Do I need an editor?
The short answer to this question is yes. Generally the only variable is when you need one, but we’ll get to that in a minute. All professional writers have editors, no matter how talented they are already. Writers are passionate about the story they’re telling, which is a wonderful thing, but that passion means that they can’t be trusted to be totally objective about their work. Nobody is perfect, so an editor’s job is to work with the author, polishing their manuscript until it is as close to perfect as possible. Editors are there to catch the errors and iron out the kinks in the storytelling that the writer is too close to notice. They won’t be afraid to tell you what works, what they’re not sure about, and what frankly needs to be ejected into space immediately. Every great writer has a great editor supporting them. Publishing your work without having an editor look at it first is unfair both to yourself, and to your readers. As a reader, you want to know that what you’re investing time and money into is the author’s absolute best work. As a writer, you should want to feel secure in that same knowledge. If you don’t feel that drive to do your best and to practise your craft, you’re probably in the wrong field.
Okay, but I have beta readers, isn’t that enough?
This is a difficult question to answer because we don’t know your beta readers (though we’re sure they’re lovely) and therefore can’t vouch for the quality of their feedback. Beta readers are a vital support network for any writer and we encourage you to seek out some if you haven’t already, but finding the right fit can be tricky. Some only want feedback on their own work and aren’t interested in learning through close reading and critical thinking, and some are just too nice to tell you honestly which parts don’t work.
Editors, on the other hand, are trained professionals in the art of picking stories apart and examining them line by line. They are shrewd, analytical readers, with detail-oriented minds which thrive on creativity, and they honestly want to help fill the world with high-quality books. So while it’s great to get the opinions of your friends, family and carefully selected beta readers, it never hurts and always helps to ask an editor.
When (not) to hire an editor
Not when you can’t be bothered looking at the screen anymore. Not when you’ve gotten to the end of draft one and triumphantly / wearily typed “The End”. Not when you want someone to turn you into the next bestselling author. An editor is not a writerly fairy godmother. If you give an editor a lumpy pumpkin, the best you can hope for is that it’ll come back a bit shinier and a bit smoother. But it’ll still be a giant orange gourd with pulpy formless insides whose sole use in the world is as a Halloween decoration that everyone will forget about in a month. No one benefits from this: not your readers, who will be disillusioned and distrustful of anything you write in the future; not your editor, who will be frustrated that he or she couldn’t perform an impossible feat of magic; and not you, the writer, who will be out of pocket and out of favour with the reading public.
You should only hire an editor when you feel there is nothing else you can do on your own to improve your manuscript. Most writers are perfectionists and will instinctively know this moment when it arrives. If you’re uncertain, a good rule of thumb is after you’ve completed at least 2 drafts, read your novel all the way through 5-10 times, and applied your beta readers’ feedback. After this point, you’re probably story-blind and tampering with it anymore might just break the line between potential masterpiece and unmitigated disaster.