When is the Right Time to Hire a Book Editor?

When is the Right Time to Hire a Book Editor?

First-time authors sometimes make a grave mistake when seeking an editor for their first book.

In the three years I’ve worked full-time as a freelance editor, it’s happened to me more times than I can remember. But it wasn’t until this year that I understood what the problem was and why I was secretly getting frustrated with some of these books.

Editor Shawn Coyne, who has 25 years of experience, expresses the problem succinctly and memorably: “A lot of people just want to dump their goo on an editor and have the editor form that into something for them.”

When weary writers submit their premature manuscripts to editors too soon, both parties will inevitably become frustrated.

For the most part, I don’t believe first-time authors do this knowingly. They just don’t know any better. They’ve written what they believe is a workable first draft, and because they want to do the process right, they begin looking for an editor.

But a first draft should never be sent to an editor (unless you’re working with — and willing to pay — a developmental editor to help you create a workable draft).

Why premature manuscript submissions happen

Authors who submit undercooked books are subconsciously motivated by the twin specters that haunt every writer, every day: fear and resistance.

They may fear they don’t have what it takes to be “a serious writer,” so they send their “goo” to an editor in the hopes that the editor can affirm their work and make it monumentally better.

Unwittingly, these authors place the burden of failure (or success) onto their editors’ shoulders.

Or, maybe the writer has been working on their book for three months, or a year, or many years, and they’re so tired of looking at the thing that they send it off because they just want to be done with the process. In Steven Pressfield’s parlance from The War of Art, that’s Resistance.

In fact, Pressfield writes, “Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

How much does a first-time author’s first book mean to them? The world.

So how much Resistance can they expect? Planet-sized.

When you’re up against a foe like that, I don’t blame authors who’d rather have the editor fight that battle.

But that’s not our job. As the writer, this is your fight.

When should I hire an editor?

The question that arises then is: When is the right time to hire an editor?

Consider these questions, and be brutally honest with yourself in answering them:

  • Have I done as much as I can to make my manuscript the best I can?
  • Am I looking for an editor because I’m tired of looking at my manuscript?
  • Have I conducted any self-editing?
  • Has any experienced writer read my work-in-progress or early drafts? (Tip: find a local writers group or critique group.)
  • Do I need to learn more about the craft of writing before proceeding with further work on my book?
  • Do I have the nagging feeling that something undefinable isn’t quite working in my manuscript?
  • Do I understand the cost, both in time and money, of hiring a professional editor, and have I budgeted for both?
  • Do I know the difference between developmental editing and copyediting? And if I’m tired of working on my book but want to get it done, do I have the budget to hire a developmental editor to help me cross the finish line?
  • If you’re self-publishing: Am I rushing the process simply to crank out another book?
  • Am I sending my book to an editor because I’m afraid I don’t have what it takes to be a writer? In other words, am I hoping that a professional editor can shape my goo into the masterpiece I have in my mind?

The real question

I hear the fear that sits within every writer’s heart when a first-time author and client asks me that one question I dread: What do you think of my book?

What they’re actually asking is: Is it any good?

If an editor answers that question — they often won’t unless they’ve been hired for a manuscript critique — they’re likely going to be bluntly honest. Why?

If they’re experienced and good at what they do, they’ve read a ton of books. They know the industry. They know what’s considered publishable. And they will stack that knowledge against your book, and your book may not come out looking so well.

Every writer suffers from doubt that their book will be good or even acceptable.

When John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden—a phenomenal book—he recorded this in his journal, which was later published in Journal of a Novel: “I know it is the best book I have ever done. I don’t know whether it is good enough.”

To me, that’s one of the more astounding admissions of self-doubt from a writer who had experienced both critical and commercial success. In other words, even Steinbeck feared that the “goo” of his manuscript wasn’t ready.

Steinbeck needed at least six years to write East of Eden based on notes he’d taken about the Salinas Valley for most of his life. Arguably, he needed his lifetime to write what he considered his masterpiece. He wrote, “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

Toward the end of that years-long journey, as he dove headlong into finishing East of Eden, Steinbeck wrote letters to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, which were posthumously published in Journal of a Novel in 1968.

When considering whether or not your book is ready for an editor, think about Steinbeck’s challenge to himself: “You can’t train for something all your life and then have it fall short because you are hurrying to get it finished.”

Writer, this is your fight. If it’s your first, prepare for 15 rounds.

This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!

The Blogger's Guide to Freelancing

Featured resource

The Blogger’s Guide to Freelancing

This ebook by Ali Luke will help you find your first blogging job, create great blog posts, market yourself and organize your time and energy.

31 comments

  • Blake – this was so helpful. I also bookmarked your article “Hiring a professional editor.” I’ve got lots of work to do before I even consider these steps, but I appreciate the insights.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thanks, Karen. Best of luck with your work!

    • Karen, when you decide to hire an editor please make sure you’ve done all you could to make your book the best it can be, don’t take shortcuts. Select your editor with care. I suggest you make arrangements to call several editors, interviewing each one carefully. Have your questions written out, don’t wing it or you’ll forget something crucial. After all, you’ll want to click with your future editor, he or she MUST be a good fit. I believe you cannot separate editing from writing. They go hand-in-hand. That means you have to form a writing team (there is no I in team). Frequent communication is a must. Wishing you all the best… Dennis

  • Thank-you, Blake, for another excellent article that makes great use of your experience as both an editor and an author. There is a lot of truth here!

    When I read an email from an author saying, “My manuscript is almost ready. I’ll send it for you to edit next week,” I smile at the computer screen; it won’t be ready next week, probably not even next month, and that’s okay.

    Not that I’m not looking forward to seeing the author’s work. I am. Seriously, I am! Book editing, despite the sticker shock first-time authors often get when they hear the estimate, is not a profession anyone enters in hopes of getting rich. I truly love helping a writer make his or her work the best it can be, and I’m always eager to get started. But I realize the task of writing takes time, usually more time than the author (even many an experienced author) expects.

    If you are my client (and even if you’re not), I want you as a writer to give your book, your “baby,” all the time it needs. I want to see the best you’ve got, and then help you make it even better. We’re a team in this. Don’t rush the pass. Be patient for the right moment.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • K.K says:

    Hypothetically speaking, if I were to self-publish a book without going through a professional editor, is that a big no-no?
    Obviously, it depends on skill. But let’s say it’s at least seven revisions into the manuscript by a first-time author. What are the odds that it is not ready to be in print?

    • In self-publishing, you are in control, so the decision, the risk, and the consequences are all yours. If you don’t want to invest in an editor, there is no one empowered to tell you that you have to do it.

      That said, I don’t recommend going to publication, particularly if your book is intended as a revenue-generating venture or as a vehicle of professional promotion, without making sure that someone with an eye for detail has gone through the entire manuscript and ruthlessly noted every typo, every spelling error, every misplaced comma, and every ambiguous sentence.

      That person cannot be you. Realistically, by that point in the project, you as the author practically know the text by heart, and you will “see” what is supposed to be on the page, whether that’s what’s really there or not.

      You may know someone who is willing to do it for free, either for love or in exchange for some service from you. Most authors, however, are not that fortunate.

      When you make the decision to self-publish, you have decided to run your own publishing company. Ask yourself, Would any other publishing company send books to press without editing? If not, then why would it be different just because your publishing company happens to deal with your own books?

      Again, the decision is yours, but because you asked, I’m offering my best advice.

      Whatever you decide, I wish you success with all your projects!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
      epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Colin says:

    An extensive critique of my first novel led to major changes in the format. I was very fortunate to have an experienced novel writer to give a detailed analysis, with corrections. I did not fully appreciate, at the time how valuable this process was, but do now. You need to acknowledge that there are likely to be inconsistencies leading up to the final manuscript and be prepared to make drastic changes. An editor is attuned to picking up on these, where you have accepted the script , even after numerous re-writes!

  • Excellent post. I especially enjoyed Steinbeck’s quote about rushing. That’s a problem I see frequently.

    I hope this information reaches many writers!

    Susan Uttendorfsky
    Adirondack Editing

  • Blake, your point: “Have I done as much as I can to make my manuscript the best I can?” really resonated with me. I believe an author should put in the hard work first to make their manuscript as good as possible.

    It’s easy to get excited and ship off a manuscript too early, and I always have the urge to do that, until I step back, take a deep breath, and evaluate what I have.

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thank you, Kristina. Pretty much everything I write is actually directed toward me. I still wrestle with shipping too early and I should know better! That’s why my favorite self-editing tip is from Stephen King:

      “My advice is that you take a couple of days off—go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle—and then go to work on something else. Something shorter, preferably, and something that’s a complete change of direction and pace from your newly finished book. . . . How long you let your book rest . . . is entirely up to you, but i think it should be a minimum of six weeks.”

  • Thanks so much for this — the questions to ask yourself are especially helpful. I’m sharing it with my author networks.

    The other problem is that many self-published authors don’t even understand they need an editor. : (

    Sandra Beckwith

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thank you for sharing, Sandra! To your second point, that’s lamentably true. In one of the Facebook writers groups I belong to, a new author asked if anyone thought it was truly important to hire an editor before publishing. Gratefully, other members quickly interceded before I could reply. Keep fighting the good fight.

  • Jesse Creel says:

    Thanks for the insightful article. I have an idea for a free ebook that I think after I write I will self edit and then give to my grandmother for feedback. At that point because of this article I will consider a professional editor. Thanks again for your advice. Here’s to your continued success!

  • Amanda Perry says:

    I found myself struggling with my manuscript and had my first 10,000 words assessed. Best thing i ever did. From that i got myself a mentor , an editor and a friend. I have learnt so much from it . I have edited my work over and over and it is now with her to be edited professionally.

  • Emma says:

    I will do my best before I submit my work for editing to the Editor. There are things I know which the Editor may be ignorant of because I am also a Researcher..

  • Steven Allen says:

    Sometimes, the earlier you can get an editor involved is better. It may even be a little cheaper to spend a little now on an editor rather than later.

    New authors like to skip developmental editing (the big picture) for some reason. Developmental editing can also help break writer’s block and give the author new ideas.

    A client’s book just went to the printer. It went through major changes during developmental editing.

    Developmental editing is one of my favorite parts. I love to hear the stories that authors wish to tell.

  • Great article, Blake. I often receive ‘undercooked’ manuscripts from writers. Two other points come to mind: 1) Budgeting for an editor is important. You should start putting some money aside for editing fees whilst you’re still writing your first draft (preferably tuck it into an interest-earning account!). 2) Don’t leave it too late, either. Often writers don’t realise that editors are booked up several months in advance. Start contacting editors whilst you’re still at the self-editing stage or have your MS with beta-readers, to find out what their availability is.

  • Thank you, Blake. I am past the point of undercooked. I’ve had beta readers, I’ve rewritten dozens of times, had an editor look over my MS twice, and believe I’m ready to take that leap. Unfortunately, and this wasn’t mentioned, most writers will never be satisfied with their work ‘as is’. I tinker and add. It’s difficult to find the balance between making it better, and messing with the core integrity. Even JK Rowlings is known to do this in her head when she’s reading one of her novels in front of an audience. This fear has held me back for years, despite my three years experience as a freelance writer for a local magazine. I’m scared I’ll miss a comma and it’ll be thrown in the slush pile.

  • It’s a hard thing to figure out – if it needs more work or when the right time is to just stop! I like your point about writer groups, it’s a great first place to get valuable feedback.

  • Trent says:

    Great article!

    I am a first time author as far as book’s go. I have written several feature screenplay’s and pilot’s so I do have some experience as a writer, just not with books.

    Obviously there is a big difference. I actually started with screenplays (with some mild success) partly due to hearing that as long as you have a good story, the grammatical errors won’t be a big deal. Well, that was not true. Maybe if a producer liked the story or I was already established but every contest I entered always came back with feedback about the grammatical errors. Even if I won or placed as a finalist, I always received critique on that. Very little is spelling error, it was more about structure, etc.

    So because of this and because I don’t live in NYC or LA, I decided I may have better luck writing a book, which I have been doing for several months now and enjoy; however, I know it needs work and I can’t go back to the 5th grade and pay better attention to the simple “put your period here and comma there” lessons so I was hoping to learn as I go with reading, writing and seeing my finished product after hiring an editor.

    But I am seeing a lot of articles like this one that make me feel like I am out of luck with this as well.

    So my question is, would someone like me, that thinks they have a great story but knows structure and/or grammar needs help, would it be useful to hire a new/cheaper editor to get the main wrinkles out then spend more time on it myself after that AND THEN hire a more professional editor?

    And do editors give any kind of guarantee with their work? For example, if you pay them big bucks and get your book published then find out there are some mistakes, what happens then?

    Thanks!

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Consider honing your skills first. Read “Elements of Style” and “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.” If you’re writing fiction, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” is a great book too.

      Hone your book as best as you can.

      I wouldn’t advise hiring two editors to tackle the same book. Read my previous article on how to vet an editor (https://thewritelife.com/find-a-book-editor/), then find someone within your budget and genre, if necessary.

      If you’re up-front with an editor about wanting to know why certain edits were made, they should be amenable to teaching you. They may only point out your most repeated flaws, but that’s invaluable advice.

      I can’t speak for most editors with regard to guaranteeing their work. If I had to guess, it’s doubtful, but not because most editors are trying to work too quickly. Rather, a couple of factors play into the answer:

      1. Editors are human. Mistakes will happen. Errors are in major, traditionally published books. As editors, we don’t want that to happen, but we have to reconcile the fact that it does. (I’m not talking about when dozens of errors populate a book. That’s a bad edit!)

      2. Copyeditors aren’t the last line of defense when it comes to a book’s mistakes. Formatting, which is done after an editor has done their job, can lead to unintended errors being introduced into the text. That’s why it’s important to hire proofreaders to comb through edited text *after* the book has been formatted for print or digital. Proofreaders are your last line of defense—but they’re human too.

      If you’re self-publishing, fixing mistakes post-publishing is easy. If you’re being traditionally published, it’s not so easy. You could take your editor to task for missing one or two errors, but if you do that, just be sure you’re not overlooking the hundreds of errors they did catch.

    • Trent,

      I think you want to make sure your editor is thorough and competent, even that means his or her rates are a bit higher than you would prefer. However, there are some ways you could keep costs down a bit in the situation you describe.

      I cannot speak for all editors, of course, but I know I and many of us would be open to editing just part of your book at first, say, a particular chapter or two that you sense needs a lot of work. That is often enough to show you mechanical errors that you tend to make repeatedly. You can then go through the entire manuscript yourself looking for as many of the same kind of errors as possible. You will sharpen your basic writing skills in the process, and it will pay off in all future projects.

      This relatively affordable step can help you get your manuscript in much better shape before you have the whole book edited, so the editor may be able to spend less time on it, and therefore charge less, or at least concentrate on other issues that might otherwise have been buried under grammatical errors.

      Regarding your last question, I know of no editor who gives a money-back guarantee for occasional errors that happen to slip through or for a different opinion by a later editor. I’m afraid such things are just the nature of the publishing beast. But by having a shorter portion edited first, you will get a decent feel for whether someone is the right editor for you, and will be able to be confident in his or her work on your entire book.

      I wish you success with your project!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
      epiclesisconsulting.com

      • Blake Atwood says:

        As usual, I wholeheartedly endorse Trish’s response. Asking for an edit of just one chapter is an excellent way to maximize your return on a small investment.

        • Thanks, Blake!

          We were typing at the same time, and your response to Trent was also excellent.

          Trish O’Connor
          Epiclesis Consulting LLC
          Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
          epiclesisconsulting.com

        • Trent says:

          Wow! You two are so great! I didn’t expect a response so quickly. I’m glad I found this site!

          Blake, that’s wonderful info. Thank you. I completely understand the response about guaranteeing the work. That was just something that popped in my head as I read a book written by a screenplay consultant I hired years ago and he wanted a review so I read it to help him out but found maybe 5 or 6 error’s myself in the 200 page book. I felt like it was unprofessional but didn’t have the heart to tell him. But the errors stuck out like a sore thumb so I was curious if that is normal or not.

          With screenplays, I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and then find out I left the “e” off of Blonde, or something like that, that can easily slip through spell check.

          I have been writing in Word for my novel. It’s been tough as I am used to Final Draft software for screenplays but it doesn’t work well with novel writing.

          Also I did buy that Grammar Girl book a few months back but haven’t read it yet. Now I will! Thanks for that comment as well.

          I keep second guessing myself on things like where a space should go when someone is talking and if I have to keep saying “He said” “She said” etc., over and over. Or Mom vs mom. It goes on and on so I am thrilled to read Trish’s response about hiring an editor for a chapter or two. I would love to do that when I finish before I do a complete rewrite myself. I think that would help save so much time.

          Is it hard to find someone for this? I tried to look locally but can’t seem to find anyone. Does it matter if it’s local?

          Also, if the editor really winds up liking the book, will they sometimes try to help you get your foot in the door somewhere?

          Thanks for everything! So psyched to have found this!

          • Trent,

            Every author must decide what is important to him or her in an editor, but in these days of electronic communication, honestly I do not think it is important to seek a local editor unless your book is specifically related to something of local interest. Even in that case, you may benefit from the perspective of someone who does not have all the local knowledge it can be easy to presume, so that you can prepare your book for a wider audience.

            I have not met most of my clients in person, and that’s all right, just as it’s all right that you probably will not meet most of your readers in person, either.

            It can take some time to find the right editor, so you may want to start asking around even before you have a text that is ready to send. If you know a fellow author who can recommend someone, that’s wonderful, but if not, it’s fine to poke around the websites of some editors and see who appeals to you (and seems to work within your genre). Then contact them by whatever method they request (often a contact form on their site).

            Freelance editors normally do not double as literary agents. Not only is it not our area of expertise, but it can actually lead to ethical quandaries. There have, unfortunately, been cases of literary agents saying that potential clients’ work “has potential” but needs to be edited (by them or their employee), for an exorbidant fee. It would also be possible for editors to give the impression that they are guaranteeing publication of a project, when that is something no one but a publisher can do. Many professional organizations forbid their members to combine these two roles, to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

            Again, I wish you all the best with your book, and hope you will find an editor who is a good fit.

            Trish O’Connor
            Epiclesis Consulting LLC
            Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
            epiclesisconsulting.com

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *