Updated: Jun 14, 2020
I see the question almost every time I hop onto a Facebook writing group: “Do I need an editor?” Before I type out an answer, though, I pause to consider the possible scenarios behind why the writer is asking this. Has the writer heard horror stories about corrupt or high-and-mighty editors? Is there a worry that the writer’s work will be stolen? Does the writer want to finish the project and submit it ASAP? Has the writer fallen on hard times, perhaps because of economic crisis? There are many questions and many answers, but most of the time, the main problem is money: tight funds, no job, balking at editors’ rates. Finances are a valid concern that often stands as the mountain between a person’s reality as an amateur writer and the dream of becoming an established author.
While I would love to say that writers can forgo the editing experience altogether and publish a Goldsmith Book Prize-winner on their own, regrettably that is not how the publishing world—and human psychology—works. To achieve professional publishing (traditional or otherwise), writers need editors, and they need them for two main reasons: One, good editors are trained and experienced, so they can spot weaknesses (and strengths) and know how to help writers fix problems in the text. And two, editors don’t have the rose-colored spectacles that writers wear when looking at their own writing. Editors can open writers’ eyes to problems the writers otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.
“I get it, Suzanne—editors are necessary,” a writer might say. “But that doesn’t solve my money problem.”
No, it doesn’t, but take a breath and stop worrying! While you might not be able to completely remove editing costs (if you are able to, though, and still manage to create a Wall Street Journal best seller, please-please-please share your secret!), there are many ways you can sneak around the majority of the money-eating editing forest and end up sacrificing only a small chunk of cash. To help you avoid those dreadful empty pockets, I have compiled twenty-one “tricks” to help you cut back on editing expenses. I’ll introduce these tricks one by one, so be on the lookout for updates.
How you approach these tricks is up to you . . . and up to how badly you want to save your money. You can choose to apply only one or two tricks, you can try them one by one, or you can juggle many tricks at once. Whichever way you choose, you’ll be closer to a more satisfying publication process and a happier bank account.
Trick 1: Know Your Editors
Before we get into the sneakier tricks, you have to know the kinds of editing that writers need. If you’re publishing in either fiction or nonfiction, you’ll most likely need at least two of the three primary types of editing: developmental editing, substantive (a.k.a. line) editing, and copy editing. Editors and publishers often have different names for these, but their components are basically the same throughout the industry:
Developmental editing helps writers improve the big elements of books: structure, plot, pacing, characters, etc. Sometimes writers hire developmental editors early in the writing process to help them plan a book or write the first draft, but this usually isn’t necessary—more often than not, developmental editors are more helpful to you after you’ve written several drafts. (And you usually don’t have to pay them as much, either.)
Nonfiction writers also profit from developmental edits. Developmental editing for nonfiction tackles the flow of ideas throughout the book, including chapter and section placement. Sometimes developmental editing for nonfiction takes place while the writer is putting the first draft together. Sometimes it takes place after the first draft. A developmental editor for nonfiction can sometimes be an expert in the subject matter, but that depends on the audience. For instance, say you’re writing an in-depth book about Egyptian mummies. Even if you’re an expert in the field, if you’re writing the book for a wide audience and you haven’t been published multiple times already, then hiring a developmental editor would only benefit you.
Substantive (line) editing deals with the paragraph- and sentence-level features: flow, meaning, coherence, cohesion, logic, and more. A substantive editor is trained to make sure that everything is written clearly, understandably, and logically. Sometimes this type of editing is combined with developmental editing (especially when editing nonfiction), and once in a while it’s combined with copy editing, but usually it’s treated as a separate type because it’s more in-depth and requires a trained, specialized way of thinking. Substantive editing is valuable to all writers, but it’s especially important for nonfiction writers who want their manuscripts to be understandable to their audiences.
Copy editing is the most common type of editing and the least expensive, and it comes after developmental and substantive editing. A copy editor scrutinizes every word, phrase, and sentence in a manuscript, marking or changing any spelling, punctuation, or grammar problems. No matter what type of manuscript you have or genre you’re writing, copy editing is essential. However, many writers believe they can get by with just hiring a copy editor. While those manuscripts might look squeaky clean, they might have issues on other levels. Copy editing is editing at its bare minimum.
There are only two reasons you might not need a copy editor: you yourself are a copy editor, or you have a fantastic grasp of the mechanics of English. If you fit into either of these categories, then congratulations! You just saved yourself a lot of time and money.
When you understand the differences between these types of editing and what to expect from them cost-wise, you can make informed decisions about hiring (or not hiring) editors. For instance, if you’re writing a fiction novel, you now know that you need to hire a developmental editor before any other type of editor. You can also decide whether you want to hire a substantive editor or not, since it’s less common and is often combined with developmental editing or copy editing.
Now that you’ve got an idea of the three primary types of editing, turn off the screen and take a break. Roll the information through your mind while you grab lunch or go for a bike ride. Get ready for when Trick 2 arrives, when you can relax in your chair and learn whether you need as much editing as you think you do.