When should a writer pay for editorial guidance?

Sara O'Connor is taking a short break from her usual Ask A Publisher feature this month to look at the pros and cons of paying for editorial consultancy. When is it worth forking out for specialist advice? And who should you trust with your hard-earned cash? Sara has spoken with a number of different industry experts to find out best practice.

Today, I'm changing up the format: I'm asking myself the question. When should and shouldn't a writer pay for editorial guidance? It's a long one, but worth it, if you are considering parting with your money.

(This is different to paying for agenting or publishing services, both of which are covered at length on the wonderful Writers Beware site.)

I'm talking about paying for an editorial report or a conference or a retreat, etc. because it's not always the right thing to do. I've asked a few trusted colleagues about this, and here is what they've advised.

Jenny Jacoby, freelance editor (and part-time Hot Key Books editor) Jacoby & Whitehead

"Only employ professional editorial help when you have worked and worked on the text - and feel you can't make it any better. This isn't to say it can't get any better, but if you need specific help to identify places for improvement - such as pacing, or characterisation - you're probably at a stage where it's worth paying for advice."

It's a compact quote, but packs a lot of punch. Note the word "specific". I think it's really helpful to know what you want out of a critique before you pay for it. That way, you'll know you're going to get your money's worth.

Speaking of money's worth, agent extraordinaire, Gemma Cooper, has this to say:

"There is a lot of free advice readily available on the internet - with writing forums (like Verla Kay, Absolute Write), beta reading for other authors, editor/agent blogs, and resources like Words and Pictures - so I would advise people use as many free resources as possible when starting out with their first submissions. Where I think paying for writing advice is a good idea, is if you are getting close with agents and editors - personalised rejections on fulls, offers to revise and resubmit – and just need that professional fresh set of eyes to help get your over that last hurdle.

I've had submissions from people who have used editorial services or so called 'book doctors' and I’ve worried that they have been scammed because their work contains basic errors and things no competent editor would miss. So do your research and make sure you are paying for good advice. Does the person have a solid background in editorial? Are any of their clients published? Can you get references?

Paying for writing advice comes in many forms - having a membership to SCBWI, attending conferences and panels, using an editorial service, purchasing writing craft books - before you spend any money, do your research. How helpful each of these things are will depend at what stage your writing career is at."

If you aren't sure what kind of help to go for, consider this: From Dr Vanessa Harbour, lecturer at Winchester University and tutor for the Golden Egg Academy
Golden Egg Academy 
@VanessaHarbour and @TheGEAcademy

"A creative writing course, in whatever format, will not tell you what to write but it will equip you with the tools to hone your craft and make your writing the best it possibly can be. Courses provide an opportunity to experiment with and explore your writing, enabling you to find your own voice in an encouraging and supportive environment. It allows you to experience working with professionals and gain from their insights, whilst giving you permission to immerse yourself in your creative endeavour."

Self-publishing is a brave and exciting way to publish your book. In my opinion, if you are self-publishing, you simply must pay for a copy editor/proofreader before publishing. Take pride in what you are about to say to the world, and make sure it's clean, spelled correctly, and that your character's hair is the same colour throughout.

The answer that I want to stress the most is you should pay for help when you know you can trust what you are paying for.

Imogen Cooper and Beverley Birch, Golden Egg Academy
Golden Egg Academy
@Editorchicken and @TheGEAcademy

"Proper time spent on guiding you in your writing aims, and your writing results, by objective, industry knowledgeable, experienced editors cannot be found in any other way [than paying for it] before contract to a publisher. Friends, family and writers’ groups can all provide forms of support, criticism and encouragement, but those people, more often than not, are not editors. Editors are experienced in the detailed analysis of the work that will enhance your story, and discussion of that work is precisely what you need.

 If editorial support is of high quality, then the editor involved will be open and honest about the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript, from plot issues to point of view to dramatic tension, and realistic about the difficulties of becoming a published author. Talent is born not made, but a good editor will ‘guide, motivate, inspire and support’ their writers, ensuring at all times that they are objective and honest in their feedback."

Catherine Coe

"When you only want to hear positive feedback and are looking for reassurances to massage your ego. Or if you think it'll provide an easy way to improve your manuscript without having to do much work yourself. Yes, you will receive lots of detailed feedback and suggestions, be guided to focus on specific areas and be tutored on self-editing techniques, but you will have to be prepared to work hard to make the improvements and strengthen your writing - it takes passion and commitment to both consider the advice and then implement revisions.

Also, please don't pay for advice if you're unsure of the service you're commissioning - any good literary consultant/editor will be happy to talk through the specifics of what they will be doing, to tailor the service to your needs, and to answer any questions you might have.

A creative writing course or work with an editor won't work if you are not open to ideas and experiences. You need to be willing to listen to and act upon criticism - something that some writers find very difficult."

All of these are people whose opinions and advice I would hugely endorse. And there are three others whose expertise is worth having: Karen Ball, Sara Grant and Jasmine Richards, three fantastic editors with whom I have started a new venture: Book Bound. It is a writing retreat for writers ready to take the next step. You can find out more details here. We've also blogged about the plethora of writing help available here.

Sara O’Connor is an American settled in England and is the Editorial Director, Print and Digital, at an innovative children’s fiction publisher. Along with creating the concept for MY SISTER THE VAMPIRE, she has written four books in the series. With Sara Grant, she is a co-creator of the successful SCBWI-BI Undiscovered Voices project, helping over twenty unpublished writers win publishing contracts. She has been nicknamed Sara “Slasher” O’Connor (complete with Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster) by previous writing students who also say, “Every time I come across her Wise Words it feels like a personal pep talk!” She loves teaching writing for children and is delighted to be working with three good friends on the Book Bound writing retreat.


  1. Excellent question. Excellent answers.

  2. Thanks Sara - excellent advice from this group of trusted editors and it's great to have all the links in one post

  3. Thanks very much Sara, yep very useful advice.
    Particularly, knowing exactly what you're paying for - what does the report/meeting include and perhaps, more importantly, not include?

    (I suspect plot enhancing hair colour changes are ok, though?)

  4. Thanks, Sara. I really wish I'd paid for editorial advice earlier in my writing career, but I didn't know such services existed! As it was, I muddled through with a friend helping me edit. I learnt a huge amount, but it wasn't until I signed with an agent that I really got to grips with structure, character motivation and dramatic tension. I thought Imogen and Beverley's answer rather ignored the existence of editorial agents, though?

  5. It would be very useful to have a SCBWI or W&P resources page somewhere that listed all UK professional, experienced editors who offer a freelance editing service and will undertake, for example, a structural edit on a novel. (I don't mean a report - they can be useful but they're not the same as working with an editor). This is a really good start! Cost is usually an issue for most people, but if it makes it more likely you'll sell your book or be able to self-publish to a high standard then it's worth looking into ways and means.

  6. Thanks everyone for commenting.

    And yours in an interesting idea, Lesley. I think it might be hard for the organisation to endorse freelance editors - or comment on whether they are professional or not - but a non-biased directory would be a great resource. I bet SCBWI would be over the moon if you volunteered to put one together?

  7. Mmm, Sara, I'll definitely give that some thought! I think it may need someone who knows more than I do about who's who and who's doing what in the industry - but perhaps if I was to set this in motion people would a) advise and b) put themselves forward for the list. I agree it would be hard to endorse editors, but there would have to be some kind of recommendation or track record at least?

  8. These recommendation letter "power phrases" are grouped into three major categories: opening statements, assessment statements, and closing statements.


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