Fiction Manuscript Editing

Erick Mertz Writing

Now is a great time to write a book. Publishing platforms like Amazon have opened the doors for a broad spectrum of exciting fiction from a diverse collection of authors. Whatever channel an author chooses for their book, whether self-publishing or traditional, the menu of options are astounding but, at the same time, the competition has become more intense. If you’re working on fiction manuscripts, and you want to break into the market, you need fiction editing services to increase your chances.

Many of you probably have a picture in your head of what a fiction editor looks like. Perhaps it’s a stuffy character with a pencil jammed in their hair and a tweed jacket, drowning in coffee and surrounded by books. For me, that image included a red pen, something to cross out my errant words or poorly conceived ideas. 

Whatever your image, fiction manuscript editing is a crucial step to successful publishing. Here are some general questions about the types of editing, the process and, of course, the cost associated with taking your fiction manuscripts from first to final draft. 

What Types of Editing Are There?

The first aspect any aspiring fiction author needs to understand is what kind of editing they need. If you have a finished manuscript and you’re looking at either traditional publication or self-publishing, you need to know that there are three primary phases of editing.

Which one do you need? Let’s take a look at what they are first.

Developmental Editing

The first phase of editing is developmental editing, which happens when the manuscript is newly formed. Maybe it’s done. Sometimes it’s not. Most often, this is the kind of editing a fiction author seeks after the first or second draft when they’re looking for direction on the story.

Are the characters fully developed and interesting enough? Does the story hold together? Where are the potential plot holes? New fiction manuscripts, whether from experienced authors or first timers,  need to be addressed on this level and a developmental editor can help address these needs. 


Line Editing

Once the story has gone through developmental editing, meaning the story is tight and everything makes sense, the next phase is line editing. This phase addresses the text on the level of how the language works. In this phase you’re closer to being done – much closer, allowing the editor to address the manuscript on the level of the line.

Do you repeat certain words or terms? Are there other language issues? Even the most experienced fiction authors need help here, addressing little idiosyncrasies that affect a book’s readability. 

Believe me, readers pick up on these oversights.  



The last phase of fiction manuscript editing is proofreading. This is perhaps the most familiar to new fiction authors. This phase happens when the book is almost ready and you’re down to details, the proverbial dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. 

Fiction manuscript editing is a key aspect of publishing success. Whatever the book, however you aspire to reach your audience, working with an editor is a critical stage.

Do All Fiction Authors Edit Their Manuscripts?

We’re living in the midst of a self-publishing revolution. As compared to ten years ago, or even five, going it alone on Amazon offers a path of increasingly likely success. 

Something I’ve heard before, too many times unfortunately, is that self-published books don’t need developmental editing. I have heard this from the mouths of misguided authors. I’ve seen it in blogs. I’ve even heard it from other ghostwriters and editors.

Let me come out and say – this is not the truth. In fact, anyone who says something like this, is operating under an unfortunate delusion.

I’ll explain why.

When an author markets a book, they do so using one of the major platforms available to all authors. Think of Amazon, Kobo, or AppleBooks, to name a few. The steps, abbreviated here for the sake of clarity, are to create a product page for your book, upload the cover, and then post the manuscript. Complete those three steps and suddenly you’re a published author. 

At any point, did I mention putting that book in the self-publishing section? No. 

When you market a book, you’re putting your title on the same digital shelves as luminary authors, names that you probably know and love. Do you write horror and suspense? You’ll end up on the same shelf as the great Stephen King. Write fantasy? Meet Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin.

Doesn’t sound fair, does it? In terms of notoriety and potential sales, it’s really not. Those are authors of enormous renown and, odds are, you’re not going to beat them.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t thousands – maybe millions – of potential fans for your soon-to-be-published book. I’ve met plenty of independent authors whose books consistently rank on a par with top shelf authors. How are they able to do that? They treat their manuscript with the same professional care and regard as a New York City publishing company.

They carefully create a compelling story. They purchase an excellent cover that fits the genre. Then, somewhere along the line they hire an editor to make sure the book sounds right. 

Skip that step, produce a sloppy book, and those potential fans are going elsewhere.

How Important Is A Good Editor To Writing Fiction?

As the previous answer infers, fiction manuscript editing is critical to a book’s success. That core inspiration, what makes up the main story, are both very important. How you cultivate that, bringing out the most in that idea, makes the difference between a good and great book.

How does that look in practice?

In addition to working as a ghostwriter and editor, I’m also an author. I write and self-publish a series of paranormal mysteries based in rural central Oregon. I have been writing this series for three years, publishing (at the time of this writing) two books with another two coming out soon. 

Writing, for me, whether it’s my book or a client’s, is a joy.

Experience has taught me, however, that the best writing comes out of a careful process of rewriting. My initial ideas and inspirations are, I think, pretty strong, but it’s only when I go back in and really explore the themes behind them that the story goes to the place where I want. 

My last book, Chasing Shadows, went through three rewrites before I handed it off to my editor. That means I wrote the manuscript, went back through adding and subtracting scenes and material not once, but twice. Once she took a look at it, giving me feedback on some slack points in the story and a lagging character arc, I was able to re-write the manuscript two more times in order to deliver it in its present state.

What have the results been? Chasing Shadows is highly regarded, averaging over a four star rating on Amazon and Goodreads. Had I not been so careful, the book would not have been nearly as successful. 

Don’t believe me? Take some time to explore Amazon for a while. Look at some of the books out there and read the reviews. When authors are able to publish whatever they want, sometimes, unfortunately, they do so without care, thinking that this advice doesn’t apply to them.

It does. Don’t short change your book.

How Much Does A Fiction Editor Cost?

Let me start by saying, getting the right editor working on your fiction manuscripts is priceless. When an author and editor get into a rhythm, each learning the rhythm of how the other works, the results can be outstanding.

Going into working with a fiction editor, however, you need to know there will be a financial commitment. It’s best to think of that commitment as an investment in your book’s success. Only after you put a professional’s touch on your manuscript can you expect the best results. 

Here is a breakdown of fiction manuscript editing rates.

Based on marketplace data, in 2022, editing for fiction manuscripts cost within a range of $2,200 to $3,400. This figure is based on a standard sized novel, 60,000 words.

That range, $1,200, between the low and high end can be attributed to a number of factors. Newer editors, looking to build their clientele, charge less compared to top shelf, experienced professionals. Another factor that can bring down the cost of fiction manuscript editing is a shorter manuscript and a series discount. Work with me on a series of three books, as an example, I’ll give you quite a deal compared to a one off.

After looking at these rates, you may consider a cheap editor. If you go on websites like Fiverr, Upwork, or any other provider service, you can find someone for a fraction of that professional cost. I’ve seen prices as low as $100-200 for a so-called development edit. 

When it comes to these providers, I can’t stress enough that it’s a buyer beware situation. In my experience, the cheapest editors often come with baggage. No experience. The barrier of English as a second language. A poor sense of storycraft. 

Fiction manuscript editing is, as I mentioned above, a smart investment in your story. How much (or how little) you get out of that service is often entirely up to you.

How Do You Find A Good Fiction Editor?

When it comes to fiction manuscript editing, I think finding the right person for your project comes down to four critical factors. Here is what I believe those are.

Knowing Your Manuscript:

Often I meet fiction authors seeking an editor but they are confused about their manuscript. This may sound strange, a writer not knowing the project they’ve been working on for months, sometimes years, but it happens more often than you might think.

Know your genre inside and out. Maybe not the tiny sub-genres (of which there are literally hundreds anymore, thanks to Amazon) but understand the core genre. 

Why is this important? You’re looking for an editor that works with fiction manuscripts in your genre. This level of expertise might not seem terribly important, but understand that most editors specialize. If you want to craft the best possible mystery then seek an editor with experience in that area. An editor that specializes in science-fiction or fantasy can certainly help you, but if you’re going to invest in your writing, why not go all the way?  

Interview Thoroughly:

I take interviewing very seriously. Why? As a ghostwriter working on client projects, a well-orchestrated interview allows me to get to know my subject. On the other end, when I’m the one being interviewed by a prospective client, a thorough interview assures me that they’ve done their homework and, if they choose to work with me, that we have a great chance of success.

A thorough interview takes time. Plan for thirty to forty-five minutes. You should be prepared to ask the prospective editor about their experience, knowledge of the genre, client list and approach to delivering feedback to you. These are all absolutely vital components of a successful editing experience. 

You want a fiction editor that has experience. They need to understand the inner workings of your specific genre (again, think of the larger genre, not necessarily the sub-genre). They need to be able to give you a reference (or two). They also need to be able to describe how they deliver feedback. In the end, will you receive a phone call? Or will you get your fiction manuscript back with in-line notes? Some editors, myself included, offer a standard document. Whatever that is, you need to know. 

Whatever other questions you might have specific to you, feel free to ask. They’re the professional, however, you need to be confident that they can deliver what you need.

Ask For A Sample:

Don’t hesitate to ask for a sample edit. Most editors won’t necessarily offer one, however, almost every reputable editor I’ve ever known is more than happy to provide one if asked.

A sample edit usually goes like this. The client chooses a sample from one of their fiction manuscripts (almost always the work in progress) and submits it to the editor. I set my limit at 1,000 words, which I’ve seen as pretty much the industry standard. The editor then provides a sample of their editing hand and returns it to the client. From that, you should have an idea of how they work, their attention to detail and, most importantly, the kind of feedback you’re going to get.


This is important for any service you hire for, whether that be fiction manuscript editing or something else. Communicate with your editor. Tell them what you want and need. Let them know about your concerns and, if you have them, any fears you might be harboring about the process.

Good fiction manuscripts can become good published books. It’s only with the help of the best developmental editors that those good fiction manuscripts become great books.  

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