If you want your book to be the best it can be, then working with a professional editor is the next step.
An editor’s job is to take your manuscript and help you improve it through structural changes and story development, line edits, suggestions for new material or sentence refinement, and so much more. Different kinds of editors can help you in different ways from constructing the overarching story to eliminating the final typo.
[This is an excerpt from How to Write a Novel by Joanna Penn, available in ebook, audiobook, paperback, hardback and workbook editions.]
In my experience, good professional editors are well worth the investment as they help improve your book and your craft, especially in the initial stages of your writing journey. They have read so many early-stage manuscripts that they understand the most common problems and know how to help you fix them.
Some experienced authors only use proofreaders for their novels, but personally, I still work with a professional editor on every book and I learn something every time. I am a super-fan of editors!
How to find a professional editor
Consolidation in the traditional publishing industry over the last decade has resulted in many more editors working as freelancers, so authors have a wealth of professionals available for hire in every genre.
Check out my list of editors at www.TheCreativePenn.com/editors
You can find lists of approved editors through author organizations. The Alliance of Independent Authors has a list of Partner Members, many of whom are editors. You can also use author marketplace Reedsy.
The following editing associations offer directories and job posting services: The Editorial Freelancers Association (US), the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading (UK), the Institute for Professional Editors (Australia and New Zealand), and Editors Canada.
Many editors use content marketing to find clients — for example, blogging about editing tips, writing books on editing, or appearing on podcasts. I have had lots of editors on The Creative Penn Podcast over the years, so you can listen and see if they resonate with you.
Most authors credit their editors and proofreaders in the acknowledgments of their books, and many authors happily share recommendations on social media in various author communities. If you enjoy a certain novel, it might be worth reaching out to that editor, as you know they are a specialist in the genre.
How to assess whether an editor is right for you
I frequently get emails from writers asking me to recommend an editor for their book.
But finding an editor is like dating.
You have to do it for yourself, and it’s likely that you will try a few before you find your perfect match. You may also change editors over your writing life as your craft develops and your needs shift, and that’s completely normal too.
Make sure the editor has experience in and enjoys your genre. You don’t want a literary historical fiction editor working on your YA paranormal romance or your hard sci-fi adventure.
Ensure that the editor has testimonials from happy clients, and check directly with a named author if you have doubts.
Some editors will offer a sample edit for one chapter. This helps both parties decide whether working together is appropriate. The editor can assess what level your manuscript is at, and you can decide whether their editorial style is right for you.
How to work with an editor
When you engage an editor, you will receive a contract with a timeline and a price for the work.
You agree to deliver the manuscript on a particular date and will usually pay a deposit, especially if this is the first time you’re working together. The editor agrees to deliver the edits back on a certain date and also to keep your manuscript in confidence.
You can avoid issues later by communicating expectations upfront, so if you have questions about the editing process, ask before you sign a contract.
Many editors are booked months in advance, so once you know your schedule, contact them early and book a slot. Update them if your timings change. Most allow minor slippage, but since editors plan their work around contractual dates, it’s important to be timely with delivery. As a discovery writer, I only book my editor when I am sure of my dates.
Submit your manuscript and, once the edit is complete, you will receive whatever has been agreed upon. That might be a structural report, line edit, or proofread manuscript, along with a style sheet. It’s usually in the form of an MS Word document by email.
Some editors may offer a call to discuss, but I have never spoken to an editor as part of my process. It has never been necessary. It’s all about the words on the page. If you want a call and it is not specified, then include it in the contract up front along with anything else you’re concerned about.
I consider my editors to be an important part of my team. They help me turn my manuscripts into books that readers love, and I rely on them as part of my business.
This is a two-way relationship, and you need to behave as professionally as the editor should. If you find an editor you love working with, pay them quickly and respect their time, and you will hopefully have a long-term business relationship that benefits you both.
How does it feel to go through an edit?
It’s probably going to hurt, especially in the beginning, when your craft is in its early stages. You need fresh eyes on your work, especially at the beginning of your author career. You need feedback to improve.
When I received notes back on my structural edit for my first novel, I didn’t open the email for ten days. I was so scared of what it would say because my novel meant so much to me, and yet I knew it had problems.
Of course it did, it was my first novel!
So I let the email sit in my inbox until I was ready to face it, and like many things, the fear was worse than the actual event.
Even many years and many books later, I still don’t open emails from my editor until I am mentally ready to face criticism.
Because that’s what it feels like.
It is not the editor’s job to pat you on the back and say, ‘Well done, this is perfect.’
Their job is to help you make it the best book it can be. They are experts and have honed their advice over many manuscripts, so they can spot an issue a mile off.
When you receive that email from your editor, particularly if it’s your first book, make sure you are well-rested and in a positive frame of mind. Set aside a good amount of time and read through the comments and the manuscript as a whole.
If you have an emotional reaction, do not email back immediately!
Let the feedback sit with you for a few days, and you will find it easier to see what might need to change.
Once you’re ready, go through the manuscript and work through each change. Don’t just click Accept All on the Track Changes version for a line edit.
This takes time, but it’s well worth it because you will learn with every step and you’ll be able to spot your common issues in the future, and hopefully fix them next time. You also need to examine every suggestion to see if you want to make the change.
Do you need to make every change that an editor suggests?
No, you don’t.
You are the author, so your creative vision is the most important thing. But try to get some distance and assess whether the change truly serves the book, or if you’re just having an emotional response. As Jeffery Deaver says: “The reader is god.”
Consider each editorial suggestion on its own merit. Does it help take the story in the direction you want it to? Will it improve the reader’s experience?
What if my editor wants me to change everything?
Perhaps they are not the right editor for you.
The editor should not fundamentally change your story or alter your creative vision. Their job is to help you shape your manuscript into a better version of itself, and retain your voice and ideas while at the same time improving it for the reader. This is a skillful balancing act, which is why experienced editors are so highly sought after.
How long will the editing process take?
This will depend on the type of writer you are in terms of the first draft. If you outline in great detail and spend time upfront making the first draft the best it can be, then editing might take less time than for a discovery writer who only figures out the book after the first draft.
The more books you’ve written, the more you understand how to shape a novel, the more you can write a clean draft, so editing speeds up. That doesn’t mean it gets easier to write a book, but it does mean you know how to find and fix issues.
It will also depend on the length of the book. A 50,000-word romance with one protagonist will be a faster edit than a 150,000-word sprawling fantasy with multiple point-of-view characters.
It will also depend on your experience, so don’t compare your editing time to someone who has written a lot of books.
Give editing the time it needs. You want your book to be the best it can be. But also remember Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This law also applies to editing.
Set your deadline and schedule your editing time accordingly. Don’t book a professional editor until you’ve been through at least your self-editing process, as it may take longer than you think.
How much does an editor cost?
This will depend on the type of edit, your genre and word count, how experienced you are as a writer, and how much experience the editor has.
Editors usually quote a range on their website and you can also email and ask for a more detailed quote based on your manuscript length and sample.
Every dollar I have spent on editing has been worth it as an investment in my writing craft and the quality of my finished novels. Although my requirements are different now, I continue to use editors and proofreaders for all my books. The more eyes on your novel before publication, the better it will be on launch.
What if you have a tight budget?
When I started out as a writer, I had a day job and I saved up for the editorial process. It was an investment in my craft and a possible future creative career.
If you already have or intend to set up a business as a writer, then you can offset the cost of editors against any profits. But when you’re starting out, you can’t necessarily see that far ahead.
If you’re on a tight budget, then find or set up a writer’s group with others in your genre and work through one another’s manuscripts. You might also have other skills you can barter for editing services, but remember that bartering is subject to tax in many jurisdictions, so don’t assume that it is ‘free.’
What if my editor steals my ideas or my manuscript?
This is a common concern of new writers who think that editors might run away with their book and make millions with their idea.
But don’t worry, editors are professionals. They work within a contractual framework that protects both parties. So make sure you are happy with the contract before you sign it.
If you are really worried, you can register your copyright before you send the manuscript to anyone else. While it is not legally necessary to register copyright — it exists the moment the work is created — there are registration companies in every country that can provide peace of mind. Just search for ‘copyright registration’ within your territory.
Will I need different editors when I’m further along in my writing journey?
Yes, as your craft and experience improve, you will likely work with different editors. You might also choose to use a new editor for a different genre, or work with recommended professionals to take your craft to the next level.
Questions for you to consider — feel free to leave a comment below
- How will you find a professional editor and validate that they are the right one for you?
- How will you work with your editor so you are both happy with the process and the result?
- How can you prepare yourself mentally for receiving feedback and line edits? How can you reframe the experience as positive and learn for next time?
[This article is an excerpt from How to Write a Novel by Joanna Penn, available in ebook, audiobook, paperback, hardback and workbook editions.]
Raymond Walker says
Great article, Thanks Joanna. You covered the pitfalls as well as the advantages. For my second novel I was provided with an editor (by my publisher). She was clear and concise but had no idea of literary fiction rather, she wished to make my strange historical fiction, a romance novel. A lovely woman and exceptionally good at her job but a mismatch. Her replacement was another gem and one who gelled with me immediately knowing what I wished from the novel. She was a harsh mistress but made the novel what It was meant to be.
In hindsight the novel’s success was more down to her than I.
Oh, and twenty years later (lol from our initial contact- as we have worked together often over the years) I called to ask her to edit the commemorative edition of the novel. Sadly, she is unwell. Her daughter is producing it for me.