The question of hiring an editor often comes up in my classes, and since editor for hire is one of the hats I wear, I wanted to provide some overview. There are different kinds of edits. I’m focusing on two: the developmental edit versus the copy edit. You might also hire someone to proofread, where they are simply looking for mistakes and errors, rather than making any editorial suggestions.
A developmental edit is an edit that looks at the big picture stuff. It is not a final edit, but an edit designed to help the writer improve on the manuscript’s strengths and address its weaknesses. The order of things may change, characters may get added or dropped, pieces of the plot may be altered. It does not do things like fix typos or look at individual sentences.
You want a developmental edit towards the beginning of the revision process, rather than after you’ve spent a lot of time polishing sentences, because polishing something that may get chopped out is inefficient and discouraging. This is an early draft, but one in which you have filled all the obvious holes and perhaps run it past a beta reader or two.
You want an editor who respects your style and your vision as well as the story’s voice. Your editor should take the time to identify all of those, working to tell you how to strengthen them and make them more effective, rather than to change them into the editor’s vision of the story. This is why editors are not one size fits all — it is quite possible to hire an editor who simply does not grok your style.
Developmental editors charge around $50 an hour, according to the Editorial Freelancers Association, which estimates 1-5 pages per hour. This…seems somewhat excessive to me, but I also read much faster than most people. When I work out the math of things, that’s $20k for a 100k word manuscript, which seems insane to me and is more than I would dream of charging. Another editor quoted a rate to me of 1 cent a word for developmental edits, which is about the lowest I would go, I think. Either way, you are looking at a decent amount of money and when you are spending that sort of sum, you do make sure that you are getting your money’s worth. Talk to other clients or read some of the editor’s writing. It is perfectly kosher to ask for a sample edit, but limit that to a few pages. Asking for a free chapter edit is a bit much; remember that’s a significant chunk of time for an editor and so they simply cannot afford to do many of these. In all honesty, I have enough clients willing to forego sample edits that I usually will not do them but will send the client elsewhere to someone more willing to perform that work without compensation. If you really don’t want to hire someone for a novel edit without a sense of their editing style, perhaps hiring them to edit a short story or essay might work just as well.
What I give a client in a developmental edit package is almost always the same, and I think many developmental editors work along similar lines: a 4-5k word write-up of suggestions for the overall manuscript, focusing on different areas that include plot, pacing, characterization, worldbuilding, etc; a copy of their manuscript with comments/notes specific to chapters; and notes/suggestions about their writing strengths and weaknesses along with a few pages of sample edits intended to help them work at the sentence level. For example, I might say something like, “You have very long paragraphs, here’s how I might break one up,” and provide a few samples. Included in all of this is a call beforehand where we discuss what they want from the edit and the option to do a call or lunch afterward where we talk about specific strategies and questions the client has about the edit.
Is a developmental edit always necessary? No. It can save you some work and time, and it can make a manuscript stronger in a way that may make an agent or editor accept it, but in my experience, they will also want to provide developmental edit level notes. If you cannot afford a developmental edit, a reasonable substitute is work: finding beta readers and then reading through and incorporating their feedback, looking in particular for places where they don’t understand what’s happening or don’t care about what’s happening.
A copy edit is not going to do a lot of big change level stuff. It’s going to look instead at the sentence and paragraph level. This is for me the most labor-intensive kind of editing, and the amount of time it takes really depends on the writing. The last project I did required a decent amount of work, and my speed was 5-15 pages per hour. A few projects before that, I did an edit for a professional writer, and that edit moved considerably faster, because her work was already pretty clean and tight.
A copy-edit happens towards the end of the revision process. Usually the editor will go through the manuscript with track changes on and the writer will later go through, accepting (and sometimes rejecting) those changes. I would not expect a copy-editor to make suggestions for structural changes, but they might suggest an overall formatting strategy and they should definitely make things consistent as far as spelling, punctuation, and similar formalities are concerned.
Copyediting is a pain in the butt and it’s also expensive. Here you’re looking in the $40 an hour range, according to the EFA again. But this may be something that’s particularly useful for newer writers, because going through changes and thinking about why the editor made them can be truly enlightening. This is something I learned early on when working with my college paper. A good editor really tightens and clarifies sentences, and makes them effective and efficient. A superlative editor will show you how to write sentences that sing.
Again, you want an editor that figures out what your style is, and makes your prose more of that, rather than re-writing it to make it their own. A good editor can be a revelation; a bad editor can discourage and dishearten.
Is a copy-edit always necessary? Not a paid one, no. But you really should get someone to look over stuff if you can, because otherwise you will miss things. It simply is not possible for a writer to catch every mistake, and there will always be something that you find, and kick yourself about, later. If you do not have the financial resources, perhaps figure out a barter with someone, even if it’s just swapping manuscripts around with your crit group. On the other hand, as you know from reading, there are errors even in the books that have gone all the way through the traditional publishing process and its layers of edits.
Thinking about Becoming an Editor?
If you are a good editor, this is not a bad way to earn money. I would suggest that one thing you will want to do is figure out a schedule and amount of time you’re willing to do it, and make sure you don’t get deluged, even if it means turning down a project sometimes. Time and energy spent editing someone else’s work is time and energy that doesn’t get spent on your own. Remember that and plan accordingly.