Do you need an editor?
Yes. Yes, you do. No exceptions.
You cannot edit your own book. You are simply too familiar with the text to spot mistakes or areas that don’t make sense. I have a draft of a novel with beta readers right now, and every last one of them noticed that I used the phrase “shouldn’t up something this trivial.” Obviously I meant “bring up,” and they all pointed that out. I missed catching that mistake, even though I’d read the book at least a dozen times and am regularly paid to edit other people’s books. I was just too familiar with how I thought the sentence should sound to notice that it didn’t actually sound that way.
More significantly, every last one of my betas commented that my descriptions of building layouts are hard to follow, and that I should rewrite them entirely. This is where the real value of editing comes in. Your readers are not inside your head. You may think you conveyed your mental image on the page, but until you run it by other people, you won’t know. Editing exists so that you can learn about these mistakes and fix them before putting your work out in public.
There are three major types of editing, and each type requires different skills. Let’s discuss them.
1. Developmental Editing / Beta Reading / Manuscript Appraisal
Developmental Editing looks at the big picture of your book. It unearths areas that need significant rewriting or restructuring, such as plot, pacing, character arcs, etc. This type of editing will give you large-scale commentary like: “The building layout descriptions are hard to follow,” “This chapter feels rushed,” and “This character has no reason to be in the book.” After developmental editing, you will likely need to revise your story.
If you’re familiar with storytelling conventions and very honest with yourself, you can do some of this on your own. After that, though, you need to get other opinions. Here’s what to look for in a developmental editor/beta reader:
– Familiar with your genre.
– Trusts you enough to tell you if your book is awful. If you’ve reacted badly to criticism in the past, you may need to find someone who wasn’t around in those moments.
– Skilled at analyzing story structures. This is the toughest one to find. Your mom may genuinely feel that your book is the best thing ever written. That feedback doesn’t help you if she only reads a novel every so often for entertainment purposes. Find someone who critiques literature on a regular basis.
– Has given you solid feedback in the past. You can’t do this on your first edit, but as you write more, you’ll figure out which people in your circle make the best beta readers. Use them again.
You can hire a developmental editor or beta reader for a modest sum. Since this type of editing doesn’t involve in-text revision, it’s usually not too expensive. If you have a friend who’s a successful author, they may be willing to exchange beta reading services with you, which is another good way to do this.
2. Line Editing
Line editing looks at the actual words used to tell the story. Do you vary your sentence structures? Do you use too much passive voice? Do your metaphors make sense? Did you say someone “shouldn’t up something this trivial”?
Line editing should only take place AFTER developmental editing. Otherwise you’ll spend hours revising sections that might not even make it into the final draft.
You cannot line edit your own book. Ideally you want a professional or a fellow author to do this for you. A good line editor has the following characteristics:
– Can keep themselves from being swept away by the story in order to focus on catching mistakes.
– Intense familiarity with grammatical conventions.
– Knows how to transform passive voice into active, and when.
– Ruthlessly cuts unneeded words.
– Expert on varying sentence structures.
– Sends you back a manuscript with tons of red markup.
This is often the most expensive type of editing. The editor will make hundreds, if not thousands of in-text revisions and will meticulously scrutinize your writing. It takes a lot of the editor’s time, so do not expect someone to do this for you for free. You may get some line editing comments from your beta readers, but it won’t be the same quantity that you will get from a true line editor.
3. Copyediting / Proofreading / Final Editing
Now we come to the thing most people think about when they hear the word “editing.” This is the stage where an editor goes back through the completed manuscript and corrects spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.
If this is the only type of editing you do, do not tell people your book was edited, because it wasn’t. Proofreading gives a book a nice veneer, but if the structure is faulty, the whole thing will collapse. Proofreading should only be done after developmental editing and line editing. Otherwise it’s a waste of time.
If you’ve had the same editor working on your book up to this point, get somebody else to do the final copyediting/proofreading. By this point your editor may have become too familiar with the text to catch any missing commas, so it helps to have another pair of eyes.
Some editors divide copyediting and proofreading into two separate things. That’s fine. It never hurts to have more people check the final text for any last-minute mistakes.
A good proofreader has the following characteristics:
– Expert in the grammatical and punctuational conventions of the country in which you’re publishing the book.
– Can refer you to a style guide that validates their changes. A good copyeditor will never say, “It feels like you need a comma here.” They follow the rules from an external resource.
– Will not get caught up in the story and miss things.
– Understands the context of when grammatical rules apply and when they don’t. (e.g. They won’t revise every single sentence fragment in your characters’ dialogue.)
– Expert at spelling.
– Knows how and when to use “special” punctuation, such as the semicolon, ellipsis, and m-dash.
All of this means that your proofreader cannot be some random friend who likes to read. You definitely can’t just run spellcheck and call it good. You need to hire an actual proofreader to do this step of editing.
All of this may seem intimidating, and it is. You think you’re done with your book, and then the editing process comes along and says, “Nope.”
If the expense involved is too much, consider doing a service trade with an editor. If you’re a typist, maybe they need someone to transcribe files for them. If you’re a business coach, maybe they’d accept a year of coaching in exchange for their editing expertise. This works best if you’re already friends with the editor in question. They may not be interested, but it doesn’t hurt to ask politely.
One final note: Editing takes time. A lot of time. Your book may not be ready for a good long while, especially if you have a lot of developmental revisions to do. Be patient. The results are worth it.