The cost of developmental editing and how to manage it

Developmental editing is the process of making a nonfiction book better in every way — including clarity of ideas, structure, tone, paragraphs, sentences, and words. Developmental editors aren’t cheap. Today, some ideas on how to manage that expense and make the book better at the same time.

Cheap editors aren’t a bargain

Depending on the length of the manuscript and the shape it’s in (more on that later), I’m likely to charge $10,000 to $30,000 to edit it. That cost reflects both my expertise in the subject matter I focus on (business strategy and technology trends) and the value I bring (helping create a book that will elevate an author’s reputation). It’s costs a lot; it’s worth a lot.

I know other really good editors. Most charge about the same.

You can definitely find cheaper editors. One author told me she got somebody to edit her book for $1500! (I read the book. It really needed a lot more editing.) You get what you pay for.

Here are some other ill-advised ways to save money:

  • Just use a copy editor rather than a developmental editor. Copy editors only fix grammar and confusing wording. A copy editor can turn a muddled and poorly structured book into a muddled, poorly structured book that’s free of grammatical errors. Not really the best strategy for a book that will make your reputation.
  • Get your friend to read it. Your friend is almost certainly not going to see all the potential problems and recommend the best possible fixes. And they will be more likely to give you an ill-advised break on stuff that’s not right, seeing as they are your friend. They may find ways to make the manuscript better, but unless they’re an experienced editor, they’ll miss important things. (If they are an experienced editor, you ought to pay them.)
  • Count on the publisher’s editor. Very few publishers have editors willing to do this work. Publishers I’ve spoken with tell me they now expect a fully publishable manuscript, which means it’s your responsibility to get your own editor. Self publishing operations that offer “developmental editing” typically do very light edits. Hybrid publishers may offer the same kind of light edits. Some higher-end hybrid publishers charge you a lot for editing and then hire somebody like me to do the actual editing. Or, you could eliminate the middleman and hire your own editor.
  • Hire a less experienced developmental editor. This might work. It might not. It depends on how good your inexperienced editor is, and that’s tough to judge if they have less experience.
  • Self-edit. You have blind spots. You’ll miss things. You need somebody with a different perspective.

Smarter ways to save on developmental editing costs

Good developmental editors don’t charge by the word or by the hour. But they do assess your manuscript to determine how many hours of work it will take, and price their work accordingly.

If you work with the editor, as opposed to handing them a mess, you can significantly decrease the amount you’ll pay. Not only that, but each of the steps I suggest here will make the manuscript better. Why does that matter? Because if you solve the big problems, the editor can focus on the more detailed problems. The result, post-edit, will be a far better manuscript.

  • Don’t ask your developmental editor to review a first draft. A first draft has flaws — and by the time you finish it, you know what some of those flaws are. Why ask your developmental editor to point out what you already know needs fixing? Create a revised draft that fixes the problems, and then the developmental editor can concentrate on the flaws you couldn’t see on your own.
  • Clarify your audience. Who is the book for? You not only need to tell the editor this. You need to keep it in mind as you write. A clearer idea of the audience can help you with consistency of tone and make it easy to identify off-topic pieces you should just delete — both of which will make the developmental editor’s job quicker.
  • Settle the title and main idea. If you don’t know the title and you haven’t completely nailed down the idea, your content will skitter around aimlessly. Editing content like that is pointless. Do an idea development session and settle the title, then revise the text to keep it consistent around that idea.
  • Arrange the chapters in a logical order. The first chapter should scare the crap out of the reader — showing them that they’re missing out on something important. After that, you flesh out the main idea, and after that, show the elements of your method. Your chapter titles should create a sexy table of contents.
  • Submit big chunks. It’s a lot easier to keep track of your issues across the whole manuscript if you submit it in one piece. Three or four big pieces works fine. But submitting five or eight or more pieces individually makes our job much harder to do well.
  • Cut extraneous material. Look for material that is repeated, irrelevant, off-topic, or too detailed. And just delete it. To put it simply: fewer words means a shorter, less expensive developmental edit and makes the book easier to read, too. Why ask the developmental editor to edit what doesn’t belong in the manuscript anyway?
  • Tell stories with your chapters. Books are made of narratives. That means each chapter is a narrative. Have you set up your chapters so that each defines a problem, explores it, and shows how to solve it? If not, rearrange the chapter. Narrative chapters are not only easier to edit, they’re easier to read.
  • Make paragraphs shorter. You’d never believe how much of my developmental editing is just inserting paragraph breaks to make paragraphs shorter. You should be looking at 150-200 word paragraphs at most. If you see long blocks of text, insert some breaks. It’s the easiest way to make a manuscript more readable.
  • Include source links. If you cite facts, we want to know where they came from. In this draft, footnotes may be overkill. Just include links to your original sources on the web.
  • Tell the developmental editor what to look for. If you know there’s a problem and you can’t fix it, tell the editor about it. This clues us in on what to look for, and we’ll suggest ways to fix it — or maybe, tell you it’s not really a problem.

These are all ideas that will make the book both better and easier to read. Then we can do our work, which is finding issues that you didn’t realize were problems. Don’t worry about consistency — we will find and fix it. Don’t worry about grammar — we’ll find and fix that too.

You and your editor are working together. The steps I’ve described are more work. But they’ll save you time and money by allowing your editor to focus on the most important problems — the ones you couldn’t solve on your own.

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