How Do You Know If You Need an Editor

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

So you’ve written your story and are wondering if you need an editor.

The answer is yes, you do.

Now, as an editor, I may be biased, but I only became an editor after I saw the value in them.

When you’re standing on the outside, like a writer wondering if you need an editor, it can be tough to decide when you want to bring an editor in or if the cost is worth it. Not only that, but you also have to get over the mental hurdle of letting someone look at the story you’ve spent so much blood, sweat, and tears on.

That can be tough.

But that’s not where the mental hurdles end! Even if you let someone in to read your word child, you’ve already written the perfect story, right? So what do they know? Do they even see the vision?

In short, an editor comes into the picture to help improve your story in a way that still holds true to your voice, themes, and plot. They aren’t there to usurp your manuscript or steal your ideas. In fact, they want to help bring your ideas to life.

That’s why we’re going to cover five different scenarios where you might need an editor. We’ll cover each of these in more detail, but these scenarios are:

  • When you need the clean up your manuscript
  • When you need to polish your work
  • When you need help with your story
  • When you are looking to publish
  • When you write a draft, in general

Let’s dive into our first scenario.

When you need the clean up your manuscript

This is the most common situation writers will hire an editor for. In this scenario, you have your completed manuscript. That means you’ve written and revised your first draft, sent it out for feedback to a critique partner or beta readers, revised some more based on that feedback, and are basically happy with what you have.

But editing your own work is inefficient and, honestly, never going to get you the results you want. You have two things working against you when you try to self-edit your final draft.

First, your writing is filled with errors you don’t think are errors. Sure, you’ll find a few there-their-they’re mistakes, and maybe the spell checker catches a typo. But is there really supposed to be a comma before that “and?” Is that question mark in the last sentence supposed to be inside a quotation mark? What the heck is a dialogue tag?

We all have internal biases when it comes to writing, and it’s impossible to be purely objective about our work.

Second, very few writers—especially first-time authors—know when to say a draft is done. If you’re responsible for your own editing, you can do revision after revision, always finding something else that will make it perfect-er.

That’s how you get stuck in writing limbo. Get your draft to a point where the story is awesome, the characters stick with the reader, and you’ve made it the best you can, then bring in an editor to tidy it up.

In this stage, you’re looking for a copy editor: someone who will find all the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax errors in your manuscript and banish them to another dimension.

Editing tip: Don’t hire a copy editor to clean up your writing if you’re still going to do massive rewrites or revisions. There’s no point in catching an errant comma splice if you’re replacing it with ten more sentences that could have other errors.

When you need to polish your manuscript

Maybe you’re done writing your first draft but unhappy with it. Yes, the story rocks and the characters make you smile and cry, but it just doesn’t feel right.

In this case, you want an editor to help you polish your manuscript into the beautiful, shining gem you know it can be.

The type of editor you’re looking for is a line editor. These editors specialize in flow, word choice, pacing, tone, and more. If copy editors are looking at letters and punctuation marks to fix, line editors are looking at words and sentences (thus, line editors) to improve.

Unlike a copy editor, line editing is a lot more subjective. It’s tough to argue about grammar rules, but much easier to argue that you prefer “obsidian” to “ebony” when describing a sword's black blade.

Connecting with a line editor means truly connecting with them: set up a video call or chat over coffee and discuss their work, what genres they excel in, their portfolio, and what kind of writing style they lean towards.

For example, I’m a fantasy nerd with a penchant for action scenes and edge-of-your-seat pacing. If someone wanted me to line edit their romance novel, I would politely decline—not because I don’t want the work, but because I know there would be a better-suited editor out there.

Do your research before hiring an editor, and feel free to speak with them about their process. You don’t want to waste your money or time working with an editor who won’t polish your manuscript the way you want.

Editing tip: Don’t hire a line editor if you aren’t happy with your story. If you think your plot or characters need some more time in the oven, the next scenario is more for you. Line editors, if you choose to work with them, fall in between when you revise your first draft and when you send your book out to beta readers.

When you need help with the story

Hear me out: you have this awesome idea for a story in your mind and even wrote 75,000 words. Something’s missing, though.

Specifically, your inciting incident isn’t as strong as you’d like, you aren’t sure if your villain is everything you want, and the subplot you thought was going to be awesome has become as flat and filled with holes as a slice of Swiss cheese.

Maybe your concerns aren’t that specific, but if you feel like your entire story needs a bit of work, you’re looking for a developmental or structural editor.

The two terms mean the same thing; it just depends on what the editor calls themselves. These types of editors excel at coaching you through big-picture issues you’re struggling with.

Developmental or structural editors might look at:

  • Your story’s structure
  • Character arcs
  • Subplots
  • Themes
  • Settings and worldbuilding
  • Timeline and chronology
  • Potentially rearranging entire paragraphs or chapters to improve your plot

Developmental editing is a lot of work and requires a significant back-and-forth between you and your editor. As a result, it’s also the most expensive form of editing. 

That said, there’s no better way to take that idea burning in your head and turn it into a brilliant story than with the help of a professional editor.

Editing tip: It’s more important than ever to make sure you choose the right developmental editor if you hire one. They should know the ins and outs of your genre, including tropes, what makes bestsellers, what writers you look up to, etc. Your editor will become your best friend and your harshest critic, but you’ll be thankful that you hired them.

When you are looking to publish

If your goal is to traditionally publish your book—which means getting a deal with a publisher as opposed to self-publishing—they will partner you with an editor long before your book ever hits the printers.

That said, it takes a lot of work and even more luck to get your book to that stage.

As you’re querying agents or submitting your draft to publishers, you want to do everything you can to make your book stand out. For a lot of people, this means working with an editor.

Now, the editing you look for can fall under any of the scenarios we’ve already spoken about, depending on your specific needs. And it isn’t a requirement to have your manuscript worked on by a professional editor before you begin your quest to get it published.

But take a step back and think about which manuscript an agent or publisher would prefer: one written and edited by a first-time author or one worked on collaboratively between an author and an experienced editor.

Even if you stick with a copy editor to clean up your draft, you’re sending your manuscript or chapter samples with substantially fewer errors. This means you look more professional and experienced, and the person screening your submission can focus on what really matters: the story.

Now imagine if you also stood out with excellent prose and a mindblowing story. Submitting an edited manuscript does nothing but improve your chances.

Editing tip: All that said, don’t get hung up on putting your story through all three types of editing because you think you must. Not only can this lead to the same cycle of “it’s never perfect enough” thinking, but it also costs a lot of money. So see what your budgets—both mental and monetary—can handle, because your publisher is going to put your story through the wringer, anyway. 

When you write a draft, in general

For our last scenario, we’re looking a little more broadly than any of the others. Maybe you’re writing your story and realize you need a little assistance. Passion and a killer imagination can only carry you so far. Writing is an art, but there’s a lot of knowledge and skill between the pages of a good book.

And penning 100,000 words is a big investment. Like, months or years of consistent writing, not to mention everything that comes after the first draft.

If you are looking for some general feedback and advice on where to improve, you have a couple options.

Though not an editor, I am going to shamelessly plug DabbleU. We publish multiple articles every week on the craft of writing, with a whole bunch of articles on developing characters, structuring a perfect plot, even marketing and selling your book, plus a heck of a lot more. 

Plus, it’s free, so you can’t go wrong with that.

Next, you may want to consider hiring an editor to perform an editorial assessment.

That sounds like a very daunting, very clinical experience. But it’s not, I promise.

When hired for an editorial assessment (it even sounds cold typing it out), an editor will read whatever you have written and provide a one- or two-page letter highlighting what you did right, what needs improvement, and what broad categories you can focus on to become an overall better author.

“Whatever you have written” means just that. You could get feedback on a finished draft, half a story, one or two chapters, a scene, or even an outline. Some editors might not do an assessment on all of those, but the options are out there.

An editorial assessment is really the only form of editing or professional critiquing you should look for early on in a story. That said, it can provide invaluable insight that will prevent you from making the same mistake for the next 90,000 words.

Editing tip: While all editing involves someone providing constructive criticism, an editorial assessment can feel kind of personal, especially for new authors. You need to go into this remembering that an editor wants you to succeed. Any feedback they provide—good or bad—is there to help you improve and write the best dang story you can.

You Can’t Work With an Editor if You Don’t Write

All these scenarios have one thing in common: you actually need to write your story.

It’s worth preparing for scenarios in the future, but none of that means anything if you don’t work on a tale worth investing time and money into. To help turn your ideas into a full-fledged book, let me introduce Dabble.

Dabble is a novel-writing platform made by writers, so you only get the tools you need to write an incredible book. With features like automatic syncing, writing on any device, the Plot Grid, one-click access to all chapters, notes, and character info, and much more, Dabble makes writing easier and more fun.

On top of all that, Dabble integrates ProWritingAid, a powerful spelling, grammar, and style checker. Not only will it catch your typos and punctuation woes, but it will also let you know when you’re using a passive voice and how you can reword some sentences to create more effective prose.

And the best part is that you can try all of Dabble’s features for free for 14 days by clicking here. I mean really free, as in you don’t even have to put in your credit card number to get started, so you’re only charged if you love it enough to keep using Dabble after the trial period.

So what are you waiting for? Go write a great book!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.