A friend recently asked me, “what would you, an editor, get out of hiring a book editor?” Now that I’m almost through the process, I can tell you the short answer: A LOT.
I could talk all day about my first time hiring an editor and how wonderful it’s been, but most of the details are way too specific to be useful to anyone else. Instead I’ll limit myself to five tips that will help you choose the right book editor—and also help you decide when it’s time to do so. (Spoiler alert: This should’ve happened way sooner.)
1. Hiring an editor is like hiring a house builder; you probably don’t want the same person who frames it to do the finish carpentry. (I’ve used the editing/house-building analogy before; read Editing Best Practices.) Developmental editors are like editorial house framers; they will ask, and ideally help answer, big picture questions about what is (and even better: what isn’t yet, but should be) on the page. Do you really need this character, fun as she is? Does that scene detract or add to the main theme of the book? Shouldn’t we be hearing directly from the bad guy? And so on.
2. Copy editors, line editors, and proofreaders are like finish carpenters; they make sure grammar, punctuation, and wording will enhance the work rather than distracting the reader. Most manuscripts I see (and many of the books I read) need this help; luckily it’s one of my strengths.
3. Editors don’t have to love your book, just as your carpenter doesn’t have to love your new house, but they do have to “get” what they’re working on. It’s hard enough to figure out a book’s central theme without having another vision overlaid at this critical step in the process. The role of editor is to make your book the best it can possibly be—not create a new story with your words and characters.
4. Finding the right editor is a challenge for sure; you can’t just search on “the perfect editor for my book.” Sites like Reedsy make it possible to check out hundreds of editors (and other book professionals as well), but it’s both difficult and time-consuming to get a feel for their previous work through a resumé (or even from books they’ve edited, because you probably haven’t read them yet). I found my editor through word of mouth, but hiring her still involved a rather large leap of faith—which fortunately was rewarded. Before signing anyone on, make sure to ask pointed questions up front about experience (fiction, non-fiction, memoir?) and billing, which can vary enormously.
5. Two other large variables are “when to hire” and “how long will this take.” When should you hire an editor? Two answers: “much later than you think,” and “once you can’t make any more progress on your own.” I thought this story was ready to publish months ago, though looking back now I can see it was still a hot mess of a first draft. I’m glad I waited until I’d “finished” it (a few times), got some feedback that made it clear it still wasn’t focused enough yet, so I could give the editor some concrete direction about what I was looking for. I also wish I hadn’t bothered with a lot of the cleanup until I made the big changes.
As to “how long does the editor take,” two to four weeks seems like an average turnaround, though it may be worth waiting longer to get the right person. Though that seemed like forever up front, it was very helpful to get away from my WIP for a month—which was easier to do, knowing someone else was moving the project forward.
This was my first time hiring a developmental editor, and it came at the perfect time life-wise; overlapping with a trip to Ireland that was completely distracting. (For greater efficiency, I probably should’ve done this a year ago.) When I received the editor’s feedback, I was able to look at my WIP with fresh eyes. Combined with her brand-new perspective, I’m now creating the structure for a much more solid manuscript. And fortunately, unlike house framing, with novels you can get away with adjusting the framing, even after the finish carpentry is completed and the characters have moved in.