When to Hire an Editor (It’s Sooner Than You Think)

I recently recorded my first guest interview on a podcast (yay!) and my conversation with the fabulous host reminded me that not every writer knows what an editor is, what an editor can do for their writing, or even when to hire one.

Editing is a term that means a lot of different things to different people. There are editors that work for publishing companies and editors that don’t. There are editors that will only fix typos and grammar issues and editors who will completely overhaul your story and help you revise a draft.

To paraphrase the Prospector from Toy Story 2, it’s a confusing world out there for a writer. 

But worse than being confusing, this mixed up information about editing means that often writers don’t even know about the tools, resources, and people who are out there to ready and waiting to help them be successful. 

That is why I’m writing this post: So writers can see the resources that are available to them and understand why some editors don’t want see their draft until it’s finished and others would really rather  tackle your unfinished draft.

When to Hire an Editor

So without further ado I present to you . . . 

The Editing and Writing Support Timeline

Stage One: Dreaming and drafting.

During this stage, you won’t be thinking about editors very much. You will be doodling your ideas and dreaming about your story, and idly making bookmarks to use once your book is finished because that seems like something you will certainly need so you might as well so it now (no? just me?).

What you might not know is there are actually people to help you during this phase. These people typically call themselves writing coaches or developmental editors.

What’s the difference between a writing coach and a developmental editor? Depends on the coach and editor in question. Here are some general definitions, but know that often these roles intersect and these terms could almost be used interchangeably. 

A writing coach is someone who encourages you and holds you accountable to finishing your book. They might have deadlines for you, conference calls with you, and will probably give you a writing plan or schedule to follow. Most writing coaches will also provide feedback on your work as you finish it, usually with a focus on big picture elements (character development, plot structure, etc…).

A developmental editor basically helps you as you develop your book. Like a writing coach, they will give you feedback on big picture things like plot, theme, character, structure, organization, etc… They might also give you line-by-line feedback, but won’t spend too much time correcting minor issues since you are usually still drafting or making major changes which means any edit made at a sentence level might just get deleted later when a scene, character, or subplot becomes irrelevant and gets removed.

The biggest difference between a writing coach and a developmental editor would be that a writing coach focuses on encouraging you, getting to write, and getting you to finish while a developmental editor will typically assume that you can write on your own and will mainly focus on giving you big picture feedback and perspective and support for your story. In other words, a writing coach usually focuses on you and a developmental editor usually focuses on your story.

But really, the best writing coaches and developmental editors combine both of these based on your unique needs.

So, back to stage one. At this stage, most writers assume that they are on their own. On the contrary, I assure you. You can use a writing coach to help keep you accountable to your writing goals, hire a developmental editor to review your outline or help you create it in the first place, work with a coach to work through problems in your draft, or even to give you insight into the strength of your draft/outline/story.

Stage Two: Drafting, drafting, and more drafting.

Like stage one, most authors think they have to do this part alone; they sit alone and muddle through their novel feeling alternately ecstatic and despondent, believing that no one can help them until they finish their first draft.

But you don’t have to wait until your first draft is finished before you get support. Developmental editors and writing coaches can help with your first draft too. They can provide encouragement when you want to quit, accountability (in the form of deadlines and the fact that another human is waiting to read your words), guidance, and a much needed outside perspective on your words. They can help you assess the direction of your book, figure out the theme, keep you focused, even give you ideas about what to include or exclude. 

Thanks to our bootstrapping heritage, you might be tempted to think that it wouldn’t be worth getting help at this stage. “I’ll wait until it’s done and then see what someone can do with it,” you might be thinking. Well, you certainly can do that.

But getting help at this stage can save you numerous hours of revision and can also make the difference between finishing your book and chucking your story on the death heap with other long abandoned books. 

In fact, I think that getting help at this stage is more important than any other stage. Because having a finished draft that has already had in-progress feedback means your first draft is both DONE and WAY BETTER than most first drafts. Which means you are more likely to finish revising your book and more likely to share it instead of hiding it your desk drawer.

Stage Three: Revising.

This is where some writers start to think about beta readers and critique partners. They might also start to consider an editor.

So let’s talk about editing during the revision phase really quickly. 

Just like in the other stages, your best bet here is either a writing coach or a developmental editor. There are other types of editors, but you won’t need them until your book is pretty much done. As in, after your third or fourth draft probably. So for now, stick to the editors and coaches who are big-picture focused and will get you through your second and third draft or so.

At this stage, I’d also choose beta readers and critique partners carefully. Writers are surprisingly human and therefore susceptible to deflated hopes and sensitive egos (shocker, I know). Passing off your essentially incomplete book for feedback might be more than you bargained for at this stage. You might get back conflicting feedback that confuses you, you might get unhelpful and discouraging comments, or you might be led in the wrong direction. 

Unless you have a really close writer friend who you trust (and you’ve seen evidence that they know both how to write well and how to read critically—-because those are very different skills and beta readers need both), I’d stay away from beta readers and critique partners at this point. Get your support from professionals and save the beta readers for a final draft.

Of course, this isn’t possible for everyone. If you can’t afford an editor or coach for your revisions, then I suggest doing your first round or two of edits on your own before you share it with others. Then you can choose three people who you trust as intelligent readers and preferably also writers to give you feedback on your work. Just be sure you let them know you are asking for feedback, not evaluation, and give them a list of specific questions to answer and things to look for.

Once you get the feedback from all three beta readers, you can compare notes. If all three or even if two out of three make similar comments, then they have probably spotted something that needs to be revisited. If one person sees something and the other two don’t, use your own judgement on rather it needs work or not.

Stage Four: Polishing.

This is the stage when your draft is done. Hooray! You can’t do anything else to it or you might hurl. In fact just the thought of reading it one more time makes you woozy. But you aren't done yet...

At this stage, if you haven’t used them yet, pull in your three beta readers.

And then look into hiring a copyeditor.

A copyeditor is an editor who does line-by-line edits, looking for consistency, spelling, grammar, sentence fluency and clarity. They work on a micro level, sentence by sentence, not the macro level. They aren’t going to tell you that your chapters need to be rearranged or that your character development is weak and needs work. But they will tell you if you call the shopkeeper Thomas on page three and Terry on page three hundred.

This is also the stage where you can take a break from reading your words and start writing query letters and researching agents (if you plan on going the traditional publishing route) or where you will want to look into hiring a formatter and cover designer for your book if you plan on self publishing.

Stage Five: Final revision.

This is the stage where you revise your book one last time after getting it back from beta readers and your copyeditor. Not much to say about this one because it's pretty obvious.

Stage Six: Sharing.

At this stage, you decide which route to go: self-publishing or traditional publishing?

If you choose the traditional publishing route, you won’t need to hire any more editors for awhile because if you get an agent, they will become your new editor, and if you get published, the publishing company will give you another one. 

The only reason for hiring an editor at this stage would be if you keep getting rejections on your query letters and/or manuscript. Then you can hire an editor to critique your query letter or to critique your manuscript to see if there are weaknesses that need to be ironed out.

If you choose the self-publishing route, you will want to hire one last type of editor known as a proofreader. A proofreader is an editor superhuman who looks at the final proof of your book before you hit print. He or she focuses on the micro level of your story, much like a copyeditor, but giving more attention to minute issues such as your table of contents,  the margins, line spacing, and other yawn-worthy details. I sincerely admire those individuals for doing work that would put me to sleep in about two seconds.

I hope your takeaway from this post was that you have lots of people who want to support you and cheer you on during your book writing process. Because no matter what we writers have managed to convince ourselves about crafting a gorgeous book on our first draft (thanks for the unreasonable expectations William Faulkner), it's just not how it works. What works is a writer, supported by a ton of other people. That's how writers do it. That's how great stories get written.


If you’re starting to think that you want support on your author journey, click here. I fit into the writing coach/developmental editor category, which means messy manuscripts are my cup of tea and teasing out your amazing story with you is my favorite thing in the whole world. So don’t wait until you have a first draft. You can start now. It might make all the difference.