Copy vs Substantive Editing
A copy editor goes through the manuscript to identify typing, spelling and grammatical mistakes; checks for consistency (e.g., that the name of your second cousin is spelled the same on page 113 as page 28); identifies awkward or unclear sentences; and generally tidies up. This is the level of editing most people mean when they talk about having their book professionally edited before self-publishing. Professional copy editors are likely more thorough and more accurate than a friend, but a friend with a good knowledge of spelling and grammar is likely better than relying solely on oneself.
A copy editor does not comment on the content, however. If you describe the time a purple dinosaur ate your trailer, it is not the copy editor's job to question anything other than the spelling of Spinosaurus.
This is not always understood by consumers, who hire a copy editor to "edit" their memoir and are surprised when the next reader suggests the book needs editing before being sent out. "But I already paid for editing!" It is completely reasonable, however, that what you got was a copy edit, if went to a copy editor and/or were unclear you wanted a critique of the content as well.
Publishable quality work usually requires multiple drafts to optimize the manuscript's potential. Most writers find it helpful to get feedback on their initial draft to help identify strengths and weaknesses and to seek advice on how to structure and develop the subsequent draft(s). This is called structural or substantive editing.
Copy editing is therefore only intended for the final draft of the manuscript, when everything else is done as well as it is going to get. There is no point in paying to copy edit an early draft, since any particular paragraph may end up being revised (or deleted and replaced altogether) in subsequent drafts, which would then have to be copy edited all over again. And, frankly, there is no point paying to copy edit a draft with glaring structural or substantive issues because perfect spelling does not compensate for an incoherent chronology or the intrusion of purple dinosaurs in a memoir of one's service in the Iraq war. Better to get the structural/substantive editing completed before finalizing and copy editing the manuscript.
On the other hand, copy editing may be all you need if have already done a number of drafts yourself, and/or are satisfied with how the manuscript has turned out. It's your life and your story, and really, who is to say whether there should be purple dinosaurs other than you? (Purple dinosaurs would actually be pretty creative and interesting, when you come right down to it, and the nice thing about copy editors is that they work hard not to be judgmental about anything other than, say, the lack of serial commas.) Essential Edits staff stand ready to copy edit your memoir, with or without dinosaurs, whenever you decide you are ready.
Substantive or structural editors deal with the big picture issues, such as whether your particular memoir would be better organized chronologically or by theme (using flashbacks, perhaps); whether to cover one's whole life or edit it down to just the juicy bits; whether this scene is too long, or this other too underdeveloped; and so on. Structural editors usually do a certain amount of copy editing while they are at it (it's hard for an editor not to correct a grammatical mistake if they happen to notice), but because they are focused on the big picture, they sometimes miss some of the pickier details, such as Canadian spelling in one chapter and American in the next. Publishers usually have a separate copy editor proofread the manuscript after the author and structural editor are through with it to ensure everything is perfect; or if one is working with a single editor, that editor will likely make a separate copy edit pass through the manuscript after the final iterations of structural editing. If you are trying to place the manuscript with a publisher, you can usually leave the final copy edit to them; if you intend to self-publish, it's up to you to decide which types of editing you need, and how much to budget for each.
As suggested earlier, the important thing is to have a second set of eyes help you identify the manuscript's strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps make recommendations for improvements, before taking it forward. There are basically three options to ensure that you have developed your manuscript to its fullest potential.
First, you may wish to read some of the 'how-to' books on writing memoir to edit your initial draft yourself. By using the provided checklists, you try to see your manuscript through the eyes of the guide's author. Can you recognize any of the usual beginner mistakes identified in the manual in your own work; or can you adopt/adapt any of the recommended strategies to strengthen your work? You may wish to read more than one manual, as different authors will have different suggestions, and some of what they say may not apply in your particular circumstances.
The advantage of these 'how-to' guides is that they are relatively inexpensive. Indeed, you could check your local library, or for free online advice, if a particular how-to guide seems too expensive. The disadvantage is that they cannot address your particular issues or manuscript directly; that is, you are ultimately still undertaking the revisions on your own.
Second, joining a writer's group or circle is often a useful way to get feedback on your manuscript. Other writers can help identify any passages that are unclear; scenes that are missing or belaboured; places where the narrative could be strengthened; and questions that a reader not already familiar with your life story might have. The group provides a second (third, fourth and fifth) set of eyes to catch problems one cannot (by definition) see for oneself; and to provide support and encouragement throughout the writing process.
Legitimate writers' groups do not charge fees; instead, in return for your fellow members spending time reading and providing feedback on your manuscript, you will be expected to volunteer your time and energies to do the same in return.
Writers groups can be found locally or online. You may have to try a few different groups to find one that is compatible. You may find some groups too harsh or too gentle, too business focused or too congenial, too young or too old, and so on. Some groups are formed around a single topic (e.g., science fiction writers), others by location (e.g., the River Bottom Writers' Group, and some by age (e.g., a local seniors' centre). A good way to find a group you might join is to check with the local arts or writing center (e.g., Alexandra Writing Center) the regional writers' association (e.g., the Writers' Guild of Alberta), or the national association (e.g., Canadian Authors' Association).
[These local, regional, and national writers' organizations may also offer reasonably priced writers workshops/courses, mentoring programs, manuscript reading services, annual conferences and other member benefits which may be of interest as you work to polish your memoir.]
Substantive Editing (cont.)
Relatives and friends can sometimes provide excellent feedback, especially if the memoir is about a period when they were not directly involved. There can occasionally be problems, however, asking friends or relatives to serve as beta readers if they are in some way too close to the events in the memoir. They may push for an interpretation of events closer to their own—downplaying or exaggerating or changing their own role, or that of their friends/allies—or trying to 'sanitize' the narrative, providing feedback that may undermine the manuscript's authenticity. On the other hand, they may prove unhelpful by providing only uncritical praise, in the mistaken belief that this is being supportive; or be afraid to question anything lest they be accused of trying to censor the work. And family and friends may lack the writing skills that a writers' circle can bring to bear. Better, then, to work with other writers, when the opportunity is available.
Of course, engaging a professional editor is likely the most efficient and effect way to get the specific advice that you need.
Choosing the right editor (like choosing the most appropriate writers' group) requires a little thought. Some editors may specialize in academic editing, business reports, mysteries, or etc., and so may not have that much experience with memoir. If you are trying to capture the poetry of your life, then a business editor's focus on concise and plain English may not be exactly what you need.
Most editors will do a sample edit of a few pages so that you may judge whether the feedback you are receiving is at the depth and of the type that you desire. Just as with writers' groups, some may be too harsh, others too gentle; too focused on the narrative or too focused on fact checking.... (Does it really matter if that happened on the Tuesday rather than a Wednesday? Only sometimes!) And so on.
The sample edit similarly gives the editor a chance to accurately estimate how much work your manuscript requires (and therefore what editing would cost) and whether the editor is sufficiently familiar with your topic to be the right candidate for the job.
Essential Edits offers a sample edit package price of $150 to edit the first 4000 words (approximately 15 double-spaced pages) plus outline. Given the sample, Essential Edits can match the manuscript to the most appropriate staff member, provide an accurate estimate of costs, and ensure that the contract specifies the services being hired are actually the services the clients wants.
Without a sample edit, it is difficult to suggest what the cost of hiring an editor would be. (See, for example, Editors Canada's "What do Editors Charge" page.) Each situation is slightly different, so a sample edit is the key to an accurate estimate.
A good rule about how much to pay for editing your memoir is never to spend more on editing than you can easily afford! No amount of editing will guarantee your autobiography will sell, and you should be cautious about paying more for editing than your book can likely earn back.
It's perfectly reasonable, however, to approach an editor and ask how much editing you can get for X number of dollars. In other words, instead of paying by the project, you could ask how many hours of their time you could buy with that budget. They may not be able to do a thorough job for that amount, but perhaps it would be enough to identify, prioritize, and address a few of the manuscript's problems (if any) or to validate that the manuscript is ready to be sent out.
Another useful strategy is to pay for the first installment of editing—say the first quarter of the manuscript—and then see if you can apply what you have learned from this initial feedback to the rest of your manuscript yourself, before going ahead with the next section. This saves the editors from needlessly repeating themselves throughout the whole manuscript, when pointing out the first few examples of one’s bad writing habits (say, run-on sentences, or not providing enough detail) is often sufficient feedback for the author to fix the whole thing. Then, if one goes ahead with the second installment, the editors can go faster, or go deeper, providing better overall value. And of course, the editors can adjust the type and style of editing to fit the client’s needs based on their feedback to the editing on the first installment.
Any sustained piece of writing is a major undertaking, and a book-length autobiography or memoir is no exception. Writers' groups are often quite helpful with feedback and moral support, but if one becomes blocked, it is sometimes useful to seek out a writing coach.
The writing coach takes editing one step further to help with not only the manuscript, but the writing process itself. The writing coach is a mentor who helps the writer overcome writer's block, advises on writing habits to increase efficiency, and talks the author through the existential angst of writing, in addition to the usual editing tasks. For a detailed discussion of what a writing coach can do for you, see the Essential Edits page: Writing Coach
Some writers' associations run inexpensive mentor programs; universities' creative writing (or English) departments sometimes have writers' in residence who may be available to coach members of the public; or you may wish to engage a professional writing coach. Essential Edits has several writing coaches on staff.
Rewriting and Ghost Writing
Some people have the notes for their memoir or autobiography, but don't feel confident organizing the material or finding the narrative thread that ties it all together. Editing these materials into a memoir may go beyond even substantive or structural editing to rewriting. Essential Edits staff pride themselves on being able to translate notes into a memoir that retains the authentic voice of the originator, while helping the author find their story.
Some people have a story, but no idea how—or no desire—to write it. Ghost writing (where another author writes your memoir, but under your direction and cast as autobiography rather than biography) may also be available from Essential Edits.
As the most time intensive and demanding of the services offered, ghost writing is correspondingly the most expensive. A cheaper alternative might be to find a family member with which to coauthor your biography.