Editors can make the difference between a good manuscript and a great one. They can help writers reach new levels in creativity, fill out weak areas and fix all those pesky spelling and grammatical errors. But writers don’t have to rush out and hire a professional editor as soon as they’ve finished their first draft.
A writer’s first line of critical defense should be a critique group of writing peers — not family and non-writing friends. With a critique group, a writer can get an idea of how their work is being seen by readers, whether the story is coming across as it should, if any parts are confusing or lacking in the tension that makes readers want to continue. You’re probably thinking family and friends can do that too, but you can’t trust them to be truly objective (they love you, and that’s a good thing) and they might not be able to give you ideas about how to fix the areas that aren’t working. Members of a critique group can.
Once a manuscript is finished, the next best thing a writer can do is ignore it, put it away and don’t even think about it. After a month or two — the longer the better — pull it out and read it again. Why the wait? Writers have an idea of what their story is in their mind, but it doesn’t always get on the page the way we want it to in the first, second or even third draft. Getting some distance from the original draft clears our mind of what we think is on the page so we can see it the way any other reader would. Reading it with a fresh mind, we can see what’s missing from our original vision and adjust as necessary. During the time that you’re ignoring your manuscript, start writing another.
Continue to work with your critique partners and repeat full edits (with breaks in between each time) until you get to the point at which you’re satisfied with the manuscript. Then you can think about hiring an editor.
At this point, your writing is where you want it to be. An editor can now help you take it to new levels, offer solid suggestions on ways to build tension, further develop characters, bulk up dialog and description, and, of course, make sure the grammar and spelling are spotless.
Can you hire an editor earlier? Sure, a good editor can help you at any stage, but if you wait and get the manuscript in as good a shape as possible on your own, you’ll have the chance to make sure the work is truly your vision and, of course, you’ll save some money, money you can use to promote the book once it’s published.