The Top Five Reasons Why You Need an Editor


by Lillian Csernica on May 12, 2015

Last week somebody out there in Twitter Land had a free copy promotion going on.  I followed the link.  The book looked interesting, a collection of short stories that promised suspense and paranormal chills.  So I downloaded it to my Kindle.  One evening, after the work of the day was done and the kids were asleep, I settled down in happy anticipation.

I was disappointed.

Typos.  Punctuation errors.  Grammatical errors.  Awkward sentence structure.  Stilted dialogue.

These were not the errors of just one author.  These mistakes were present in three different stories by three different authors.  None of the stories in that collection was fit to be published.  How do I know?  Who am I to judge?  I’ve worked as a slush reader for a fiction magazine.  I’ve been reviewing fiction for over twenty years.  I’ve published a novel via traditional publishing, aka the hard way.  I’ve also published over thirty short stories.  I have the experience and the credentials to know the difference between the work of a professional writer and somebody who still has a lot to learn.

As long as there are wannabes, dilettantes, and tyros in the world, there will be some form of vanity press.  Unfortunately, the wonders of the Digital Age have made available to people at every level of writing skill the opportunity to “publish” their writing.  I have to say this.  Just because you can churn out something that looks like a short story, or is long enough to be classified as a novel, that does not make you a writer.

I see far too many people swanking around these days referring to themselves as “authors.”  Having a book to sell has become a fad.  There was a time when going to a seance was the thing to do.  Then Houdini started busting the fakes and the con artists.  Remember when everybody had a Pet Rock?  That was just silly.  Billy Ray Cyrus had his one hit wonder days with “Achy Breaky Heart” and all over the country people were line-dancing to that song.  Now anybody and everybody can slap together their own version of Tolkien Lite, put a cover on it, and fling it out into the electronic marketplace.

This makes me angry, and I’ll tell you why.  Far too many people want to be “authors.”  They don’t want to write.  They don’t even understand the difference.  They do not respect the art and craft of writing.  They do not respect the writers who have spent their lives doing their best to improve their work, to polish their style, to honor the unspoken contract with the reader that says, “You pick up my book and I will give you a story worth reading.”

Having said all that, allow me to offer these thoughts on why an editor is an essential part of a writer’s life.

1. You don’t think you need one.

If you really believe you don’t need an editor, then I hope for your sake that you have some variety of OCD that has made you go over your manuscript with a microscope.  Even then, because of your familiarity with the story and the words, your brain may commit what’s called “closure” and prevent you from spotting an error.

2.  Unless you have an English teacher for a beta reader, odds are good your writer friends don’t know much more than you do.

The best writing teacher I’ve ever had knows all the technical terms for all the nuts and bolts of grammar.  Thanks to him, I know the difference between an “adjectival phrase” and a “predicate phrase.”  I know about the inner essence of sentences.  And I still don’t know much.  If I hadn’t kept that teacher’s handouts, most of what he taught me about the inner workings of what people call “microwriting” would have fallen out of my memory.  My point here is that not many people make it their purpose in life to understand exactly how the English language is supposed to work.

If you’re in a writer’s group or a critique group where all the other people are at the same level of skill and accomplishment, how are you and the rest of the group going to grow as writers?  If you don’t know what you don’t know and nobody there is a qualified authority, you may be able to do each other some good with regard to plot, character, setting, etc., but you aren’t going to bring your manuscript up to the best, most marketable standards.  There are people who know how to do that.  Those people are called editors.

3.  “Fresh eyes” are essential for spotting any mistakes.

Time and effort have proven that I write five drafts before I have what I consider a complete story.  That’s true whether it’s a short story or a novel.  By the time I’ve finished the fifth draft, I’ve caught most of the obvious errors and I’ve cut as much as I know the story does not need.  By this point the story is so familiar to me that I’m sick of looking at it.  Now is the time to hand the manuscript to somebody who has never read it.  If you want to be really drastic, give the story to somebody who does not like that particular type of story.  Me, I don’t read Westerns.  They do nothing for me.  Since I am not likely to be caught up in the story, I will be paying greater attention to the word choices, the grammar, the punctuation, and any typos that pop up.  If one of my writer friends wanted me to beta read a Western manuscript, it would be an uphill battle to draw me into the story and make me feel sympathy for the main characters.  If the writer succeeds in doing so, that really counts for something.

4.  I don’t care how much experience you have, there will be a misspelling or typo lurking in there somewhere.

Believe me when I tell you there are few things more painful that seeing your work in print and THEN spotting the typo, the renegade comma, or the missing word that totally screws up the meaning of that sentence.

5.  There is always room for improvement.

I don’t ask my beta readers for help until I’ve take the manuscript as far as I can possibly go.  Before I give it to them, I do my best to make sure the manuscript is so clean it sparkles.  There’s no point in getting a second opinion on mistakes you know you’ve made.  If you’re hiring an editor, there’s no point in spending money just to be told what you already know.  Make sure your writing is as good as you can possibly make it, then get that second opinion.  As hard as you’ve worked, there will still be other word choices, other possible plot twists, other ways to write a given character’s dialogue.

These are strong statements, I know.  What do you think?  Do you agree?  Do you think I’m full of hot air?  Do you believe there’s no difference between an author and a writer?  Tell me how you you feel about all this.

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16 Comments

Filed under editing, Fiction, Goals, publication, Writing

16 responses to “The Top Five Reasons Why You Need an Editor

  1. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find an editor who asks that question you never did…it can open up your whole story! And since I am terrible at titles, I find editors especially helpful on that front too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Reggie Lutz and commented:
    Some solid, tough love from Lillian Csernica today. Reblogging because she also makes a great point about critique groups in here that’s worth thinking about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes. Yes. And yes. Other eyes on the work are absolutely crucial. Both of the books I have out had feedback from beta readers and then an editor on top of it. I think that what happens, often, is that in the excitement after making the decision to go indie/self-publish, we get caught up in the possible speed of things… We want to see it in print, right now! That swiftness is seductive. It can cause folks to rush and skip over processes, or simply miss potential problems. I think some folks see that and maybe will do better the next time out. But the interest has to be with craft, doing the absolute best you can. Which of course means doing the work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Reggie. Way back when I started submitting stories, I was so excited about doing that I was in precisely the hurry you describe. The stories were not “completely cooked,” so to speak, and came back with rejection slips.

      Like

  4. I agree wholeheartedly.
    I often think this is the Far West of the publishing world. Writers are exhilareted to be able to publish their work without having to go through the traditional process, readers are exhilareted by the possibility to read so many novels that often cost so little. Everything is new, and nobody knows exactly what’s going on and where this will bring us. So in the meantime, it’s a complete mess.

    Mind you, I’m not against self-publishing, but I am a bit scared of what’s happening at the moment.
    I’ve worked in a publishing house for the last 10 years and things had changed hugely since I started this job. I was talking about this with my boss lately: the market is inundated with novels which are not professionally written or published. Often, people who self-publish don’t even know what they’re doing (this is not always the case, but it is often the case. I personally know people who have self-published and they don’t even understand what I’m talking about when I’m talking business). So these authors can’t tell professional form amatorish stuff, and their readers can’t tell either. As my boss said, people are dis-learing what’s professional and dis-learning to recognise professionality.
    I do think this is a fase, things will stabilize sooner or later. But int he meantime, this is what we have.
    Bit disheartening. And sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for that perspective! It is sad. The people just starting out are seeing the lack of professionalism out there and believing that’s how the writing business works. Some days it make me want to scream, other days I want to cry.

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  5. But then imagine what people will think of us in one hundred years. “Can you imagine what they did back then? Crazy, isn’t it?”
    I think things will go back to a professional routine. It may take time, but I really think it will happen. To some extent, it’s already happening 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you mean in the sense of people learning what they need to know? Or will it be the people who lack long term commitment to writing dropping out of the field?

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      • I think there will be a general adjustment, which in part, has already started. Traditional writing and self publishing will not only be two different kinds of publishing jobs, but also two different markets.

        Already, trad pubs (and to some extent, agents too) are taking steps to differentiate theirs offer from self-published offer. A whole market of professionals has taken life around the self-published authors, offering professionalitties which are similar, but not exatly the same as those offered by trad publishers.
        Also, there is a strong push for self-published author to take their job seriously and professionally, so I think that in this field too there will be a stronger differentiation between authors that treat their job professionally and those who don’t.

        The market as well will (and in part is already) change. Altready ther is a part of market that prefers to buy self-pubbed, generally because they are less expensive. Polls show, though, that readers who prefer self-pubbed novels also have lower expectation in terms of quallity.

        It’s a little like the pulp magazins of the last century. People bought them because they were cheap, but they knew quality wasn’t going to be high. Ans still, terrific genre authors have also come out of those magazines.
        To me, this is probably what’s going to hapened to the industray: there will be this kind of differentiation again, but uptdated to the XXI century.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Alex Hurst

    Yes, I especially agree with #2. The hardest thing for independent authors is “leveling up” their own skills over time, since most are not actively studying craft and the nuts and bolts of grammar (writing taking up most of their time). Being a slush reader has definitely helped me, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Another great blog Lillian. I’m so honoured you take the time to read my old ramblings. At least I’m particularly vigilant when it comes to tipos and mispellings.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful post, Lillian! As an editor, I of course agree with everything you just said. 😉 Seriously, though – I like to think I know some things about writing, but I always get someone else to look at my work. You need that second eye.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Reviews: Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News? | Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons

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