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.

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  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.

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