Do Self-Publishers Really Need Editors

A comic-book style drawing of a man in a suit and glasses looking very stressed. He is leaning on a desk full of stacks of paper and he also has a laptop open.

One of the biggest debates in the self-publishing world these days is: do self-publishers really need editors? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. You need an editor, or rather you need editing services. There are (basically) 3  kinds of editing and you need to go through all three steps. However, you may or may not need a professional editor for all three! So why do so many self-publishers think they don’t need an editor?

One of the main motivations for self-publishing is keeping creative control, as I mentioned in the first article in this series on how to self-publish teaching materials. So sometimes self-publishers avoid editors because they view the editing process as a loss of control. In this view, editors are imposing their will on the writer and may symbolize the conventional or mainstream thinking that the writer is self-publishing specifically to avoid.

I think it helps to remember that editors are there to make the work better. Editors do have a different point of view, but it never hurts to consider other ideas and perspectives. It is true that editors may well have a more conventional point of view, but then your readers and customers may also be more conventional. It’s not giving up creative control to get advice from professionals who have worked with a lot of teaching materials. Finally, one of the joys of being a self-publisher is that the editor works for you. So if you really don’t agree with their suggestions, you don’t have to take them.

Three young people looking at a book held by the middle student. All three have surprised or shocked looks on their faces, mouths open, eyes wide.
These are your readers when they see that typo that you missed because you didn’t edit!

Another reason self-publishers sometimes question if they really need an editor is that they want to put an idea out fast. It’s tempting therefore to skip steps. Hiring an editor or getting someone to do editing for you does add to your publication time.

However, I can tell you as someone who doesn’t always proofread as thoroughly as I should, that nothing is more embarrassing than putting out a work that has a huge typo on the first page. Or realizing your description of an activity left out key details and the teaching tip on page 45 only works in your context. There’s no point rushing out a low-quality product. Editing may take time, but it’ll pay off in sales, downloads, exposure, and/or reputation-building that a carefully edited and revised work will bring. Fingers crossed!

There’s also a group of genre-fiction writers who self-publish rapidly and on the cheap. This group is very visible in groups about self-publishing and various how-to guides because many of them are very successful. Some brag about never editing, revising, or rewriting. They bang out novel after novel and do well for themselves!

However, writing genre-fiction is not the same as writing educational materials. Dedicated readers of genre-fiction like romance, fantasy, and horror, are voracious and often open-minded. They may forgive a typo or badly written prose if the plot is engaging, the characters fun, and the book hits the genre hotspots (This is in no way a judgement or criticism of these readers. I’m a huge mystery buff, both TV shows and books and I will overlook all sorts of things in the name of a good puzzling crime!).

Detective dressed in a beige trench coat with a big mustache and Sherlock Holmes style hat. He is holding a magnifying glass. and looking thoughtful
Doesn’t this character look fun, if totally cliched?

Remember, that teachers may use your materials day after day and year after year. I can forgive a mistake in a book I read once, but if I have to explain that the Answer Key should say “has” instead of “have” every time I use a worksheet, it gets old fast.

That being said, editing as a self-publisher doesn’t need to be as elaborate and formal (and expensive) as it can be for a publishing company. You, the writer, will be doing some of the work yourself. You probably also don’t have the resources for level after level of editing. And finally, you may indeed want to put out an idea that is slightly rawer and more innovative than mainstream materials!

The Three Types of Editing Services for Self-Publishers

I hope I’ve convinced you that yes, self-publishers really do need editors. So what editing services do you need? I suggest a self-publisher needs three types of editing:

  1. content editing
  2. copy editing
  3. proof reading

There are actually 6 or 7 types of editing but for the purposes of self-publishing, we can simplify it to three levels. Publishing houses often have a commissioning editor who decides whether to publish a project or not. A commissioning editor may also come up with an idea for a book and then hire writers to write it. As a self-publisher, you are your own commissioning editor and you already approved your project. Congratulations!

Developmental editing is another part of the publishing process that the self-publisher again often handles informally. A developmental editor looks at the idea and the rough outline of a book, maybe a sample chapter or two, and looks at the value of the concept, how the book should be organized, what pieces should be included, what should be omitted, and the overall kind of structure and content for the book. I hope you have given this some thought yourself, talked to your colleagues, and tested your materials in your classroom or with your peers before beginning to write. I talked about some of the ways you can test your book idea for marketability and these steps can act as a kind of developmental editing.

Developmental editing gives you the feedback you need while you are writing the manuscript. Once you’ve got a first draft manuscript, you move on to content editing!

A comic-book style drawing of a man in a suit and glasses looking very stressed. He is leaning on a desk full of stacks of paper and he also has a laptop open.
“Do self-publishers really need editors? What kind of question is that? Do I look expendable to you?”

Content Editing: Does the reader get what you’re saying?

There’s definitely some overlap between developmental editing and content editing, and many people use these words interchangeably. Even me. But by in-large, a content editor looks at a full manuscript and it’s the first time an editor looks at your individual words, not just concepts and sections and structure.

A content editor does not look at typos, grammar, or style. Rather, they look at the clarity, cohesiveness, and comprehensiveness. Hopefully, they won’t be moving whole chapters or units around, but they will be moving paragraphs and sentences. Maybe even suggesting rewrites of sentences and making suggestions for additional explanations or examples.

Remember that the goal of a content editor is not to stifle your creativity. It is to make your ideas clear and accessible to the general public. And in the world of education, particularly ELT, your readership is going to be very diverse. It’s hard to make generalizations about what they know and don’t know! So I strongly recommend finding a professional editor to help you. A good editor knows how people read and access information and they know how to structure a text to appeal to people. Truly, the value of another pair of practiced eyes simply cannot be overestimated! I used to be amazed how often I would leave key details out of a book, such as how to draw a hopscotch field, because it was so obvious to me.

There are a number of places to find good quality editors (and many of these are the same places I recommended finding illustrators):

  • Reedsy is a great source of professional editors with good experience and reasonable rates. I particularly like how most editors include a resume and portfolio so you can get a sense of whether they are a good fit or not. I’ve hired more than one person who used to work in-house at major publishers, a big plus!
  • Fiverr.com is a great freelancer marketplace for everything including editors. They don’t vette the freelancers though, unlike Reedsy and other sites. So you have to read the profiles very carefully and remember that you often get what you pay for. If an editor promises low rates and quick turnaround that might mean they aren’t doing the best job. On the other hand there are some real professionals on there with reasonable rates!
  • Upwork.com is similar to Fiverr, with the same caveats. One nice thing about Upwork is that you can create a job application process with questions and specific minimum criteria. This can really help you find the person you want with the experience and qualifications you want!
  • Linked-In is where you find out you already know an editor. Because profiles highlight experience and portfolios, Linked-In is a great resource for finding professionals!
  • CIEP (formerly the Society of Editors and Proofreaders) is a great place to find UK-based editors. Among other things, their directory includes the editors’ areas of interest and training, which is always helpful.

If you are on a tight budget, your content editor may a colleague or a friend in the education world. Or you may know a professional editor without even knowing you know them! So tap your network!

But I strongly recommend getting an outside pair of eyes on your manuscript. And that person should be representative of your target audience or experiences working with teaching materials and books so they can give helpful and practical feedback.

And don’t forget that content editing may go through more than one stage. After you revise, you’ll probably want the content editor to take another look. You may also have questions or disagreements. A good copy editor will take their idea and your idea and suggest a third way. Sometimes after feedback, I end up rewriting an entire section that now needs to be copy edited again! There’s no point in hiring an editor and not revising with their feedback in mind!

cartoon of a woman sitting at a laptop, head on hand, looking very frustrated
What do you mean I have to rewrite? And then rewrite again?

Student Centered or Student-Centered. Or Studentcentred?

You’ll also need a copy editor or line editor. Technically, line editing is different than copy editing, but for simplicity sake, I use copy editing to refer to editing for typos, grammar, punctuation, word choice and style issues. These issues may be mistakes or inconsistencies. Copy editors look at the words, phrases, and sentences to make sure that there are no errors and that the writing is clear and correct. They don’t usually look at ideas or concepts. You should be past that by now.

Most copy editors follow a style guide. You may know of Chicago, AP, or MLA as ways to format references and bibliographies. But these organizations also put out guidelines for conventions such as when to hyphenate high-school, whether to use USA or U.S.A., when to write 3 and when to write three, and whether to use an Oxford comma!

The first thing I learned as an editor is that style is in fact a matter of preference (for the aim of clear writing), not right or wrong! Generally speaking, consistency is the most important principle but you also want to use conventions that will not jar your reader! And in my experience educators are more likely to notice errors and inconsistencies than other groups! If you want to come off as professional to a teacher, you need to dot your i’s, cross your t’s, and know that the Chicago Manual of Style, rule 7.61 says plurals of individual lowercase ­letters are formed with ‘s. That’s what a good copy editor does.

I’d recommend finding a copy editor in the same places I recommended above. It never hurts to have friends look your MS over for mistakes. I find that no matter how many professional copyedits a book goes through, there’s always a mistake that I discover from an acquaintance on Facebook!

Proof-Reading

Once your book is written, edited, and illustrated, it needs to be formatted and we’ll talk about that next time. However, I’ll mention proofreading here briefly as it’s the third level of editing. Proofreading refers to editing the final formatted draft. By now, your content should be in good shape. Your typos and style issues are all resolved. But what about the formatting?

Proofreading means looking at the book laid out and making sure the design is correct. Proofreaders check for formatting issues: are the headers all formatted correctly and consistently? Do numbered lists go in order? Are pull quotes indented the same throughout? Does the text start and end in the same place on every page? Are images places correctly and text-wrapped around them? Is there a random blank page in the middle for no reason?

I do think that you, the author, can do this yourself as long as you weren’t the designer. If you formatted the book yourself, you need a fresh pair of eyes. Proofreading tends to be quicker and less costly than other editing, but it’s vital. A mistake in the design will standout and confuse readers far more than a misspelled word or capitalizing Email! You can probably already guess where to get proofreading services!

A final word on working with editors as a self-publisher. It’s important to find an editor whose style works with your own. Some editors make terse comments, others spell out their thinking in hundreds of words. Some will simply say you need to revise a paragraph, others give 3 suggestions how to revise, and some will do a suggested rewrite for you. Some ask a hundred questions to get in your head and some will have their own strong point of view, which you can follow or not! There’s no right or wrong way to work. It’s more about finding a style that works for you.

What do you think? Do self-publishers really need editors? Leave a comment or give your feedback on what makes a good editor/writer experience!


This article is part of a series on self-publishing in ELT. In the previous article, I talked about where to find great illustrations and images for a self-published book. In the next article, I’ll talk about book design and formatting and turning that Word or Google Doc into an actual book or ebook.

And if you’re looking for some help self-publishing, check out my portfolio and rates and services.