No one knows more than I that some authors are terrible at editing their own work. I can speed read someone else’s work and see a number of things from the theme, the arc, the character development, to hair color changing when it shouldn’t. Yet, I pull up my own work on a screen, read through it, and it all looks “great.” This is partially because those of us who write novels tend to have a huge amount in our heads, or notes, or full backstories written. We don’t notice that the reader doesn’t have access to all that.
Critique groups help. To a point. If they are smart, really writers, and honest. But, even then most critique groups tend to look at one chapter at a time on an irregular basis (say twice per month) and soon the critiques sound very similar. “Your POV is confusing here.” “I don’t think your protagonist would know this word.” Very useful, but not a full analysis.
Some writers are awesome (yeah, an over used word) at editing. They just see the issues. They are ruthless at cutting and compressing. They write 500 words and pare it down to 100 great words.
Others want to speed the process up. We don’t have the patience, or skill to see our own work. This is not unlike software engineering, where there is a reason for testers/quality assurance. The programmer KNOWS what s/he intended and never causes the program to crash and burn. The tester acts like the consumer, but with an eye toward explaining to the programmer.
In comes the paid editor.
You can pay from $300 to $5000 for editing. Both ends of the spectrum are appropriate if you know what you are going to get. That is the key. You SHOULD get what you pay for, but often you don’t.
There are numerous sources that cover the “going rate” for editing. Check out the Editorial Freelancers Association for a good source. If you are paying $3000 or more for a manuscript (of say 300 pages), you are paying for heavy copyediting, good heavy line editing, or developmental review. Heavy. But, take a step back before you plunge into paid editing.
Copyediting is (or should be) the last step of the process. DON’T PAY for this if you don’t think the book is “perfect” as far as the arc, story, plot, consistency, etc. Consider not paying for this at all if you are not self publishing.
If you manuscript is not perfect, you probably want some developmental editing. Now, a good agent will often (but not always) help with developmental editing. but that assumes you have an agent. Most of us don’t for a variety of reasons. Agents are great, wonderful, and usually worth every penny they get. They are also (in my opinion) terrible at selecting new clients and use antiquated methods for selecting new partners, but that is a subject for another day. The truth is they are busy rejecting so many people there filters are frozen.
So, if you hire a developmental editor (as apposed to a line editor), what should you get (for that $3000). While a developmental editor label tends to be used for non-fiction, it applies to fiction also. The developmental editor should understand the genre and essentially coach the writer chapter by chapter based on the level of experience the author has and at what stage in the writing the editor is hired. If you have a complete manuscript and have done a pass at editing it yourself, but it still feels rough and incoherent a developmental editor can help. S/he should be able to read the manuscript and suggest in a paragraph or two per chapter what the arc is, the tension, the turning point, and what is inconsistent with the genre and the over all theme. If you hire a developmental editor, you will still need to do some work afterwards and then either line edit/copy edit yourself, or hire someone for that stage too. It may be the same person, or it may be someone else.
If you have a complete manuscript and you feel the right tone is there overall, you can write your own synopsis, and the novel “feels right” then you can hire a line editor.
A line editor goes through the manuscript line by line and looks for inconsistencies, weird language, etc. Line editing should include basic obvious spelling mistakes beyond what a spell checker would catch. Think grammar checker and appropriateness checker. It should catch some of the per chapter inconsistencies. It should be more than an English major, it should be someone familiar with the craft and genre. I would argue that most publisher editors do this, or should.
Copy editing is, to me, the boring stuff and yet, it also is what publishers do. It is the formatting, the dot your I’s and cross your T’s. You can hire an editor to do this, but some of this will get re-done by the publisher. If you self publish, then this might be worthwhile. BUT, in that case the copy editor should know the end format quite well (e.g. eBook, and/or InDesign for print). Simply knowing formatting in Word is not sufficient.
If you are paying real money and the end result you run spellcheck on the document and find errors—something is wrong. We had an author who paid professional money for editing and in the first five pages we found spell check errors.
If you are going to hire someone, PLANT some errors in the first five pages and ask them to edit that for free, or a small fee. If they don’t catch what you KNOW is there, they are not a great candidate as an editor.
Next, if you are serious about someone, offer to pay for a single chapter edit. Tell them you would like a developmental review and a high level/rough line edit. Same thing. Know at least some of what you want them to find. The first five pages are what you submit to the agents and editors and are the hook pages. If the editing does not sing to you, then bow out. You have lost only a fraction of what you would have.
The editor is not a ghost writer. But, s/he is a collaborator at one level and is taking your perhaps still tarnished silver and making it shine. Still, the value was in the the silver you created, but that value needs to be visible to everyone, not just you. S/he will point to the scratches, the dings, the bend and the dents and help fix those, but it remains yours. You need to decide what is worth fixing and what might even need to be thrown away.
Well on the mixed metaphor ending, I’ll sign off.