Publishing Q&A: Do you need a professional editor?

question answer

This question came up several times during the Florida Writers Association conference.  Sometimes it was “Do you need a professional editor to work on your manuscript before you self-publish?” and other times it was “Do you need a professional editor to work on your manuscript before you submit for traditional publication?” Answers varied. Some said yes, unequivocally, and others said a good writer can produce a quality manuscript without help.

My answer falls somewhere between.

If you’re preparing a manuscript for submission to agents or publishing houses, you may not need a paid editor. A good critique group and beta readers should help you get your manuscript polished enough for submission.

The difference? Critique partners usually read your manuscript a scene or a chapter at a time. They are good for copyediting-type feedback like grammar and spelling. Beta readers read the whole book in one go, just like a buying reader would. They are good for developmental-type feedback like character motivation and plot consistency. You need both.

If you are self-publishing, you must, at the very least, get a copyeditor. A copyeditor will check grammar, spelling, punctuation, and stylistic consistency. Ideally, your self-published book will go through every level of editing, though if you are an experienced writer, you may be able to get away without a developmental edit.

Do not skimp on proofreading. Get at least one proofreader who has not seen the manuscript before. Three is better. And you are still likely to go to press with errors in your book, because human beings are imperfect. But the more fresh eyes you have on your manuscript, the more likely you are to catch the mistakes.

But the real question is, do you need to pay for these services?

At the risk of putting myself out of work, I will say–maybe not. If you can find other writers who are at your skill level or above, you can often trade edits. But ideally, you want at least one editor who’s above your skill level to evaluate your manuscript and tell you whether it’s ready for submission or publication. Sometimes you can get this kind of critique through a workshop or writers’ conference.

But then I have to ask, what is your time frame? If you are in a hurry to publish, it may be faster to hire a professional who will give your project full attention than to rely on critique partners who will be editing in their spare time. And of course, you get what you pay for. The reason professionals are able to charge for these services is because we are highly trained and experienced.

Of one thing I am completely certain. No writer can edit herself. I have never denied this, but just to make the point, I’ll share this story. I got pages back from a critique partner who pointed out an entirely unnecessary clause in my manuscript. See if you can spot it:

“Yes, sir.” The barber draped a cloth around Dorrel’s neck. With the sound of the barber’s scissors clicking in his ears, Dorrel tried to figure out how to get into the palace.

If he posed as a groom, he could say he had taken a horse out for exercise. But the guards would know the palace grooms.

My clever critique partner pointed out that since the very next paragraph shows Dorrel’s thought process, the phrase “Dorrel tried to figure out how to get into the palace” isn’t needed, because it just tells us what he’s going to do right before he does it. That was a major “D’oh!” moment for me. But it demonstrates that no one can edit herself. Not even an editor.

This post originally appeared at The Factotum’s Rostrum.

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  1. […] Of course, “shipping” is different depending on your goals. If you’re seeking traditional publication, shipping means sending your manuscript to agents and editors. If you’re self-publishing, shipping means sending the manuscript to your freelance editor. […]

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