Your needs depend on your goals.
What if you want to take the slow route–taking five, ten years? I did it this way, attending writers’ conferences and absorbing all kinds of teaching from a variety of experts all the while–books, podcasts, conference audio, you name it. I joined a very good critique group, with generous people who knew a lot more than I did and patiently corrected the errors in my prose. If this is the case, you may be able to do it yourself, swapping work with other writers, a process that takes a while.
Or what if you want the fast track? You’ve got a great novel idea, premise that intrigues everyone you tell about it, and you’re chomping at the bit. You want it published next year. This is where you might want to hire someone to teach you in a few months what you need to learn. Because, believe me, that’s what is going on — you are learning a new way of writing, one they don’t teach in English classes in college.
Assuming you’re considering hiring (or swapping services with) an editor, what kind of editor should you look for?
Your first editor should go over your story structure to make sure it’s compelling from start to finish. If your first editor is looking at commas and semicolons, you’ve jumped the gun. (Once you eventually realize the story has holes in it, the wording will change, sections will be deleted and rewritten, and those sentences just fixed may end up in the trash.) This type of edit is sometimes called a developmental edit or structural edit. This editor will teach you new techniques and will suggest changes to your structure and plot.
Next is the time to look for minor changes. A copyedit checks that details match — green eyes in one scene, blue in another? Name of the town misspelled? Proofreading looks for grammar issues.
Paying for those services can add up to thousands of dollars, though. Is there some way a critique group can handle all these steps for you? The answer is yes, if you know what to ask for and you have the time.
Find a critique group with at least some seasoned writers who understand story structure. Lay out your story structure in the form of a synopsis, with key plot points labeled as such, and also send the first chapter. Ask your critique group to review and make suggestions. Critique groups aren’t used to doing this, but many times they contain the expertise to help you tremendously. You need to ask. For more on what to look for, read my post on My Book Therapy’s craft groups.
When you’re ready to adjust the minor things, a conventional chapter-by-chapter critique group can be very helpful, if time-consuming. Critique groups often contain people who are great at copy-editing and proof-reading. It’s best of course if the same person can read your whole book, one chapter at a time, in order to identify inconsistencies like eye color.
For suggestions on finding a critique group, check Suzanne Hartmann’s post on critique groups from last week.