Publishing is about product, writing is about process. ~ Emma Darwin
Writing fiction is a unique creative exercise, because unlike every other creative art (except perhaps music), fiction depends on rules, guidelines and conventions – it depends on being recognized as fiction – and fiction depends on a special, learned complementary activity: reading.
You can write your work of fiction alone. If you have a massive reference library (paper, electronic or both); if you have been a voracious reader for many years; if you have had a thorough, intensive, deep literary education and if, most of all, you have a bottomless well of self-belief, you can write your fiction alone.
With the rise of e-readers and electronic publishing, it has become possible to publish your novel yourself. If you’re going to do this, then if you’ll excuse my presumption, you want to get it checked over for mistakes. But today, even traditional publishers expect you to submit a manuscript that has already been checked, at the very least, for basic errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation.
If you don’t have a bottomless well of self-belief, then you also want to know if your book idea is worth pursuing; worth the many weeks of toil to turn it into a manuscript.
Once you’ve added those all important words The End to the final page, you want to know if your book is any good. Or if it sucks.
You may find all sorts of volunteers who can give you an opinion.
But there are also professionals, who will give you a whole lot more.
Broadly speaking, the professionals who can help you with your book can be divided into three skill sets, which I call high level editing, low level editing and proofreading. There are numerous terms for each of these skill sets in common currency, but very little consistency in their usage.
The role of the literary editor grew, very rapidly, out of the role of publishing editor. In traditional publishing, many publishing editors, commissioning editors, acquisitions editors and literary agents combine their commercial role with the role of literary editor. The literary editor’s role, in the broadest possible terms, is to help the writer to realize her book.
Book not manuscript.
The scope of the literary editor’s work is the book, not the manuscript. This is not only because literary editing arose from traditional publishing. It is because, perhaps even more so, in today’s self-publishing scrum, the author has to project manage every aspect of publication, and often wants or needs someone who can guide her through every stage of book production, from choosing which story idea to develop into a manuscript, right through to publication, marketing and promotion.
There are two obvious motives for seeking the aid of a literary editor. The many other reasons why my authors email, Skype, text or call me all seem to derive from these two motives:
Your high level editor will, depending on their preferred process, either focus on just the manuscript, or may focus also on the author, and/or the development and publication process. This is partly a matter of what clients usually ask for; but the demand for help beyond the current draft seems high, and I think you should want more than just a report on the characters and plot of your manuscript.
But what you want from your high level editor needs to be driven by your priorities, for the simple, if perhaps not obvious, reason that you will learn the most from an editor who is focused on what you want to know.
You should be expecting the editor to provide you with the results of an analysis both of the experience of reading the book and of the techniques you have employed, and you should be expecting the editor to show you what needs urgent fixing, and also where there are opportunities for improvement.
You should also be able to instruct your editor in your values, aims and ambitions as a writer.
An additional point to consider is the amount of contact both with you, and with your manuscript, that the editor is prepared to offer. My standard full content edit includes at least two 90 minute consultations. I also read your second draft. To my knowledge, most high level editors do not offer this. So find out.
The toolbox is divided into three compartments:
I provide my feedback in three different forms.
Those features and many others (as well as how to avoid common problems with each), is something I cover in much greater detail in: Read Worthy Fiction.
Other high level editors may restrict all their feedback to comments in the manuscript or give everything in a separate report, or do the same as I do. There are no rules, no conventions. We do what works for our authors.
In addition, I also invite the author to chat via Skype (or equivalent). Typically we chat once or twice, for 90 minutes at a time. This is not typical but worth asking for.
You may need some time to get over the shock.
Your literary editor is there to tell you what you are doing wrong, what isn’t working, what sucks. It won’t be balanced out with praise of what you are doing well, beyond the occasional “well done” or “more of this please”. Actually I make an effort to point out where you are obviously doing well. It helps to have someone tell you something about your strengths. But it is the nature of the exercise that priority is given to your failings.
And expect the editor to be frank and honest and direct. There’s no time to be gentle or spare your feelings, and we all assume that you’re doing this in order to improve; so you should expect to be told that you have some improving to do.
The most important thing to do with your editor’s feedback is to ask questions. You may grasp much of it right away – it’s fair to expect your editor to be a pretty effective communicator. But many of the ideas, issues, principles, conventions and techniques may be unfamiliar. Be sure that you don’t skip over or ignore comments, remarks or suggestions that you don’t fully understand. Look them up, research, and above all, ask.
Some of the changes or corrections that your editor advises you to make may require significant structural changes, such as changing chapter order, adding or cutting or entirely rewriting some chapters. In this case, you’re likely to need a strategy, in which case, ask your editor for guidance and suggestions.
There is one good reason to pay a professional to copy edit your book:
Readers will not forgive you if you don’t.
Readers will notice, with surprise and curiosity, one error in (your mileage may vary) 10,000 words, and carry on reading. Readers will begin to get irritated with one error every 3,000 to 4,000 words. Any more than that, and they will very likely stop reading. If there is an error on the first page, the reader will spot every other error in the book (I call this ‘dead-in-the-water’).
And they won’t forgive you. They’ll write a review saying: ‘don’t buy – obviously hasn’t been edited.’
The copy editors speciality is errors. The good ones will find and correct all of the errors. This is not a matter of your peace of mind. It is the difference between getting read and not getting read. That simple.
Your copy editor will focus on the manuscript you send them.
The minimum you want from a copy-editor is that your manuscript comes back free of spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Most copy-editors will also flag actual and possible vocabulary errors: where they know or suspect that you may have used the wrong word. Often they will make suggestions. Many copy-editors will also make suggestions as to sentence structure – either suggesting where to break up long sentences or where to join or complete fragments.
It might sound like copy editing is very black-and-white; scientific almost. They find the errors, and correct them.
But language is never that simple. Even grammar and punctuation are messy. Spelling is especially messy; did you know that the dictionaries in most word processing software spell -ize words ‘-ise’ in UK spelling and ‘-ize’ in US spelling, and that as a result many people think that ‘-ize’ is incorrect in the UK. It isn’t. It’s at least as common as ‘-ise’ and much older. I chuse to spell choose with a ‘u’ because although not generally considered standard modern spelling, Jane Austen uses it.
So you will make your copy-editor’s job vastly easier if you know that you have certain preferences in spelling or punctuation. It will make their job easier if you can tell them something about your style, and the literary techniques you like to employ.
If you enjoy, for instance, using sentence fragments. If you enjoy word order that is non-typical. If you like to torture syntax on purpose. It will also help if you have specific concerns about your style, like people have told you that your sentences are too long, or that you use too many adjectives.
In all cases, the corrected manuscript should be in one of two forms; either with markup, showing where changes need to be made, either in the traditional blue pen or using a common word processing software’s commenting feature. Or, the corrected manuscript should have the errors corrected, but with the common word processing software’s change tracking switched on, so you can accept or reject each change.
Even though the copy-editor is the expert, ultimately it’s up to you to decide what to do with each change. You will have to read through and consider each change on its own merits. In general, I suggest:
If in doubt over:
Many copy-editors will answer any questions you have about their corrections and suggestions. But remember copy-editors generally work very hard, and their work requires a special level of focus and concentration. So make a note of each question and query you have, and send an email with all your questions in one go.
What are they?
Proofreading and Beta-reading, in the age of digital publishing, can be thought of as the same thing. Back in the days of moveable type, the proofreader’s job was to ensure that no new errors had been introduced to the text by the typesetter. Today, there is no typesetter to introduce new errors. So proofreading has become a test to see if the book works for a reader.
As such, what you want from a proofreader is a read-through from the reader’s point of view, and a report on what the book is like to read.
It is therefore very important to give clear instructions to your panel of readers. Make sure they are clear that you don’t want them to worry about errors that the copy-editor is going to find and correct, like errors of spelling or punctuation.
Make sure that they do know that you need to know, however, whether characters or settings are believable. That you do want to know that they can imagine the locations clearly; that they don’t get confused as to what is going on. A very valuable specific instruction is to have them make a note of anywhere that they have to read more than once or stop and think. A less obvious instruction is to have your readers make a not of where they stop, every time they stop reading to go do something else.
It’s very effective to talk to your proof/beta-readers. Face to face if possible (e.g. Skype). This is because you need to get their feedback on the emotional experience of reading your book.
Non-fiction requires a different skill set both at high and low levels. Many copy-editors do both. My best advice is that if you need a fiction edit, chuse an editor who specializes in fiction or who edits at least 50% fiction.
Non-fiction can be edited by someone whose English is a second language or from a different English speaking region from yours.
Your literary editor will be with you for the long haul. It should be thought of as a long term creative collaboration.
This means that your literary editor needs to be a good fit for you. Assuming you’ve been convinced that a candidate for the role has the necessary skills, personality is going to play a much bigger role than age, genre, educational background or cultural background. Personality is going to play a bigger role than genre.
Having said that, you do need to know that they can do the job. There are three ways to find this out, and you must do all three:
In my experience, copy editors are more likely to have literary and professional qualifications, and are more likely to be members of professional associations, than literary editors.
This is to be expected. Many of the skills that copy-editors apply are derived from knowledge acquired through study, and examination for qualification (testing) is much more feasible.
But letters after their name, and logos on the website, are not enough.
It’s best if your proof/beta-readers are people you already know. Friends, colleagues. Your best friend’s spouses are often a very good compromise between people you know well and people who will be honest. Members of your writing circle are to be avoided because they are writers.
You need to find non-writers.
I think it’s a good idea to pay your beta-readers, even if it’s only $5, because it’s valuable for both of you to remember that even though they are volunteers, for you this is a business. You should have about five people on your beta-reader panel. Two is not enough. And they should be people who do a lot of reading.
Assuming your manuscript is between 80,000 and 120,000 words, you should expect a high level edit to take less than a month. I usually expect a typical length book to take me less than 20 days. It’s certainly possible to do it in 10 days, but my process requires a certain amount of down time for thinking.
Your low level edit should not take more than a fortnight. Many copy-editors will turn it around within a week.
It’s also a good idea to give your beta-readers a deadline. Two weeks should be enough.
When planning your publication schedule, however, allow a month each for high level, low level and beta-reading.
Rates for Editing of all kinds vary enormously and are calculated in a variety of different ways.
High-Level Edit Costs – Most will have some means of calculating how much you will have to pay. Make sure it is clear before you start whether they are going to give you a fixed quotation (quote) or an estimate. If they give you an estimate, it will be adjusted once the job is completed, according to the time it takes.
Some charge by the hour, and estimate the cost from the number of pages or the number of words. Others charge per page or per word.
Whatever their advertised means of calculating the cost, always ask for a quotation or estimate.
My preference is to estimate the time that the job will take me based on a large sample of the text and on the author’s requirements. This allows me to put a fixed price on the job, and to give a firm deadline.
For a complete literary edit of a 80,000 to 120,000 word manuscript, high level editing rates vary very widely. Because my own service is tailored to the individual author, the fork is anything from $1,000 up to $3,000 and beyond. Editors using a fixed rate per word or per page charge from about $2,000 for their services.
Estimate the cost of high level editing: 0.025 * word count = price in USD
For 90 minutes of story development consulting, you should expect to pay $250 to $500.
Low Level Edit Costs – Most copy-editors will charge per word or per page. A few charge by the hour, but will give you a fixed rate based on page or word count if you ask for it. Bear in mind, however, that some writers are much easier to copy-edit than others, so copy-editors will typically reserve the right to revise the price once they have seen the manuscript.
Prices for copy editing typically start from about $1,000 for an 80,000 to 120,000 word manuscript. The highest rates are about double this.
Estimate the cost of low-level editing: 0.0125 * word count = price in USD
Your relationship with your editor, in business terms, is of the purchase of services. You are the client and the editor is the vendor. As such, a minimum of paperwork should exchange hands. In most jurisdictions, you should expect a quotation before the job and an invoice when payment is due.
My standard quotation includes the following instructions:
Please print, write the words “read and agreed”, sign, date and return (you can scan and email).
This way the quotation document constitutes a formal agreement for payment in return for the services. You should therefore expect the quotation to identify clearly the service that is to be provided. Many editors have the possibility for direct payment in advance via their websites. If they do this, you should still have something from them explaining what they will do for you and when.
The invoice is essential for your accounts. The Quotation is not enough on its own.
Payment terms vary. Many editors accept payment in installments. Some expect a downpayment then balance on delivery (my preference – it’s very motivating). Many will expect payment in full in advance. Some may be flexible so it never hurts to ask for what will suit you best.
Remember, no amount of paperwork or promises guarantees that the work will be done to a high standard. Indeed, price is no guarantee of quality. If you want to know if someone offering editing services can be trusted, take up their references. If you can’t find any references or testimonials, don’t go there.
Finding your list of candidate editors can be tricky.
Novel writing has always been seen as rich hunting grounds by scammers and con artists, so if you just google editing services for fiction writers, you’ll get the people who’ve paid the most for SEO. Actually, Joanna Penn’s excellent website will come up in the top ten results and she has a very good, if short, list of editors that she recommends.
I can give you a couple of other points of departure:
Kboards.com is a forum for users of e-readers. There is a very active community of indie and self-published authors who have compiled a list of reputable services for authors. (Link pre-sorts for editors.)
That still gives you a lot to choose from, but you can visit their websites and contact them for sample editing.
Make use of the KBoards “Writer’s Cafe” to ask your questions about editors, and ask other writers for their recommendations.
An excellent way to find a good editor is to find out who edited your favorite recently published books. Often, the editor’s name, and sometimes their website, will be given in the book itself. If not, contact the author.
This is much more feasible with self-published authors, but these days, most authors are pretty accessible, and if they’re asked the question enough times, maybe they’ll put a link to their editor’s website on their own website.
Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I've learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It's called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.