Editing – it divides publishing consultants – some think you need it, others don’t; some think you need a lot, others think you need a little – so how can you decide whether to hire an editor at all and if you do, how can you work out what kind of editor you need?

First of all, you need to understand what editing is and what it isn’t. These days it is often confused with proof-reading because the consultants who don’t think you need an editor think that a proof-reader is more than enough.  In fact, proof-reading is an entirely different activity to copy editing and in this article, I plan to help you to distinguish one from another.

If the distinction between copy-editing and proof-reading was not enough to contend with, you then have to work out what kind of copy-editing you need: line editing, content editing, editorial assessment…How can you possibly know what is the right kind of editing for you?

A lot of the more confusing editorial descriptions come from America and have sprung up largely as a result of the emergence of self-publishing brought about by Print-on-Demand publishing and electronic publishing (specifically, on Amazon’s Kindle).

This is because a self-published book does not go through the traditional commissioning process; there is no quality control. As with all activities, some of are good at them, and others are not. That means that the amount of editing a book needs is going to depend on the natural talent of the writer and the amount of work they have done on revising and polishing their book before they send it to an editor.

My stance is that a book always needs to go to an editor, but I know that isn’t always possible and for some authors it is not desirable. There are tales of editors causing authors so many doubts and uncertainties that they pull back from publishing at all.

This is regrettable and says more about the talent and approach of the editor than the ability of the author because and editor should never take on the editing of a book that is not publishable – even if that is just in their view – or that they do not believe they can make publishable.copy-editing

One problem for editors who have always worked for publishing houses is that they do not always understand self-publishing or know how to provide the kind of support and editorial work that a self-published author needs. What this means is that you have two people in a relationship who do not know how to communicate with each other.

So, in truth, the situation is quite complex. You need to know that the editor you are hiring understand the purpose of your book and the level of editing you require. One way to check that an editor understands you and your book is to ask for a sample edit so you can decide if you want your whole book edited by the editor and if so, if there are any additional instructions you need to give. If you brief your editor well and get a sample edit, you should get the result you want.


In the UK, there is no such thing as line editing or content editing – copy-editing is copy-editing, it’s only a matter of degree i.e. does the book need a light edit or a heavy edit. Can the editor simply check for consistency, ensure the facts are correct and move a few sentences around or do they need to do a lot more work: rewriting paragraphs, creating headings, moving sections around? As it’s all so confusing, let’s get some clarity.

Judith Butcher wrote an entire book on copy editing, called (very simply) Copy-editing. It was first published in 1975 and was considered the publishing bible when I started out as an editor in publishing at the end of the 1980s. Butcher’s book is very detailed so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are writing seriously, doing a lot of copy-editing or working for a mainstream publisher. My edition is fairly old-fashioned as Butcher wrote her book before the advent of desk-top publishing and computers but it has since been updated and published under the new title: Butcher’s Copy-editing. It now includes information on modern publishing methods. That said, I still refer to it as it gives so much guidance on the nitty-gritty detail that editors are hired to sort out. It is still my editing bible!

So, what exactly is copy-editing? In truth, it is the process of preparing a book for publication. It can involve anything from fact checking to ghost-writing. The whole point of editing is to go in and make the changes necessary to make the book accessible to the reader. In a sense, the editor is the first reader of the book and is therefore able to tell an author whether their writing is clear, their structure works and whether their information is presented in a logical order.

I often think of the relationship between an author and an editor as the same as that between a master sculptor and his apprentices. The sculptor creates the sculpture itself and the apprentices remove the rough edges and hone the detail of the piece.

When do you need to hire an editor?

If money is tight, an editor may seem like a luxury you don’t need. And indeed there are circumstances when you don’t need an editor. These include:

  1. If you have done a lot of work on your book yourself already. You may need to ask an editor to read it and check for errors but it might not need a full copy-edit.
  2. If you have used a very simple structure and written a fairly short book.
  3. If you know you are a good writer and are fairly experienced.

However, the times you do need an editor include:

  1. When you have written a long, and fairly complex book.
  2. You have not had time to revise your book because you want to get it out to meet a deadline.
  3. You are not confident of your writing ability and want the assurance that you have written a book that will enhance your reputation, not destroy it.

Whether you hire an editor or not is your choice. Only you know in your gut whether your book has reached the standard you want it to reach and whether you have checked it sufficiently well. If you know what you want, know what to expect and understand how editing works, you can make a decision. A sample edit may give you all this information.

Personally, I enjoy the process of being edited – it gives me the assurance that what I wanted to say in m book has got across to my reader, that I haven’t left in a lot of silly errors and that my book basically makes sense. That’s the biggest benefit of editing: peace of mind.

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Deborah Taylor
Deborah Taylor

Hi, I'm Deborah Taylor and I'm a publishing consultant and book-writing mentor. I work with established business owners who want to share their message by writing a book but are struggling to get started (or finished). I help them write, publish and launch a stand-out, attention-grabbing book that will raise their profile, reach more of their ideal clients and grow their business. I am a trained editor with over 15 years' publishing experience with major blue-chip UK publishing companies such as Hodder & Stoughton, BBC Books, Cassell and Pearson. I have produced books on every subject under the sun and with professinals and experts from a wide range of professions, from chefs and gardeners to life coaches and career consultants. I would love to help you write a book you love and that will raise your profile, attract new clients and bring you exciting new business opportunities.