If writing the first word, of the first line, of the first page of a book is akin to planting a seed, then preparing a manuscript for publication is similar to getting ready to harvest a crop.
Gardening and writing can both feel like rather solitary pursuits at times, can’t they? Editors pop up at just the right moment and advise on nurturing and harvesting that precious manuscript ‘crop’.
Why Hire A Book Editor?
For me, an editor has always got to be a human being. Google ‘how to find an editor’, however, and the first thing offered will almost certainly be a glitzy editing software package.
These can be useful in certain circumstances, especially if your writing requires nuts and bolts work on spelling and grammar, but they can also be confusing to use.
Before you splash out on anything new and costly, be sure that you are already using all the automated editing features available on your existing software.
Software can never empathise. Software will never praise you for writing something which sings, nor ask you questions to help it understand what it is you mean.
For me, at times of stress or difficult choices in life, nothing beats having a calm, empathetic (yet objective) person at your side.
There can be an adrenaline slump after that ‘whoop, whoop, I’ve finished my first draft!’ moment when you realise that the editing process means, in a way, starting all over again. Your editor should provide you with guidance, support and inspiration in equal measure.
Our very first editors tend to come free within our family. For young writers, this kind of uber-positive (‘simply wonderful, darling…’) feedback is essential in building confidence and self-esteem, but most writers quickly grow to require something more objective.
From there, people often refer to beta readers or book editors (or both) to help them further enhance their books.
I try to be as encouraging yet constructive as possible when I am editing.
I am working, for example, with a young and promising neurodiverse writer whose mother is concerned about the intensely macabre biographical content of her work. Up to this point in her writing life, her mum has been her greatest fan, so this dissent has come as a nasty shock to them both. My client is maturing fast as a writer and developing a remarkable authorial voice. It may not be one which her mother recognises or wants to hear, but her mother does not represent the extensive target market for the book in question.
An editor can see all this; and can reassure both parties and move them forward.
What Does A Book Editor Do?
A good editor (and yes, there are bad ones out there too) should read a manuscript objectively while wearing a few different hats: that of a future reader, of course, but those of a potential publisher or agent too.
An editor should also be able to ‘get inside your head’ to a degree: to understand what it is you are trying to achieve, even if you have not yet quite got there.
It is essential to be clear in your mind if you hire an editor that you are not paying them to tell you that your book is utterly marvellous. You are paying them to tell you the truth and to help you make it more publishable.
How To Decide What Kind Of Editing You Need
There are some confusing terms used to describe the many different types of book editing services which it may be helpful to explain here.
Line editing means that your editor will read your text carefully, line by line, looking at how your text flows, your narrative style, and whether or not it is readable.
Line editing is more about making sure each sentence works and less about the ‘big picture’.
You could opt for this service if you have written your manuscript – or part of it – as a bit of a stream of consciousness and you are now unsure what it is you have, or where to go or what to do with it next.
If, however, you think that your book is ‘almost there’ but lacks something fundamental that you cannot quite pinpoint, then developmental editing might be for you.
This takes a step back from your completed manuscript and considers the overall structure: your content, plot, characters, and timeframe, for example.
Does it all combine into a convincing, compelling read? A developmental editor will make recommendations on how to rework any weaker sections for improvement, often giving you specific examples.
I tend to provide a bit of both line editing and developmental editing in my own reports.
For example, I recently edited an excellent manuscript where a compelling plot was marred by an important secondary character lacking entirely in motivation for their actions (which would fall under developmental editing). I was able to demonstrate this by highlighting plot weaknesses and unconvincing dialogue and suggesting improvements (and that is line editing). A hint of smouldering unspoken passion for a central character and the plot suddenly snapped into sharp focus.
Sometimes all it takes is a nudge in the right direction from an editor to avoid a major rewrite.
Proofreading is a specialist area of professional editing, one which should be undertaken immediately before publication.
Proofs are the final ‘set’ (i.e. in the final positions on the page), cover, and content of your book as it will appear once published.
Your proofreader should spot any final typesetting and copy errors in them and flag them up.
If your editor has done a good job, there should not be that many and you should then be able to ‘sign off’ a final corrected proof.
In theory, that is then exactly how the book should appear once published, but I once had an over-zealous publishing-house content editor make catastrophic changes to my text after it had been ‘signed off’ – the stuff of nightmares (and litigation)!
You might now ask ‘why not get one person to do the lot at the same time’?
This may seem a logical economy but would not work well, as after any line editing or developmental editing, you will wish to restructure or rewrite to some degree, so premature proofreading would be pointless.
Proofing is also better undertaken by someone who has not had anything to do with the writing or editing process already.
A good editor should already have picked up on repeated errors in spelling or grammar but worrying about the nitty-gritty of typos tends to come at this later stage.
How Editors Work
Your editor is there to decide whether your book ‘works’.
If it does, they will suggest ways to make it better still.
If it does not, they will explain why and recommend ways to put it right.
I do this myself by:
- Highlighting examples of weak writing within the text, often showing an improved version alongside it
- Rewriting short sections where a writer is struggling for clarity, especially if the text has been over-written (this is common with opening chapters)
- Recommending necessary changes to structure, plot, characters, narrative style etc
- Pointing out over-used words or phrases (something we all do – my own are the word ‘little’ and a penchant for unnecessary adverbs)
I may also suggest an alternative to the working title of a book, so expect this too. As writers we become used to thinking of a particular title from the first word on the first page and it is hard to see beyond that.
A few years ago, I edited a family-orientated illustrated history book which was called Growing a Cathedral. It was the last major published work of the veteran author, Elizabeth Sutherland. The weak title really bothered me – but she could not see past it. We eventually agreed a compromise: ‘Sowing a cathedral’ became instead the slightly tweaked title of the first chapter, while the book was issued under the much stronger title, Highland Cathedral. It is now in its third edition and still doing well.
Somewhere in your editorial report, a good editor should compare/contrast your work with published books in the same genre. Sometimes it is difficult for a writer to see precisely where their work ‘sits’ in terms of the market.
It was helpful when early readers compared my book, Major Tom’s War, with Vera Brittain’s great memoir Testament of Youth and Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, for example, because I could then see how it falls somewhere between fiction and non-fiction.
These comparisons are useful to mention in a letter to a potential agent or publisher too which may be an agreed part of your report package if you go through an agency.
Editors can help you craft a synopsis too – often the hardest part of pulling together a submission following the completion of the editing stage.
How Much Does An Editor Cost?
A good editor has a curious blend of traits. You should be prepared to pay them for a service, and you must also be prepared to act on (or at least consider) their recommendations.
If you are a young or new writer and you worry about the cost of hiring a professional, then try to find someone to undertake the task who isn’t a close friend or family member, as they will be able to give you more objective feedback. Consider asking a neighbour, or anyone you know who’s a journalist, teacher, or librarian.
Ask yourself this, though: will you be prepared to act on their recommendations if you are not invested enough in your own output to pay them something?
And is it fair to expect anyone to work (and yes, even if your 90,000 word manuscript is a shoo-in for a future Booker Prize, it is still work) for free?
How To Find An Editor
Commissioning an editor may not in fact cost as much as you think.
Even so, once you have decided that you need an editor, beware of panic buying: it horrifies me how many people will Google ‘editors’ and then immediately hand over their money to the first algorithm which says ‘card details here’.
Always search for their company name online. Always check for feedback.
There is a special place in hell reserved for ‘vanity’ publishers (which often pop up within the first few clicks online because of the sheer quantity of poor saps they have suckered before you). These will offer to edit, produce and even design a cover for your book and their sales pitch is often misleadingly slick.
One elderly friend ignored my advice a few years ago and signed up with a well-known ‘publisher’ without reading the small print. In return, he received a boxful of poorly edited and produced books with an unrecognisable cover illustration, and it cost him much heartbreak and most of his savings.
If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
The UK Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) currently suggests minimum hourly rates of £28.65 for proofreading, £33.30 for copyediting and £38.30 for substantial editing, rewriting and/or developmental editing. However, I would steer clear of any editor who tries to seal the deal by quoting for editing work by the hour.
I happen to read very fast, but I will generally read manuscripts submitted to me twice or even three times before writing an editorial report. Charging by the hour or even by the day would not work for me, or for my clients.
Consider instead individual professional editors or agencies which will charge you according to the word length of your manuscript, as really this is the fairest way of doing it. Some editing projects will take a bit longer than others and most agency editors accept this: it evens out.
Agency charges vary (see ours here), and the editor assigned to you will generally receive around half of the fee you pay, the other half covering core administration costs (for example marketing, writing, conference planning and the creation of the invaluable generic web links freelance editors can add into their reports).
Shop around, do not be afraid to ask questions and make sure you get as much bang for your buck as you possibly can.
If you commission an independent professional editor, check their website (if they have one), ask for references from recent previous clients, and aim to make sure that they have already edited within your genre.
Before you sign a contract, expect to have a dialogue with your editor or agency (and if they resist this, find someone else). This helps ensure that you’ve found the right editor for you.
Three Good Questions To Ask An Editor:
- ‘How long do you think it will take to read and edit my manuscript?’ (NB most agencies will agree this for you with the editor in advance)
- ‘Have you ever written or worked on something in this particular genre before?’
- ‘Can you look particularly closely at my opening chapter/character development/timeline/ending?’ (it is always helpful to pinpoint areas of your manuscript which you think need work)
Your Editor May Respond With Questions Of Their Own, So Expect Something Along These Lines:
- ‘Has any other editor already worked on your text?’
- ‘How much of your story is based on real events and people?’
- ‘Which authors inspire your writing?’
The Editing Process
Once you have received your report, you should be given a period of time for reflection on its content and then the option to have an email exchange or a Zoom chat to clarify any points or simply to talk through the content: I prefer Zoom, because I tend to form a picture of the writer in my head as I edit and I like to compare that preconception to reality!
I often begin my reports by praising the writer for their courage in entrusting their seedling manuscript to my care and I am completely sincere about that. Although a few have come close, I have never yet been sent a manuscript where I thought ‘this is so good that I cannot help it grow.’ Agencies often have a fast track to an agent system for any manuscripts an editor considers ready to go out.
Since starting to edit for Jericho a couple of years ago, one manuscript on which I have worked was sold as part of a historical fantasy book series to a major publisher, and that was just as exciting for me as it was for the author concerned.
Finding An Editor
Editors must aim to be kind and positive without becoming over-friendly, at which point objectivity may be lost. Your editor’s name will never appear on your cover and probably not even in your list of acknowledgements. We provide secret support to help enhance your book. A recent client of mine had a superb manuscript but struggled to write convincing sex scenes from a female viewpoint: a challenge I much enjoyed resolving.
Editors must work with clients under the strictest confidentiality and should never divulge book or author names without consent.
When basking in the glow of a successful book-harvest, you may not remember an editor’s face or name for long, or even acknowledge their existence to the outside world, but that does not matter a jot. As your editor, I will have helped you through the joyful ordeal that is book-growing, and that, for me at least, is reward enough.
Whether you opt for a freelance book editor or an editing company, regardless of the kind of editing service you choose, your book always remains precisely that – yours.