Writing a novel is just the first step towards publication. After writing, the novel needs to be edited — maybe rewritten, maybe several times. Some manuscripts need more editing than others, but with no exception, every manuscript needs at least one editing pass before it’s ready to see the light of day.
The best way to edit is to learn to do it yourself, but I don’t want to focus on that in this post. Instead I want to talk about the alternative. Many people don’t want to do their own editing. Some don’t feel like they can trust critique groups or beta readers. Others think they aren’t skilled enough to be able to edit their own work. So these writers try a different solution: they hire a freelance editor.
Freelance editors vary in experience and skill, just like writers. Some are published authors. Some used to be fiction editors in the publishing industry. Others just hung out a shingle. Freelance editors offer different editing services at different price levels:
A copy edit (or line edit) is the least expensive service, but it includes only a clean up of spelling and grammar. An editor local to me charges 1.5 to 3 cents per word for a line edit. For my 100,000 word novel, that would be $1500 to $3000.
A developmental or substantive edit is considerably more expensive. This edit includes an analysis of structure, pacing, character development, and plot. My local editor charges 3 to 6 cents a word for substantive editing, so $3000 to $6000 for my novel. Most of the time the editor doesn’t actually do the rewriting either (or at least not all of it) — just tells you what needs to be done.
That’s quite a bit of money to spend, particularly since after you make the rewrites following a substantive edit, you may still need a copy edit to have a finished, proofed manuscript. Would it be worth it? Without a doubt, a good editor can make a manuscript a lot better.
But is the manuscript ready to be published?
Here, finally, is the point of this post. After you’ve paid this money and gotten a professional edit, is your manuscript guaranteed to be good enough to be snagged by an agent or purchased by a traditional publishing company?
Not only is there no guarantee, in most cases it simply won’t be good enough.
Say, for argument’s sake that manuscripts were rated on a quality scale from 1-10. A manuscript of quality level 9 or above is required for traditional publishing. A freelance editor could bump your manuscript up to 2 points higher on the scale. If your manuscript starts at a 7 or 8, that’s great! But if the manuscript you wrote is of quality level 6 or below, then even with editing, you’re still out of luck as far as traditional publishing goes.
Here is the hard truth about freelance editors: As talented as many of them are, they are not magicians. They cannot take a fatally flawed manuscript and make it great. A good editor can make ANY manuscript better. But very few manuscripts, no matter how much time and effort and money is put into them, will ever be good enough to outshine 99% of other submissions, and THAT is what is required to get an agent and sell a manuscript to a traditional publisher.
Some writers write three, four, five, or even more novels before they write one of high enough quality that they are able to sell it to traditional publishers. That’s not a failing! They studied their craft, they practiced, they honed their words. They earned their way up the quality ladder. Don’t feel cheated if you don’t start at the top or if an editor didn’t make your manuscript perfect. You have to pay your dues just like everyone else and learn to write high quality manuscripts. That takes work. Hard work. With no shortcuts.