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.
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.