This was originally written as a guest blog post for a self-publishing resource site; it sparked a lot of great conversation and feedback, and it occurred to me that the information might be of interest to a more general readership. If you’ve ever groaned at typos, continuity errors, plot holes or just plain bad writing in a book or blog post, here’s my prescription:
I’ve edited lots of books — children’s books, fantasy, memoirs, self-help, textbooks, and especially books about myths. Myths? I like myths. Heck, I love myths — if we’re talking about myths as “great poems, [that] point infallibly through things and events to the ubiquity of a presence or eternity that is whole and entire in each.”*
If we’re talking about myths in the more negative sense of “untruths,” however, I like them less — especially if they’re myths about my profession and vocation.
Myths and Misinformation About the Editing of Books
There’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about editors and what they do. Here are seven of those myths that I’d like to clean up:
Myth #1: A good writer doesn’t need an editor.
In these days of self-publication and “service” publishers — who take a percentage of sales for letting the author do all of the work — you hear this a lot. “I’ve slaved over this manuscript for years. I checked it through a hundred times. Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar comes up clean. It’s ready for publication.”
Want an example of a professional book from a world-class author who convinced her publishers to put out the book as-is, without a deep developmental edit (see #3 below)? Look at J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Pretty good book, and it’s sold millions of copies, absolutely — but it’s at least a hundred pages longer than it needs to be. There’s needless repetition, uneven pacing, and side-plots that go nowhere. You’ll notice that the previous and subsequent books in the bestselling series were much shorter and much tighter. Rowling worked more closely with her editors.
Here’s the fact: if you want your book to be strong, clean, professional, and appealing, for it to affect the readers as you want it to affect them, you need to have it professionally edited. There’s never been a text written that didn’t need editing. By the time you’ve spent weeks, months, or years on a project, you can’t see the words any more. You can see the ideas — the concepts, arguments, plot, and characters — but not every word that’s on the page, or that isn’t, or where there are gaping holes in logic or jumps in style. An editor will. It’s what they’re paid to do.
Myth #2: I don’t need the expense of paying an editor. I had my wife/dad/neighbor/high-school English teacher read it through, and they didn’t find anything.
There’s no doubt that the more eyes you run your manuscript past the better. Those readers know you and love you; that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s a disadvantage as well.
A professional editor’s primary connection to the book is the manuscript itself. Your friends are all going to give you wonderful support and advice (especially that English teacher, for whom I hope you made cookies), but they’re not going to approach the text with the kind of eye for detail that an editor brings.
Myth #3: All editors are the same.
No. There are a variety of editing tasks that need to be addressed as a book goes through the publishing process, each of which requires a different set of skills:
- Developmental editors work with the author to craft the manuscript, looking at structure and argument in non-fiction or plot and character in fiction. (In traditional publishing, these are usually the acquiring editors.)
- Line or substantive editors also look at the manuscript as a whole, but generally don’t work as closely with the author and aren’t expected to edit as deeply. (This and the previous category are sometimes lumped together as substantive editing.)
- Copy editors concentrate on the language or copy. They focus on trying to make the style of the manuscript clean and consistent.
- Proofreaders are usually the last folks who look at a book, in galley or proof form, as it’s about to go off to be printed (or, in the case of ebooks, as it’s about to enter distribution). They’re looking purely for misspellings or errors in style, such as improper punctuation, grammar or formatting.
That’s not even to mention the army of other professionals who will probably be needed in order to craft a book out of a manuscript, from layout and cover designers to fact checkers, permissions researchers and the rest.
One editor might provide many of those functions, but not all at once. (See #6 below).
Myth #4: An editor is an editor — so I should just find the cheapest one I can.
It’s your work and your money; you should budget what you can afford in order to create the book that has the impact you’re looking for. As I mentioned above there are different kinds of editors who have different skills, and different kinds of editing demand different commitments of time and energy, so cheap isn’t necessarily better. I’m going to charge a lot more to do a long-term, deep, developmental edit (where I am working with the author to improve the manuscript at the fundamental level) than I will for a simple just-before-publication proofread (where I’m just looking carefully for punctuation, grammar, and style issues).
In addition to marking it up, a good substantive or developmental editor will make lots of queries (questions for the author) on the manuscript, where a copy editor will mostly clean up the language as-is, and a proofreader is usually purely focused on correcting any errors of usage or formatting. These are different approaches to your work.
As with any other service, you get what you pay for.
Myth #5: Okay, fine. I’ll hire an editor. It’s like calling a taxi; take the first one you flag down.
The best way to hire the right editor is probably to talk to any other writers you know and ask for recommendations. You could also look for a local freelance board or service or an online service such as. I’d encourage you to look locally first; you don’t need to be able to meet the editor face-to-face, but it doesn’t hurt, especially if it’s a longer-term project.
Get some candidates, tell them exactly how long the manuscript is and what kind of edit you are looking for (see #3 above), and give them a short sample — five to 10 pages should do. Ask them to edit it and give you a quote for the whole project, as well as an idea of how long it would take them. You might also ask them if there’s a particular style manual they like to use.
Most likely, no two will edit it exactly the same way, or give you the same quote or time frame. Choose the one you feel did the best job with your prose, asked the most insightful questions, and is within your time and financial limits.
Myth #6: I hired an editor who worked with me for months to rewrite the manuscript. Now it’s ready for publication!
Well… maybe. What I said above about fresh eyes? That holds for editors too. If I’ve been working with an author on a manuscript for a long time, there comes a point where I too become blind to the details.
So if you’ve hired me to do a developmental edit, I may strongly suggest that you work with a copy editor before the book gets laid out — and then, once your magnum opus is in its final format, a proofreader as well.
Myth #7: The editor marked up my manuscript, but I have no idea what the notes are about. Diction? Series commas? The editor is making it up!
Honestly, truly, no. We all cringe instinctively at the sight of our words marked in red, a habit instilled during our school days. But those marks the editor made aren’t criticism. An editor’s first job is to create the best book possible out of your manuscript. You’re paying for the editor’s professional judgment. Welcome it — but if you honestly disagree with or don’t understand a change, let the editor know and ask for the rationale.
The editor should be able to tell you that rationale. He or she was most likely trying to make the prose in your manuscript consistent with a standard. They almost certainly are working with a specific style manual whether it’s The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Manual of Style, The MLA Manual, or even just Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. There should be a dictionary that you can agree on. (I had a problem with an English proofer once who inserted Us into words like color, flavor, etc. even though she’d agreed to proof the book against the U.S. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.)
Most of all, the editor will have been trying to make the manuscript consistent — to the standard, but especially to itself.
So, no. Your editor is not making it up.
But There Are Truths, Too, Not Just Myths
And here, just to round things out, are three truths about editors:
Truth #1: Editors love books.
Really. They do. Trust me — we don’t get into the business for the money or the fame. We become editors because we love words and we love books: books as objects, books as art, books as treasure boxes of the human mind and spirit.
We’re editing your book because that’s our job, and because we care about it.
Truth #2: Editors (mostly) love authors.
Most editors are — or wish they could be — authors. There isn’t an editor alive who hasn’t at least tried to walk the creative path you are treading. We have enormous sympathy for the challenges of expressing yourself in words. So if we occasionally ask more than you think we should, it isn’t because we don’t care; it’s because we care too much.
Truth #3: Editors can help you to create the book you dream of creating.
You are writing a book because there is something you have to say, some knowledge or wisdom to impart, some experience to which you want to lead the reader.
An editor is your partner in making that happen, helping you to say precisely what you want to say in the most effective, affecting way possible.