Editing your novel-4: Dealing with outside editors

From Rick:

Can you edit your own work? The answer is maybe.

The real question should be whether you can edit your work adequately, with “adequate” being defined as a result that catches all but a handful of typographical errors and which won’t make you look like an amateur. Readers will tolerate occasional minor errors, but major spelling and grammatical errors will cast you in a bad light and will likely lose you sales.

Before you decide to do most of the editing yourself, be sure that your grammar and punctuation skills are good enough to recognize grammar errors as opposed to simply overlooking them.

If you know that’s not the case, do not settle for “Well, I’m pretty good, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Trust me, it will not be fine, and you will miss a lot more than you think you’ll miss. I can say this from personal experience. I know my editing skills are very good, but it’s also easy to overestimate what you think you know. Even when I’m pretty sure I’m right, I still look it up unless I’m 100% sure.

How can you know if you are good enough? Edit to the best of your ability, then let a reputable outsider evaluate part of it. It might be worth it to pay an editor to check a few pages or a few thousand words of your work.

Some editors will offer to edit a few sample pages at no cost, but you should be prepared to pay a reasonable amount (no more than $10 per thousand words. Have an editor do a sample edit of maybe ten pages (at at cost of no more than $25). That should be enough to tell you how good a job you’ve done. Just tell the editor that you’re merely looking for an evaluation of the state of the editing of your manuscript at this point. An alternative is to find a critique group to tell you the same thing for free.

(I offer this service at less than what I mentioned above, and I won’t try to sell you on something you don’t need. Check my website for details.)

I’ve listed below several sites as EXAMPLES of some of the editing services you’ll find out there. These services can range from reasonable to what I consider exorbitant.

NOTE AND CAVEAT: These site references are for informational purposes only and should not be taken as recommendations. I have had no dealings or personal experience with any of these individuals or services.



(look at the first comment on this one)


The old adage that you get what you pay for may be a good general rule of thumb, but it’s not always true, especially for editing services. I’ll go into my reasons for this statement in a moment.

Proper editing takes time. There is no way around that. The amount of time a project takes to edit depends on (1) the speed of the editor and (2) the condition of the submitted manuscript. The more editing a manuscript requires (i.e. the sloppier it is), the longer it will take an editor to edit it. I have a standard charge by word count, but if someone gives me a messy manuscript, I’ll either give it back to be cleaned up first, or I’ll give the option of being charged more.

Take a look at the following link to see some of the industry standard rates, but pay close attention to the “estimated pace” column and note the wide range.


NOTE: This list does not mean these are the rates you necessarily will pay or should expect to pay, only that these are the industry averages. Excellent editors can be had for considerably less.

Based on this list, basic copyediting of a 50,000-word manuscript (about 200 pages) at $30–$40 per hour could cost anywhere from $600 (10 pages/hr @30/hr) to $1600 (5 pages/hr @$40/hr). That’s quite a spread. Therefore, it’s important to ascertain how efficiently the editor can edit your particular manuscript and that you negotiate a cap to protect you from surprises. An hourly rate is fairest for the editor, but less than optimum for the writer because of the unknowns in editing time.

Note that the numbers I calculated above are for basic copyediting (which I’m assuming is something more than proofreading and which should cost less). The hourly rates for other types of editing in the list at first appear comparable, but note that the number of pages per hour is substantially less. I’m pretty sure I would not want to pay someone $40 per hour who edits only one page per hour. I’ll leave it to you to crunch the numbers on that one for a 200-page manuscript.

If your writing is so bad that you need to pay an editor $40 per page to clean up your writing, then you could spend that money better by taking some quality writing workshops for a lot less and learn to fix things up yourself.

A few paragraphs back I promised to justify my statement that you don’t always get what you pay for when it comes to editing. Writing is a very personal thing with a wide margin of variation. No two writers will write the same thing the same way. Neither will an editor necessarily see something the same way as did the writer. And two different editors will not always agree. Yes, there are some constraints in the language, grammar, and writing conventions common to all writing, but there are few, if any, absolutes. There is rarely just ONE correct way to say or write something.

In my opinion, the most important trait for any editor is the ability to understand the writer’s style and intent and to edit within those parameters, not based on the editor’s personal writing preferences and style. I’ve often said that the best editors are also writers themselves and are well versed in the various genres of writing.

The first thing you should look for in an editor (price aside for the moment) is the editor’s familiarity with your type or genre of writing. A male editor who specializes in hard science fiction might not be the best person to edit your women’s fiction book, although those factors in themselves would not exclude him as an editor. If he’s edited books similar to yours in the past, then that’s what matters.

The second consideration, after you’ve found a good match of editor to your writing is, of course, the cost. We all know that paying more doesn’t always mean getting more. Once you’ve found a potential good match, then you should request a sample edit. What you look for in that sample edit is whether the editor respects the style and voice you’re going for—or else he/she advises you on what you need to change to achieve your goal.

A good editor will make intelligent edits that enhance your work; a bad one will make arbitrary changes in wording and vocabulary such as choosing “proper English” instead of preserving the voice and intent of the writing. If your street-wise character is now saying “I am not going to do that” instead of “I ain’t gonna do that,” then that little Star Wars voice in your head should be saying, “This is not the editor you’re looking for.”

While they may not be as effective as a good editor, beta readers and critique groups can be an immense help. Editors will try to make your writing as perfect as they can, but at the same time some of what they may correct or point out may not matter to readers. I’m not saying that editors will suggest unnecessary fixes, but the result you want is for your readers to have a pleasant reading experience and not be distracted by obvious mistakes, awkward prose, and confusing plot points. A good $500 edit can be just as good, or better, than a $2000 one, and good comments from attentive beta readers can sometimes serve as well as a $4000 content edit.

If you don’t have the cash to spend on an outside editor, never use that as an excuse for a sloppy end product, which will do you a lot of harm. Look around hard enough and you can find the help you need. Just don’t be impatient.

For those do can edit their own work, I know for a fact that it’s easier for me to spot errors in other writers’ work than in my own. I can achieve the same quality of editing if I’m willing to do multiple editing passes spaced over time. I will catch most (not necessarily all) of the problems. I’ve also relied on one or more outside readers to go through it to spot things I’ve missed. But I also don’t give it to someone in rough form. I try to do as much as I can first. It will be easier for another person to catch those few things I’ve missed than if he or she has to plow through a lot of mistakes, making it more likely to miss some.

Even the best editors can miss things. The more editing eyes looking at a manuscript, the better the chances of a truly clean one. A grammar-savvy individual can do an excellent job of editing by taking time to do it carefully. Utilize a variety of methods to go through it: reading on PC screen, reading it printed out, reading aloud. One less expensive choice for an outside editor is to do as much as you can by yourself then find one who charges a reasonable rate for just a final proofread. You may be able to find a friend with good skills in that area.

Here’s a good tip if you self-edit. As you go along, keep a style sheet of choices you’ve made such as spelling of characters’ names and place names. Check out this reference in one of my previous blogs.


I really don’t fully understand why content editing should be so much more expensive because it doesn’t require the minute checking that copy editing and proofreading do, but I suppose you’re paying for an editor to analyze the work and tell you how to fix what’s wrong, and maybe they figure their “analytical” time and experience is worth more. On the other hand, I suppose it depends on how analytical the editor gets. I’ve seen good beta readers who could tell you just as much as a paid content editor.

As I mentioned previously, I’ve seen enough cases where an editor did a poor job and the writer had no clue that the editor was merely blowing smoke in the writer’s face. Never accept all of an editor’s comments blindly. Editors can be wrong, and some may be trying to force your book into a standard mold that it doesn’t belong in.

Next time I hope to offer an editing test for you to assess the adequacy of your editing skills. I’ll give you a section of writing to edit to see how good you really are and whether you have a hope of being your own editor or whether you require professional help to make your work presentable.


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