You’ve finished your novel, and you’re one step closer to your dream of publishing it. But there’s a problem.
Because even though you believe in your story, you know it has problems. Something about the plot isn’t lining up, your prose isn’t as tight as it should be, and you just don’t know how to fix it.
Fortunately, there’s a solution: hire an editor.
If you want to indie publish your book, you need to hire an editor. But what kind of editor would be best for your book? Content editors, copy editors, developmental editors—what’s the difference, and which ones do you need to hire?
The different types of professional editing can get confusing, but fear not—we’re about to break down what each kind of editor does and how to decide whether you’ll need it for your book.
Let’s get started!
Do I Actually Need a Professional Editor?
Even if you think your book is amazing, wonderful, and just about perfect, chances are, it isn’t. Every author—even New York Times bestsellers, even Newbery Medal winners—needs an editor.
The fact is, you’ve spent so much time with your book already that you’re blind to some of its flaws. You’re too used to your story to notice the inconsistent worldbuilding, the weak characterization, or that typo on page 13. You need a fresh pair of eyes—specifically, the eyes of a professional.
If you want to publish a book, you need that book to be as good as possible. An editor will help you accomplish that. They’ll strengthen your story, polish up your wording, and help you improve the quality of the overall work. Doesn’t that sound great?
Taking the extra time, effort, and money to work with a professional editor is 100% worth it.
4 Different Types of Professional Editing
We’ve established you need an editor, but that’s only the first step. The next step is deciding what kind of editor you need.
All the different options can get overwhelming, but the good news is, you don’t need to know all of them. For a fiction novel, there are roughly 4 categories of edits you should consider getting—and the first of these is an editorial assessment.
1. Editorial Assessment
An editorial assessment (also known as a manuscript assessment or review) is an overview of your entire manuscript that deals with big-picture elements like plot, character arcs, and story structure.
Why do you need it? Because your story is the most important part of your book.
You can have the most beautifully written prose in the world, but if you don’t have a good story, nobody will read it. On the other hand, a gripping story with sympathetic characters and less-than-stunning prose has a better chance of success. Story trumps style, every time.
That’s why the editorial assessment is designed to help you strengthen your story. Your editor will read through your whole manuscript and give you an overview of what’s working, what isn’t, and how you can take your book to the next level. They’ll point out things like where your character development doesn’t make much sense, where your structure isn’t quite right, any significant problems with your plot, and plenty more.
Imagine with me that your book is a cake. You’ve written out a recipe that you think will be delicious. But then your mom comes along and points out you forgot the baking powder. No wonder your cake didn’t turn out well! So you change the recipe and start again, even though it’s a lot of work. You want your cake to taste good.
An editorial assessment will help you if you’re early in the revision process and are preparing to publish or pitch your book. Agents, editors, and readers want strong stories—are you willing to give them one?
2. Content/Developmental Editing
With an editorial assessment, the editor reads your manuscript and makes notes in a separate file (the “edit letter”). With content editing, the editor makes comments in the manuscript itself.
Content editors give you feedback about your story, but it’s more detailed than the editorial assessment would be. They’ll give you scene-by-scene advice directly in the document—are there plot holes? Do the chapters make sense? How’s the pacing?
Content editing is also called developmental editing. While the two are often equated, there’s a subtle difference between content and developmental editing. Developmental editors take an unfinished manuscript and give feedback and suggestions about where the story might go. Content editors do the same thing for a finished manuscript.
If the editorial assessment was a critique of the recipe, content editing is when you’re mixing the cake batter and your mom adds a splash of buttermilk to make the ingredients blend together better, or maybe a dash of vanilla extract. And if you know what you’re doing, you’ll let her. After all, you want your cake to taste good!
Why would you need a content editor? If you want specific, guided feedback about how to strengthen your story. Content editing is more expensive than an editorial assessment, but it gives you a clearer path forward for your book.
Is it worth it? Almost certainly. Taking the time to hire a content editor will make your story stronger—and that, after all, is the goal.
(For more information about developmental editing and editorial assessments, check out this article by Alyssa Matesic.)
3. Copy/Line Editing
Your character arcs are compelling, your plot is free of holes, and your pacing is as tight as you can make it. Now it’s time to turn to the prose.
Copy editing and line editing are not the same thing. Since many editors provide both services in one package, I’ve put them in the same category—but it’s important to understand the distinction.
Line editors deal with style. Are you using passive or active voice? Do you have redundant descriptions? What about your word choice?
A good line editor will make your book feel like a cohesive whole. You don’t want to sound like Francine Rivers in one chapter and then switch to sounding like Tolkien halfway through—you want your tone to be consistent and effective.
A copy editor, on the other hand, deals with grammar. Do you have run-on sentences? Comma splices? Sentence fragments that don’t fit? (After all, some sentence fragments do fit—I used two of them in the last paragraph alone.)
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then a copy editor is the person for you!
Copy editors tighten up your prose, correct your grammar, and make sure your writing actually makes sense. And even if you have a good grasp of grammar yourself, getting an outside editor is still important.
When we write, it’s easy for us to assume the reader knows what we’re talking about. “I understand,” we think, “so of course it makes sense.” Alas, my friend, this is not so. You know your story better than anyone else, so you don’t feel like you need to clarify your phrasing—but you do. Your readers will thank you for it.
Hiring a good copy editor will help your reader understand your article with as little effort as possible. It will also make your writing more compelling and professional. Having proper grammar is a way to love your reader—after all, who likes reading books full of confusing sentences they can’t understand?
To go back to the cake metaphor, the copy edit happens after you’ve baked the cake and are ready to start decorating. The copy edit is the frosting on the cake—the base layer, the decorations, everything. It takes your cake from basic and boring to a delicious dessert that’s a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. Copy editing can be extensive, and it’s essential for doing a professional job.
If you’ve made it to the proofreading stage, congratulations! You’re almost to the end.
Proofreaders check your work for grammar errors, punctuation errors, typos, and continuity. You may be thinking: “Emma, aren’t copy editors the ones who take care of grammar and punctuation?” Yes, they are. But copy editing is only the first step in polishing your prose, and having a proofreader is also extremely helpful.
A proofreader is the person who points out a missing apostrophe. They’ll make sure the spelling of your fantasy country stays consistent. And if your main character’s eyes are brown in one scene and blue in the next, they’ll fix it.
They’re a final pass over your manuscript just to make sure everything is right. Proofreading is less extensive than copy editing, and it’s also less expensive—the proofreader isn’t critiquing your word choice, and they’re dealing with a cleaner book.
Hiring a proofreader gives you an additional set of eyes to catch any mistakes that slipped past your copy editor—because, let’s face it, nobody does a perfect job.
Proofreaders help ensure your manuscript looks and feels professional and well done. They’re essential for making a publishable book, and you should absolutely consider hiring one.
If copy editing was the basic layer of frosting, proofreading is the layer of fondant that goes over the top and smooths everything out. Copy editing may get rid of most of the crumbs, but the final proofread polishes it up like nothing else can.
Coming to Terms with the Price Tag
We’ve just gone over 4 different kinds of editors that you should hire for your book: editorial assessment, content editing, copy editing, and proofreading. And I bet you have some objections.
While rates vary from editor to editor, editing is expensive. How expensive is it? The website Reedsy gives us a handy calculator for determining how much you’ll need to spend to edit your book. Assuming you’ve written a fantasy novel of 70,000 words:
- Your editorial assessment will cost you $1442,
- Content editing will set you back $1911,
- And if you get a combined package of copy editing and proofreading, you’ll spend $1337.
In total, that’s $4690.
$4690 is a lot of money. Unless you’ve got an incredibly well-paying job—or you can convince parents or grandparents to contribute—you simply won’t be able to hire multiple editors to work on your book. Right?
Maybe. But there are two factors to consider here:
- The better your book is, the more money you will make.
- You don’t need to hire every single kind of editor—you can approach professional editing with a strategy.
Invest in Your Future Success
How many times do you recommend books that you didn’t like?
I’m willing to guess the answer is, “Never!” Or at least, not very often. Why would you tell a friend to read a book that simply wasn’t very good? It’s a waste of their time.
If your book isn’t good, no one will recommend it to their friends. Conversely, if your book is amazing, everyone will recommend it. And then everyone will buy it. And if everyone buys your book, then you, as the author, will profit.
While spending so much money might feel like a waste now, it’s much better to view it as an investment. You won’t be able to make money later if you don’t spend it now, because your book simply won’t be good.
Now, editors don’t guarantee your book will sell. But they’re an essential part of the process and shouldn’t be skipped! Do you want your book to be the one nobody recommends? Do you want your story to move hearts and minds, or do you want it to be overlooked? Because, like it or not, you need an editor to help you do that.
Hiring an editor can feel like pulling a tooth, but it’s essential to publishing successfully. Are you willing to make that upfront investment?
(Note: If you don’t plan to publish your book, it’s a different matter entirely. Getting an editorial assessment might be helpful, but the only benefit would be improving your craft, not preparing your book for publication.)
How Do I Save Money on Editing?
Good news: You don’t have to drop $4690 on every book you write!
Approaching editing with a strategy will save you from wasting money on services you don’t need. Because while each kind of editing is extremely useful, you might find there are other ways of getting it for your book.
Step 1: Self-edit.
Go through your book and fix anything you can on your own first. This will cut down on your editing needs later—sometimes, editors will charge less for a cleaner manuscript, and you may need less help in certain stages.
Self-editing can be hard, so here’s an article to help you through the stages of editing your manuscript.
Step 2: Use beta readers to decide what your story needs.
You probably won’t need an editorial assessment and a content edit. You may not need a copy edit and proofreading. As the author, you need to decide what kind of editing will be most useful for you to invest in—but don’t just go with your first instinct. Get help.
Beta readers are people who will read through your manuscript and give you feedback on it. Usually, they’re friends, family, or other writers who will do it for free. Why will this help you? Because they’ll show you where your book needs work—and that helps you figure out which editor you need.
For instance, if your beta readers keep telling you the plot is confusing to them, you should hire a content editor. If the plot is strong, you may not need to.
Step 3: Use free help whenever you can.
If you can’t afford to hire both a copy editor and a proofreader, you can get beta readers to volunteer and proofread for you. Volunteers likely won’t do as good a job as a professional, but you can have multiple of them help you. Any extra set of eyes will help!
It’s important to recognize that beta readers aren’t trained proofreaders. While their feedback will be helpful, they likely won’t provide the same results as a professional editor. It’s still smart to get multiple people’s feedback on your story—but keep that in mind when making decisions about who to hire.
What kind of beta readers do you want? Many different kinds. Other writers will have an eye for plot and character development that the average reader won’t, but writers are often busy. Try to find people who read often with a critical eye, especially in your genre. They’ll be more likely to catch any errors in your manuscript.
Another option is to build relationships with people in the writing and publishing world and ask them for help in exchange for their editing services. Kara Swanson, one of the instructors at the Young Writers Workshop, got multiple rounds of edits done by other writers and editors on her debut novella, The Girl Who Could See, because she helped them with their own editing, marketing, or other areas of need.
Always remember that your beta readers are doing you a service. Reading a book takes a long time, and fixing it up isn’t an easy task, so thank them! Write them a card, bake them cookies, put them in the acknowledgments section, do something. They’re putting in a lot of time and effort, so be appreciative.
Free help will save you time and money in the editing process. But it won’t be as high-quality. The more money you invest in editing, the better your book will be. How much risk are you willing to take?
How to Waste All Your Money in One Easy Step:
No editor is worth the price if you don’t actually use their feedback.
I’m sure you’ve been there. Someone—a family member, a friend—has read your book, and they point out that your favorite plot point doesn’t make sense.
Is your immediate reaction to say, “Oh, thanks! I hadn’t thought of it that way before”?
If so, then congratulations. You’re better than me.
Because even though I’d like to say that I’m always open to feedback, I’m not. I’m imperfect. And when people say my plot has problems, I’m much more likely to ignore them. What do they know, anyway? They aren’t the author.
Do not—I repeat, do not—do that with your editor.
Your editor is there to help you. They are not your enemy. All they want is to make your book as good as possible, and that’s your goal, too! A good editor has experience and knows a lot about how to craft a great story, and that’s exactly the kind of feedback you want to hear and implement.
Now, editors aren’t perfect either. And sometimes, their advice isn’t the best thing for the story. I’m not saying you need to accept everything they say without thinking it through—but don’t immediately assume they’re wrong. Think about the suggestions with discernment, but be open to change. Is that character really necessary? Should I move the inciting incident a few chapters earlier? Do I really need that long, rambling run-on sentence?
Be teachable, honest, and willing to work. Then, you’ll have used your editor to the fullest, and your book will show it.
Your next steps
If you hire the right kind of editor and implement their suggestions well, your book will become a lot stronger. If you’re traditionally publishing, agents and editors will receive your manuscript more favorably. And if you’re indie publishing your book, you’ll have a better launch and a better long-term career.
And, you’ll grow as a writer. Eventually, plot structure will become second nature to you. Your prose will become cleaner and tighter as your writing voice develops. Soon, you’ll be writing better and better books—all because of the professional feedback you received.
Set yourself up for success. Later, you’ll be grateful you did.
To take the next step on your journey into the world of professional editing, download the free guide below. It contains a checklist of the steps outlined above, plus a list of places to look to find an editor that works for your book.