I recently made posts on Instagram and Twitter asking the writing community a question that is pretty important to me: if they hadn’t used or didn’t plan to use a professional editor, what was their reasoning?
I got a lot of responses, which was awesome, and incredibly enlightening. I had (somewhat naïvely, it transpires) assumed that the biggest reason authors do not seek out professional editing is because they feel it’s unnecessary. I had been planning to write this post as an explanation of why editing is necessary, in the hope that it would change a few minds; but to my surprise, it turned out that about 90% of people replying to me fully acknowledged the importance of an editor. That was both gratifying and humbling – I should have had more faith in my fellow writers. I myself know that if I were ever to get to the point of publishing (I have to actually write a whole book first… ahem), I would seek out an editor, so it makes sense that most writers are completely aware of the benefits of editing.
No: as it turns out, the biggest barrier to professional editing is cost.
This is perfectly reasonable. Most of us writers tend to be the starving-artist types, from students deep into our overdrafts, single parents trying to scrape together a living, or people with office jobs that barely pay the rent. I totally get this, and I don’t want to seem in the least unsympathetic to this reality. I know that money doesn’t appear out of thin air, and I also know that it can seem like editors assume writers have somehow miraculously discovered how to make it do so. Trust me – I don’t exactly have several hundred or thousand pounds just lying around to spend at the drop of a hat, either.
I do feel that it’s worth paying for professional editorial work. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t feel justified in charging for it! I fully accept that not all writers will be at the stage where they can do so: that is totally fine, and to be expected. But I hope that with this post, I can at least begin to explain how important editing is and why it’s something you should budget for if you possibly can. In my opinion, if you spend any money on the process of writing and publishing a book, paying a professional editor is the most valuable thing you can buy.
So what should a good editing job do that you can’t get for free? In a nutshell, perfect your writing.
Making Your Writing the Best It Can Be
Regardless of how good you are at the nitty-gritty bits of writing – the punctuation, the dialogue, the spelling, the syntax – there are almost certainly mistakes in your manuscript. Unless you are literally a robot (in which case, hit me up – I’d love to meet you!), you’ve probably made a typo somewhere, missed a word or two, mixed up the spelling of two homophones, accidentally dropped an apostrophe, added some unnecessary spaces, written a run-on sentence here and there… I constantly proofread my own writing and I still make mistakes, even though it’s actually my job! An editor will bring your writing up to publication standard, and they’ll iron out all those little creases that can bring down the quality of an unedited manuscript.
Yes, you may be able to get someone to do this for free – in which case you are extremely lucky and I envy you! But keep in mind that there is a difference between paid work and volunteer work, no matter how kind or generous your friend/sibling/contact is. When I carry out my paid editing, I set aside time to focus solely on that project. It becomes my absolute priority, and I will spend far more time and effort on it than anything I do for free. But if I’m doing something out of a desire to help someone, it inevitably becomes crammed into the rest of my day whenever I have a spare moment, which these days is somewhere between cleaning the highchair – AGAIN – and cooking dinner while I put the day’s third load of washing on. If you’re paying someone to carry out a job, you can demand high quality and a quick turnaround. That’s simply not the case if they are doing it as a favour to you, and so you may end up with a situation where your writing hasn’t been edited perfectly, but you can’t ask for more work, or even where you’ve been waiting for weeks and weeks to hear back but you know they’re busy and you feel bad pressuring them.
Can Beta Readers Be Used Instead?
Beta readers are a common solution to the problem of editing, and they are certainly a very valuable asset if you are able to employ some. (Though if you’re not paying them, they are subject to the potential problems detailed above, and if you are, then it’s worth paying for the edit as well or instead.) They can pick up on some of the errors I mentioned, and hopefully minimise the chances of the worst mistakes slipping through – if you can rely on your readers to have the incredibly high standards that a professional editor will have. But even if you have somehow managed to find beta readers who are all ‘grammar Nazis’, beta reading is a very different job to editing. It should focus on the overarching plot, on the story as a whole, on character development and themes and settings – a beta reader’s job is to tell you what is and isn’t working in your manuscript. They don’t have the time or the qualifications to go through your writing line by line and make sure it is perfect, nor should you expect them to.
But What If My Grammar Is Flawless?
A few years ago, before I began professional work as an editor, I would have responded to this post by smugly saying, “I don’t need an editor; my grammar is pretty much perfect.” Since then I’ve learned a staggering amount, most of which boils down nicely to ‘I was wrong about a lot of things’. If you’re not sure that you even need an editor, here are three things I’ve discovered about making this claim.
- Even if you are really, really good at writing flawlessly, there’s a fairly good chance that you are not aware of all the guidelines or standards which are common or even expected in publishing. A professional editor will be able to help you with these, and to ensure that your writing is in line with the applicable style guides. They will also be able to advise on things like your audience’s knowledge – e.g. if you are an American writing for a primarily British audience, there are some aspects of your narrative you might not have considered that wouldn’t make sense to the readers.
- Although a great majority of writing should abide by objective rules, the tricky thing about grammar is that sometimes it becomes subjective when you least expect it. Even if you have a huge amount of knowledge about it – even if you yourself are a professional editor! – it is absolutely worth discussing with someone else who is equally knowledgeable and can mull over with you the merits of a semicolon versus an en-dash, et cetera. Should a semicolon NEVER be followed by ‘and’ or ‘but’, or can it be effective when used sparingly? A good editor will be aware of the fine line between objective correctness and stylistic impact, and will help you navigate it.
- Here’s the thing: you don’t know what you don’t know. Sad, but true! It’s the reason I try to ensure that I constantly look things up if I’m even the slightest bit unsure about them, which is how I end up spending hours reading about the nuances of commas at 11pm. And, well, editors do that so you don’t have to. It’s not your job to angst over whether that ‘its’ needs an apostrophe (though we’ve all been there…) – your job is to let your creativity flow onto the page and craft the finer details of your world. It’s also worth noting that if your grammar is of a high standard, a good editor won’t charge you for work they won’t be doing – see my pricing information for why I do this.
Making the Author Look Good
Another invaluable aspect of editing is how it will take your writing from amateur to professional, especially in the eyes of literary agencies and publishing houses.
We all know how oversubscribed publishers and literary agents are. We’ve all heard the stories of manuscripts/queries being thrown into the shredder if they contain a typo in the first sentence, or of others never being seen because they’re one in a thousand piled on a desk. Maybe those stories are true, maybe they’re not – but the reality is that these people have justifiably high standards. Not only do they need to consider how marketable the book is, but they also need to think about whether it’s worth investing their time and money into you. If your manuscript is already edited, you’re absolutely going to stand out compared to those which aren’t. Chances are that your editor will also have advised you about things like basic formatting, which again is more likely to make you stand out from the crowd.
It also shows that you care enough about the book to have gone that extra mile, and that you are likely to be open to constructive criticism – something that tends to be a pretty invaluable asset when it comes to the publishing game. If you’re convinced that your writing is perfect as is and doesn’t need a single change, then you’re probably going to struggle to find a publisher who will accept your manuscript.
More Interested in Indie Publishing?
You might be thinking, Well, I’m not interested in traditional publishing anyway, so that’s not important. If this is the case, kudos to you – I worked for an independent publishing company for three years, and absolutely loved it; indie authors are deservedly being recognised more and more for being just as valid as the traditionally-published ones! However, this is not a reason to avoid having your book edited. In some ways, if you are planning to self-publish, you might need an editor even more. As frustrating and unfair as it is, self-publishing tends to carry a certain amount of stigma. Before I knew much about it, I was pretty sceptical myself; when anyone mentioned self-publishing, I had images of terribly-written e-books filled with spelling errors and typos. I now know that this is absolutely not the norm in the independent publishing world; however, I also know that readers tend to be wary, and if you don’t seek professional editing before you publish your book, you’re likely to be perpetuating that stereotype. Sure, some readers are not picky. Sadly, others are – and let’s face it, those are the ones who are most likely to be vocal about their opinions. All it takes is one bad review on Amazon to absolutely destroy your ratings; more than a few, and you’re unlikely to get new readers. There are always going to be people who dislike your style or your plots, but the standard of grammar in your book is something over which you actually have control: you owe it to yourself to ensure it’s as perfect as possible.
I’m Here to Help
The final reason I’d urge you to consider professional editing is perhaps a bit more of a highbrow and pretentious one, and I mention it more to explain my obsession with correcting other people’s grammar than as a way to convince you to pay for editing. I firmly believe that grammar is important. Yes, language is a fluid, developing, slippery thing, and the standards change practically daily as to what can be considered well-written. (Just check out the Victorians’ use of commas for a demonstration of this.) But even within this context, I do feel that those standards are important to maintain, and that’s a great deal of the reason I became an editor (and why I annoy my husband by correcting him when he says stuff like ‘forgot’ instead of ‘forgotten’). I want to help you write better, not condescendingly inform you of why you’re wrong; I honestly believe that by editing your work, I’m doing just that – helping, rather than hindering.
Questions? Comments? I love hearing from you! Happy writing!