Should You Hire a Professional Editor?

hiring a pro editor

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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.

Author in ProgressLet’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.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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17 Comments on "Should You Hire a Professional Editor?"

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Sky Burr-Drysdale

One of the most impactful decisions I’ve ever made was hiring a professional editor before I submitted. Yes, it was expensive. Hubby and I had to sacrifice some things to afford it. But, it was so, so worth it. She brought theory to life with my own words so I could finally see things like “filtering” and understand how little touches could both tighten and deepen the story.

The right editor can make all the difference in the world. Mine did.

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[…] Read full article here […]

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[…] Should You Hire a Professional Editor? (Jane Friedman) 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 that 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. […]

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[…] of you ask me, of course. 🙂 But publishing expert Jane Friedman has a more measured response in this article. […]

Warwick
I’m currently reading a professionally published book by a major publisher that has spelling and grammar errors here and there, so I wouldn’t put a great deal of trust in a hired editor to do it. I did 7 revisions of my most current novel and on the final version I used an online checker to fix the affect/effect mistakes (I really hate those two word differences). Amazon also picked up ‘ams’ which was supposed to be ‘arms’ and ‘openess’ (openness). I don’t think hiring an editor is necessary, but then I’m a grammar Nazi, and I comb and re-read… Read more »
Ally
With respect for your mistake-spotting skills, Warwick, you’re kind of missing the point of Jane’s article. First, you’re talking here about copyediting, which is only one type of editing and which does not address higher-level issues like a lack of sufficient conflict and tension, logic problems, a weak character or story arc, unclear themes, overwriting, and more. Perhaps a person as attentive to grammar as yourself can get away with skipping the pro copyedit, but those skills won’t help you at all with developmental issues. A good copyeditor also looks for things beyond spelling and grammar–consistency and clarity, for example,… Read more »
Patricia Bradley-Bates
Patricia Bradley-Bates

One question: How do we find a competent high-level editor??

Hervey Copeland
I guess if you’re looking for a traditional publisher, it’s imperative to get an editor to go over your manuscript. It will boost your odds of securing a book deal. The flipside is that hiring a professional editor is expensive, and it will almost certainly knock you back several thousand dollars. So unless you’re able to sell thousands of copies of your book, you’re throwing money out the window. Regardless of what you decide to do, it’s always a good idea to have family members or friends read your final draft. They might not always give you their honest opinion,… Read more »
Louann Pope

Great article, Jane!
I have some information on my website that also my be helpful to authors:
Answers to the question “Why is copyediting necessary”?: http://louannpope.com/why-copyediting/
Some of these answers echo the “objectivity and distance” points that you make.
FAQs, including the differences, in general, among developmental/substantive editing, copyediting, and proofreading: http://louannpope.com/faq/.
I hope this is helpful.

Ally
Thank you for laying this argument out so well, Jane! It can be difficult to help a would-be author see the value of a professional edit these days when their focus is narrowly on making that money back through book sales or getting the agent/publisher contract. Of course, these are the ideal situations, but the fact is many writers (especially with their first or second books) are simply not writing at a level that will earn them big contracts or steady book sales, and it often takes more than one editorial pass/revision to get them there. We tell prospective clients… Read more »
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[…] in the writing life. Christina Delay discusses the first draft jungle, Jane Friedman asks: should you hire a professional editor?, Mary Kole shows how you can find the boring parts of your story, and Juliet Greenwood has […]

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[…] Jane Friedman : Hiring a professional editor […]

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