What Is Editing Worth?

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.

 

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16 thoughts on “What Is Editing Worth?

  1. Agreed with others. This is an excellent description of the situation faced by both editors and writers. I would like to refer people to it as the situation arises, and share with people on various forums I participate in.

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    • Thanks! I think those of us who wear both hats, or who see out of both sides of our heads, have a lot to offer. Being a chameleon, I’ve been able to hear plenty of writers criticizing editors (not just copyeditors) and editors criticizing writers. I think there’s a lot of truth in what both groups are saying, but they mostly aren’t saying it to each other. Which as we all know is a whole lot harder than saying it behind someone’s back. 🙂

      Another thing I was thinking about: When we’re not writing primarily to produce income, we don’t keep track of time. (It would be too damn scary if we did!) The value of the work isn’t monetary. So it takes a mental shift to recognize that for editors, time and expertise does have a price tag. The editor is under no obligation to donate her time. Or, put another way: I look after my own dog for nothing, but if you want me to look after your dog, I’m going to want compensation — maybe in money or maybe in an exchange of favors.

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      • That time/value equation is very important. I have an arrangement with my writing group, all of whom are self-employed and doing something or other related to publishing, that when we are working on our “books from the heart” or a task related to building our businesses, we exchange professional-level help with each other for nothing. That help is about love, friendship, and sisterhood support. But if we ask for help with a project that is part of our revenue-generating business, we hire each other for the individual’s particular expertise. This requires being clear up front about which is which. So far, it has worked wonderfully. It underscores, however, the boundaries and definitions of self and self-employment.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this balanced approach to to the problem many indie writers face as to editing. Having a clean manuscript is important to me. Having $1800 to spend on it is totally unrealistic with my current earnings. But, I know the difference in quality between a thorough copyeditor and a cheap one. My experience with hiring amateur copy editors has proven to me that you get what you pay for. I was embarrassed by the number of typos and missing words that showed up in the print edition of the 3rd book in my series–after a “cheap” copyedit and many passes through the book myself. Fortunately, I was able to upload cleaner editions as the errors were caught–not ideal but better than leaving the ms. riddled with mistakes. For the release of the fourth book, I sought to minimize errors with the shotgun approach: I paid a (relatively inexpensive) copyeditor, and also had several friends with good eyes vet the manuscript. As soon as the paper proofs were available, I shipped them to three more keen-eyed readers to see else they could catch. (Some errors seem invisible until the book is formatted for print.) A compromise, but a necessary one for now.

    That said, I have no doubts as to the value of a good copyeditor. I’ve been a professional writer for many years, and I want my books to reflect that and not look like some rough draft that was thrown up on Amazon by some clueless first-time writer. 🙂

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    • True, if I flip or scroll through a book and see many typos (or weird punctuation, or LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS, I won’t buy it or read it or recommend it to anyone. But the novels I mentioned that “read like good first drafts” ranged from pretty clean to squeaky clean. On a sentence-by-sentence level, the writing was generally good. The problem wasn’t with typography or grammar or usage. It was pacing, or plotting, or characterization, or world-building — structural stuff. In the case of the major-press novel, I read to the end because I was getting paid. There was an indie-press novel that I really wanted to like, but after 50 flat (driving across Nebraska?) pages I bailed. My “want to read” list is long. I didn’t want waste any more time on this particular book.

      The other novels were all self-published. I read most of them to the end (1) because they were relatively short, and (2) because I wanted the editorial exercise: If the author hired me to critique this draft, what would I suggest s/he work on in the next draft? The bottom line is that I’m not going to recommend any of these books to other readers, and I’m not going to review them anywhere. If other readers are having similar responses — well, the author’s readership isn’t going to grow much beyond his or her circle of friends and acquaintances. There’s a tremendous amount of really, really good work out there. If I’m going to spend time with so-so fiction, I’ve got to have a reason — and the reason is probably going to be money. 🙂

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  3. Great blog post! I found it via the Editors’ Association of Earth group on Facebook. I particularly like your advice to pay for a critique.

    For me, one of the problems in assigning value (or “invaluable” status for that matter) to editing is that not all editors are equal in skill and approach. If I could be absolutely sure of finding an editor compatible with my style and superior to me in editing skills, it would probably be worth every penny, but the odds are against that happening…

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    • It’s like everything else: You have to shop around. Referral is the best place to start, but lacking that, hit the Internet and look, look, look. Once you’ve winnowed down candidates to a short list, enter dialogue with them, get sample edits. Sooner or later someone will click with you. If lucky, you’ll connect with them on the first shot!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Referrals are definitely the best place to start. And the internet — yeah. A writer can suss out a lot about an editor’s skills, experience, and approach from websites and blogs. I’m not so sure about the “meat markets” like LinkedIn, mainly because the editors I know who haunt such places are often not the ones I’d recommend or hire, but hey, you can luck out anywhere. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • Camille, you took the words right out of my head: “If I could be absolutely sure of finding an editor compatible with my style and superior to me in editing skills . . .” Being an editor as well as a writer, I hang out (mostly online) with editors much more than the average writer, especially the average novice writer. The number of those I’d refer a good writer to is small, and the number of those I’d hire myself is even smaller. Sometimes it’s because the editor specializes in a different kind of writing or a different level of editing, but often it’s because the skills seem a little shaky and even more often it’s because I’m put off by the editor’s attitude.

      For a relatively new writer, choosing an editor has to be like making your way through a dark forest with only a dim flashlight.

      When it comes to value, some editors like to compare editors to electricians and plumbers. Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. So-so editing isn’t going to cause a short circuit or a house fire. Good editing isn’t going to replace the pipe that’s leaking into your basement. And the electrician that does a super job on your friend’s house is probably going to do a super job on yours. An editor in EAE (Editors’ Association of Earth, the Facebook group) compared hiring an editor to hiring an interior designer. That’s a closer analogy, I think. Your interior designer has to have the skills and experience — and s/he also has to be in sync with you and your house in order to design something that you’re thrilled to live with.

      Well, I could go on, and on and on, and probably will eventually. 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: 4 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid | Beyond the Precipice

  5. Pingback: 4 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid | Beyond the Precipice

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