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Should I use an editor? The pros, cons and alternatives

I have a vision of an elegant lady, her dark hair styled in a vintage bob. She’s wearing cream pearls around her neck, and is perched at a mahogany desk with a silver fountain pen in her hand, a notepad balanced on her knee.

The desk lives in the Oval Office of the White House, and the lady is Jacqueline Kennedy – yes, before she was First Lady, Jackie O had a career as a book editor.

In this modern age of self-publishing, you may think you don’t need to use a book editor like Jacqueline, but what are the pros and cons of using one? Is an editor something you can do without, or is it a crucial step to publishing success?

Firstly, be aware that editors can specialise in different things:

A content/development editor will look at the big picture. They’ll check the plot is consistent and makes sense, events are in chronological order, and the pace of the story doesn’t slow down and suddenly speed up.

A copy editor will make sure your writing and language flows well and is smooth, so your book is easy to read.

A line editor will be a grammar-guru, checking spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Then, a proofreader will go over it all again with a fine tooth comb and literally dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s.

Make sure, if you hire an editor, you know their area of expertise. You may have to hire more than one person to cover all of these aspects of editing.


Sell your work
If you want to go the traditional publishing route of using an literary agent or publishing house, you’ll have a tough audience to sell your book to. Your manuscript needs to be in a publishable format right away, so an editor is invaluable in getting your writing into a sellable state.

The final polish
In this era of self-publishing, ‘old-fashioned’ editing is a step you may accidentally forget. In the old days, this would be taken care of by your agent or publisher as part of the publishing process. Editing is a crucial step you shouldn’t skip. Just because you’re self-publishing, don’t make the mistake of thinking your book doesn’t need an editor. They can add the final polish to lift your writing to professional-level.

A fresh pair of eyes
The truth is, you’re too close to your story to see the mistakes. You know the story off-by-heart, you dream about the characters at night, but after weeks, months and years of going over the text, you need fresh eyes to see any mistakes. This is what an editor will do for you.

Constructive criticism
Many (even most) editors are writers in disguise. They are authors themselves, even if they’ve never gotten to the point of publishing. They want you to succeed, and have the best book possible. They understand your struggles and pressures, and have empathy and admiration for you in spades! So, utilise use their expertise and experience and use it to improve your book.


A kick in the head
After all the time you’ve spent on your book, it can be hard to receive your manuscript back covered in corrections, suggestions and deletions. Some writers feel judged and their confidence knocked. Although it may be a great learning experience, and will mean your writing skills are improved for your future books, it can take away the enjoyment of writing in the first place. But, that’s what you’re paying your editor for. It’s nothing personal, just their professional opinion on how you can make a good story into a great one. Try to think of it like taking your car to the garage. If they call you and say it needs new brakes, you don’t think it’s a personal insult on your driving, you think ‘phew, I’m glad they caught that’.

It’s not cheap
Employing an editor can be expensive. For many self-published writers, the cost of employing a professional editor cannot be easily earned back. Some would argue that the story itself is what matters most, and publishing a good story with some minor errors won’t put readers off if they connect with your story and characters. Before you commission an editor, think about whether you’ll get back the money you’re spending before deciding if it’s worth it.

Multiple revisions
One round of editing may not be enough. Have you considered that your editor may come back and say a rewrite is needed? Do you have the time or inclination to rewrite your story? If you’re not prepared to make significant changes to your story, then consider whether there’s any point using an editor who may advise you do so.

The good news is there are alternatives to using a costly professional editor, which may get you similar results:

Ask around for help
If you can find a willing volunteer in your social circle who works in writing or the legal field, you may be able to use their expertise for the copy and line editing. Trade off some of your writing or professional skills to help them out with something, and you have a win/win situation.

Use family and friends
Ask as many of your friends and family as possible to read your story and give you constructive feedback on what they enjoyed and whether the story made sense to them, as well as looking for grammatical and prose errors. This will give you a good idea of the appeal of your characters and storyline, as well as any major holes in the plot or issues with the order of events.

Invite feedback from your readers
Encourage readers who have bought your book to contact you if they spot a typo. The beauty of ebooks is that you can make corrections easily – just upload a new manuscript and the next version of the book that’s downloaded or printed on demand will have the typo fixed!

Let your readers critique
If your readers intensely dislike your story or characters, they will probably let you know too! In effect, this is similar feedback you will receive from an editor, it just means you’re getting it from paying readers after publishing. This can be a really useful way to adjust your writing, but also has its risks, as it may put people off buying your future books. Consider giving away your book for free. This way you get the same sort of feedback – without the worry of disappointing paying readers.


So to summarise, If you write professionally full time, and are aiming for a high-profile writing career, you will probably get back the investment you make in an editor. You’ll build a relationship with that person, and they’ll understand you and your writing, helping you get the success you deserve. On the other hand, if perhaps you write for a hobby or simply for your own pleasure, don’t take away the enjoyment you get by writing to someone else’s prescription.


We’re Peter and Caroline O’Connor. Creating beautiful book cover designs for authors all over the world is our passion. Every author should be able to benefit from a beautiful book cover design (not just the lucky few who get signed by a big publisher). We design, podcast, and coach authors full-time so we understand your struggles. Currently accepting new clients.

What is your experience of using an editor?
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