What kind of editing do you need?
It’s a wide world of freelance editors out there, and not every editor provides the same types, or levels, of editing. Start your search by determining what you think your manuscript needs.
Levels of editing
Traditional phases of editing come in four flavors:
Developmental, story, or structural edits look at the “big picture”: character arcs, plot, pacing, creating action sequences, dialogue, narrative tense, and point of view.
Line editing is editing at the sentence level, focusing on stylistic consistency to increase clarity, flow, and pacing from sentence to sentence throughout a manuscript.
Copyediting is also editing at the sentence level, focusing on the mechanical consistency (what people typically think of when they think of editing - grammar, spelling, etc.) to increase clarity, flow, and pacing from sentence to sentence throughout a manuscript.
Proofreading is the final pass of editing before publication. Proofreading for mistakes, typos, spelling, etc. should be more minimalist. No major changes to the manuscript, even at sentence level, occur during proofreading.
How do you know what you need?
The first question to consider when you think your manuscript is ready for editing is: has my manuscript received any kind of editing feedback, professional or otherwise? Feedback can come from many different sources - friends, family members, alpha readers, beta readers and critique groups.
Each person will bring a different perspective to your manuscript and will take something different from it. Thus, their feedback, while not necessarily the same type of feedback you would receive from a professional editor, will be unique and valuable.
The next step is to consider what the feedback and critiques have included. Some readers may have an inner proofreader who likes to wield a red pen when they are given a chance to read other’s work. Grammar and spelling correction is helpful, but if that’s all you’ve gotten, it may help to give your manuscript to a few more readers with specific questions you’d like answered. Emphasize that you would like feedback on specific areas of concern to you.
With feedback “in hand,” take grammar, spelling, etc. out of the picture for a minute, and put your feedback into two categories: 1) big picture and 2) style concerns, tone inconsistencies, pacing problems, bumps in the flow, etc.
While there are certainly overlaps between big picture concerns and style, tone, pacing, and flow, if the majority of the feedback is concerned with plot holes, character inconsistencies, missing details, and the like, then you may be best served by speaking with a developmental editor. Dev editing can also be of great use when you have a solid story to tell, but you’re not sure that it fits the genre you’ve assigned to it.
For example, if you think you’ve written a mystery romance, but the romance part isn’t coming across to readers, a dev editor can either help you develop the romance aspect more clearly, or they can help you decide whether the romance is best left out.
Most dev editors will offer a manuscript critique or evaluation, and while this service doesn’t replace full developmental editing, it can be a way to receive helpful feedback that will bring your manuscript back on track for less cost than the full developmental edit. (That is, of course, a general statement - each editor prices their services differently!)
What do you think you need?
In actuality, it’s not always so simple to say “all of the feedback I’ve received is related to big picture stuff …” or “all of the feedback I’ve received is related to tone or pacing …” and then draw conclusions about the type of editing you need.
But it can be helpful to consider what you think you need. What is it about your manuscript that bothers you? Is there a section or couple of chapters you keep rewriting? Why? What is it that keeps bringing you back to the drawing board?
Maybe you’d like suggestions about how to smooth the wording of some of your sentences or you’d like suggestions about how to create a less wordy manuscript overall? Maybe you’ve made some style choices, but you’re having trouble keeping track of whether they’ve been applied consistently or whether they “work” with the tone of your story.
Being able to articulate and share these concerns with an editor you are interested in working with will help you determine whether an editor’s services will best suit your manuscript and what it needs.
Will an editor help me determine what level of editing I need?
They should! While not all editors provide a sample edit, allowing an editor to see your full manuscript as part of the vetting process will give the editor the best opportunity to determine whether they are the right editor for the content of your manuscript, as well as whether they provide the right kind of editing services for what your manuscript may need.
A bad editing experience can be avoided if both parties have a clear understanding of the content (of both the manuscript and the offered services) and expectations (what the author wants and what the editor provides). This takes a willingness on the editor’s part to say whether they don’t edit certain genres or types of content and to be honest about the amount and type of editing work they deem the manuscript needs (and whether they provide the needed type of editing service).
While taking your manuscript through all four levels of editing is admirable, it isn’t always feasible (financially and logistically). There is no shame in taking your work through a round of copyedits and a round of proofreading alone before publication (gasp! Yes, I just said that). Ideally, self-publishing should seek to mimic traditional publishing in utilizing multiple rounds of editing to produce a book that is as free from error and inconsistency as it could possibly be.
That said, beware of any editor (or author!) who insists that proofreading is the only needed round of editing for your work. Proofreading has a distinct purpose, and it should not be confused with other, deeper rounds of editing. This sort of insistence is usually a cost-cutting measure, and while it is effective at doing just that, it isn’t effective at creating a high-quality book that is ready for market.