Hiring a professional editor to work on your manuscript can be expensive. And there are lots of different editorial services to choose from. So if your budget is limited, which editorial service should you choose?
In an ideal world, a manuscript will go through at least three rounds of editing: macro (manuscript critique or development editing), sentence (line editing and copy-editing) and proofreading (the final check). But this can all add up. As an author looking to hire an editor, if your budget is limited you need to decide which service is going to give you the best results.
There are two main arguments people in the book industry make:
- Story is more important than correct prose, so spend your money on a manuscript critique or a development edit.
- Correct prose is more important than story, so spend your money on copy-editing and proofreading.
Usefully, these are completely contradictory. Let’s take a close look at each argument and see if we can come to a conclusion that makes sense.
The ‘story is king’ argument
The main theory here is that people can forgive bad writing more than they can forgive a bad story. This argument has merit. It’s true that no amount of sentence-level editing can improve a badly considered concept or a poorly told story. The story you choose to tell and how you choose to tell it is so important.
But I think a lot of people who favour this viewpoint may not fully understand the value copy-editing and proofreading can bring to a manuscript. More than just catching a few typos, a thorough copy-edit can result in thousands of changes to a manuscript.
A published manuscript should be of professional quality, and copy-editing and proofreading help achieve this. I strongly believe that when you publish a novel and sell it, you have a responsibility to your readers. (Read Chuck Wendig’s fantastic post on this: Readers Are Not Good Gatekeepers.) Your readers hand over their money because they want (and expect) a professionally produced piece of entertainment. If you skip the copy-editing and proofreading stage completely before you publish, you’re doing your readers a disservice.
The ‘correctness is king’ argument
The other side of the argument is that you should spend your budget on copy-editing and proofreading because judging a story comes down to personal taste, but errors are universally recognised – and therefore it makes sense to focus on what will increase the objective quality of the manuscript rather than the subjective quality.
At a professional development day I attended, writer and editor Andrew Lowe suggested that bad grammar and typos is what most often attracts bad reviews, so self-publishers should spend their editorial budget on copy-editing and proofreading. Many of the editors in the room nodded in agreement.
However, it would only be best to spend your editing budget on copy-editing and proofreading if there really wasn’t any way to objectively assess the quality of a story. But there is. Sure, subject matter and style will always come down to personal taste, but it is possible to recognise a seriously poorly written book. And with knowledge of the craft, it is possible to make objective suggestions on how a novel can be improved.
So which service is best?
I’ve been thinking about this issue for years. And I’ve been on either side of the argument. The trouble is, both story and correctness are of equal importance – just for different reasons. So when your editing budget is limited, you have to consider other factors.
Where you’re best off spending your money will depend on how knowledgeable and experienced you are as a writer, and how you want to publish your book.
The newbie writer: don’t hire an editor
If you’re a completely novice writer, this is the first manuscript you’ve ever completed, you’ve never been published, you’ve never studied creative writing (taken a class or an online writing course, or read any books or blogs on the craft of writing) and you’ve never belonged to a writing group – don’t pay for any editorial service. You’re probably not ready for it yet.
If you pay to have your work copy-edited and proofread, it’s highly likely that the story won’t be up to scratch. So if you self-publish, it’s unlikely to sell or attract great reviews. And dream on if you want to submit your manuscript to agents and get a traditional publishing deal – the most important thing agents and publishers look for is a well-crafted story that will appeal to a large readership. If you haven’t studied and developed your story-telling skills, perfectly polished prose won’t help – and, depending on your skills, a macro edit like a manuscript critique or development edit might only scratch the surface of the issues that need addressing.
You’d be better off putting the manuscript aside, continuing to write and dedicating yourself to learning more about the craft. After you’ve improved your skills and knowledge, you’ll be able to rewrite your manuscript to a higher standard or write a new, better book – one that’s ready for professional editorial input.
Saying that, you might decide to work with a developmental editor or commission a manuscript critique as part of your learning process, but keep in mind there are often cheaper ways to learn and you might end up having to rewrite most of your manuscript to bring it up to scratch.
The established writer (self-publishing): choose copy-editing
If you’ve been previously published, you’ve written several books, you’ve studied creative writing (taken classes and read lots of books and blogs on writing craft) and you’ve workshopped your writing with a trusted writing group – you might be best off paying for copy-editing, but only if you want to self-publish.
Chances are, you know what makes a good story. If you’re really on the ball, you’ll have a good idea of the bookselling industry, too, so you know what kinds of books people like to read, the genres that sell the most, etc., which helps you make decisions about your book, set realistic expectations and effectively plan your marketing. Because you’re established in your network, you’ll know how to use beta readers to help you test and improve your story.
So before you self-publish, you know your story is solid and you’ve got a fairly good idea of the market you’re entering. Spending your editorial budget on copy-editing will therefore give you the most bang for your buck. You’ll have a good story with high production values.
If you have any more money in your editorial pot, you should hire a proofreader to do a final pass. A little more money, and you could hire someone who combines line editing (stylistic editing) with copy-editing (technical editing) to really tighten and improve your prose before you hire a proofreader.
The established writer (traditional publishing): choose a manuscript critique
So you’re as knowledgeable as the established self-publishing writer in the profile above, but you want to get an agent and be published by a traditional publishing house. The main difference here is that it is much more difficult to be published this way since your manuscript will be competing with thousands of others.
Agents and publishers are most interested in a great story that’s told well (it’s all about that ‘unique voice’) and that they can take an educated gamble on selling. The writing can be polished at a later stage, but story, voice and market potential are the key things here.
A manuscript critique is a good way to get a professional, objective view on your novel. It won’t tell you how to ‘fix’ every little issue, but it will provide you with enough insight to help you see where things need to change. It’s then up to you to apply your expertise as a writer to the issues that have been highlighted.
If you have a little extra in your budget, then you could also hire a line editor or copy-editor to polish your submission package (the first few chapters, your synopsis and your query letter). A little more in your budget, and you could hire an editor to critique and offer suggestions on how to improve your submissions package, too. (I offer this service on request.) That way you really can put your best foot forward when pitching to agents.
As I said at the start of this post, in an ideal world every manuscript will go through three rounds of editing. The first round will look at the story and the techniques used to tell it (macro editing). The second round will look at the artistry and technical correctness of the writing (sentence editing). The third round will be the final check (proofreading).
If your budget is limited, you should think about where you are as a writer (how good your current skills and knowledge are) and which route to publication you want to take. That should help you spend your editorial budget wisely.