“I am finishing my first novel, but I am not sure of the next steps when it comes to looking for an agent. Would an agent expect me to hire a professional editor to polish my work before I send it to her? Or would the agent be primarily interested in the story and overlook small errors such as punctuation (writing friends say I need to use my comma button more!) Thanks for any insight you can give me.”
First, no one expects you to hire an editor for any reason before you submit your manuscript. Freelance editors (that you hire and pay out of pocket) may be able to help you reach a certain level of professionalism, but so can reading great books, attending writers’ conferences, taking writing classes, joining a good critique group, paying careful attention to your own work, and so on. In fact I would say the latter (reading books, etc.) is far more important than the former (hiring an editor). Being a writer isn’t something you do in a vacuum, and the more you’re around other members of the writing/publishing community, the more you will learn (if you’re open to it).
Some people do learn a lot from working with a freelance editor on their manuscript. But you have to remember that even if you’re paying the person, all you’re getting is an opinion, and it may or may not be right for you, or accurately reflect the expectations of the market. I always say that you should do your best to polish your work before submitting it, including getting feedback from other readers and writers, and only if you get form rejections with no explanation should you consider going to a freelance editor for help (in other words, a freelance editor may be able to help if no one likes your work and you can’t figure out why).
Second, story/content always trumps a few typos (for me, anyway). However, sometimes people think they have “a few typos” when in fact they lack the basic ability to write well in the language. I’m by no means saying this is true of Sally in Boulder, but her letter brings up a point I want to make: Writers, especially at the beginning of their careers, often think they know more about writing than they do, or think that they don’t need to know that much about grammar and punctuation to be good writers. That’s not true.
The “rules” of grammar and punctuation allow for a certain fluidity of interpretation (just ask the Chicago Manual of Style), and within that fluidity you’ll find your own personal writing style. But the rules are there for a reason, and it’s not just because a bunch of academics got together one day and decided to inflict pain on the world.
To sum up: Yes, your work needs to be as professional and polished as possible before you submit to agents, but getting it to that point does not require paying a freelance editor, although it can.