Like most of the vexing questions I post on this blog, my answer to “Should writers do their own editing?” is both YES and NO.
There are times when we should edit our own work, and times when we need the benefit of someone else’s eyes.
Even though I’ve heard it lots of times, I’m still startled when I hear people say, “Oh, I’ll edit my own book.” I find it’s usually because they’ve been misled about what an editor does. That’s not really surprising when you consider how many of us truly understand what someone else’s job entails.
Many people have received the impression that “editing” is a professional spellcheck, and regard DIY editing in the same category as choosing to cut their own fingernails instead of paying for a manicure.
But real editing is much more than a spellcheck or a manicure. It’s more akin to cutting your own hair – AT THE BACK! (for the lighter forms of editing) right up to doing your own surgery (for deeper forms of editing).
More on that later, but first…
7 clarifying statements
- If you are being traditionally published, your publisher should be paying for your edit. If they expect you to pay for it, something might be wrong. To protect yourself from sharks, check out How to tell if you’ve received a genuine publishing offer.
- If you are still in the process of finding a publisher or agent interested in your work, you don’t need to hire an editor, because your future publisher should do that. You might, however, choose to hire an editor to boost your chances of being selected. And if you do so, for best long-term results I recommend analysing the editor’s work and using it as a learning process for yourself – an opportunity to upskill – rather than just paying to have the same things corrected on each of the next five manuscripts.
- Good editing is expensive and can be hard to afford. This is because it’s time-consuming and requires a lot of skill. Check out Why are book editors so expensive? for more detail on exactly how long it can take, plus other complicating factors.
- I would never recommend anybody jeopardise their family’s food and shelter for the sake of an edit. I don’t spend more on my own self-publishing than I can afford to lose. Maybe I finance it by driving an elderly car, wearing clothes forever, and going without a big holiday, but I won’t use money that should be reserved for basics of life.
- Self-publishing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, despite what you may have heard, so it’s wise not to expect to recoup the editing cost quickly. Some authors do get lucky, but for my own self-published books, I mentally allow myself two years to break even. Check out Myth #5 in 5 Publishing Myths Debunked for more about the reality of potential earnings for both self-publishing and traditional publishing.
- People can self-publish for all sorts of reasons, and some will do a cheap-and-cheerful DIY job. That’s OK with me. I don’t despise people who have different publishing goals than my own, nor would I ever shame anyone who was genuinely struggling, financially. The new self-publishing technologies are available to all.
- If you plan to self-publish to professional standard and sell your book widely, it can be a good idea to regularly put aside some money from the time you start writing so that you are able to pay for editing when the time comes.
I’m biased. Of course I am. I’m an editor.
But I’m also an author.
I hire editors for my own indie books.
I don’t do that to make a point or to support the editing industry.
I do it because I know the difference it makes – I’ve seen it firsthand, from both sides of the equation.
So, what do editors actually do?
If editing is more than just fixing typos, what is it? There are generally three levels, although the first two can sometimes overlap, and are also sometimes given different names.
- Substantive/structural/content editing looks at big-picture issues, and helps the author decide what’s in or out of the book, where it should go, and what its overall purpose is.
- Copyediting helps the author ensure they’ve expressed themselves correctly and consistently.
- Proofreading is the final stage before publication, after the book has been typeset or formatted. It involves checking every letter of every word, every punctuation mark, every design element, and even every space, to make sure they are all as they should be.
I also differentiate developmental editing as a separate form (although some will include it in substantive/structural/content). For me, it’s different because it is a form of coaching I offer in the early stages of writing a book, or when an author is dealing with a manuscript that won’t behave itself.
I’m an accredited, professional member of the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) here in Australia. IPEd produces a 24-page document called Australian Standards for Editing Practice (you can download a copy of the standards here). The professional editors groups of other nations no doubt have similar standards.
As a quick summary, these are some of the things covered by the standards, which editors are expected to help authors with:
- The different types of publication, how they can serve an audience, and whether the manuscript’s length, structure and language will best suit the audience
- Components of a publication, the stages of publishing, and various technical requirements
- Principles of clear writing
- Words and their meaning, logic and flow, what needs to be removed, what could be added or moved elsewhere
- Grammar, spelling, punctuation, consistent usage
- Potential red flags related to copyright, defamation, and various forms of ethics
- How design can enhance meaning and readability
- Project management and how to keep a publishing project on schedule
- How to correct and strengthen a manuscript without overriding the author’s own voice.
Some editors also have specialist expertise in a particular field. For example, I have several specialties. One of them is Christian theology, because I have a degree in it. I know others with science specialties.
To hear some of the amazing experiences debut authors have as they discover what their editors can help them with, you might enjoy listening to The First Time Podcast (the first time you publish a book).
You can probably already see how it might be hard to do some of these editing tasks for yourself.
When writers SHOULD do their own editing
Before I hire an editor on my own books, I edit it myself. I’m a huge believer in intelligent, comprehensive SELF-EDITING. For me, this includes:
- Multiple runs where I print out my manuscript and tear it to pieces, red pen in hand, looking at the overall structure, and targeting all the big-picture issues that can weaken a book.
- Multiple runs through individual scenes or chapters, both onscreen and also sometimes on paper, where I’m looking at the more detailed issues: improving flow within sentences and paragraphs, neutralising typos, checking grammar.
For more on what this self-editing entails, check out What to do when you’ve finished the first draft.
I get targeted feedback from BETA READERS to empower my self-editing. They help me see problems and opportunities that I can’t see for myself. I think about the manuscript from the perspective they’ve given me, then I dive in to further self-editing.
The more thoroughly I do these tasks, the more I improve as a writer, and as a bonus it also tends to reduce editing fees on the project, because my editor doesn’t have to spend as many hours on the job. Check out how I manage the self-editing and feedback process, including what items to edit when, in my free download The 7 Phases of Feedback.
And then I hire a professional editor.
I don’t do the final editing on my own indie books, even though I’ve been an editor for more than 20 years, have two university degrees, masses of experience, and am IPEd accredited. I’m a good self-editor, but I still need someone else’s eyes to alert me to issues I’m too close to see, help me solve problems that I’m wrestling with, and pick up typos rendered invisible by the brain’s “autocorrect” function, which kicks in when we’ve read something several times.
Writers, do you agree? What is your experience with editing or self-editing?