out there to afford editing. Because of this Catch 22 situation AND because my editor does give very informative notes that I read and re-read while writing any NEW book I work on I’ve become more critical in the… Read more »
Jane Friedman

Regarding the question about re-writing an existing work: usually it doesn’t constitute a new edition, but this comes down to a judgment call by the author (or publisher) and how much of substance has changed. I usually advise against calling something a new edition when you would not want or expect a reader to buy it again, or you’re not launching a new marketing campaign around the new edition. (It may not be a good message to send that you’re releasing a second edition because the first wasn’t polished—sometimes it’s better to quietly update instead.)

Elizabeth West

Awesome post; thank you. My book has gone through many self-edits, but I’m getting critique rejections that say the same thing, so I hired someone to take a look at it. I hope fresh eyes will help me improve it so the next time an agent replies to me, it will be with a Yes instead of an Almost but not quite. 🙂

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[…] is vital to writing well, so it’s important to do it right. Sarah Moore tells us when NOT to hire an editor, Jeff Lyons has questions to ask before hiring an editor, Joel Friedlander gives us all we need to […]

Bryan Fagan
Sarah, Thank you. Excellent article. I hired an editor back in January. I wrote the book two years ago. I had a good friend edit my book for free. She trimmed it down to the point where we thought it was ready and I sent it out. No dice. I could have wall papered my man’s den with the rejection letters. Come January, frustrated, it’s a damn good book I tell you!!!…..another friend, a professional editor, offered me her services. It was the best decision I ever made. I swear my characters high-fived me. Sometimes you have to know when… Read more »
Mary Turzillo

Editors are unsung saints. A lot of them burn out rapidly. Personally, I find a writing workshop, composed of published writers only, can make the process easier. We exchange critiques and editing. Typos go away when ten eyes are looking at a manuscript.

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[…] Sarah Moore: When You Shouldn’t Hire and Pay For a Professional Editor […]

Bruce Johnson
OMG. What a bashing-type of article with the expected comments from writers, who tend to blame others (e.g., editors) for their woes. Most of the article’s comments are helpful, but really? I showed this article to a friend, and she said that her impression (after reading it) was that editors are expendable and optional. Yes–there was the obligatory last paragraph of a few sentences that mentioned when one should use editors. This appears to be a blinders-on mentality with the target squarely listed as editors. How about a fair-and-balanced paragraph that addresses the current state of writing quality that is… Read more »
Maria D\'Marco
The title piqued my curiosity, thinking there might be some new ideas that would be helpful in further supporting the authors I edit, but then I was stunned at the put-your-socks-on-before-your-shoes approach. As you painted a picture of editors ready to shark writers and do harm, especially when the manuscript is in the raw draft stage, I became alarmed. As developmental specialist, I can only shake my head at your advice…and hope that serious writers don’t take it to heart. My concern is that writers, especially new writers with their first book, will be done irreparable harm, because your message… Read more »
Michael LaRocca, Technical Editor

One of the most common emails I get is along the lines of “I just have to write this one last chapter, probably tomorrow, and then I’ll send you my book to edit.” There are two obvious problems with this. One, since we’re writing for both present and future generations, and want our work to be timeless, there’s no reason not to wait a few months before sending it to an editor, to ensure the best it can possibly be. And two, I quit editing fiction a long time ago.

Linda Carbone
I’ve made my living for years as a freelance nonfiction book editor. I gasped when I saw the title of your piece, but after reading it, I agree! When I worked as a Developmental Editor at a publishing company, every manuscript that reached me had already gone through the gatekeepers, but came in far short of the mark and needed a “book doctor.” Cutting, rewriting, extensive querying, and long editorial letters were needed, but at base there was a book whose premise had been bought and an author who would do what was needed to make it publishable. As a… Read more »
Carol Roberts, book indexer

Sarah, great article about a problem I haven’t encountered before. More often I run into authors who overestimate their writing abilities and think they don’t need an editor at all. Likewise indexing. So many nonfiction writers (especially those who are self-publishing) think their book either doesn’t need an index or that they should write it themselves.

Maria D\'Marco

I have worked with authors who seem to think that indexing, and all that goes with it, just ‘happens’… like the publisher or Amazon takes care of ‘those things’.

Carol Roberts, book indexer

Yeah, I get that all the time when I tell people what I do.

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[…] https://www.janefriedman.com/dont-hire-editor/ When you don’t need to hire an editor. […]

Karolyn H

I’m an editor, and I would hire an editor if I published my own book in the future. Professionals still need fresh eyes that aren’t already familiar with their material to review it. Copyediting is not simply proofreading.

Jane Friedman
I’m jumping into the comments because I see some misreading or misunderstanding of Sarah’s post. The first line of her post says, “At certain times … professional editing is a very good idea.” She also says, “Many good reasons exist to hire a professional editor,” and “A professional editor is necessary for books headed to publication.” I work with many hundreds of writers each year on their queries, synopses, proposals, and conference pitching. Some come to me after having their manuscript professionally edited, yet I can see little or no evidence of it. Sometimes I see evidence the editor has… Read more »
Ally E. Machate
Love this article! Some great advice in here. I often advise would-be clients that aren’t yet ready for editing to check out some of my favorite how-to writing books, join critique/writers groups, and/or attend workshops to help them learn more of the basic techniques that will improve their draft and get it up to a level where professional editing makes sense. I don’t like to see writers wasting money. But this highlights my one teeny complaint about this article, which also speaks to Jane’s point about new authors using professional services and their drafts not showing much growth–there is no… Read more »
Joyce R Vaughn

I actually discuss my experience with editors on my website. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

Grace

“These folks, while usually well-meaning, often bring your work down conceptually, and may even do so even technically.” Would you be willing to elaborate on the kinds of things you see in terms of novice editors bringing a work down conceptually?

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