Ask a bunch of editors what good editing is worth and they’ll probably reply that it’s invaluable, priceless, and indispensable.
Listen to us talk for a while and we’ll probably get around to the books we’ve read that were either abysmally edited or (probably) not edited at all. What’s the matter with those writers? we wonder. How can they put their names on something that’s so disorganized or riddled with typos and grammatical errors?
Being both a writer and an editor, I think about this a lot. “Value” is a shifty word in English. “Valuable” and “invaluable” mean more or less the same thing. Plenty of value can’t be measured in money, but when you have to pay for it, money has to be considered. Editing has monetary value to me as an editor because it pays the rent. For me as a writer, whatever I spend on editing is money I can’t spend on book design, cover illustration, and marketing. Besides, I can do it pretty well myself.
The inescapable fact is that editing can’t be automated. If some outfit promises to “edit” your 300-page manuscript for a dollar a page, you can be sure that they’re not doing much more than running a spellchecker and a grammar checker through it, and maybe cleaning up the formatting. In my book that’s not editing: it’s word-processing.
Depending on what level of editing is called for, editing involves going through your manuscript page by page, line by line, even word by word. This is not like reading for pleasure. It takes time. For a book-length work, it takes a lot of time. Hypothetical example: Take a 300-page, 75,000-word manuscript. (In publishing, a page is conventionally reckoned at 250 words.) If the ms. is well written and has no structural problems, a good copyeditor might be able to clock 10 pages per hour. That’s 30 hours’ worth of work. Say the copyeditor is charging $30 an hour. (Some charge more, some charge less, but you can get a good copyeditor for $30/hour.) That’s $900 right there.
A manuscript that, as we say in the trade, “has problems” will take longer to edit. At 5 pages/hour, that’s 60 hours. At $30/hour, that’s $1,800. If the problems are serious enough, you may have trouble finding an editor who’ll work for only $30/hour. There are few things more frustrating than being asked to copyedit a manuscript that has structural problems. It’s like frosting a cake that’s collapsed in the middle and didn’t taste all that good to start with.
I don’t know about you, but $1,800 would put a huge dent in my budget, even if I could pay it off over time. I’m never surprised when a writer has sticker shock at an estimate for editing. Editors can say that editing is “priceless” and “invaluable” because we’re not paying for it. When a service costs that much, “priceless” and “invaluable” go out the window. Writers who are paying out of pocket — and this includes me — are up against a harder question: “What is editing worth to me?”
It depends. It really is OK to say “not much” or “I’d love to hire an editor but I have to win the lottery first.” Here are some things to think about:
- Do you want your work to be read by people who don’t have to read it? Do you want them to spend their hard-earned money on your book?
If the answer to these questions is no, you don’t need an editor, so editing may not be worth all that much to you. On the other hand, it might be. I spend my hard-earned money on things I don’t need. (Ask me about the two fountain pens I just scored off eBay. And don’t ask me how much money I’ve spent over the years on training and competing with my dog.)
If the answer is yes, or maybe, or “I’m not sure,” consider the following questions.
- How good are you at spelling and punctuation?
- How much experience have you got? How good are you, period? (Be honest now.)
- Are you in a good writers’ group or otherwise sharing your work with competent and honest writers?
- What are your plans for your work?
- Is your work likely to bring in any money? Enough money to make editing worthwhile from a financial standpoint? (Be realistic here. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, the answer is probably no.)
- What are your goals and priorities as a writer?
And here are some strongly held personal opinions on the subject:
If you aren’t a crackerjack speller and/or you aren’t confident with punctuation, you need help — especially if you plan to submit work to journals, agents, or publishers. These gatekeepers are swamped with far more submissions than they can use. They are looking for reasons to reject incoming manuscripts. Sloppy spelling and punctuation is painfully easy for a competent editor or agent to spot. You might be able to get the help you need from a talented amateur who won’t charge for her time. It depends on how talented and how generous your friends are.
An old printer’s adage: “Cost, speed, quality: Pick any two.” This means, for example, that if you spring for a low price and a fast turn-around time, the quality will probably be less than stellar. If you want a high-quality job done ASAP, expect to pay a premium price for it. This applies to writing too. If you the writer are willing to put in the time, in classes, writers’ groups, and/or self-study, you can get by with less editing. You will also be better able to choose the right editor for your work if you decide to hire one. Just sayin’ . . .
And here’s some free advice for anyone working solo on a book-length manuscript, fiction or nonfiction. Even if you’re cheap, even if your disposable income is barely in positive numbers — think seriously about hiring a pro to critique it. Critiquing costs a lot less than editing because the critiquer is reading your manuscript the way a reviewer might, not going through it line by line. The critiquer will identify both strengths and problems. She’ll probably have suggestions about fixing the problems — but it’s up to you to do the work.
I’ve read several novels in the last year or so that read like good first drafts. Lots of good raw material, but plot holes abounded. Characters did implausible things just because the author said so. Backstory was dumped here, there, and anywhere. Tantalizing leads were introduced — and then dropped. And so on. These are things that can be dealt with in revision, but these novels all went to press in various states of disarray. One of these novels, by the way, was published by a major trade publisher, probably on the strength of the author’s reputation in nonfiction.
Maybe that’s “good enough”? Maybe it is. But ask yourself: When you start reading a book and realize that the author has cut corners, do you keep reading? If you get through to the end, do you recommend the book to a friend? Do you write a glowing online review?
Good editing is expensive, but sometimes it really is worth the money. Your call.