Short answer (that would have made a long title): Whenever You're Asking That Question.
There's a whole lot about writing books that I push back onto the author, usually gently, as a "you problem." Deciding whether your manuscript is ready for editing is not one of them.
Yes, there's a little bit of a contradiction here: when you feel ready for an editor it's time for one, but only an editor can tell you if it's time for editing.
The nuance is found in some pretty common misunderstandings about editing, starting with the phrase "Is my manuscript done?"
What is Done?! ("Baby don't hurt me...")
There’s a difference between “done” with your book and *done* with your book. And it’s subtle.
One of the services I offer is a manuscript evaluation, born of the mutual frustration that came from only offering a line edit but expecting the author to know if they were ready for one.
I’ll pause here to say there are definitely Ron Swanson in Home Depot moments—where you really do know your shit and can walk right past the service rep and get to the product you need.
When other editors tell me what they need, or someone I’ve worked with a million times tells me what stage we’re in, they’re usually right.
But you should not have to become a professional to know what kind of professional support you need.
On my to-do list? Making a checklist for folks to use to self-assess to get a better idea of where they are in the process. I’ve also got a summary on my project initiation page that talks about the squishiness of what “done” might look like, since my approach is more about mindset and experience than objectivity.
Honestly, though, it’s all much simpler than that: you’re done when you’ve taken it as far as you can.
What Done Feels Like
“Done” as in “I’m handing this to an editor because it feels pretty good and I think it’s almost ready to publish” is usually about getting help with the polish. When you kick the metaphorical tires, you feel like it’s got good highway miles.
*Done* as in “I can’t look at this again” is usually about getting help, period. The book can range from kick the walls and the whole thing shakes from wood rot to maybe someone else just needs to blow the dust off it to uncover a gem.
“Done” feels like tentative excitement, “look what I made?” *Done* feels like exhaustion and heaviness. “Done” might be a little disappointed if I suggest more work. *Done* is dreading it, adding another F (and a lot of F-bombs) to the fear responses—fling. Like, ew-get-it-off-me, flinging it to literally anyone else who can help you move it forward.
There may just be a normal, regular old done-with-the-book too, and yours may come with any combo of thoughts and feelings. But here’s the real secret:
It doesn’t matter.
You’re done when you’ve taken it as far as you can, because you literally cannot do more than that. The question isn’t whether your manuscript is ready for editing, then, but what kind of editing is your manuscript ready *for*.
When to Hire an Editor?
Lots of editors have some kind of evaluation at this point in the Wild West of self-publishing, no matter what kind of editor they are.
A quick rundown of types of editing you might see advertised:
I could define each of them for you, but it doesn't really matter. Anyone you hire should be able to tell you what they’re great at doing and whether you're in a good spot for it. If the service or strength that they offer makes all of those feelings of doneness shift into a sigh of relief, it’s probably a good fit.
And even if you've got a fling-response, nausea-inducing, whole-body-tenseness level of *done*, the right fit support person will be able to meet you there and help you keep going, feeling supported all the way.
I like to hold 2 calls around my evaluations for exactly that purpose: one to get a feel for what the author intended and how they’re approaching the work at this stage, and one to help them digest my evaluation and get a feel for what kind of support they’ll need in the next stage.
And by the way, whether we roll right into an edit or double back into a revision doesn’t change your level of done-ness—I’m not evaluating YOU to see if you made the right call when you sent it to me. You don’t lose any points to Griffynpuff for bringing me a manuscript that isn’t impeccable. No matter what we decide to do, you were right: you were done with that step, and it’s time to move forward.
So maybe we'll go with one more revision of our core question here, to say "When is it not time to hire an editor?"
Because one of us is ready and waiting for you at any stage of the game. When you're sick of looking at your manuscript, when you're proud of it and want someone to join you in play space, when you're hitting your head against the wall, when you have a mess of content all over the place, when you've got a decent idea you're interested in chasing...
If you're thinking about writing a book, you could partner with an editor.
After all, it's our job—development editor, structural editor, line editor, book coach (or the new moniker I’m trying out: book facilitator)—to know what shape the book is in and tell you how we can help you round those edges out.
Your job is hard enough without adding anything else to it. And if we're doing anything right at all, that job should get easier, not harder, once an editor is on board.