Mistakes in punctuation, tense, spelling, voice, and associated elements are collectively the second biggest reason manuscripts are rejected (first is sending the wrong content—science fiction to a romance publisher, etc.). Any fiction publishing professional will tell you that, and anyone who tells you different is provably wrong and has done you a disservice by misinforming you. Authoring and editing are different proficiencies. The author has the artistic ability to paint pictures in the minds of readers, to immerse them in the story. This ability is, for lack of a better word, a gift, and cannot be taught. Structural editors—people like me—are your hired help. Beyond the usual proofreading tasks of t-crossing, i-dotting, punctuation, and correction of misspellings, we check your work for voice, tense agreements, continuity, hanging modifiers, and all of the other construction departures that distinguish the great story with grammatical goofs from the great story without them. Structural editing differs from developmental editing in that structural editors use the rules and conventions of grammar and style, whereas developmental editors, or "book doctors," may or may not possess much ability in the nuts-'n-bolts of writing.
Every author ultimately deals with a publisher's editor. Most professional writers also realize the value of an independent final edit before submission, and use either a freelancer with whom they've established a relationship or fellow published authors in a "quid pro quo" arrangement.
A fact of life for writers, especially for writers not yet familiar to publishers' in-house readers, is that their manuscripts will be quickly put down if they contain many construction errors. Stephen King and Anne Rice can make all the mistakes they want—the new writer can't. This is a heartbreaking prospect to the aspiring author who may have devoted a year or more to the work, and does not have to happen.
Should you use one?
Like almost every other choice in life, it depends. The short answer—probably not. Developmental editors, the so-called "book doctors" who often call themselves simply "editors" even though they usually do little actual structural, grammatical, or proofing work, deal with the ethereal qualities governing how "good" your story is and how well you tell it. They claim to be be able to identify and correct problems with plotting, flow, character development, imagery, and the other literary points that cannot be quantified with set rules. They deal with the artistry of works. Obviously, gauging such skills in anyone professing them is difficult because no yardstick can be applied to them. Moreover, such services are expensive; the cost of a developmental edit of an 80,000-word manuscript can easily achieve four figures.
With that said, it's worth mentioning that being published today is a far more daunting challenge than it has ever been, and in certain cases the services of a developmental editor might be cost-effective. The median advance for your first novel handled by a legitimate major publisher will likely be around $5000; it's strictly your call whether you want to pay $1000-$3000 from your pocket for a speculative developmental edit of your manuscript before submitting it to a publisher. At some markets this help is part of the package. If your book generates sufficient interest at a major house—is basically sound and thought to be salable—the publisher's own editors, the only ones who ultimately matter, may help you work out the story's kinks at no charge. Most small presses offer little such support and expect your manuscript to be largely print-ready, and, to compound the money issue, offer either no advance or much smaller ones in the $500-$2000 neighborhood. If you believe you can benefit from developmental assistance, demand evidence of candidates' previous successes with other authors. It's your money, and in today's buyer's market you can be as picky as you wish.
If you still think you need a book doctor, here are my recommendations:
Your best shot: former acquisition editors for major publishers. Even these folks can't guarantee your book will be better when they're through, but, if you're comfortable with the cost and uncertainty of such services, these people, with their many years of having seen what sells and what doesn't, are your best chance.
The worst book doctors: authors doing double duty as book doctors. They are far less experienced than the house editors with decades of experience, and, at best, can help you only in developing a style like theirs. Remember, when you hire a developmental editor, you don't really give a damn whether he or she is a successful writer—some of the most successful book doctors never write a single word of clients' books. What you're paying for is a successful professional reader with maybe twenty years spent at a major publisher actually choosing which books got published and which didn't. That's not your typical author/editor.
What I Do
Jack's Grammar Rule No. 1: good grammar is invisible. When the overworked reader/editors at publishing houses pick up manuscripts, the authors have a remarkably short time in which to make a favorable impression. These folks are never impressed by good grammar, which is expected, but are immediately and negatively impressed by its absence. Your challenge to nail down interest in your story quickly is daunting enough; don't allow your work to be relegated to the rejection pile before it has its chance. This is where I can help.
What I've Done
I'm a former small-town newspaper reporter and military technical writer; in the latter capacity, I've authored operating and repair manuals, student texts, and military classroom curricula. As a freelance fiction copy-editor since retirement, I've worked with writers at various levels, from unpublished ones to NYT-bestselling authors. I'm the copy-editor for one of the most respected quarterly mystery fiction magazines; the creator of one of the world's finest electronic Shakespeare collections, The Rachel Shakespeare; and editor/author of the dual-media Stories to be Told in the Dark anthology.
What I Charge
½¢ per word flat rate. For example, 50,000 * .0050 = $250.00
Half at the beginning of the edit and, contingent upon your satisfaction, the remainder upon completion.
Cashier's check or money order.
For works of up to 50,000 words, typically 10 working days. Add one working day for each additional 5,000-word chunk or part thereof.
If you'd like to talk about your completed project and get an initial assessment of it from a structural view—you may not even need my assistance—please contact me by clicking on the page stack below.