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Copyediting: Expectation vs Reality

You’ve written that book or next big project and think you are ready to publish. The prose could likely use some polishing, but you’ve gone over it a few times and it looks pretty good. Your friends and beta readers seemed pleased. However, you are still considering an editor. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about the process of copyediting, so I wanted to shed some light on the reality of the field. Check out the details below.

I Don’t Really Need an Editor

Perhaps you were lucky enough to have beta readers who offered advice and tips on fixing some pesky misspellings or strange wording. One of them even said they studied English in college. However, it’s unlikely that any of those people were actually trained to edit. They may have caught some more glaring errors, but a single read will not catch other mistakes. And while fiction has its liberties, language has usage rules for a reason, and not everyone understands how, where, or why to apply them.

But what if you are one of those people who studied English in college, perhaps even an editor yourself. The issue is you’re too close to the project. Your heart is in it. You can put your editing cap on (and definitely should, even before sending it to a professional), but there are likely changes you miss or feel unwilling to make. You may think that line is perfect, but a new set of eyes can show you otherwise.

A note: if you preparing to query for traditional publishing, then it’s true you probably don’t need an editor. Publishing houses like to make their own edits with their own editors. While you want to send out your best work, there are better ways to spend your money than hiring a copyeditor. However, many editors also offer developmental services (earlier on in the writing process) that many writers can benefit from.

They Will Make My Work Unrecognizable

A good editor will work with you to polish the work. You are a team. While I can’t speak for every editor (just like every writer isn’t the same), an editor has your best interests at heart and wants to help you put the best work out there. When I edit, I learn the writer’s style. This may mean keeping a grammatically incorrect sentence or using unusual punctuation. Every book is different. Those liberties of fiction I mentioned earlier mean the rules don’t have to be as strict.

As the author, you have the final say. You don’t have to keep every single change. If you aren’t sure why a change was made, ask your editor. They should have a style guide or be able to give their reasoning. They may open your eyes to something you didn’t see before. However, you can certainly say no.

It Shouldn’t Cost That Much

Editing requires training. Some editors receive this training on the job. Others do schooling. Language and usage are constantly changing, so most professional editors will do continuing education. Beyond the skill required, it’s a demanding profession. Unless the editor is old-school and prints out your manuscript, the work is done completely on the computer. Staring at the screen, reading, for hours on end. I think we are at the point in society where we recognize the strain of that kind of position.

According to the EFA (Editorial Freelancers Association), the average rate for basic copyediting is $30-40 per hour. It varies by location, but this seems on par with positions of similar work, such as technical writers, executive assistants, and managers. Also, take into account that many editors working with self-published authors are likely to be freelancers. That means they run their own business and might have more expenses than if they worked for a publishing company (which could also mean no health insurance and no sick days).

It Shouldn’t Take That Long

The average adult reading speed is about 200-250 words per minute. In the industry, a standard manuscript page is 250 words. So, if I can read one page a minute, why does it take weeks to edit a book? It often takes five or more times longer to edit a book than it does to simply read it for pleasure. There are many factors to exactly how long. For the editor, it’s about experience, how many passes they do, how many hours they can physically work per day, and their own pace. But there is also the manuscript to consider. Is there fact-checking involved? How about worldbuilding or complicated settings to consider? How many words in total? Is English the writer’s first language? Is the whole thing a bit of a mess?

Outside of these factors, editing goes beyond simply reading the book. It’s like taking a magnifying glass to each and every word and every character that makes up that word. Beyond grammar and usage, there is also style and consistency to consider. Did the color of your protagonist’s shirt change mid-scene? Did your elves suddenly start speaking in a different speech pattern? Each task requires nuance and flow. It’s a difficult balance that takes a lot of concentration. Much like anything, it can be rushed, but then something has to suffer. And that something is usually quality.

It Better Be Perfect

Industry standard is 95% accuracy. We are still human. And despite what you’ve been told, programs like Grammarly are not good substitutes. Humans, even with a 5% error rate, are a better judge of language usage than Word’s grammar check. Depending on time, budget, and type of editor, they may have only done one pass of the manuscript. As I mentioned in the cost section, this type of job causes a lot of eye strain. It can be repetitive. When was the last time you did something with 100% accuracy every time? It is not on purpose or out of malice. Editors want to help. It looks just as bad on them to put out poor work.

After you get the manuscript back from the editor, you will still have work to do. You need to accept or reject those changes. You may make adjustments whether they were recommended by the editor or not. When self-publishing, you’ll need to format the book, both for print and digital. All of these are places where more errors can be entered into the copy. If it’s just you and an editor, that’s two sets of eyes. Throw in some beta readers, critique partners, or a proofreader, and you are talking a handful of people who have had a chance to point out an issue. Once it’s out there, hundreds, maybe thousands of readers will get their hands on it, which means a lot more chances to catch something new.

Okay, So How Should I Hire an Editor

It’s important to find an editor that is a fit, both for you as a writer and your project. You may want the most experienced and peer-reviewed editor. But just like you, everyone starts somewhere. New editors have the skills and might be better priced. It’s all about your comfort level and what works for your manuscript. Remember, there are different types of editing, which will depend on where you are in the process. Copyediting should be done as a last step before formatting and publishing.

Reach out to a few editors, and ask for a sample edit. Some may charge for this. I offer it for free. I want to see what I might be getting into, and you want to see what I can produce. Most editors will ask for around 500 words (range may vary) taken from the middle of the manuscript, which is likely to be one of the least self-edited sections. Once the editor returns the work to you, review all the changes and ask any questions. If you are satisfied, ask for a quote. At this point, I like to see the full manuscript. This ensures an accurate quote for both timing and price.

Pay attention to how an editor interacts with you. As I said, this is a relationship. They will be doing the same. In the business of books, we must lift each other up. We should all want the other to succeed. Hopefully I’ve helped shed light on some of the misconceptions around editors and the practice of editing. The majority of editors are not out to swindle you or push out shoddy work. It’s an art and a business for us, too.

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