When people talk about book editing, they often seem to think “an edit” is a one-step process, as if you send your manuscript to an editor and they go through it once and send it back ready to publish. In reality, there are several levels of editing, depending on where you are in the writing process. There is story-level editing (often called developmental editing or content editing); editing of the diction, clarity, and readability of your book (often called line editing or heavy copy editing); and editing for objective errors such as typos and punctuation errors (often called copy editing and sometimes called proofreading).
Most authors, including the ones you see on the best-seller list, could benefit from all three levels of editing. Because an author is so familiar with their story and knows what they are trying to say, they are often too close to their book to know if it is coming across to readers the way they want it to. If “most authors” could benefit from all three levels of editing, you know what that means: you could benefit from all three levels, as well.
In a perfect world, this is exactly what would happen. Every book would get the full monty. But we don’t live in a perfect world. In the real world, authors have a limited budget to spend on editing, especially if they are relatively new to writing and haven’t started making much money from their books. So what should an author in the real world do? How should they spend their editing dollars so they make the most of their editing budget? That depends on where they are in their writing career and what their particular strengths and weaknesses are.
Need help with the basics: If you are new to writing and get feedback that your grasp on the basics (punctuation, grammar, usage) is lacking, you might want to forgo editing at all at this time and instead look for more affordable ways to improve your writing. While an editor can certainly teach you a lot about good writing during an edit, this may not be the best use of your budget. Instead of spending your money on editing, consider spending it on books on the craft of writing or on local or online writing courses. You could also join a writers group and get feedback from other authors in your area. Once you have the basics down, you can look into hiring an editor to help polish your manuscript.
Punctuation? Check. Plot pacing? Not so much: Maybe you have some experience writing and you have the basics down, but you are writing your first novel and have no idea if you are on the right track. You might see this book as your “practice novel,” the one that you use to figure out what you do and don’t know about fiction writing. In this case, the best use of your budget would probably be to get a developmental edit. Through a developmental edit, you could learn about your strengths and weaknesses as an author and gain some mastery over character development, point of view, and plot pacing (as well as other story-level skills), which you can then apply in your next novel. At this point, you may find it is best to shelve that first novel and start writing your next one using your new knowledge. There is no need to fix the flow of your sentences or correct spelling errors if you are not going to work toward publishing this book.
Advanced beginner and intermediate: Let’s say you’ve written a couple of books already and have gotten a lot of feedback from beta readers that your story-telling skills are strong. Their comments on your current novel back this up. If you have a good group of beta readers whose opinion you trust—and a limited budget for editing—it may be the best use of your money to forgo a developmental edit and focus on line editing and copy editing so you can put out a clean book. Do beta readers supply the same level of information as a developmental editor? No. They tend to give more generalized feedback about your story and characters and don’t typically have the depth of knowledge that a professional editor possesses to explain why something isn’t working or to provide examples of how you might fix it. But they can be very helpful in picking out major flaws in your book. If you can’t afford all three levels of editing, it pays to focus on the areas where you will get the most bang for your buck, and in this case, that might mean focusing on the words on the page.
In an ideal world, every author would be able afford all levels of editing. And if you are serious about a career as a writer, you will eventually need to find a way to budget for this expense. But if you are just getting started or you have only limited experience, use the money you have set aside for editing to learn the things you most need to learn and to fix the most prominent errors in your book. A professional editor can help you decide which level of editing would most benefit you as a writer and would most improve the particular book you are working on.