What do editors do, and do I really need one?

Editors provide valuable insight, feedback, and suggestions to a writer with the goal of helping them improve their work in a variety of ways. Just as there are YouTube videos for learning how to do pretty much anything, you could learn everything you need to about writing and editing with enough internet trawling, studying, and practicing.

But even then, fresh perspectives are so invaluable that even editors hire editors simply because when it's your own work you've lived in for months (or years!), you often can't see whether or not your scenes or characters are effective, compelling, or what may be missing from them.

Professional editors will help supercharge your understanding of storycraft by breaking down concepts as they apply specifically to your work. In short, they come highly recommended for a reason- particularly so for debut authors looking to break into traditional publishing, or self-publishing authors who will not have the benefit of an agent or publisher's resources.

How does editing work?

Generally speaking, editors work by assessing your manuscript, typically using Track Changes in Word to mark up and offer suggestions through comments in the document (often called in-line feedback/comments). These are suggestions that can be approved or rejected by you, the author. No hard changes should be made to your document without your approval.

Once an editor is finished going through your document, they will often write up a summary of their observations and suggestions with a document called an editorial letter (or they may summarize in an email). The specifics of the edits suggested and the nature of the editorial letter will largely depend on the type of editor you hire.

Note: Someone that fixes or writes content for an author is likely a Book Doctor or Ghostwriter- which can be entirely legitimate practices, but are not considered editors. They often command considerably higher rates for doing the work with minimal author input.

There are different types of editing?

Yes! There are four-ish different types of editing:

Developmental editing-

Sometimes called structural editing as this form of editing analyzes a manuscript's themes as they relate to genre conventions, scenes as they relate to plot structure and character arcs. They provide detailed feedback on what's working, as well as suggestions on how to strengthen the manuscript as whole. Revision after a developmental edit often involves major overhauls of multiple scenes and will involve some level of rewriting. This is editing at the broadest lens, and absolutely vital to ensure you have a solid story structure.


Also sometimes called substantive editing and occasionally confused with developmental editing because large-scale line-editing problems often become developmental issues (a manuscript heavily weighed down by description or ineffective dialogue, for example). Line-editing is largely stylistic and typically looks at a manuscript on the paragraph and sentence-level to strengthen the effectiveness of prose while rooting out unnecessary words or phrases. It's a tricky level of editing that seeks to maintain an author's voice while improving prose.


Copyeditors focus on the technical aspects of language such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but their greatest strength lies in prioritizing consistency- often with a style sheet to keep track of everything. Is your city name spelled correctly everywhere? Does your character's eye color change inexplicably on page 112? They'll touch on fact-checking and should bring any potential copyright issues to your attention.


Proofreaders are a final check for errors- that last set of fresh eyes to pick out any errors a copyeditor may have missed after staring too long at the document. This is the final stage of editing before publication, and often done after a novel has already been formatted.

How do I find a legitimate editor?

1. Professional editors should have a website with testimonials, a clear process, and be able to offer contracts to protect both parties in the event any part of a project falls through.

2. Analyze an editor's qualifications (you can usually find this on an About page). What coursework have they completed? Do they have any certifications? Are they members of any professional organizations? They don't need to have all of these to be legitimate, but the more bases covered, the better.

3. Most editors will offer free sample edits of some kind. This is a useful tool for both parties, as it offers a glimpse of an author's work for the editor, and a glimpse of the work an editor can offer to the author to assess how well they might work together. One key thing to keep in mind when receiving any type of edit: if an editor doesn't tell you why they suggest any particular change, they're likely not very experienced or qualified.

4. Legitimate editors often specialize, particularly in the case of developmental and line-editors. They'll usually have 2-4 genres they're familiar with or prefer to work within. All-in-one editors might sound appealing, but this practice runs a great risk of not completing any particular stage of editing in depth and missing quite a bit in the process. If you must work with an all-in-one editor, ensure they work through the editing phases in separate stages with a round of editor feedback and author revision between each. After all, there isn't much point in line-editing a document before it's gone through structural analysis in a developmental editing round, as scenes are likely to be reshuffled, rewritten or possibly removed entirely.

For copyeditors and proofreaders, they usually specialize in either fiction, non-fiction, or academic works.

What's the difference between an Alpha, Beta, and ARC reader?

An alpha reader is typically the first person to read a rough draft before any editing is done.

A beta reader is any person after an alpha reader who reads your manuscript in any iteration- may be consulted before and/or after professional editing to glean reader impressions about a work and point out any glaring inconsistencies. Sometimes used as an umbrella term for alpha and beta readers. Alpha and beta readers should enjoy your genre and preferably rank among your intended audience, as they are functionally stand-ins for your average reader.

Both alpha and beta reader services often either come at little to no cost. However, finding reliable alpha/beta readers who will read through an entire draft and send along honest or insightful feedback can be difficult to find without any financial incentive. The most successful free alpha/beta services typically come in the form of an exchange between two authors who agree to provide their impressions of each other's work.

ARC stands for Advanced Reading Copy. These readers come last, after all edits and revisions have been finished, in order to collect reviews for an upcoming release. These are volunteers who get an advanced copy of your novel in exchange for reviews.

Note: While alpha, beta, and ARC readers may appraise an author of potential problem areas, they are usually not professional editors.

Should I even try to traditionally publish?

Short answer: absolutely yes.

Traditional publishing can be hard to break into, but it isn't impossible. Agents are looking for a strong story, and suffice to say editing is often very important in bringing a rough draft up to snuff. But a manuscript doesn't have to be perfect. If you have the fundamental story structure in place and decent prose, you stand a very good chance at catching someone's attention. Agents interested in your story may suggest further revision, and publishers are likely to put a few editors on it to tighten up prose and eliminate errors once your manuscript gets that far. There's no cost associated with querying agents; it will just take time.

In self-publishing, it's all down to you and your budget to polish up your manuscript to the best it can be- not to mention marketing for sales. I'd only recommend it if you can't find an agent you want to work with (and yes, that's important!) then you can always self-publish if you'd like to. Once a manuscript is self-published, very few legitimate publishers will be interested in representing it.

Query first (after editing!), self-publish later.

How do I find an agent?

First, you'll need a complete manuscript. Then, invest in an editor or two. If you're on a tight budget, spring for a manuscript evaluation or editorial assessment, as these are relatively inexpensive services that will touch on the most critical aspects of your manuscripts as they relate to story structure and plot cohesion. Revise and then seek out a beta reader or two.

Next, draft up a synopsis and query letter. Most every agent you query will require these materials. Get some feedback on them (professional if you can afford it!) and fix them up a bit.

Once you've completed that, research agents who represent the genre of your novel. Manuscript Wishlist and Query Tracker are among the best resources to search. You can filter by genres and the agent profiles have very useful information on the type of works agents are looking for. Compile a list of 10-50 agents, then after double- and triple- checking their individual submission guidelines (this is extremely important and can absolutely mean the difference between an agent reading or trashing your submission), submit to 2-5 agents. For every rejection you receive, send another one out and work down your list in this way.

But be sure to take some time to evaluate your responses after the first round or two.

• If you consistently receive form rejections (standard rejections that are likely copy-pasted with no personalization) and zero requests for pages or your manuscript, take the time to polish your query letter and/or synopsis. You need a strong hook to get requests from agents to actually evaluate your work.

• If you're receiving requests for pages or your manuscript, only to then receive form rejections, consider revisiting your manuscript for editing.

• If you receive revise & resubmit requests (!!), evaluate the agent's feedback and consider whether or not you're willing to make those changes. To be clear though, revise & resubmit requests are excellent news and they usually contain good feedback. Keep submitting to other agents if you don't like the suggestions, or revise and resubmit as requested. If you're resubmitting in this way, be sure to mention that in your query letter and email!

• If you receive an offer of representation, congratulations!!! But be ready to have an honest heart-to-heart with your potential agent. Make absolutely sure you ask what their vision is for your novel, and if they want you to make further changes to improve marketability before they shop around to publishers. If your agent wants you to make significant changes you feel negatively impacts your story, it's very likely it won't benefit you or the agent to move forward together.

Remember, this is a business partner, and if you've made it this far, you will almost certainly have another shot with other agents.

Why is word count so important?

A quick Google search will turn up recommended word counts for different genres. Generally speaking, for a debut author, you don't want to exceed 100,000 words.

This is simply because you need to not only demonstrate that you know how to play by the rules, but also because manuscripts in excess of 100,000 words often cost more to print. By submitting a novel that significantly exceeds the genre's recommended word count, or is over 100,000 words, you're already asking agents and publishers to make an exception for you- and they're not likely to.

Take some time to pare down your novel's wordcount. If it's extremely long (120,000-200,000 words), consider whether or not it could be broken up into separate novels. If you're having a particularly difficult time at this stage, a manuscript evaluation can be a great way to get feedback on what sections might not be working or parts of your plot that could be streamlined.

Many editors also price by wordcount, so trimming it down yourself can also save you quite a bit of money before hiring an editor.

What is your stance on AI-generated material?

AI-generated content is a regurgitation of crowdsourced material made up of other people's (often copyrighted!) work. It isn't original and there's no meaningful intent behind it, because AI cannot think to structure a complex narrative or effectively empathize with any character; it's only stage directing.

To be clear however, AI tools that help with proofreading and suggest alternative word choices or sentence rearrangement are perfectly fine. There's a human mind making a decision about those suggested changes, and it isn't generating entire sentences or paragraphs of content from a nebulous source.

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