To Edit or Not to Edit?

To Edit or Not to Edit?

Recently I triggered a seemingly unstoppable discussion on LinkedIn by asking writers if they would pay for editorial services and, if so, how much they would pay. Writers and editors weighed in with both yea and nay responses, various analyses of pricing, and the chasms into which writers fall when hiring an editor. Opinions ranged from one extreme to the other: either writers who fail to work with professional editors are doomed, or writers don’t need editors if they learn to edit for themselves. A writer wading through such a swamp might wonder who, if anyone, is right.


The reality lies in the middle. We all self-edit, and publishers edit even the greatest authors. That’s just how it works, or at least how it used to work in the age of traditional publishing. Today’s world of print-on-demand, self-publishing, and ebooks has rung a few changes on the old formula. While the traditional route is still available, it has become so easy to publish a book that everyone with a keyboard and half an idea has jumped into the business. It’s now possible for a writer to spring straight from rough draft to published work without a single edit. Is that a good thing?

Absolutely not. Very few of us get everything right first time, every time. An unedited work usually reads like an unedited work, littered with typos, grammatical mistakes, and structural weaknesses. Readers seldom notice good editing, but they sure notice sloppiness and poor writing. As a writer, your byline is your brand, and you don’t want your brand associated with poor quality. Poor quality loses customers.


So editing is essential. The question is how to approach it, and the answer is not very different from what it used to be. First, self-edit. Check for spelling and grammatical errors, for poor organization, pacing problems, plot issues, inadequate character development—in short, for any problem that detracts from the work. Use a spell checker, but don’t rely on it absolutely. (It can’t tell the difference between the correct, “It’s warm today,” and the incorrect, “Its warm today.”) Some helpful techniques used by many writers include setting the work aside for a time before viewing it with an editor’s eye, reading aloud, and even reading the work backwards. However you approach it, it’s up to you to make your work as good as you possibly can before putting it into other people’s hands.


But beware! Since you know what your work is supposed to say, you may miss a few errors and may not hear what readers hear. It’s difficult to achieve perfection on your own. Flip that coin over, and you’ll discover how easy it is to over-edit. Just as turning the focus knob on a telescope makes images sharper up to a point and then blurs them again, editing makes a work better until over-editing makes it worse again.

What’s the best defense against these pitfalls? A second opinion. Invite someone you trust to read and comment on your manuscript. Ideally pick someone who is at least as good an editor as you, but even if they aren’t, a fresh set of eyes can catch problems that your eyes miss. Writers often turn to other writers, to friends, to relatives for this round of editing. Everyone can afford free advice, after all. But danger lurks here, too. Friends and relatives may be unwilling to say anything negative about your work lest they hurt your feelings. You want honest input, not false praise. So pick your readers carefully! I always have my wife edit my work because I trust her skills and know she will be honest with me, but not all writers are so fortunate. Also, realize that each reader comes at your work from a unique viewpoint. A reader’s criticisms sometimes have more to do with them than with your work. My rule of thumb is that if one person finds fault with my writing, it may just be them, but if a group of people find fault, it’s probably my writing.

Having self-edited (but not over-edited) and having shared your manuscript with a small number of trusted readers, you may feel you’re ready to publish. If you’re going the traditional route and if (a big if) you make a sale, your work will receive the attention of a professional editor. If you go with a print-on-demand publisher, you may have the choice of paying them for professional editing or doing without. If you self-publish, whether in print or ebook form, you’ll only get professional editing by hiring an editor. (That’s the definition of a publisher, by the way: someone who pays to have books produced.)

Hire a Pro?

Is a professional editor worth it? The answer depends upon your situation. Professional editing is not a cheap proposition. Based on standard manuscript format, the cost can range from $2.00 to $5.00 per page or more, so editing on a book-length manuscript can easily run to $1000.00 or more. Can you afford to pay that much? If not, then you’ve already answered the question. But remember, editing is part of the cost of producing a book. If you’re the publisher, you should expect to pay the costs. Besides, your brand reputation is on the line. Are you comfortable unleashing your work upon the world without a professional editor’s input? As with most things in life, it’s a trade-off, and only you can decide the right balance for your book.

If you decide to hire a professional editor, look for a good match between your work and their interests as well as a good relationship fit. If you’ve written a mystery, you might think twice about hiring an editor who specializes in technical material. If you are on a tight deadline, make sure the editor knows and can accommodate it. Some editors may be booked for the short term, and some may charge extra for short turn around. Ask prospective editors what level of editing they will perform at what cost and how they will return the results to you.

Finally, as with self-editing and soliciting input from others, hiring an editor presents opportunities for trouble. Protect yourself by finding out as much as you can first. What is the editor’s background? How do they charge (by the word, by the page, or by the hour)? What are their terms of service? Is the service provided by an in-house editor or is it outsourced to a contractor? What have other people said about the editor’s work? If you do your homework before you pay, you stand a better chance of having a good experience.


Dale E. Lehman is a writer, software developer, and President and CEO of One Voice Press, LLC, a tiny family owned and operated publishing house near Baltimore, Maryland. His company recently launched a set of editorial services for writers including proofreading, copyediting, critiquing, and coaching. For more information, visit

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