Every Writer Needs an Editor

One of the issues brought up in the comments of this post is about overconfidence in writers – especially self-published writers.  Part of what fuels the amount of poorly-conceived self-published books is a sense of overconfidence and misunderstanding the role of an editor.  Because “editor” has become synonymous with “gatekeeper,” it’s possible some writers do not think the editorial process is necessary and think the freedom of being your own publisher means you have the freedom to avoid the editorial process.

They’re wrong.  For one thing, if you are trying to get a book deal via the traditional route, it’s not a bad idea at all to hire an independent editor to scour the manuscript before you send out your queries.  As is frequently mentioned, acquisition editors want a finished manuscript.  So you want to get a book as close to ready for publication before submitting it to agents and editors.  They’re probably going to want to “piss on” your manuscript (colorful description of offering their opinion, ala dogs marking territory) because agents and editors want to feel as if they made their imprint, but there is much work that can and should be done before it ever gets to this point.

Self-publishing is going to have even less of a filter so hiring an editor should be mandatory.  I became painfully aware of just how important the editorial process is with my upcoming novel, which I had edited by Erin Stropes.  I feel confident posting this because I know the book is not a total mess, but I also know that there were plenty of issues that I did not see myself.  A book just has to be looked at with fresh eyes.  Here’s a sample of a page with the most annotations:

This is a novel that I’ve read I don’t know how many times and there were many sentences that I’ve read over and over again that I thought were clear of errors, but actually my brain either filled in the missing word or neglected to see an error when I knew what the sentence was trying to say. Here’s a prime example of how readers can fill in the blanks no matter how many errors there are in a paragraph:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmotnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

To think that you’re your own perfect editor is more than a little presumptous.  To think that you’d be able to do this when you’ve only written a couple of novels heads into arrogance.  Here’s another example.  Count the number of F’s in this sentence:

Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.

The answer is







6.  Most don’t count all the f’s in “of” because it has the v sound.  The brain is a curious and imperfect instrument, so there are many issues that a writer is not going to be able to spot.  Hiring an impartial editor who doesn’t necessarily have motive to make you feel good about your work (such as a family member) is necessary for every writer. This one’s a bit easier – find the mistake in this sentence:

See other word-based optical illusions here.

Dangling Participles

Cheryl Gardner at Pod People has a great post singling out some of the biggest problems you’ll see in unedited fiction.

After falling from the balcony, my mother picked up the busted flower pot.
Did the mother fall from the balcony or the flower pot?

Walking down the cobblestone path, the flowers were beautiful.
Here we have a flower parade, and I am wondering if they were wearing top hats?

I saw the glowing street lights peeking through the curtains.
Damn nosy street lights.

Be certain of it, you have a sentence or two constructed like that – it’s an issue where the reader knows what you’re trying to say, but it enters a little confusion into the mix. Do that enough times and the reader’s going to become a little exhausted and maybe even stop reading – even if the reader’s not entirely sure what the problem is, i.e. he or she doesn’t stop reading because of bad grammar, but just a sense that the book is not flowing correctly.

The trouble with having readers become the gatekeepers is that many readers aren’t grammar experts. You could make the argument that: if the book is successful, it doesn’t matter if it’s poorly constructed. People are reading.  And certainly, poorly-written books have become successful. But as a self-publisher it is much less likely for this to occur, and if it does, it is less likely for it to occur on a large scale if the book has numerous problems. Finally, there should be some pride in craftsmanship – of putting together the best book possible – so by avoiding the editing process you’re virtually guaranteed to be releasing a book that has more than a few flaws.

The moral: hire an editor.

  • Having a profound idea is quite different than manifesting a profound idea–especially in writing. Writers already know the thoughts that they want to express. But are those notions accurately conveyed to the reader? What is lost in translation?

    Salt enhances the flavor of food. An editor enhances the flavor of your ideas. An incomplete thought that a writer may take for granted may be eloquently expressed with the help of an editor.

  • Thanks for the tag Henry. I so agree with you. I hear all the time: Readers love the stories. I am getting great reviews.

    Sadly in those situations, you are absolutely right. Most readers are not grammatically inclined, so they don’t know specifically what’s wrong. In that case, they comment only on the story, not the structure or the theory or how the read actually felt, and so their opinion is not really the best measure of how good we are at our craft. It tells us that we have story ideas people like, but it doesn’t tell us anything about our core competencies, or lack of. This is bad because a writer can’t aspire to be a great writer if they don’t know where they need to improve.

    I am a copy-editor by day, and this flows over into the book reviewing part of my life. From time to time, I help other authors copy-edit their novels. Because I do it so much now, I think it’s easier for me to switch gears when looking critically at my own work. It wasn’t in the beginning. I missed a lot of shit in my earlier editions, embarrassing shit, but now that copy-editing takes up more of my daily life, I don’t miss as much as I used to. Even still, I have other qualified eyes look at the work anyway. Copy-editing business proposals is not the same as copy-editing fiction. The poetry is much different, and we have to take that into account.

    I find that most mistakes with participles phrases happen because the author is writing in stream of consciousness mode. They begin the sentence, and then ideas to fill it out start popping into their head. This leads to endless clauses being tacked on to the end of the sentence without regard for clarity or rhythm. This is fine in a draft, but every author should make an effort to rework those cluttered sentences during the revision process.

    There are some wonderful copy-editing associations out there — with blogs — and so I encourage every author to subscribe to a few. If you can’t afford to hire a proper editor, then you are going to have to teach yourself. Don’t skimp on this part of the process. You might be getting great reviews, but someone will eventually call the work into question — have no doubt about it. When that happens, the blow can be crushing.

    Your site just reviewed a book where the author continuously spelled Pennsylvania wrong. I reviewed another book by that same author a year ago, and in that one, he spelled Herb Alpert’s name wrong. Not only is this embarrassing for the author, but a reader will feel insulted by the sloppiness. Trust me, they will.

  • One final note: the occasional typo happens, even in professionally editing books, newspaper articles, etc. There is a huge difference between the odd typo or two and bad grammar/poorly constructed sentences.

  • I’m dyslexic. I’ve always used editors and the current one has been with me now for more than 20 years. One of our final edit tricks is to read every word aloud. We also try to be sensitive to conflicts in logic.

    We use independent readers sometimes, but have learned to be cautious of the ones that know things which aren’t so. High school English teachers are a case in point. They “know”, so they don’t feel they have to fact-check. We have a dozen or so dictionaries and style guides to consult as well.

    There are a lot of myths promulgated at conferences about acceptable word length of novel submissions. One I busted last year was that everything had to be below 95.000 words because Barnes & Noble wants it that way. Barnes & Noble has no such policy and does not dictate book lengths to publishers.

    So use an editor, but one who just edits and doesn’t have opinions on what makes a book sell. It is your book, always.

  • Really interesting post. I guess there is a very big difference between the experience that the reader has while “enjoying” a book and the one that an editor has while “working” on proofreadng a book. However, I still find it hard to believe that there is a multitude of writers that still think it is okay to publish without having an editor take a look first. Their pitfall, I guess.

  • Randall Radic

    Great post, Henry. Yes, an editor is very important. I can’t believe how much my editor — Emily Schultz of Toronto — and yes, that’s a plug — improved my books. Also, never forget how important a copy editor is. The CE saves one from the embarrassment of poor spelling, lousy grammar and inconsistencies.

  • Deanna

    This is quite a testimonial, and I honor your serene humility. In my opinion (perhaps I’m just projecting), many writers are reluctant to submit to the editing process out of insecurity. It takes a certain degree of self-confidence to write for publication, and yet have enough respect for your audience to step back while a stranger grooms your precious offspring before you launch it into the world.

  • Terrific article! I am a freelance book editor and have edited something over 200 books for smart people with nifty ideas and minimal writing skills. I’ve worked with authors who don’t seem to know that sentences end in punctuation. Who have no idea how dialogue works (or how to punctuate it). Who seem to live in the thesaurus. Whose first language is not English and who used a computer to translate for them. Some days, I sit here and bang my head against my monitor. It doesn’t help.

    I also review books. I once received a self-published book that was double-spaced and lacked pagination. I guess the author had printed her masterpiece and taken it directly to Kinko’s to be bound. I decline to review stupid books, and many self-published books look stupid. Even if they’re not.

    Yes, self-published authors need editors! Some of them have ideas or stories that deserve to be read, and they don’t need to be getting in their own way by not using the services of a competent editor.

  • @CHERYL, In the longer post you left, it sounded like you think should sit there and “spell check” a self published person’s work, but you said something like “sadly, most don’t know enough about grammar to know what’s wrong” (or something to that effect). NO, it is the so-called AUTHOR’S responsibility to correct their OWN grammar, punctuation, and prose before “uploading it”. You belittled readers with your comment IMO. They should pay $ for those SP pieces of work and then be expected to “spell check it” for the “uploader”??

    Come on. No. Just No. Maybe I haven’t understood but it sure sounded like that.