We’re hear a lot of things about editors… some see them as a necessity, a second set of eyes to catch your mistakes. Some see them as killers-of-darlings, bloodsuckers, anal-retentive grammar nazis hell-bent on removing all the unique and beautiful voice in your work. Some see them as a useful tool in a writer’s tool kit, great for certain circumstances but not necessarily obligatory at all times.
So what is the truth? Do writer’s need editors?
Frankly, yes. I’ll make a declarative statement here: the vast majority of writers need and would greatly benefit from editing in some way, shape or form during many (but not necessarily all) of their projects. The reality is no one is perfect at everything. No one knows all the grammar rules. No one sees all their own mistakes. I’ll try and back this up with the rest of the article.
‘But what about proof readers and beta readers or critique partners?’ I hear you say. These are great. Use them. Find yourself a critique partner that reads or writes in the genre that you’re working in. Get them to read your stuff. Listen to their advice. If it makes sense and you agree with it, accept it. If not, don’t implement it.
But do they replace an actual editor? No, they don’t. Why? Because while they’re probably keen and well intended, its doubtful they are a professional and it is doubtful they will give your work the same level of thorough treatment or scrutiny as a real editor would. Beta-reading, for the most part is not about the prose level issues and is more geared towards structural/thematic/developmental concerns, rather than grammar.
So what are the issues that lead us to need editing?
There first issue is that most writers, myself included, aren’t truly competent (or even confident!) with proper grammar usage. We write instinctively based upon a mix of what we learnt in high school ,what we remember from reading and what looks “right” on the page. Most of us don’t know what a participle is, or what a gerund is, or what a present participle is. Every writer, if they really and truly wish to be the best they can be and improve their craft, needs to start learning this stuff. It doesn’t have to be a painful process.. there are great books out there, some of them which are absolutely hilariously written, which will teach you when to properly use a semicolon or what the the hell Oxford Comma is. There are also a plethora of really useful grammar websites which all this and more is freely available. If you’re not strong with grammar, not confident or just write by feel rather than thinking about grammar while you write… you will benefit from the services of an editor.
Some people are natural story tellers, some people learn from experiencing, and some people learn from reading/talking/education/instruction/mentoring. We should all expose ourselves to as many different types of learning because there is value in all. This is why storytelling is harder to teach because it is most experiential. We pick it up from so many different things we do and, crucially, from practice. This is why there is that adage that you have to write a million words of crap before you start churning out the good stuff. I don’t think an arbitrary number like 1 million is necessarily right, but the underlying element of truth is there. So get out there and EXPERIENCE storytelling. This is essential. If you’re not strong in this department, or are inexperienced, then you will benefit from services of an editor.
Stephen King once wisely said “If you don’t read books, you have no business writing them”. No truer words have ever been said. You will never learn what you need to know about writing, from storytelling to grammar, without reading. Read a lot. Read widely. Read outside your comfort zone. The more you read, the better your writing will be, the better your editing will be, and the better your final product will be. Full stop. If you don’t read books, your writing will suffer immensely; your editing will suffer immensely; and your finish product will suffer immensely as well. If you don’t read books, even a good editor may not be able to help your writing.
Editing work ethic and work flow:
I’m currently editing a short story anthology (Suspended In Dusk to be published by Books of the Dead Press *shameless spruik*) which includes people who’ve only published once or twice to people who’ve published dozens of stories and won awards such as the British Fantasy award or the Bram Stoker award, or other prestigious regional awards like the Aurealis award.
The new manuscripts that came through from the old hands and some of the talented authors who’ve been around for a while, clearly, were far better edited by the authors themselves before they’d submitted. Sure I’d still be making some minor edits before it goes to final print, this is natural, but I guess what I’m trying to say is—you shouldn’t ever underestimate how well you, as a writer, can actually edit your own work.
In my personal opinion, one of the major things that lets writers down in the editing department —and is a major reason why most of us need second pairs of eyes to look at our work SO BADLY—is that we don’t have an actual editing workflow. We think “OK, I’m gonna edit this now.. dododododo…there you go, editing done” . What is most beneficial in editing, however, is to have a series of steps.. or a check list.. of things you want to do/achieve and to methodically (and repeatedly! )run through your piece of text (story/chapter/scene) until you’ve scanned it for each of these things and rectified them.
This is an basic example of my editing workflow.
1. Read through the piece of text and highlight anything that looks like a developmental issue… stuff that doesn’t make sense, logical inconsistencies, stuff that is poorly phrased or worded, instances where the author has told when should’ve shown. If it’s my own work, I fix these issues first, because it may result in a dramatic addition of new text or removal of existing text. If someone else’s work I comment them all in track changes and suggest how they might go about fixing them.
2. Read through the piece of text again and focus solely on correcting punctuation… commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, fullstops.
3. Read through the piece of text again and focus on more complex grammar issues: tense, correct use of present participles
4. Go through the entire text again and address instances of passive voice and remove as much of it as possible. Here I usually don’t read the text, but usually just do a “find” for filter words (feel,look,watch,hear,realise,decided,know,can,etc.) and where possible, reword sentences to make them active rather than passive.
Implement something like this (and you needn’t mimic mine, find something that works for you!), and be surprised how tight your prose AND storytelling can become. If you don’t have this kind of editing work ethic or work flow, or are inexperienced in implementing it in regards to your own writing… you will benefit from the services of an editor.
I think most of us are lacking in one or all of the aforementioned departments. To that end we will all benefit, to lesser and greater degrees, from having our work looked at by an experienced editor.
At the same time, I’m firmly of the belief that you can achieve a very very high standard of editing of your own work, so that it is 100% ready to for submission to magazines/agents/publishers, without needing to hire an actual professional editor. To reach this stage in your writing career takes effort, resolve, preparation, dedication, but its achievable for you if you want to get there.
If your work is picked up by a publisher, they’ll edit it before it goes to print anyway and should, if they know what they’re about, catch any remaining mistakes etc.
If you’re self publishing, you should still have a second pair of eyes look at it before it goes to print, but even then…I truly believe most of the real grunt work can be done by the writer themselves and a bucket of money can probably be saved.
Everyone should have a second set of eyes run over their work before final print—but I’m not truly convinced that a professional editor is needed in ALL instances. As with all things in life, what you should do is largely based on what you’re attempting to achieve.