How to Save Time and Money with Professional Editors

This post has been adapted from material by Jim Adams, at his site I met the talented Jim this past weekend at the WD Editors’ Intensive, and we discussed his passion for editor George H. Scithers.

After 30 years of rejection, I finally got tired of not knowing why my writing wasn’t working. Before trying to find a publisher or an agent, I sent the novel I’d just finished (or so I thought) off to a professional editor.

The year that followed was expensive (professional editors don’t come cheap), but it also taught me things about plot, protagonist, pacing, and novel structure that I hadn’t picked up from 15 credit hours of undergraduate creative writing courses, an M.A. in creative writing, and reading untold books on writing (some of them with titles like PLOT).

Professional editors are more efficient than how-to books. They give you feedback specific to your project. It’s one thing to read a “rule” in a book, it’s another thing to have an editor point to a spot in your opus and say, “Here’s where you broke the rule, and here’s how your writing was weakened as a result.”

Professional editors can be more effective than a degree in creative writing, since half your time in getting that sort of degree will be in ancillary class work.  Worse, unless you’re careful and choosy, you could easily wind up (as I did) at a university where the creative writing teachers sneer at pedestrian concerns like plot. If you dream of getting an M.A. or M.F.A. in creative writing, you might consider finding a professional editor instead. Not only could you learn more in less time, the editorial route might even be less expensive (depending on the university you’re applying to), especially if going back to school means giving up a decent-paying job.

As sold as I am on getting help from professional editors, though, when I started working on a new novel, I faced a real dilemma: an insufficiency of funds. Although I hope this new book will need less editorial hand-holding than the previous one, getting the full manuscript critiqued still represents a major expense.

Also, I never feel I’ve mastered something until I do it right three times in a row.  As such, I still have doubts about my ability to spot major plot holes and plot sidetracks on my own.

My brilliant solution to this conundrum?

I sent my editor a detailed synopsis rather than a complete novel.

Getting a synopsis critiqued is not only less expensive, it can save you a lot of time. In my case, although I already had a complete draft of the novel written, revising generally takes me twice as long (at least) as writing the rough draft.  Thus, by spotting major non sequiturs in the synopsis, my editor can save me from tweaking pages, chapters, or even (please God, not that again!) an entire book that needs to be tossed out and rewritten from scratch.

If you like to outline and plan books ahead of time, you could even save yourself time during the drafting stage by getting an editor to look at your story premise and outline straightaway.

While they might tell you things you don’t want to hear (such as that your underlying story idea won’t hold water), wouldn’t you rather find that out before you’ve spent months or years of your life working on the thing?

Even getting a synopsis edited can cost $200 or more, but it’s money well-spent, since this particular $200 could save me weeks, even months, of fruitless revision and polishing. Even better, it could save me several thousand dollars, compared to sending a full manuscript to my editor, only to find that my novel has major structural problems—problems that could have been fixed via a review of my story outline.

Wondering how to find a solid professional editor? Preditors and Editors is a good resource for checking out an editing service before you give them your money or your manuscript. I’ve been using The Editorial Department, and the editor they assigned me to (Peter Gelfan) is the greatest: cruel, insensitive, tactful, patient, and very insightful.

My first book is still making the rounds of agents and publishers, and may still wind up turning into a trunk novel. While I’m convinced it’s technically solid, that isn’t enough to make a book sell given the difficult publishing environment these days. But whether my first book makes it or not, I feel much better about what I’m doing. I no longer feel like I’m spinning my wheels fruitlessly, repeating the same mistakes over and over again without realizing it.

Have you used a professional editing service that you’ve had a good experience with? Recommend it in the comments!

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0 thoughts on “How to Save Time and Money with Professional Editors

  1. Teresa Watts

    This is great article. I belong to a critique group and every week I hear stories that are good, but need that professional polish. We have new writers who do not know the game and still have the mindset "I’m old-school, the publisher has editors" These are words that make me cringe. Critique groups are helpful, you are getting readers point of view, but as we admit we are not professionals, you need that professional who looks at your manuscript from a different prospective.
    I know one writer who is sitting on several finished novels that can not sell, but continues to be stubborn and not take that next step. I have another author friend who has 5 books in the works and is paying to have it professionally edited, this author peaked the interest of a few agents because they had a professionally edited synopsis upon pitching.
    It makes sense, I do not understand why writers continue to ‘not get it’

  2. Katherine Kama'ema'e Smith

    My experience testifies to the wisdom of this article!!!

    I hired Robert L. Ball, in South Bend Indiana 574-232-4275 to help me with my first novel. He worked with me chapter-by-chapter, making suggestions on grammar, word choice, story flow, and continuity. Best of all, he edited with a "light hand", allowing my style and voice to emerge. Extremely valuable were his fact checking and eliminating "chekov" mistakes(that’s when in chapter 10 you give life to a character who died in chapter 2).

    Bob worked in publishing in Boston and New York, and having him join me on the writing journey gave me great confidence — support that cannot be overestimated.

    If you want to achieve your dream of publishing a book, there is no need to slug it out alone. Hire an editor.

    Katherine Kama’ema’e Smith
    Author of The Love Remains, An historical novel of Old Hawai’i

  3. Beth Carter

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. Just yesterday, I decided to email a professional editor. I finished my 92,000-word novel on Saturday and was debating whether or not I should bite the bullet and send it to agents or seek a professional editor’s advice.

    I decided to get an editor’s opinion and it sounds like I made the right decision. I’ve edited my own MS several times, been to critique groups and gotten plenty of feedback (from unpublished authors, no less) and always wondered what they know that I don’t about editing. Some people wallow in their work for years. I’m too impatient for that.

    The editor I chose has edited books in my genre (women’s fiction/contemporary romance/chick lit) and I think we’ll be a great fit. I’m still trying to decide whether I should retain her to first do an overall evaluation of my manuscript or if I should go for the copyediting package which is, of course, more expensive.

  4. Terry Scott Reed

    Adams is spot on in his comments! Participating in an edit can be a priceless learning tool! I might also add that, in my personal experience as an editor, it also helps to prepare first-timers for the process. While it is true that a publisher will almost certainly edit a work before its publication, you still want that book to be presented for consideration in its best possible form. Even if you feel your book is perfect, (and even if it is perfect), a third-party review will give you the assurance to move ahead. And if it is indeed perfect, well, the cost would be minimal!

    This could save you money: Buy, learn and use a style book! Which one you use is less important than the fact that your work follows a consistent style throughout. Much of my editing time is spent simply bringing the nuts and bolts of the work into conformity.

    After years of editing, I am comfortable saying: "Every book needs an edit by an objective third party–who is not a relative of the writer."

  5. Victoria Mixon

    Thanks for being so straight-forward and honest about the reality of professional editing!

    I edit for a living. I was a writer for a couple of decades before I realized my ability to edit my publishing friends’ novels-in-progress would be a heck of a fun job. And it is fun! It’s not terribly lucrative, which is why I edit professionally for computer companies and other nonfiction businesses as well, but editing fiction is by far and away the greatest job I’ve ever had.

    Writing and editing fiction are done with different parts of the brain. A writer is a creative leaf-blower, blowing great creative stuff in all directions. An editor comes to a manuscript with a brain full of knowledge about how a manuscript that works looks and then pours the wild, creative, leaf-blown manuscript into that. The wonderful part is seeing all the ways in which the writer has expanded upon the basic framework and made it their own. The brain-exercise part is seeing the ways in which the writer has missed the framework in one way or another way and helping them see their alternatives for correcting that.

    And the idea of sending your editor a detailed synopsis first is absolutely great. I frequently ask clients to send me a synopsis with their first chapter. It makes all the difference in the world for them to know where to head with their energy the next time they sit down to write.

    I also write essays on the craft of fiction on my website: Please feel free to visit!

    Victoria Mixon