Which Editing Service Does My Manuscript Need?

editing honing the craft revising tips and tricks Dec 31, 2020
Title picture: Which Editing Service Does My Manuscript Need?

Post written by Katie Wall.

As a book coach and editor, I often help writers figure out what kind of editing their document needs. When the majority of my business was editing for graduate students working on PhD dissertations and master’s-level assignments, the choice was simple: copy editing or proofreading. When I was contract editing for a self-publishing company, it was even simpler—I just executed the level of editing I was told to do on a given project.

Now, though, I am thrilled to provide a much wider variety of editing and coaching services for my clients, ranging from:

You can see from this list that writers who are just beginning a project or who are in the final stages of polishing can discern what they need fairly easily. It’s those writers who are slogging through the messy swamp of revision who are often unsure how to determine what their manuscript needs. If you find yourself lost in the swamp and wishing you had some editorial or book coach support, read on for questions to ask yourself as you discern which service would be most helpful at this point.

Do I know what my goals for publication are?

Many writers write because they love writing. There is nothing wrong with this! However, whether you are at the idea stage or the revision stage, knowing what your publication goals are is hugely important. Why?

If you want to traditionally publish, you’re going to want to make sure you follow the conventions for the genre you are working in. You’re going to want to make sure your story is solid, characters aren’t flat, and the world of the story is logical. You’re going to want to invest time and money in polishing your manuscript to give it the best chance to get picked up by an agent and then a publishing house. You’re going to need to prepare yourself for the long haul of pitching to agents and then the agent pitching to publishers. To aim for traditional publication means you want your book to sell; it’s not only the story you are bursting to tell, it’s also a product to be readied for the marketplace.

If you want to self-publish, it’s important to understand the reality that unless you have an established platform of followers or you are planning to invest in a marketing campaign, chances are you are not going to sell many copies of your book because people will not magically know that it’s there. If you want to make money selling books via self-publishing, do some research, make a business/marketing plan, and think about hiring someone who is experienced in marketing self-published books. If you don’t care about making money on your book and instead want to self-publish so you can say that you have published a book, that’s ok! In fact, self-publishing might be a great fit for you in this case.

Note: If you are hoping to make a career as an author and want to self-publish a book and then try and get that same book traditionally published later, know that while this is a possible road, some agencies are not interested in manuscripts that have been previously self-published. This means that when you go to pitch your self-published book there will be fewer agents who are willing to review your pitch.

There are also hybrid publishers who bridge the traditional and self-publishing worlds. I’m not going to expand on that in this post; you can Google search and find out more that way.

All of this boils down to the why behind you writing your story. Why do you write? Why this story? Why is it important for others to read this book—or is that even important for you?

I am more than happy to coach you through this discernment process, either in individual coaching sessions (do you just want to talk things through with a professional?) or through my "F.I.R.M. Up Your Novel" planning method (do you want exercises to help you think through this and coaching support while you do?).

Do I have a solid understanding of what my book’s genre is (or will be), who my target audience is, and is my book within the word count guidelines for my genre? 

If you answered ‘no’ to any piece of the above question, it is crucial that you gain more clarity before proceeding. Let me explain:

Genre. While you may feel that writing in a genre is not important—like it limits the potential of your manuscript—the truth is that genre categories help sell books. Agents will not take your book’s pitch seriously if you are not clear on its genre. Readers often have favorite genres and have expectations of the books they read in those genres. Knowing where your book fits in these categories ensures that you will meet your readers’ expectations and leave them feeling satisfied.

Note: There are books that break genre expectations, and do that well. If you can do that, great! But you still need to be familiar with the expectations before you break them, and know where your book will fit in the marketplace.

Another piece of the genre conversation is whether your book is Middle Grade (MG), Young Adult (YA), or Adult. Books for each of these ages (and picture books too) have certain conventions that should be followed. A book written for a MG audience will have different subject matter and presentation than a book written for Adults. This aspect of genre ties in nicely with that of target audience.

Target Audience. Often writers struggle to identify their target audience. They think, but won’t everyone love my book? The problem with this thinking is threefold:

  1. It dehumanizes the reader by assuming they don’t have preferences or tastes of their own. Say you are writing a techo-thriller. No, not everyone is going to love your book; there are people who avoid thrillers at all costs (because they can’t sleep after they read them, perhaps) and those who don’t find technological detail engaging in the least.
  2. It prevents writers from thinking objectively about the point or message of their books. You need to think about what you are trying to say through this story and who you would like to impact with that message. If you want to reach a generic “everyone”, chances are your message is too broad and will not be poignant for anyone.
  3. Generalizing the audience means that the writer often assumes their audience will be like them—will think like them, like what they like, and have the same background/cultural understanding as they do. This can create problems with inadvertently offending readers (this is why sensitivity readers exist) and also problems with not thinking objectively about how the story’s presentation is or is not serving the story’s point or message.

If you are struggling to identify your audience, start to think about the following pieces:

  • What is your point or message?
  • Who do you want to hear that message?
  • What age of people do you want to write this message to?
  • What need are you satisfying in your reader by writing this book for them?

Word Count. Did you know that different genres have different word count ranges? While it is true that there will always be an exception to the rule, did you know that in the pitching/querying process agents often request a word count for the manuscript? This is because a word count that is far outside the genre’s norms is a red flag. Why? Because a too-short word count often means an underdeveloped manuscript, and a too-big word count often means the manuscript is bloated, the prose isn’t tight, or there isn’t a cohesive core to the story. Google your genre + “word count” and you will find sources that will give word count ranges for your particular genre.

Much like the first set of questions, I am more than happy to help you wrestle with determining these answers either through a coaching session(s) or through my "F.I.R.M. Up Your Novel" process.

Has anyone else read through my manuscript? Do the reader(s) have experience writing successfully in my book’s genre? Do they have other qualifications that would help them objectively evaluate my plot, characters, world, etc.? Did they give me constructive feedback instead of just gushing about it?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, it’s likely that your manuscript needs a manuscript evaluation or a developmental edit. While it is true that writers can create fabulous worlds and characters and stories in their minds, it is also true that those books will be read by someone who is not the author… and therefore it is imperative that the manuscript is reviewed by someone who is not the author, someone whose mind is attuned to the genre conventions and how story works and who can ask hard questions of the writer and give tough love to the manuscript in order to improve it.

If you answered ‘yes’ to the questions above, then ask:

Have I revised the manuscript based on the feedback I’ve been given? Have I reread the manuscript a few times to catch inconsistencies and strengthen areas that seem weak or flat? Am I fairly certain that I’ve gotten things as good as I can get them?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of these questions, then chances are you are ready for a manuscript edit or a copy edit. “Manuscript edit?” you ask. “Didn’t she already recommend that in the above section?” Yes, yes I did. The reason for this is that sometimes books need a manuscript evaluation and then a manuscript/developmental edit, or sometimes a manuscript edit and then another manuscript edit. This is because often there are large changes made after a manuscript evaluation or a manuscript edit and those changes can create other problems or inconsistencies that in turn need to be worked on.

If a manuscript edit is not needed at this point because the story foundation (characters, plot, world) is solid, the next step is a copy edit. Copy editing is for fixing grammar errors and other sentence-level problems like clarity and word choice. I don’t recommend skipping ahead to a copy edit unless you are 1000% sure that your manuscript is ready for it. If there are still fundamental issues with the story, spending money for a copy edit or proofread is like putting a new coat of paint on a building that is falling down. Get the building solid first, then buy the paint.

If I want to self-publish, have I already had someone go through the manuscript and correct my grammar mistakes and other sentence-level issues?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, your manuscript is ready for a proofread. This is the final polish before your book goes out.

For self-publishing, you definitely want to have both a copy edit and a proofread. These services will ensure that your readers will not reject your book for being unprofessional--for having typos and inconsistencies, etc.

If I want to publish traditionally, have I already had someone go through the manuscript and correct my grammar mistakes and other sentence-level issues?

If your goal is to traditionally publish, I recommend getting a professional copy edit done at the very least. This will take care of the big sentence-level errors that would turn prospective agents away from the manuscript. Since traditional publishing houses will have their own in-house editors to do final polishing (after you’ve worked with the editor to make any requested changes), there’s not necessarily a reason to have a proofread done on the whole manuscript before you query. However, you might consider having the first 5, 10, 15, 50 pages proofread, since these are often the sample pages an agent will request. You want the agent to read those sample pages undistracted by minor errors so that they are able to be fully absorbed into the story and hopefully fall in love with it!

You’ll also need to consider how to write a query letter and synopsis, which are two elements agents often ask for during the query process. There are many resources out there on how to write query letters and synopses, and you’ll definitely want to follow each agent’s particular instructions to the letter (otherwise your query will get tossed without review). Check out my Pitch Packages if professional support during this process is of interest to you.

Well, there you have it! I hope this post is helpful as you discern which book coaching or editing service would be most helpful for your manuscript at this point in time. As always, feel free to book a free consultation with me to discuss your specific project, your goals, and how I can assist you.

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