Q&A: When to hire an editor

Q: I took your Elements of Fiction seminar and read the blog posts and I’ve gone through the checklist. Now what? How do I know when to hire an editor or writing coach?

question answer
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A: When you feel stuck, or when you’re ready to go.

If you’ve worked through the checklist and you still feel stuck on your manuscript, not knowing what to do next, that’s a good time to bring in a writing coach. You may just need to talk things though so you can get advice about what the next step is.

Maybe you’ve finished the manuscript, and you’re in one of these situations:

  • You know it’s not ready for submission, you have a good idea of what needs doing, but you find yourself, for whatever reason, unable to do it.
  • You know it’s not ready for submission, but you don’t know what to do next to make it ready.
  • You can’t tell whether it’s ready for submission or not.

In any of these cases, the service you need is a manuscript review. Some editors and writing coaches call this a critique or a evaluation. The editor will read the manuscript, check it against their list, and return to you a series of next steps. The review usually consists of a lengthy report—how long will depend on the length of your manuscript and the number of problems in it. It will include specific instructions such as “this fight scene is over too quickly; you need to describe everything, blow by blow” or “this conversation is the kind of thing readers skip; it’s boring and we don’t care; just delete this whole chapter”—just to share some examples of the advice my writing coach gave me on my first book.

In my case, I knew my book was too long, but I had cut as much as I could. I needed an objective opinion about what parts needed to go, and my writing coach delivered that. I took his report and went off and made those changes, and eventually landed a four-book contract.

I recently had a client who had written her novel to the best of her ability, but it was her first novel, and she knew it was lacking, but she didn’t have the skill set to identify what was wrong or how to fix it. My manuscript review gave her the plan she needed to proceed with her first rewrite.

If you’ve written and rewritten your manuscript multiple times, made multiple editing passes and put it through multiple workshops, you may have reached the point of analysis paralysis, where you don’t even know whether it’s any good yet.

This is a good point to get a professional evaluation. You may get a review back that outlines a bunch of points your critique partners and workshop leaders didn’t address, or you may, as did one client of mine who was preparing a manuscript for submission to traditional publishers, get a report that says “You’re ready to submit.”

When you’re ready

If you believe your manuscript is ready for publication and you are self-publishing, you’ll still want to consult a freelance editor for copyediting. No manuscript should ever go to press without a thorough professional copyedit.

Copyediting encompasses most of the functions of proofreading, so it’s like a two-for-one deal. A copyeditor will look for sentence structure and flow as well as the PUGS: Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling. Proofreaders are usually limited to correcting punctuation and spelling.

One big difference between copyediting and proofreading is that copyediting happens before the manuscript is laid out for a print edition or converted to Kindle, so corrections of large scope are no problem. Proofreading, by its traditional definition, occurs after pages have been laid out and printed proofs are made. So proofreaders also look for errors that creep in during the page design phase, such as a single phrase stranded on the last page of a chapter, bad hyphenation breaks, or on Kindle, characters that appear as gibberish or empty boxes after conversion.

Ideally your book will have both a copyedit and a proofread. This is what makes the difference between a self-published book that looks like an amateur production and one that looks professional.

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