In the writers’ groups where I hang out online, these queries are evergreen:
- How do I know if I need a copyeditor before I submit my work to an agent or editor?
- How do I find a good copyeditor?
- How much does copyediting cost?
The replies and comments are typically so head-spinning in their range and variety that no one could blame writers for being confused. And who can blame a writer for resisting an expense they aren’t convinced is necessary?
Starting with the assumption that every book-length manuscript needs a copyeditor at some point before publication,* the question is whether a writer submitting to agents and editors can squeak by without hiring a copyeditor first. Many manuscripts are in good enough shape for submission; the publisher will commission a professional copyedit when the book is under contract.
How do I know if I need a copyeditor before I submit my work to an agent or editor?
Writers fall into roughly three groups when it comes to hiring professional copyeditors.
Group A knows they need help. Their grammar and spelling could be better; they aren’t using any editing or consistency-checking software; they’re shy about giving their work to friends and relatives for feedback. Or they gave their work to some readers who pointed out problems. Oddly enough, the largest group of writers who know they need copyediting are professional writers who have already experienced the benefits of having an expert eye on their work.
Group B doesn’t want help. They’re sure they’re the best editor of their own work. They got A’s in English back in the day. They read a lot of novels. They always notice weird apostrophes at the grocery store. Their mother read their manuscript and says it’s perfect.
Group C isn’t sure. They’ve done the best they can, but they wonder if it’s good enough.
All three groups include some writers whose budget simply won’t allow for copyediting. If that’s you, you might find the next section helpful. Of those who are able and willing to spend the money, Group A will hire a copyeditor. Group B probably won’t. Group C will pay for copyediting if they can be sure it’s a good use of their funds.
For those on the fence, I can think of two ways to figure out whether your grammar and spelling skills are up to speed or whether you should seek professional help.
Method 1. Check Your Knowledge of Style and Grammar
Method 1 is more of a litmus test than a solution, but I believe almost everyone will learn something from it.
- Open your manuscript in Microsoft Word and go to the Review menu.
- Click on Editor. Don’t faint if you see that Editor is giving you a failing grade and has 4,789 suggestions.** That doesn’t mean you need a copyeditor. The point is to see how familiar you are with the kinds of issues copyeditors handle.
- Click through a couple dozen suggestions or more, pausing to look at each one. Read what Word says is wrong, and read how Word wants to fix it.
Each suggestion in the Editor pane goes with an underlined word or phrase in the text of your manuscript. Different colors and kinds of underlining indicate whether the issue is spelling, grammar/punctuation, or contextual spelling. (The underlines can be customized, if you’re into that kind of thing. They can also be turned off.)
MS Word will make many easy, helpful suggestions you’ll recognize right away as good ones. Some examples:
I saw Charis slip something into his beer!. (MS Word Editor: “One punctuation mark is all that’s needed.”)
It wasn’t the lightning she feared; it was it’s ability to reveal her hiding place. (Word: “its”)
Unfortunately, MS Word will also make suggestions you know to be either flat-out wrong or simply not right for your novel. It also regularly fails to flag errors that a copyeditor would catch.
So many brewers built breweries there that the neighborhood became a destination. (“These words work best when connected with a hyphen: brewers-built.”)
She don’t need advice from me. (“Double-check that you’re sticking to singular or plural.”)
That nihgt we poured over the documents for some kind of clue. (Word catches the misspelling of “night” but fails to suggest correcting “poured” to “pored.” Then Word wrongly suggests changing “some kind of clue” to “clue” because it’s “more concise.”)
Now we come to the real test.
Many of Word’s suggestions will fall into a third, gray area of style, punctuation, and grammar that writers struggle with. Experienced copyeditors know how to handle issues like these. They know there’s more than one right answer and which one is right for your book. They know when to enforce strict writing rules and when to fudge in a creative context. Do you?
It stood near the corner of 55th and Lake Park, and emitted an irresistible cinnamon-bun smell. (Delete comma?)
The all female garage struggled at first, but thanks to Denyce’s savvy, their clientele grew. (Add hyphen?)
She looked awfully small huddled in the center of the 2,000 seat nave. (Add hyphen? Spell out “two thousand”?)
One of those urban wonders, The 606 became their favorite date-night hangout. (Lowercase “The”?)
The family was old and moneyed; they went on to found a famous hotel chain. (Change to “find”?)
For all of our bad luck, however, we were unrelentingly upbeat. (Delete “of”?)
Ragmont was definitely behind the design of this brilliant scheme. (Delete “definitely”?)
Quite a number of locals were scandalized by the publicity. (Change to “several” or “a few”?)
If you understand the issues MS Word flags in your work and can answer the questions with ease, your self-editing skills might be strong enough that your manuscript can wait for copyediting until after it’s under contract. If you find the examples and questions befuddling, consider the possibility that your novel would benefit from a copyeditor’s eye before you submit.
Method 2. Get a Copyeditor’s Evaluation
You will have to pay for this kind of evaluation, but compared to a full copyedit, it’s a bargain. First, read the section below on finding a copyeditor. Once you have a potential editor in your sights, ask for a sample edit. Most copyeditors are willing to do this because they’re just as interested as you are in assessing the amount of work your manuscript will need before they take it on. Typically you pay for the sample, and if you hire the copyeditor, the money you paid goes toward the final bill. If you don’t hire them, you won’t have lost much, and you will have learned something.
The sample should tell you a lot. From the kind and number of suggestions and corrections, you’ll see where your weak spots are. You might realize at this point that you can make another pass through the MS yourself and make the same kinds of improvements. However, many writers look at the editing and recognize a kind of expertise they don’t have themselves. They suddenly see the value in paying for a full copyedit.
How do I find a good copyeditor?
The internet is full of excellent advice on finding a copyeditor. Editor Louise Harnby’s blog post on how to find a proofreader, copyeditor, or developmental editor covers how to search by means of your professional associations, your personal network, and social media, and it explains why a simple online browser search isn’t ideal. Harnby then goes deeper into refining your search and getting a good fit. Highly recommended reading.
Another terrific and comprehensive post on finding, hiring, and working with an editor is by editor Chantel Hamilton at publishing guru Jane Friedman’s blog, JaneFriedman.com. Hamilton explains the different kinds of editors (developmental, substantive, copyeditor, proofreader), then addresses a raft of questions and misconceptions about the editorial process.
Both posts include links to other valuable resources.
How much will copyediting cost?
You know I’m going to say “It depends,” because it does. But don’t let the expense deter you without first learning more. It costs nothing but your time to get an estimate from a potential copyeditor.
Don’t be intimidated. Even if you know nothing about the process, the copyeditor will. They will ask you how many words your manuscript is, what genre, whether you have a deadline, and other questions to get the ball rolling. You will immediately get a sense of their level of professionalism (or lack thereof). The copyeditor will send you an estimate that you can take or leave. You can ask about a sample edit. You don’t have to commit to anything before you’re ready.
Answer: Because agents and editors are flooded with so many submissions, they can be extra picky. And publishers know they’ll save time and money when a MS doesn’t need an in-depth makeover and a writer doesn’t need a lot of explanations and negotiations over the editing.
A good-looking manuscript will improve your chances with an agent or editor. Every book-length work will benefit from review by someone other than the writer, and professional copyeditors are the best candidates for the job.
Don’t believe for a minute that the best-selling writers you admire turned out their fabulous books with no help. Read their acknowledgments to see how grateful they are to beta readers, writing partners or groups, agents, editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders.
Then take the time to evaluate your own writing strengths and weaknesses to help you decide what’s best for your novel.
Friedman, Jane. The Business of Being a Writer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Ginna, Peter. What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Hamilton, Chantel. “The Comprehensive Guide to Finding, Hiring, and Working with an Editor.” JaneFriedman.com, July 29, 2020.
Harnby, Louise. “How Do I Find a Proofreader, Copyeditor or Developmental Editor?” The Editing Blog, May 22, 2017.
* In my decades of copyediting, I’ve reviewed literally hundreds of book-length manuscripts, and I never met one that couldn’t be improved by copyediting. Never.
** The “Editor score” as a percentage is a newer feature in Microsoft Word 365. Older versions of Word show the total number of suggested corrections instead.
Top image: The Editor pane in Microsoft Word (detail).
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Carol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.
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9 thoughts on “Does Your Novel Need a Copyeditor before Submission?”
Fantastic post! I’ve linked to it on my website.
Arlene, I also flinch whenever I see “a couple of” reduced to “a couple.” It’s like hearing “graduated high school” instead of “graduated from high school.” I suppose the language is changing . . . but I don’t have to like it!
Great piece, Carol. It inspired me to dig out Peter Ginna’s book and finally read it! It’s been on my shelf since it was published, but I was always too busy to get to it.
Thanks, Anne! And take heart: As they say, the only languages that don’t change are the dead ones.
Hahaha!! Good point!
I recall a student proposing an independent study in which I would edit the manuscript of his novel, so that he could see how a “pro” does it. Too bad I couldn’t have sent him to this post back then.
Those wacky students! They’ll try anything.
Arlene, I’m sorry to have made you flinch! You can always check a dictionary for the status of words and phrases: Merriam-Webster does consider “a couple” used as an adjective to be “informal,” which in my book means OK for blogging. That said, if I had thought about it, I might have added “of.”
Great post, Carol, with tons of excellent advice. However, I had trouble getting past “a couple dozen” in the sentence under Method 1: “Click through a couple dozen suggestions or more, pausing to look at each one.” I always flinch when I see the omission of “of” after “couple,” but now I’m thinking, if Carol can do this, maybe I’ve been wrong all these years? Is this actually an acceptable usage in semiformal writing?
Thanks, Carol! Of course you’re right—I should have just checked the dictionary. Thanks for the reminder about this handy tool. 😀 I’ve had a few weeks off work and my editor brain is in “shut down” mode these days.
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