Congratulations, you’ve finished your manuscript! You may feel proud, joyful, relieved, and even a bit let down. You may also feel confused, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Truth be told, you’re tired of writing and afraid that the weeks, months, or years you’ve invested in your work may still not be enough. But you want to get your words out into the world either via an agent or self-publishing. Whether you pursue traditional or indie publication, you want your book to look professional, which means hiring an editor. Time’s ticking and you have ideas for other projects. So why not send off your manuscript now?
As my mom liked to say, “Haste makes waste!”
Before you impulsively hit send, take a step back and assess your readiness to contract an editor.
- Have you budgeted time and money (freelance editing rates) to hire a professional editor?
- Do you know what type of editing you want—or, more accurately—what type of editing your manuscript needs? While you may believe copyediting (i.e., repairing errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and spelling) is the next step, your editor might recommend developmental editing (i.e., identifying weaknesses in big-picture elements, such as plot, character development, POV, etc.), which requires more work and, thus, costs more.
Even before you research editors and nail down your timeframe and budget, you want to ensure your manuscript showcases your best work.
You want to get your money’s worth.
Hiring an editor works best when you’ve done absolutely all you can with your manuscript.
One of the most common mistakes of first-time authors is to rush the process, to prematurely hand over a manuscript (sometimes even a first draft, such as one pounded out during the frenzy of NaNoWriMo) under the misguided notion that the editor will fix all the flaws and polish the pages into perfect, publication-worthy prose.
Editors are not alchemists but human beings who strive to do their best with what they are given. If you give an editor dross, don’t expect gold. The more time and effort you devote to your manuscript, the farther along an editor can take it.
Have you done all you can with your manuscript? Be honest as you consider the following:
I’ve written more than one draft. A draft refers to a new form of a manuscript. Making a few scattered changes throughout a book does not constitute a draft. Rather, a writer identifies weaknesses or places for improvement and targets those. For instance, in one draft, you may strive to flesh out character motivations, making sure each character has a purpose/goal/desire when they are in a scene. In a second draft, you may patch up plot holes. In another draft, you may focus on point of view or tone.
If you can list places in your manuscript you would like to improve, start there. Once you’ve run out of ideas for improvement, then hiring an editor makes sense. But first . . .
“I redraft as I go—whenever I get stuck in a short story, I go back to the beginning and revise my way down to where I left off. Usually I’ve reworked the first couple of pages anywhere from twenty to over 100 times by the time I get to the ending.” ~Kelly Link
I’ve shown my manuscript to beta readers, received candid feedback from experienced writers, and made revisions. Writing requires both an author and a reader. Without an audience, your book cannot exist. Even with a shared language, communication is tricky. What we mean to say isn’t always understood on the page. Consequently, you need an audience. Find at least one trusted reader, who will kindly yet honestly tell you what they like and dislike about your book. A beta reader can be a family member or friend, a casual reader who represents your future audience. For more explicit feedback, consider having a critique partner determine what is working and not working in your story. A critique partner examines your manuscript from a writer’s perspective, concentrating on elements of craft. You might find a critique partner in a local writing club or in an online writing class or community. Once you’ve received thorough and specific feedback on your manuscript and let the stings fade (because all critiques, no matter how helpful, can hurt our feelings), spend time implementing changes and revise, revise, revise.
“More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” ~John Irving
I’ve taken one or more writing classes and continue to develop my craft. While you don’t need an MFA to write a book, you do need to learn and practice your writing skills. How natural and authentic does your characters’ dialogue sound? Do your scenes inevitably begin with description or conclude with a character’s sudden, unexpected departure? Do your pages contain a good balance of dialogue, narration, and exposition? Do you know how to effectively vary sentence structure and pacing?
A writing class may be the perfect place to start or continue your writing apprenticeship—and you enjoy the bonus of structure and community.
Do you subscribe to any writing magazines, such as The Writer’s Chronicle or Writer’s Digest? Have you recently read any writing books? You might start with these:
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
- Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
- Self-Editing for Self-Publishers by Richard Bradburn
“I’ve always found that the better the book I’m reading, the smarter I feel, or, at least, the more able I am to imagine that I might, someday, become smarter.” ~Francine Prose
I’ve read my entire manuscript aloud. Our eyes grow weary of reading the same words over and over, which is why relying on a new sense, such as sound, can help you catch mistakes your eyes no longer see. You may hear grammar errors, repeated words, clunky dialogue, awkward phrases, even wrong character names. You may notice repetitive or unnecessary character ticks: excessive sighing, nodding, or eye-rolling. And you’ll experience the pacing in a new way, outside the confines of your head. Before reading, print your manuscript and/or use a different font to make the text appear as fresh as possible.
“If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.” ~John Steinbeck
I’ve gained new perspective by putting my manuscript aside for a couple months. While persistence is necessary and commendable, writers, like all humans, need to take breaks. You’ll be amazed at what you notice when you return to the story with rested eyes. You may, for instance, decide that chapter six needs to be moved or even cut or that two characters would be better blended into one. If you send your manuscript in too early, i.e., without giving yourself time away from the story, an editor may wind up telling you something you could have discovered on your own.
“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” ~Neil Gaiman
I’ve written a synopsis. Agents and editors require writers to include a synopsis when they submit their manuscripts. A successful synopsis shows how the plot unfolds and also intrigues the agent or editor, so they are eager to read the book. Even if you plan to self-publish, I recommend writing a synopsis for a couple reasons. First, although not easy to write, a synopsis will force you to analyze your own writing. You’ll need to address the elements of your plot, including the inciting incident, the rising action, the climax, and the resolution. You’ll need to consider each character’s motivations, pay attention to point of view, and convey what makes your novel unique. The standard length of a synopsis is one to two single-spaced pages or two to five double-spaced pages. Second, anyone who reads or edits your book will have a better understanding of where the project stands (i.e., what sort of shape it’s in), which could save both you and your editor time and possibly money.
In writing, being tired of one’s own words comes with the territory. Fortunately, it’s usually a temporary condition, often resolved through time and distance and reading up on craft and other authors’ works.
Editing is an investment. You want it to pay the highest dividends possible. Ponder what you yourself can do now and what will do your manuscript the most good. Once you’ve exhausted your efforts, depleted your printer ink, or worn out your erasers, then you’re ready to hire an editor.