How Much Does Editing Cost (aka Why the Heck is Editing So Expensive?)

Cross Posted from John Robin's Blog

I drive a 2004 Toyota Camry. It’s a good car — I got it second hand and seemed to really luck out with it. Even though Toyotas last a long time, or so I’m told, this one is doing quite well for its age.

Part of it, I believe, is that I have it regularly serviced and maintained. There’s an autobody shop around the corner from where I live, which happens to be the one that my husband and his family have used for decades.  The mechanic’s name is Tony (if I were editing a book about a mechanic, I’d suggest the author change the name because Tony is a little stereotypical a name for a mechanic) and he knows my car very well.

Tony isn’t the cheapest. If I wanted cheap auto maintenance, I’d find a friend who is a mechanic, or learn to do it myself. But that's just asking for trouble (though if you know the right mechanic friend you might be as lucky as, say, the survivors in a Russian roulette game).

While Tony isn't cheap, he's honest and reliable, and never leaves me in the dark. One time, for example, I wanted him to investigate a periodic clunking that came from under my car. He told me it was about a $300 job but not critical. "When you have some spare change and want it fixed, we're happy to do that for you, but if you want to save some money it's not going to cause any harm." Another time, my husband's car wouldn't start in the winter — it turned out his plug-in cord was severed. It took fifteen minutes for Tony to replace it and he only charged for the cord, a mere $30.

Then there was the time, a few months after I bought my car, when something went seriously wrong. The engine seized on me and the car shut down, right in the middle of an intersection. Three different warning light went on that had me worried I'd bought a lemon after all. I had no choice but to get it towed to Tony's. The next day, when I got the call from him with the prognosis, he explained that it was a special part called the throttle body, and the repair was a $1200 job. It was standard for such resilient engines like those in the Toyota for the computer to kick in and shut the engine down when it detected the part needed replacing, so as not to cause further damage to the engine. Such features are a large part of why many Toyotas make it up to 700,000 km and even then refuse to die. So, I paid the extra money and did so with optimism, because of the trust I had in Tony. I knew the  work was necessary and indeed, to this day, the engine has run strong.

Here's where I shift gears to writing.

When an author finishes writing a manuscript, they’re similar to someone with a car in need of repair. The author could manage a self-edit or perhaps get a well-read friend to edit it.  While there is some benefit, for sure, in self-editing or having a friend look at it, there is a greater benefit in having a professional editor go over your manuscript.  It’s more expensive, yes, but just like a higher price for car repairs ensure you'll get service you can trust, paying for editing can help ensure you receive a more professional and comprehensive edit than you or your friend might be able to do.

Just like the example of my $1200 engine repair, a good investment in an editor can give your story true mileage with readers and reviewers. While your investment might not earn out from book sales, it will earn out in a much more meaningful way in that the book you put out will stand strong and be something you can be proud of as an installment in your writing career.

But you don’t have to pay for everything. When it comes to editing especially, author beware is a very important motto to stick to.

What kind of editing you can't cut out

At the very least, make sure you have an edit that addresses developmental issues. This is sometimes called a substantive edit, or a content edit. Both terms imply the edit is considering the "meat" of the story — so the editor is considering the abstract level of the story itself beyond just the line-by-line correctness of the prose. (Such an edit is called a copyedit, which I'll get to next.)

The reason developmental editing is so important is because there are many stories that are published that get "edited" when in fact all that's been fixed are various typos, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and repetitive words. An editor who does a developmental edit is thinking about the story and using storytelling principles to instruct you on rewrites, and that editor will catch plot holes, inconsistencies in characterization, problems with voice or point of view (usually called POV), pacing, and narration — to name a few of the heavy hitters.

Having developmental (or substantive or content) editing done is like making sure you get your trusted mechanic to work on your engine and the parts of the car you'll likely break if you try to fix it yourself.

A developmental edit can sometimes cost a lot of money. Typically, when I do a developmental edit I average about 6 manuscript pages / hour when there are a lot of problems, and 10-15 pages / hour when it's smooth sailing. If your manuscript is 300 pages, then you do the math and you'll see it comes out to anywhere between 20-50 hours. (I want to be absolutely clear though: in my career working on more than 100 manuscripts to date, I have yet to see a manuscript that was that length and needed an hour for every six pages from front to back.)

Now, I'm going to make a very bold statement here: editors deserve to be paid as much as auto mechanics because the work they do is as complicated (maybe more complicated). Just as auto mechanics know all the basic components of a car and what needs to go where, editors are trained in all the essentials of storytelling, writing craft, and grammar, to know what in your story still needs work. Most importantly, like auto mechanics who have stripped down and put back together countless cars, editors who have earned their stripes through editing many manuscripts aren't just going to use book smarts on you.

How you can save yourself a lot of money on editing

I don’t take my car in to the shop when I’m out of windshield wiper fluid, nor do I take it in when I’ve got a burnt-out tail light.  There are some tasks I can do myself, or get a good friend to help me with.

Likewise, you can save yourself a lot of money by developing an effective self-editing and revision strategy.

Let me talk a bit about that universe often feared and not well understood by most writers. Revision. I've heard it said that revision is 80% of writing a book, and though I doubted it in the beginning, I've come to understand that it's true. If you think you can bowl through a draft then rush it off to an editor, then either you're asking for a steep bill or you're so gifted you will be the object of contempt by 99% of the rest of us who say "Amen" when we hear Ernest Hemingway's proverb, "The first draft is always shit."

The problem, though, is that many writers take it to the opposite extreme and feel there is no end to revision. In reality your book is never going to be perfect. But it can be sufficiently amazing, a term I just invented which means: "Revised to the point that the reader cannot tell the difference between their version of perfect and yours."

As a writer, you're wise to develop a drafting strategy. Many writers use beta-readers or critique partners, and will plan to write at least two drafts (usually three or more). There is no magic number, because it's going to differ based on the writer and the specific project, but the idea is, with every step of revision, you want to make sure you're getting closer to the final vision you have for your book.

And when you reach that point where you're convinced this is done, then off it goes to your editor.

I hope you see that if you develop a great drafting strategy (I will be elaborating more on the art of self-editing and revision in a few weeks), you can save yourself the need for multiple rounds of editing, or a $2000 bill for a developmental edit vs. an $800 one. It's the same as saying good auto maintenance can mean your trip to the mechanic only requires you replace some O2 sensors, not that you have to repair a cracked cam shaft (the demise of the first car I owned).

What other editing you should have done if you plan to self-publish

You may be familiar with the term copyediting. Sometimes you'll see it written copy editing. Both are correct, but I use copyediting just because the term has stuck and I enjoy rebelling against the spell-checker in another case of knowing I'm right and it's wrong.

Strictly speaking, copyediting comes after developmental editing, and this should make logical sense. After you've done the incredible juggling act of cutting scene X and transplanting it in the middle of scene Y to address a cause-effect issue in your narration, or rewriting the crap out of the three paragraphs where your POV character's motives weren't clear, you're going to have a big mess to clean up. The idea is you can get your hands dirty when you're doing a developmental edit, knowing after it's all done, a new editor with a fresh set of eyes is going to come and focus on keeping everything tidy.

If the developmental editor is the same as the guy at the mechanic shop who goes in and rips your car apart and fits everything back together the right way, the copyeditor is the same as the girl (let's keep this a gender-balanced work place) at the shop who comes in after he's done and looks everything over to make sure all the plugs have been put back on the right way, maybe tightens a few bolts, and while she's at it, checks all your fluids to make sure there's no other issues before you come and drive your car back home.

Copyeditors do not focus on story, unless the element of the story is an actual error. Copyeditors, typically, focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, logic and clarity. I want to expand on that "logic" item, because it's a loaded term. By logic, this is the part that sets a copyeditor apart from a proofreader. That word means the copyeditor is thinking logically about everything your manuscript is saying, line-by-line, and questioning if what you've written is the best way to write it.

You might sometimes find a copyeditor has cut a lot of words from your manuscript, or rearranged many of your sentences. This all comes down to that "logic and clarity" part, because many times the way you will write a sentence has made what you're trying to say confusing or otherwise difficult to grasp. "He rushed up the steps, his niece following close behind," is much clearer than, "His niece close behind, he rushed up the steps, ascending hurriedly." The first kill in that sentence is due to logic: "ascending hurriedly" is implied by "rushed up the steps." The reversal of clauses is due to clarity (and partly logic too): seeing his niece close behind him is immediately confusing: what's he doing for her to be close behind him? He rushed up the steps establishes for the reader an immediate vision of exactly what's happening, then adding his niece following close behind him allows us to add in an extra detail from an already established visual. Now it's clear, and logical.

I hope I've convinced you that copyeditors put in their share of sweat and hard work, and, like the girl in our example mechanic shop, the work they do is just as important. You wouldn't want to take your car home only to find out a loose screw on your engine came off and caused damage, nor should you as a writer want to pay for developmental editing only to find that all the juggling around you did in your rewrites confused your readers.

Last but not least: proofreading

Let's face it: editors are human. People miss things. Even the big publishers, who often have up to 30 sets of eyes on a book before it goes to print, still will miss a typo or two. Even if you're just paying a thank-you sum of money to a friend, or if you're lucky to have a group of die-hard fans who will gladly be the first readers of your book before it comes out, do not skip this step before you publish. A third (at least) set of eyes, especially after copyediting is complete, is vital. This is a chance for someone to read your book as though it's published, and make a list of outstanding typos.

If you can afford it, have a professional editor do it. The editor, unlike a friend or beta-readers, is trained in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting, and will spot more in the proofread than a reader who might not be familiar with all the rules of spelling and grammar. Your friend / beta-readers might catch the part of your manuscript where you have the,y went to the store but they might not catch the typo go to the sign in table (sign-in is the correct form since it modifies the noun table).

So there you have it. If nothing else, I hope you learned that editing, while as expensive as engine repair on your car, is just as important.

All right, your turn! Have you had any bad experiences with editors who charged too much? Who didn't give you the editing you were expecting? Are you one of those authors who sees the color red when you hear the word revision? I'd love to hear what you think about the cost (and necessity) of editing and why we can't live without it.

John Robin - Book Coach

From the time he first looked at Tolkien’s map of Wilderland as a ten year old boy, John Robin knew he was destined to make his own world and tell stories about it. So, as he grew up and read the great fantasy epics, he began to create his own world with its own stories, history, and myths.

Over twenty years, he learned the craft of storytelling, writing three novels just for practice (unpublished), and all the while his fantasy world and unique vision as a writer ripened. The evolution of the Internet and the exciting possibilities of what technology just might do for human beings further inspired John to model his magic system and epic tale to also communicate a message about how mastery over one’s environment might change the human condition.

After working for many years in academia and adult education, John left his job to pursue a career as a full-time editor, starting his own company, Story Perfect Editing Services. He has edited more than fifty stories to date and presently is senior editor of his company.

John’s work has appeared in the Tantalizing Tidbits anthology (“One Who Waits”, now available on Amazon). John’s fourth novel, Blood Dawn, gained him popularity on the Inkshares platform and, inspired by the many fans who gathered around his work, he’s currently working hard to break into the traditional publishing market with a debut novel. For updates on John’s writing plans, be sure to join his quarterly newsletter, here.

When he’s not writing, John enjoys chess, recreational mathematics, drawing trees, maps and landscapes with pen and ink, playing classical piano (especially Beethoven), long distance running, or pandering to the whims of his cat, Wizard.