Updated: Oct 5, 2020
One of the things that writers most often ask themselves after they’ve completed the first draft of their novel is, do I really need an editor? The answer isn’t as cut and dry as you might expect, but I’m hoping to clarify who editors are and how they help writers better articulate their written words.
In 2020, I’m celebrating my 15th year anniversary as a writer, and the fundamental lesson I’ve learned is that people are naturally inclined to tell stories. People generally make the decision to write the great American novel in hopes to tell a story with a strong theme and message. Even more commonly, people want to tell their story as a means to educate or inspire. Despite all the challenges that writing your first novel may have, the scariest part of writing is not the actual writing. The scary part is figuring out what happens after you’ve finished that first draft. You might ask yourself, what do I do now?
Well, you might try to publish that first draft. However, first drafts are fundamentally crappy, filled with plot holes and spelling and grammar mistakes, and riddled with thematic elements that don’t work well together. And that’s 100% normal. That first draft is the beginning of something great. To get to greatness, you’ll need to edit the work once, twice, thrice, and beyond, to get it just right.
While editors can be expensive, they are well worth the cost. There, I said it. As an editor myself, I can say that we editors want to make the work as strong as possible before sending it off to a literary agent or publishing house editor (there will be blog posts on those two coming soon). Even if you are self-publishing, you still need a strong work. As a writer, I value the feedback of a professional to help me make my work strong. That feedback should be able to lift a car when the editor is done finding all the things that you need to fine-tune in your book.
If you decide to self-edit, that’s fine too. Save money when you can, but don’t discount the value an editor has and what he or she will contribute to your novel or screenplay. Either way, if you have questions about editors and how they help writers, shoot me an email and we can talk about it. I’m always happy to help!
“Everyone needs an editor.” – Tim Foote
Before you even think about whether or not to hire an editor to help you with your book, there are several things you need to be aware of. These are considerations you’ll need to have made before you do your Google search or look at yellowpages.com.
When thinking about hiring an editor, make sure that you’ve actually finished a draft of your book. If you haven’t finished the book, don’t seek out an editor just yet. The best way to engage an editor for your project is by explaining that you’ve finished a draft of a book and want him, the editor, to do a good thorough look. The editor, in turn, will help you develop the next few drafts.
In the world of writing, there’s nothing more valuable than feedback. The writer can never hop into the minds of the readers because he or she is too close to the work and understands facets of the work that the reader might not. So, make sure someone besides you has read your draft. Friends and family are great for this, but for higher quality critique, seek out a community of other writers to help you with things like character, plot, setting, etc. Writing groups are filled with writers new and old and they know very well how to critique another writer. Also, take that feedback and maybe even improve the novel even more before you send it off to an editor.
Saving money is one of the most important things to most people. In a time where wages are low and expenses are high, there’s nothing wrong with attempting to do your own editing first. If you give it a shot and you just can’t do it, even after stepping away from the book for a month or so, then maybe you’ll have to buckle down and hire an editor. It’s pertinent to understand that you’re never boxed-in to these types of things. What’s best for you is best for you. Worst case scenario, you’ve made the work a bit better for the editor. Comma splices are annoying errors that waste the editor’s time and, unfortunately, cost you more money. The more time it takes for an editor to look through your manuscript, the more money comes out of your pocket. So, at least try to fix the little things yourself.
Lastly, make sure you understand the roles and responsibilities of an editor. Oftentimes, people get confused about editors when comparing them to proofreaders. The two are very different. Take a look at the chart below to have a better understanding.
“Writing is all about self-editing; it’s all about being present, being aware of what’s happening.” – Joan Armatrading
How editors improve your manuscript or screenplay
1. Grammar, Syntax, etc.
The editors’ #1 goal is to make sure there’s cohesion in your manuscript. He or she will ensure that, on a basic level, the work makes sense. Editors have sometimes found themselves looking through manuscripts riddled with grammatical mistakes and dangling/misplaced modifiers and comma splices. The English language is very complicated at times, but if you’re paying them, the editor will wave his magic wand and make those mistakes disappear, improving your manuscript.
In a screenplay (TV or Film), the editor will look at formatting and look for those common mistakes as part of the grammar and syntax check.
2. Character, Plot, and Theme.
Once the editor has done his duty by removing all the grammar mistakes, misspellings, comma splices, etc., he will then look at the work as a whole by analyzing the strength of characters, plot, setting, theme, tone, mood, etc. in your work. An editor has a keen eye for identifying strengths and weaknesses in these areas and will help you identify them. Then you will be able to go back and make some global changes to your story.
If you’re a fantasy or science-fiction writer who has made up names for your characters, the editor will hold you accountable if you spell a character’s name one way in one section of your book and another way in another section. The editor will find inconsistencies of character and setting descriptions, of character name spellings, and other things. In a novel-length work (75,000+ words), it’s difficult for the writer alone to keep up with changes made from version to version. So, the editor is an excellent second pair of eyes for these kinds of mistakes.
4. Kill Your Darlings.
If there was an editor’s code, one major part of the code would include helping the writer kill his or her darlings. If a section of your work doesn’t reveal character or move the plot forward, the editor will request that you remove it from your work altogether. These darlings are usually the writer’s favorite scenes/characters that don’t add to the work or need to be severely cut down. Ultimately, don’t forget about the readers of your work. If you’re not advancing plot or revealing character, you’re wasting their time.
5. Become a friend, coach, and confidant.
An editor isn’t just a stiff-necked professional who’s taking a magnifying glass over all your misuses of the dreaded semicolon. He’s also a pretty intelligent person who genuinely wants to elevate your work prior to publication. He will challenge you to make pertinent changes to the work and be there as an advisor. You can always ask him questions about his feedback and even challenge him on some of his opinions. That’s okay. The editor isn’t your boss. You’re his boss and don’t forget that! If he comes off as harsh, it’s only to help you make your work spectacular. Generally, you’ll be happy you hired him.
Sometimes writers have lifelong relationships with their editors. Writers sometimes choose one editor to work with for the duration of their career. It’s quite similar to a literary agent--author relationship. Having a cheerleader and confidant throughout your career is hands down a writer’s dream.
“To write is human, to edit is divine.” – Stephen King
Despite the overwhelming evidence presented in favor of hiring an editor, it’s still ultimately your choice. You may not have the money (editors can cost up to several thousands of dollars per project) or prefer to self-edit. That’s okay. Just make sure the decision is right for you and your manuscript or screenplay.
Editors are not all created equal, either. There may be some that you will get along with and others who grind your gears. So, take your time deciding on which one you want to work with. I recommend an even-keeled, laid back sort who is genuine and wants to help you in any way possible. You’ll still have to pay him in the end, so make sure you believe he’s worth the money.
Remember that editors help spot grammar and syntax errors; evaluate the strength of plot, characters, and theme; check for inconsistencies; help you kill your darlings; and can be a good friend, coach, and confidant.
As a writer and an editor, I can see both sides of this particular topic, so don’t hesitate to contact me if you any questions about anything. Like I always say, I’m happy to help.
The Writer – The Top Ten Golden Rules of Self-Editing
Reedsy– How To Edit a Book 101: Checklist and Tips for Self-Editing