You Just Might Need an Editor
So you’ve finally got your masterpiece of a novel completed. Congratulations! Have a drink, celebrate, but realize the work isn’t over yet. Besides everything else, it’s a given your newly minted book needs editing. “Wait!” I hear you say. “My book is perfect just the way it is. I’ve gone over it with a fine-toothed comb. I guarantee there’s nothing, not one jot or tittle, needing fixing.”
It’s not that I don’t believe you. I know you feel the above statement to be one-hundred percent true. There’s just this one little problem…nobody’s perfect. Wait, don’t go away mad, or take it personally. It’s just the stone truth. No matter how long a person’s been writing, or how assiduously they’ve studied the craft, there are always issues cropping up in his or her books. The wise author knows an editor can help fix them.
You want a “for instance,” don’t you? Well, let’s take an easy one. Typos. There are a variety of those suckers, and they’re the sneakiest sons-of-beotches in the world. You have your transposed letter typos, homophonic typos, damn-there’s-only-one-letter-different typos. Let’s not even get into the “crap-I-thought-it-meant-something-else” typos. Those are almost guaranteed to spark amusement in places you really didn’t intend.
And the biggest problem with typos? The more you read over your work, the less likely you are to notice them. We see what we expect to see. If you wrote, ‘It was written in blood on her bear back,’ and don’t catch that homophonic typo the very first time you read the sentence over, chances are every time afterwards your eyes will see ‘bare,’ not ‘bear.’ Can you guarantee there isn’t even one typo in your book? If not, then you just might need an editor.
Still not convinced? Okay, how about comfort and garbage words? Do you have a go-to word or phrase? If I used the ‘find’ function on your manuscript, would there be multiple instances of it? If I were to pick up your book and start reading, would those words or phrases start jumping out at me like fleas off a stray dog? Can’t answer that? Then you just might need an editor.
And what about that plot hole? “What plot hole?” I hear you yell. “I did my research, have everything worked out to the Nth degree.” Did you just shake your fist at me too? Hey, take it easy and hear me out. I know you did your research. I can only imagine the spreadsheets and sticky notes it took to keep everything straight. The problem is, what you know about your characters, their situations and back stories probably didn’t all make it into the book. Are you completely and utterly sure you’ve told the reader everything they need to know for every facet of the story to make sense? Think about it for a moment. I’ll wait…*whistles*…If you can’t convince yourself you have, you just might need an editor.
So, before you consign editors to the “useless” or “necessary evil” heaps, remember we’re here to help. We catch the little things you might overlook, make sure you’re saying exactly what you want to and preserve that most precious of commodities in our brave, new world of publishing—the reputation you build with your readers. If all those points are important to you, you just might want to hire an editor.
Are You The One?
So, you’re eager to get your book out into the world and figure it’s time to stop futzing with the manuscript and get an editor to give it that important coat of polish.
Before you start emailing your contacts and sending your manuscript hither and yon, you need to make some decisions.
First, is your book really ready to be edited? For many authors, this isn’t a consideration. They’ve written books before and know when the manuscript is ready for the next stage. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. I’ve come across manuscripts that actually are first drafts, not completed books. Frankly, it’s a waste of money to have an editor edit your first draft, except in very specific circumstances. A first draft, unless you self-edit like a Boss as you go, is too raw for in-depth editing. After all the changes and corrections the editor may suggest, what you’re most likely left with is the manuscript you should have sent out for editing. Make the mistake of publishing that and the readers howl, and not with pleasure.
I’m going to assume you’re more experienced. You’ve harassed your critique partners into reading it, maybe even twice over. Your Beta readers have had a go too, and declared it as fine a piece of writing as you’ve ever done. If you’re a lone-wolf author, disinterested or perhaps downright put off by the thought of involving anyone else, you’ve probably gone over the book as many times as you can stand to. So, bottom line, it’s ready. Time to call in the polishing crew.
But which kind?
Not all editors do the same job, although there’s a fair amount of overlap, and some do it all. There are content editors, line editors, fact-checkers and proofreaders, all of whom can be of value, depending on your needs. Are you branching out into a new genre and worry you may not have covered the subject in a believable manner? Then you need a content editor, and one with more than a passing knowledge of the genre you’re writing in. They’ll look at your manuscript and let you know whether you’ve got it right or not, if there are holes you need to plug or if your story has gone off the rails in places. Content editors will be looking for plot, pacing and any other factors that pull the reader out of the story, rather than sucking them in.
On the other hand, if you’re very happy with the story as it stands and confident it doesn’t need that kind of input, you probably want a line editor. We’re the geeks who love language so much we’ve taken the time to commit to memory a lot of the grammatical rules most people forget as soon as the English teacher’s mouth closes. Weird crap about syntax and sentence construction, like whether onomatopoeia is always italicized or if moving an adverb from one place to another will actually make a difference. Not just academic knowledge either, but knowledge of how to apply those rules to fiction, or when not to.
There are some authors so confident of their abilities in the areas of grammar and syntax all they want is someone to check for spelling errors, and they’ll hire a proof-reader for that purpose. Others, especially when writing in genres such as historical fiction, military and police procedurals, etc. may hire a fact-checker to ensure they haven’t put something into the story that doesn’t belong.
Most authors are looking for a little of everything, and it’s not an unreasonable request. Just be sure the editor you hire offers all the services you require and always remember it’s a professional association. Don’t be afraid to check an editor out, ask questions, request they edit a small sample from your manuscript to see how they work, if it will help. It’s your book. You have to be comfortable and know, in the end, it is the best it possibly can be.
Just Wanna Hang with my Peeps
The other day someone asked me an interesting question. Why, she said, would she bother with an editor when she had two awesome critique partners and a slew of people begging to Beta read for her? My answer was to the point and took her aback, I think:
Expertise, with a heaping helping of honesty.
She was expecting the ‘expertise’ bit, but not the honesty. I hope it made her think, carefully, about the roll critique partners and Beta readers play, and what editors should be offering.
For the most part your crit partners and Beta readers are your “peeps”. They’re in your corner, on your side, wanting to make you feel good and keep writing. Yes, if you’re lucky, they’ll be honest with you but, for the most part, they don’t want to hurt your feelings. You’ll probably get comments like, “You know, I can’t get into your heroine, for some reason,” or, “the scene when the protagonist meets the doctor just doesn’t sound right.” Really? Okay. You go back, look at the heroine or the scene, fiddle a bit, and hope you’ve fixed the problem. Have you? Only the Shadow knows.
Editors, on the other hand, are in your employ. If they see something grammatically incorrect, they’ll not only point it out but also give ideas on how to fix it. They’re supposed to notice if your character’s eye color changes partway through the story, or if your hero goes from wearing a suit to jeans within the same scene. Most importantly, you’re paying them to be utterly and completely honest. Rather than say your heroine isn’t sympathetic, they’ll tell you why. Instead of just saying a scene isn’t working they’ll try to figure out the reason, help you to decide whether you need to get rid of it all together or if, and how, it can be fixed.
I don’t want to sound mean, because really I’m not, but I’m not being paid to be a friend. Authors I work with need to remember why they sent me money, which is to help make their books shine. I’ll do everything in my power to make that happen, but sometimes it ain’t pretty. Sometimes the comments fill the margin and jump into a separate box because they just go on, and on. I’m not trying to tear you down or make you cry. I’m just doing my job the best I can. With all the expertise I possess and all the honesty I can muster.
On the other hand, if you read your editor’s notes and feel as though you’ve just got a reprimand from the principal, I suggest quietly looking for another. It’s also not the editor’s job to chastise or judge, and unprofessional comments are unacceptable. Honesty? Yes. Expertise? Of course. That’s what you pay for. Tact should come free of charge.
So keep your critique partners well-fed and happy, thrill your Beta readers by letting them see that new work-in-progress, but remember why you have them and why you pay an editor to take that second look.
Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Editor
Are you thinking the title of this post should be an affront to my sensibilities and I should be itching to edit my own words? Okay, you got me. The title is, on a bone-deep level, annoying. There is a distinct urge to change the words, tweak them, so they conform to the rules. “I Don’t Need a Malodorous Editor” (None of us do. If you’re in the same room and they smell horrible, run away.) “I am Not in Need of an Editor” (To the point, dry, boring and with nothing about ‘stinkin’,’ which is half the point.) “No Stinking Editor Needed Here” (So we’re back to the lack of bathing again…)
Really? I’ll leave it as it is. It fits with what I want to say. It’s poor English but, hell, it gets my point across. And anyone with a passing knowledge of Mel Brookes movies will recognize the reference. “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges.” Interpretation? We don’t need the authority. We’ll do whatever the hell we want anyway.
It sounds better the way it was said, yes? Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, it instantly gives you a mental image of the speaker, the situation and what’s about to happen. That’s what words should do and what authors are trying to do when they write—transport you somewhere else. They try to achieve that through the crafty use of words, the development and exploitation of their literary strengths. In short, through their “voice”. And I know of several authors who are adamant they won’t be edited, because editors want to change their words, mute their voices.
If you’re an author and you’re afraid of being edited, this post is for you. Listen carefully…
An editor’s contribution to your book should never change your voice.
There. I said it.
Mind you, I’m a freelancer. My job is very different from that of an acquiring editor at a publishing house. Yet, even there, most editors will make suggestions as to scene, character and plot, but leave the execution up to you. For freelancers the job is even less intrusive. We’re hired to polish and improve the readability of a book. This does not include stripping it of its life and flavor! Yes, there are rules of grammar and syntax we’re taught to adhere to, but editing fiction and editing a thesis are two completely different things. In literature sometimes you have to break the rules to make it work!
It’s as though you’re driving down a four-lane highway, with “No U-Turn” signs the entire way along. That’s the rule. You can get your butt in trouble if you break it. Yet, if there’s an accident on the highway and it’s closed off, what are you going to have to do? Make that freakin’ U-turn and go back from whence you came.
A good editor will recognize where you’re trying to make a point by straying from the rule book and, even if they point out the deviation, accept that it’s done deliberately. Just bear in mind, if they tell you it’s absolutely saying something other than you wanted it to, then you may need to rethink, but that, again, goes back to readability and has nothing to do with muting your voice.
Now, repeat after me, “Editor is my friend. We need the stinkin’ editor.”