Yes, you absolutely do need an editor, but when?
There’s a thread on one of the writers’ groups on Facebook as to whether you need to pay for a professional editor before you start punting your book to agents and traditional publishers. Some people are adamant that you do, but I disagree.
This is not denigrating the excellent job that a professional freelance editor can do. I can fully see the point of hiring an editor if you are self-publishing – in fact I would thoroughly recommend it – but if a traditional publisher sees promise in your book, they will buy it and then edit it. The editing process might be one pass or several. Also, if a good hands-on agent sees promise in your work they will sign you up to their agency and offer suggestions for revision before they submit it.
If you hire an editor before submitting your book to a traditional publisher, the publisher’s editor might have a very different idea of how your book should be and you could easily have to edit it again. For example: My agent (not my current one) thought my first book, Empire of Dust, was too long for a first novel at 190,000 words. She asked me to cut it down to less than 120,000. I gulped, saved the long version, and got it down to 123,000. Then I parted company with that agent and (some years later) sold the book to DAW. My editor’s suggestions ended up with me putting back in most of what my agent had asked me to take out. The finished book was 173,000 words after edits and suggestions. (DAW likes long books.)
I think it’s important here to note the difference between a developmental editor and a copy editor. Most people think an editor checks that commas are in the right place, but that’s the job of a copy-editor, and copy editing usually happens after the developmental edits. A developmental editor will tell you where your characterisation is weak, or note that you’ve thoroughly sidelined an important character for a quarter of your book, or that the ending really doesn’t work, or THAT scene needs to be beefed up, or watered down. They tend not to be prescriptive, but they ask a lot of questions and if you answer them in your text, your book is immeasurably better. My editor won a Hugo. She knows the business inside and out. She doesn’t make me change things, she makes me want to change things.
Writing can be a lonely occupation, so I can absolutely see that a first time writer wants feedback. Heck, I’ve had seven novels published and I still like feedback. While I’m in the process of writing, I get it from my writers’ groups and from a few trusted beta readers who are writers themselves.
You can go online and find groups such as Critters – http://www.critters.org/ – which is a site that has now been running for 25 years. Writers get together to review and critique each others’ work.
While I was in the process of stumbling through writing my first book, I was in a small group who passed pieces for critique around by email. There were eight of us, based around the world, Scandinavia, New Zealand, the UK and North America. We stuck together for eight years. I’m still in contact with some of them. I’d particularly like to give a shout out to James Hetley who also writes as James A Burton. He was the first of us to get a publishing deal.
I’m the secretary of Milford Writers, an annual face-to-face workshopping week for 15 published SF writers. (To qualify you need to have sold at least one short story.) The intelligent and constructive critique offered by fellow writers is invaluable, but also having to critique their pieces as well makes you a better writer because you can then apply what you’ve learned to your own writing.
I’m also part of a quarterly critique group (Northwrite) which works at the same high level. We’ve been meeting online during the pandemic, but hope to see each other in person soon. Building a core of critiquing first readers can also help, but make sure they are experienced readers if not writers. You’re not looking for pats on the back. So don’t have your Aunty Ada critique your book unless she also reviews for The Times.
And always remember that free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. If someone says one thing, and another person says completely the opposite, you are still the author and it’s up to you to decide whether or not to make alterations.