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Can Freelance Substantive Editors be Right for Authors with Traditional Publishing Goals?

Some people will tell you not to pay for an editor if you plan to traditionally publish; after all, the publisher will hire editors to make the changes they want. But that only happens after your book is signed. And getting signed is not always an easy process. That being said, not all books need a substantive editor to become submission ready.

To judge whether a substantive editor could be beneficial to you, we first must consider what the substantive editor will help you with.

Different agents and editors prefer different writing styles, but they all want a manuscript that is already interesting and easy-to-read. Editing every single line in the whole book would be massively time consuming. Instead, they look for manuscripts that need occasional tweaks but already have generally clear and compelling writing.

If your manuscript is not yet there, a substantive editor may be able to help. Here are the factors I recommend considering before hiring a substantive editor on a manuscript slated for submission:

Do you have a strong sense of your own voice and writing style?

Your voice is one of the most valuable things you bring to a publisher, so your priority should be having a strong manuscript in your own personal style. If you haven't figured that out before you bring in a substantive editor, it will be harder for you to maintain your own voice and end up with a manuscript that still sounds like you.

That isn't to say that substantive editors always change the voice of the manuscript. But because substantive editors deal with stylistic issues, there are usually multiple ways to change the text and if you don't have the skill or the confidence to fix the issues in your own way, the manuscript will begin to lose your voice and sound more like your editor's best guess at your voice.

To avoid this, you'll want to have a sense of your own voice before anyone else makes suggestions.

Are you within the right range for the word count?

Agents and editors will reject a manuscript for word count alone, so missing this important checkbox may severely hinder your publishing chances. A substantive editor can help you make many small changes to reach your target word count, if you no longer have any scenes or chapter level changes to make.

If you have a concise writing style, a substantive editor may make recommendations that flesh out thinner parts of your descriptions. If you have a wordier writing style, a substantive editor may be able to help you be more concise without removing important details of your story.

Depending on your current word count and writing style, substantive edits may not be the best way to reach your word count goal. Make sure to get a sample edit and see if the editor primarily recommends removing or adding information before trying to alter your word count this way.

Are you able to identify the issues in your writing?

If you have identified specific weaknesses in your writing, then you may not need a substantive editor to help you yet. Instead, you can continue to develop your writing style and improve your manuscript on your own. That way you are focusing on becoming a stronger writer and not just improving a single manuscript.

If you no longer can identify the issues in your writing or haven't been able to find a solution on your own, then hiring a substantive editor may be helpful to you.

Choosing the Right Editor

If your answers to these questions point towards hiring a substantive editor for your manuscript, and you've already ruled out a developmental editor, then you may be ready to start looking for an editor.

Aside from the usual considerations of expertise, genre familiarity, and a good personality fit, you will want to make sure that you are working with a substantive editor who is not changing the overall style and voice. Using your sample edit, you can check if their suggestions match your voice well.

Additionally you will want to find a substantive editor who educates you to make decisions yourself and not one who makes sweeping or unexplained edits. Their comments should provide enough context for you to make your own decisions. Ideally, you should be able to learn to identify similar issues in your future projects and solve problems in a way that feels right to you. This way you not only are strengthening this manuscript, but your overall skills as a writer.

If answering these questions led you to decide you don't want to hire an editor, you may want to check out my blog posts on submitting and querying.

About my coauthor:

Elestrei Engrei was a huge help at providing the author perspective for this post.

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