November 20, 2014

Should Authors on the Traditional Path Pay an Editor? — Guest: Sharon Hughson

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The title of today’s post makes it obvious that this might be a controversial topic. Writers pursuing traditional publishing are often told not to pay for editing before submitting to agents or publishers. But is that always the best advice?

The “rule” originated because in the days before valid self-publishing options, there were too many willing to take advantage of authors. (Er, there still are too many willing to take advantage of authors, but let’s stick to this one point. *smile*)

Pre-published authors were bombarded with claims: “Pay me to edit your work, and I guarantee you’ll get an agent/publisher.” Er, no. No one can guarantee a result of an agent or publisher unless they’re in cahoots, which some of these scammers were (and are).

Also back then, many editors were employees of a publisher, rather than a freelance contractor, unlike how they are now. That meant there weren’t many quality editors able to freelance for anyone and everyone.

Put that scam aspect together with the fact that there weren’t other legitimate editing or publishing options years ago and the advice to not pay for editing before submitting made sense. Any editors we found as pre-published “nobodies” were likely to be scammers or unqualified.

But the landscape has changed just as much as the post-apocalyptic settings in some of our stories. We’ve had to change our opinions and attitudes about many old-school advice “rules,” and today Sharon Hughson, a pre-published author who’s pursuing traditional publishing, is here to talk about whether this advice about editing should be next on the chopping block. Please welcome, Sharon Hughson! *smile*


How a Professional Edit
Can Outshine other Forms of Feedback

Writing is a competitive business. If you want to stand above the crowd, your writing needs to glitter brighter than a diamond at midday. To this end, a writer needs feedback on the stories they write. (I’m not talking about Aunt Rose, either).

Different avenues exist for writers—at every level—to get honest (and hopefully helpful) insight into their manuscripts. Much of this input might be available free of charge. In fact, should we ever pay for a professional edit when seeking traditional publishing?

I have seen recommendations from traditionally published authors (and even a few agents) in regards to editing. The consensus seems to be: Don’t spend money on editing your manuscript before shopping it to agents and editors. Believe me, I sighed hugely when I read this advice (since I don’t make much cash as a full-time pre-published author).

Is this the best advice for you and your manuscript?

In my sixteen-month stint as a professional writer, I’ve found feedback from a multitude of sources. Family, friends, writing groups, fellow newbie writers, published authors, and even a couple professional editors.

What a Critique Partner or Critique Group Can Do for Us

I have experienced three separate types of critiques in my writing life. My experiences may be atypical. In any case, I’ve had critiques from a writing group, a published author, and a fellow pre-published writer.

I know most writing groups are composed of pre-published authors. However, my experiences between a group setting critique and a one-to-one critique have been vastly different.

In the writing group, you have three types of people: the know-it-all, the uber-critical person, and the soft-hearted reader. Their titles are self-explanatory. None of these people will be able to help you improve your writing. In fact, they may make your story worse if you try to incorporate their advice.

If you’re a member of a critique group, you’re the person who gives honest and useful feedback on every story. You never get your feelings hurt and always balance your negative comments with positive ones. As this person, you will soon tire of receiving less-than-helpful critiques from the other members and seek feedback elsewhere.

I actually paid $50 to have a published author in my fantasy genre read the first 20 pages of my manuscript. We had a ten-minute meeting to discuss her comments. She marked my manuscript in every direction. The setting was lacking. The characters were flat. The premise sounded tired and over-used. My sentences were horribly constructed.

About ten percent of what she said helped me improve my writing. Saying what is wrong with something is not the same as offering solutions to fix the problems. In fact, I have rarely read a critique that offered helpful insight for improvement (noting all my bad habits doesn’t count, does it?).

Finally, a fellow writer offered helpful and insightful advice about the opening and characterization of the manuscript I’m currently shopping to agents. She reads the genre and has an excellent ear for strong voice and snappy dialogue. Where she excels, she gave me the best advice I’d received from all the other critiques combined.

Of course, she isn’t strong on structure or creating conflict. She knew what she liked about the characters but couldn’t tell me why she didn’t like what she didn’t like (a mouthful, I know). In short, if we struggle in the same areas, she can’t help me dig my way onto solid ground.

What Beta Readers Can Do for Us

Beta readers are readers not editors. They should not be expected to catch your grammar errors, typos, or sloppy writing. They read for content and fluidity.

Say they’re confused about why or how something happened, they make a note. If they didn’t like the characters or find them believable, they mention it. Give them a list of 23 things to comment on and you’ll get some amazing—and diverse—feedback.

I did have two fellow writers beta read my manuscript. Both of them gave insightful commentary about plot, character, setting, conflict and pacing. In most cases, every one of my six readers found different things to wonder about—which helped me plug the holes in the story.

As for helping me improve the structural flaws, there wasn’t any feedback I could use. They weren’t equipped to identify weak areas in my story or character arc.

What a Professional Editor Can Do for Us

This brings us to the woefully under-appreciated professional editor. Perhaps you have looked at these people and thought, “I can do that. What skill do they have that I don’t?” Especially since many of the best editors are also published authors.

A developmental editor will amaze you (if they’re a true professional). You won’t have to ask them about anything. They will open your manuscript and tear in.

Yes, I do mean tear into every word, sentence, paragraph, and event. Close attention will be given to the opening pages because they know these are crucial to the success of your story—both with agents, publishers, and readers.

Nothing will be off-limits. Is the setting vague? Does the character have a goal? Can the scene be easily visualized? Does the dialogue sound like something people would actually say?

Your narrative will be scrutinized. Are you using the best point of view? Are you hopping between character perspectives within the same scene? Does the description sound like something a narrator of that age would truly think?

Certainly, problems like too much telling will be addressed. However, deeper issues like the underlying structure of the story and obvious character arcs will be more important to a developmental editor.

Their job is to decide if you have a story to tell. If you do, are you telling it from the right perspective? Did you start in the best spot? Is there enough conflict to sustain tension and keep readers turning pages?

Jami is holding me to a word limit, or I could go on here for another thousand words. Bottom line: A professional editor locates the bones of your story and decides if you have a foundation. If you do, they’ll dissect the characters to help you streamline motivation. If they find inconsistencies, you will hear about it.

My Personal Conclusion

In short, I disagree with this blanket assertion: A manuscript traveling the traditional path doesn’t need an editor. I agree there are some benefits in “free” feedback, but sometimes those sources don’t push your manuscript to the top of the slush pile.

Time to face facts: You won’t hook an agent or editor with a manuscript that doesn’t shine. No matter how great your prose or how many degrees you possess, you aren’t the best critic for your written work. It’s a fact; one I was sad to encounter.

I’m a pretty effective editor, but the truth is I’m too close to my own story to recognize many of its shortcomings. The characters are my intimate friends, so I read between the lines. I see subtext that doesn’t exist. Weakness in character arc or description are the invisible woman.

So here’s my advice:

If you’ve shopped your story and no one is biting,
take the plunge to pay for editing.

Spend the money on a developmental edit to ensure your manuscript:

  • has sound structure,
  • has believable and relatable characters, and
  • isn’t riddled with plot holes.

Look at this expense (and it isn’t cheap) as an investment in your career—like workshops, craft books and conferences. In the end, your manuscript will sparkle. You will learn how to write a stronger story and spot your weaknesses in the next manuscript. Best of all, your name will appear on the cover of the book you’ve envisioned.


Sharon HughsonSharon Hughson writes non-fiction, YA fantasy and women’s fiction. More than a decade in public education has given her special insight into the minds and voices of teenagers.

Reading, playing the piano and walking in the great outdoors devour her minutes (yes, only minutes!) of free time. She lives with her husband along the Columbia River in Oregon.

To learn more about her writing, visit her website.


Sharon Hughson's blog headerVisit Sharon’s blog to read her three-part series on her experiences with critiques. The series kicks off with a reminder that critiques often aren’t going to feel good, and we need to be prepared for that. The second post touches on the fact that when multiple feedback comments say the same thing, we should listen. And the third post explores how the ability to ask (non-defensive) questions might increase the helpfulness of the feedback (so look for that feature when searching for feedback sources).

On her blog, Sharon goes deeper into the insights from her professional editing experience.


Thank you, Sharon! Like you, I’ve heard this “don’t pay for editing before submitting” advice before, and we don’t talk enough about whether that’s still the best advice, given the changes in the industry.

As Sharon said, I don’t think authors should pay for editing right out of the gate. There are many sources for feedback, and spending money shouldn’t be our first option. In addition to what Sharon mentioned here, I’ve blogged before about my experiences with writing contests and how some of them are structured to provide feedback (although due to the contest entry fee, they aren’t technically “free” feedback).

Every agent will be different about what they can overlook. Some might be able to see past our errors or inelegant wording to the story underneath. Some might not want to help us through that weakness. Some agents consider themselves feedback agents and some don’t.

So how can we know what to do? Following the typical “don’t pay for editing” advice, the next line is often that we should shove this story under the metaphorical bed and move on to another story. For me, my second story helped me find my voice and my genre, so I understand why we might not want to stick with the same story that’s causing us problems.

But other times, we want to stick with that story and solve its problems. We might not want to give up on a story that’s the first of a series, or perhaps it’s the book of our heart. Or maybe we’re willing to invest money to speed up our learning process beyond what we could pick up on our own from free or cheaper resources. There’s no right answer for everyone and every situation.

When we don’t want to give up on a story, we might be able to use a “rule of three” to step through our revision/submission process:

  1. Get feedback from three free sources (beta readers, critique groups, etc.).
  2. Query three agents who represent our genre and accept sample pages (many agents who accept sample pages will peek at the pages even if the query is less than perfect).
  3. No bites? Get feedback from three more free sources and pay attention to repeating issues noted in the feedback.
  4. Query three more agents who represent our genre and accept sample pages.
  5. No bites? Pay a small amount for feedback on our opening pages or scenes (writing contests or a professional partial edit) and again pay attention to repeating issues noted in the feedback.
  6. Query three more agents who represent our genre and accept sample pages.
  7. Still no bites? Pay for a professional edit or a manuscript critique/analysis from an editor who emphasizes teaching-style feedback and specializes in our weaknesses (i.e., big picture developmental editor issues, sentence and grammar line editor issues, etc.).

If we stick to two or three feedback sources or agents on each round, we won’t burn out too many people, and we’ll still have enough feedback to look for repeating problems. That information about our weaknesses can be invaluable, as Sharon’s advice and this process are all about learning what might be holding us back.

That’s my main takeaway from Sharon’s post. If we feel like something is holding us back from success (rather than just plain subjectivity) and free feedback isn’t helping us determine what that something might be, it might be worth it to invest in a more aggressive form of feedback.

When we’re feeling stuck, we want to know what’s holding us back. Sometimes, our critique partners or beta readers will be able to push us past that obstacle, and sometimes they won’t. In those cases, paying for an edit might provide the in-depth analysis that will push us to the next level for this story—and the next one. *smile*

Do you think authors pursuing the traditional publishing path should ever pay for editing? Have the changes in the industry affected your perspective on this issue? How do your experiences with the different types of feedback compare to Sharon’s? Do you think knowing our weaknesses can help us move forward with a story, or is it better to move on to a new story? When would a professional edit be a good idea or a good investment for a beginning writer?

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As an editor, I’ve had more than one hybrid client (with both self-published and company-published works) say they like my editing better than the company’s editing. At least one has even proven that with their pocketbook (hiring me at their own expense).

Personally, I’m leery of the prospect, but if you know enough to have a sense of what you don’t know and what you need help with—and if you can afford it—then paying with your pocketbook can be worthwhile. The trouble is finding someone good. I’ve known self-publishing authors who have gone through multiple editors, trying to find someone who is actually competent.


Note: For the sake of my time constraints, right now, I’ve ignored the distinction between competent editing and compatible editing. They’re two very different things, and someone can provide one without the other, but you want/need both.

Sharon Hughson

I felt exactly the same way as you – until I experienced a taste of professional editing. Then, I felt like a moron for missing things that were pointed out, and I felt chills of excitement when the editor’s commentary gave me an “ah-ha” moment (or twenty).
Jami mentions that a true professional should give a sample for free before requiring payment or accepting a client. I think a writer will be able to determine from that “taste” whether or not the editor is a good fit or just another talking head.
Thanks for commenting!


I think a writer will be able to determine from that “taste” whether or not the editor is a good fit or just another talking head.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Sample edits are more apt to show compatibility than competence, and they require both sides to make assumptions. I’ve had writers assume I marked things for reasons other than why I marked them (even when I’ve explained), and I’ve had situations where my editing was problematic because I was given incorrect information about what I was editing.

One memorable situation involved a book where the narrator was someone who was married with kids—but the opening was such that I had no idea if the narrator was an adult or child, or what the relationships with the other characters were. If someone in that process had bothered to tell me the synopsis or blurb, I would’ve known what I was dealing with, but I’d even been told the wrong genre—which had led me to think the narrator was a child.

Yeah. That didn’t turn out well.

Tom Threadgill

My experience is very similar to Sharon’s. Critique groups are great if you can find the right one, but even then they tend to paint in very broad strokes. Professional editing is not cheap, but it is an investment in your writing and (when done correctly) is a learning experience. Thanks for sharing!

Sharon Hughson

I hope you have found a source for getting helpful feedback. I’m amazed I’m not bald after all the ups and downs I’ve experienced in the search.
Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Tom Threadgill

Hi Jami & Sharon! Yep, I have found a source of feedback that’s actually helpful! A couple of men who write in my genre (Christian thriller/suspense), one who is published. At this point, I’m not concerned with commas and the like. I just need to know if the story works! Any plot holes, a sagging middle, all the stuff that’s so hard for the author to spot in his own work. And Jami, you’re spot on. I’d never consider an editor until my manuscript was as polished as possible, and that can’t happen unless someone besides me has read/critiqued it!


Wow, Sharon, you sure did hit a lot of marks a lot of pre-published authors need to know. I submitted a novel to a publisher a few years ago and was lucky enough to receive amazing comments and thoughts on how to make it better. They also gave me an option to re-submit once I fixed the problems. That doesn’t happen often. I went to work but still couldn’t seem to get my mind around how to fix the problems. It was at that time I found an awesome online group of beta/critique readers who are one or more of the following: published authors, have their own publishing company, freelance editors, up and coming authors, or editors for publishing houses. The wealth of information I received and still receive from them is invaluable. If it hadn’t been for these ladies, these individuals who are not afraid to rip a manuscript apart while being very, very nice about it, my debut novel would probably still be sitting in a ‘do not submit yet’ pile. It took LOTS of eyes and LOTS of red-lining and the development of thick skin to get it to a point it was ready to submit. I didn’t resubmit to the first publisher as I had my eye on another. I put it together, read it through one more time, then hit that submit button. Guess what? All those tears, all those edits, all that polishing by those in the biz landed me a publishing contract with…  — Read More »


I am so excited about your novel being accepted. I can hardly wait to read it.
As Jami said, you’re quite fortunate to have found a group of “professionals” who are willing to honestly critique your writing. You mentioned that some of them are in the publishing business – and could very well be charging other people for the same thing they’re giving you for free! If I could hook up with that sort of group…
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience.

Julie Musil

I have a mixed opinion on this. If you sign with an agent or a publishing house, and they don’t like what the freelance editor has suggested, the writer then has to rework the manuscript, sort of like taking it back to where it was pre-money.

On the flip side, if your writing isn’t catching the attention of agents or publishers, it couldn’t hurt to pay for editing. However, the writing might be awesome it’s just that something else isn’t right–genre, trends, etc.

Glynis Jolly

I have yet to try to publish anything other than articles but as I work on my draft of my first book, I cringe at the thought of the cost of a professional editor. For me, as I’m sure it is for others, a hefty price. Nevertheless, as a novice of sorts, I know that I’ll desperately need this help eventually. So I’ll scrape up the money from some place and pay for the lessons I’m sure to learn for an editor.

Sharon, I am glad I read your post here at Jami’s blog. I had kind of figured out that the free help may not be all that good but I like getting confirmation from a learned source.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Even though I’m just doing self-publishing, this post was very interesting to read! I especially liked the part about comparing critique group vs fellow writer vs published author feedback. And haha I totally understand that know-it-all, uber critical person, and soft-hearted reader dynamic–I’ve definitely seen that. I tend to be the soft-hearted reader…so I’m good at encouraging people but not that great at helping them improve, haha. But hopefully I’ll get better at spotting weaknesses as I travel up the learning curve! I do agree that hiring a good professional developmental editor can teach you a lot, so it’s valuable just for learning purposes. But, as I think the above comments mentioned, there’s always that cool but sometimes annoying issue of subjectivity… Even the best developmental editor who respects your story and your voice, I think, will have some personal preferences just because they are human too. I’m thinking mostly about some little quirks that I like doing that I know a lot of people don’t like nowadays, you know those things I told you about: my fondness for naming emotions directly, using the omniscient point of view, and simply liking to tell a lot (even though I show a lot too.) I do believe in good developmental editors, but remember we talked about how our reading experiences can “train” us to have different psychological reactions to the same thing. So my named emotions technique works effectively on me and on my friends who react strongly to emotion words, but…  — Read More »

Sharla Rae

Great blog Jami and very helpful. Even when I published traditional I sent my book to an editor of some sort. I think if the writing to very clean it helps immensely. Then if the book is not selling I’d go the route of the bare bones editor — if I couldn’t bare to tuck the book under the proverbial bed. It’s touch to fork out so much money so you have faith in the book.

Killion Slade

Thank you for such a wonderful article! It wasn’t until I started working with a professional editor that I learned how to write! I learned more in the revision/editing process than I ever learned in a class. To me writing anything includes the investment in an editor who is compatible, who cares, and most of all I can learn from their style of communication. I submitted my first few chapters to several editors and the feedback among them were quite varied on the spectrum. I didn’t go with the person who LOVED my story, and I didn’t go with the editor who only red-lined mistakes and didn’t to tell me how I could have reworked the section. It wasn’t until I found an amazing lady who provided me all three that I began to feel the magic behind my words. 🙂 The compatibility issue is very important and I feel as an independent author that it is my absolute responsibility to have had my manuscript beta read several times and edited before submitting to my developmental editor, or to any submission for consideration. advanced structural and developmental editing is a different service, and you want them to concentrate on the story and the characters – not the punctuation. But if the compatibility isn’t there – then the editor isn’t going to like the work and the author isn’t going to learn anything. Even if I ever go the route of traditional, the manuscript I submit will be independently edited before…  — Read More »


I think the advice on the editor selection process is wonderful! 🙂 Nice to have it pulled together in one place like this. I’ve benefitted a lot from hiring a developmental editor early in my process (before any free beta readers saw the manuscript). Here’s my logic: 1) having a coach makes the learning curve steeper and faster at virtually anything, I assumed that writing was no different. 2) Favors are a Very limited resource. Asking for a beta read is a pretty time intensive favor, no matter how many times people say they like doing it, or they are “honored” to be part of my writing process. So I need to hoard that limited resource (to some extent). 3) Developmental editing is less limited resource (because it’s available for hire). There are still money constraints (on my end) and availability constraints (on the editor’s end), but these are (for me) less limiting than spending my precious favor capital on a free beta read. The advantage here is that I will be sending my book out to 5 beta readers at christmas time, after a full revision based on what I learned from the Developmental edit I paid for last April. I hope that this means my beta readers will be reading a better book, and enjoying the read more – and they will help me test how the edits I made are working. I can see if the backstory I removed left them confused, or kept them interested, if…  — Read More »

Courtney Milford
Courtney Milford

Is it worth hiring an editor if your plan is to self-publish? I paid mine $800 to read what turned out to be a very rough copy of a manuscript. Now I’ve completely rewritten it, but I will have to pay another $1,300 for her to edit it again.

It went from about 20,000 to 36,000 words, which is why the price went up.

She gave me a format for a query letter and said she would edit it as part of the deal, but I don’t know if I am ready to pursue having it accepted by a traditional publisher.


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