Note from Jane: I’m proud to be a contributor to Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published, which features essays from the Writer Unboxed community. The following is a selection from my chapter on whether writers should invest in a professional editor before submitting their work to agents or publishers.
Writing and publishing advice can sometimes feel obvious or like common sense: Have a fresh concept. Take out everything that’s boring. Keep the reader turning pages.
But being able to truly see if you’ve been successful in writing a compelling work requires objectivity and distance than can be hard to achieve on your own—and this is where a professional editor comes in.
There are three primary reasons to hire a professional.
1. The learning experience
You’ll grow as a writer by working with an expert who can point out your strengths and weaknesses, and give you specific feedback on how to take your work to the next level. Sometimes, if you have an excellent mentor or critique group, you can learn the same things, but the process takes longer, or there’s more confusion and doubt along the way due to conflicting opinions. When you pay a professional, you’re partly paying for distance and objectivity. But you’re also paying to receive trustworthy and meaningful feedback and learning how to apply that feedback. This is a skill you’ll use again and again. You’ll begin to have an intuitive understanding of what kind of attention your work needs, and at what point in the writing process you need feedback.
2. The industry advantage
The right professional editor typically offers industry insight, experience, or perspective in your genre that critique partners don’t have. Assuming you work with someone with industry experience, you’ll increase your understanding of what a quality editorial process looks and feels like. Once a writer has experienced the work of an editor who can make their work dramatically better, they often stick with that editor for as long as possible—it’s an invaluable career relationship.
3. Submission preparation
The question of whether to hire an editor almost always arises just before or during the submissions process, as a way of increasing the chances of a book’s acceptance. For better or worse, this is the key motivation many writers have in seeking an editor—the learning experience is not acknowledged or becomes a side effect.
In query letters, I see more and more writers claim their manuscript has been professionally edited, and it’s no surprise. People inside the industry are known for emphasizing the importance of submitting a flawless manuscript. However, when evaluating such work, I find that it tends to be of lesser quality. This is quite paradoxical. Shouldn’t professionally edited material be much better?
Unfortunately, writers don’t always understand what type of editor to use, or how an editor is supposed to improve their work. This results in surface-level changes that don’t meaningfully affect the chances at publication. Less experienced writers also tend to be more protective of their work and less likely to revise.
How to honestly appraise your editing needs
When writers ask me if they should hire a professional editor, it’s usually out of a vague fear their work isn’t good enough. They believe or hope that it can be “fixed” by a third party. While a good editor can help resolve problem areas, it often requires just as much work by the writer to improve the manuscript.
If you’re hoping an editor will wave a magic wand and transform your work into a publishable manuscript over night, you’ll be disappointed by the results. But if you feel you’ve come to the end of your own ability to improve the work, you’re more likely to benefit. Writing teacher Richard Gilbert once advised, “The more frustrated a writer is with his own piece—meaning he has struggled hard with it on all levels and has turned it into an external object, a misshapen piece of clay he’s almost angry at—usually the more help an editor or teacher can provide.” I couldn’t agree more.
Before you hire anyone to edit your work, you should understand the different stages of writing and revising, the different types of editing available, and what an editor can and can’t do in terms of making your work publishable. (Here’s a quick overview.) It’s critical that you’re clear on exactly what level of editing or service will be provided. Perhaps it seems obvious, but I see writers do it all the time: never hire a copyeditor until you’re confident your book doesn’t require a higher level of editing first. That would be like painting the walls of your house right before tearing them down.
Or here’s another way to think about the editing process: don’t hire a rules-based editor—someone who will look for sentence-level errors—when what you really need is a big-picture editor, who will identify strengths and weaknesses in the work. Some editors can provide all levels of editing, but it would be a mistake to hire an editor to perform all levels of editing in one pass.
Knowing what type of editor to hire requires some level of self-awareness about where in the writing and revision process you’re at, and what you would benefit from. Unpublished writers who keep getting rejected may need to hire a high-level editor to receive an honest and direct appraisal of how to improve on a big-picture level. Some writers mistake a technically correct manuscript, one that follows all the rules, as the goal of editing. While the polish helps, no polish can make a flawed story shine.
Let’s return to the three reasons you might want to invest in a professional. The most important reasons are to learn and grow as a writer, to understand the role of the editor, and to become better at the editing process. Yet your true motivation may be to get closer to a publishing deal. Unfortunately, not even the best editor can guarantee you’ll get an agent or publisher based on their work. There’s no editorial formula that will transform your book into a bestseller. If there were, then you can bet the editor would likely be devoting her time and energy elsewhere!
Ask yourself: Will you be OK spending several thousand dollars on a high-level edit, maybe even twice that, if your work doesn’t succeed in getting published? If the answer is no, then you’re probably not in a good position to hire an editor. If you’re comfortable spending that much on long-term career growth—if you’re okay investing in making your future work better—that indicates a better and more appropriate mind-set.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Author in Progress.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.