John Adamus: Why Editing (By An Editor Who Isn’t You) Matters

Usually, folks who want to do guest posts here are writers — but I wanted a perspective from an editor, so when I recently caught up with John (who is a friend and who is someone who has edited my work in the past), I thought, hey, maybe we can hear from a freelance editor, see what he has to say to all us ink-fingered word-fumblers. Here, then, is John Adamus –

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One of my favorite things to do is talk about editing, and talk about how editing makes writing better, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between writer and editor that extends far beyond deadlines or paychecks. I’ve collected some thoughts below. In no way are these set in stone for all of time and space, and in no way am I the sole authority (I’m wearing a bathrobe and slippers as I write this parenthetical), but I am hopeful these paragraphs will be helpful to someone out there.

Like writing, editing is a job that comes with assumptions that seem to bubble up in conversation:

- That an editor just presses F7 and runs spellcheck on manuscripts

-  That other people could do what an editor does, because it’s just dealing with words like in school

- That editing is an unnecessary part of writing a book, because when an author gets an agent, they edit the manuscript, or the publisher has an editor, and they edit the work

- That whatever word processor being used highlights spelling and grammar as writing happens, so an editor is redundant

- That the editor is the writer’s enemy, or some kind of obstacle to proving their quality or validity as a writer, making interaction with the editor an unnecessary combative exercise

Many of these assumptions bubble up in conversations started with the dreaded, “So what do you do?” question. They seem to appear on the horizon right after a tight smile or some kind of look and a variation of “Oh, you’re an editor, really?”

Writers can claim membership in a tribe of storytellers, a lineage with roots as far back as cave walls and shamans. But there isn’t a record of some guy looking at the cave wall saying, “No Brandon, I think the mammoth had two tusks not three, and I think the pelt was more Pantone 167 not Pantone 166.”

Editorial lineage seems to stall out for people somewhere around English teachers they hated or crusty librarians and journalists, these great caricatures of hardasses, doryphores, and know-it-alls who cavil while they dispense lethal swaths of red ink to kill creativity, hopes and dreams. It’s seldom a flattering image.

Those previously mentioned assumptions are flummery and twaddle. They are as disparaging as they are unhelpful, and they’re the fuel for engines of unchallenged lack of growth or change.

Editors do more than press F7

Editors hear this a lot, often from people who have no interest in having their work edited, or have an overall sense that editing will somehow change their work irrevocably for the worse. It’s important to remember that writers don’t just cut and paste other people’s stories, and painters don’t just color within the lines, so it’s dismissive to sum up editing as some baleful ruiner of ideas. Change is part of evolution and an editor is critical in pushing that evolution forward.

There is more to editing than pressing a single key. There’s checking grammar and spelling, yes, but also there are checks on a manuscript’s plot, dialogue, word choice, pacing, character arcs, character names, expositive flow, and consistency in consequences. There isn’t one keystroke that checks, questions, and certifies all those elements.

Clear the static from your broadcast

When I summarize what I do, I use the phrase: I “clear the static from your broadcast”, because I can liken the relationship between writer and editor to tuning in a radio station. Your book, your story, your manuscript (whatever you want to call it) exists in some state where other people won’t always easily “get” it. Ideas may be poorly expressed, words may be incorrect, concepts may be redundant … any manner of structural or expressive problems can exist. What an editor does is help refine the message, and make sure the broadcast of your manuscript to whatever destination gets received the way you want.

Gain a cheerleader

Writing is a lonely task. It happens most often in a limited exchange: fingers on keyboards, supported by cups of coffee and stacks of notes and heaps of doubt. Days and nights can be consumed by the creative process, and just as easily, the doubts and worries that what you’re doing just won’t work can swallow you whole. It’s dangerous to go alone, so take this: gain an advocate for your work. Join up with someone who will accompany you to Mount Doom that you might deliver your one ring to the fiery volcano of production. Add a bard to your retinue, someone who will tout your efforts and do their best to help show you that all those mornings when you were up before the sun, and all those nights where you shut the door on your kids and spouse (or the barking dog, ringing phone, and text messages from your significant other), were worth it. Your goal is to have a book that gets published, right? So why not do all you can to make that happen?

It’s scary to write a thing then send it off in an email, armed only with a query letter for a shield or blanket. The unknowns of rejection loom large and far too many predators exist out there who live and breathe fear and persiflage, saying that you will likely try and fail at this, so don’t bother trying after rejection. They think that by keeping you out of the clubhouse, they’ll have a better shot at the “goodies” they perceive to be exclusive.

But they’re wrong.

The clubhouse isn’t exclusive. The “goodies” aren’t finite. You’re not racing to get them before they’re all gone, this isn’t slices of pizza when you’re late for dinner. Your quest, your mission should you choose to accept it, is to produce the best book you can. No matter how long that takes. No matter what software, what pen, what paper or what chair you use. No matter where or when you write. No matter how many people think your time would be better served by not writing. You may feel motivated to write just to spite them, just to prove them wrong, but that is temporary and leads to burnout.

Motivation must come from within. This is your work, it’s not getting out of your head without you doing something proactive about it. But that’s not to say it isn’t a comfort to have someone come along and recognize your hard work. The editor can be the roadside paper cup of Gatorade during your marathon. Let us be that for you.

The word plumber

In talking to a lot of people, I hear some version of this: “Well I’m a pretty good editor, so I do that myself.” It reminds me of a night when I was a kid, and the dishwasher stopped working. My dad has never been handy, but he has been epic levels of stubborn and cheap. He walked into the kitchen and started banging the pipes with wrenches of all sizes. After a few minutes, he emerged from beneath the sink and I asked “So, do you want me to tell Mom to get the plumber on the phone?” He said, “No, I can do this myself. It’s my dishwasher, I can handle it.”

Within the hour, there was an inch of two of brackish water in the kitchen. The plumber was called just after the puddle reached the back door of the house.

So yes, you can edit your own work to a degree. Plenty of books and resources exist for you to learn to do it yourself, and yes, you are perfectly capable of cleaning up your manuscript’s spelling or punctuation. But we’re all too close to our work and even while we’re our harshest critics, we can be surprisingly blind to errors we make time and again (I, for instance, often leave words out while typing because my inner monologue narrates them, and my fingers assume I’ve already typed them.)

Calling in a professional costs you money, but you’re exchanging that money for peace of mind that the job is done correctly and that when the job is done the problem(s) have been removed. If you’re willing to call in a plumber to fix your dishwasher, because you want the best dishwasher you can have so you can do dishes, why would you think twice about hiring a professional to help your words be the best words they can be?

Now, yes, the later stages of publishing will include editors after you’ve signed your contract (this is assuming you’re going with the traditional route of publishing), so yes, you may just leave all this for later, and then slog your way through it when you get there.

But if you’re not going traditional, and you have the ability to post a manuscript to a website with a click and upload of a file, isn’t in your best interest as someone who wants sales and good reviews (which breed more sales), that the file be in its best shape possible? Are you motivated by the idea that if someone can pay money for your book, then you must be a “legit” author? Don’t chase the validation, it will erode over time and you’ll need more and more of it to feel as good. Create the best work you can, avail yourself of all the possible resources to make that happen.

It’s your book, have it your way

Because one of our first experiences with editing comes from a school class where we’re told what’s right and what’s wrong with our work, editing becomes this combat or trial by fire, where writers have to test themselves in mortal combat against story ninjas shooting ice blasts or grappling hooks before someone loses a spine. There are, sadly, whole schools of thought and training where people are taught to turn the creative process into a steep uphill climb, where scarcity is the watchword and the only shibboleth comes by navigating the caprice of gatekeepers long out of touch. I was trained in that method, and it nearly cost me a career when I went toe-to-toe with a writer (who later went on to be a New York Times best-selling author) because I had to prove how smart I was. But the writer-editor relationship isn’t about how much smarter one person is than the other. The relationship is mutually supportive, collaborative and productive.

An editor’s mission is to educe the best story from within the writer. It’s the writer’s work. I don’t get hired so that someone brings me a manuscript and I shape it into what I want to see, I help the author see what they’ve always wanted to see (or something better that they couldn’t imagine). An editor who says “you write it, and I’ll cut out what I don’t like” is not an editor you need to stay within twenty feet of. I will ask you what the writer what they want to do, I will ask to see their blueprints and road map, and while I might disagree and even counsel them to walk a different route to their goal, all my work is a suggestion on some level, my experience guided by intelligence. I don’t have to agree with their choices, my job is to support the choice being made. Changes need not automatically be accepted (oh please no, don’t do that blindly), the alteration of a single word or punctuation doesn’t need to happen, but there is a courtesy in at least reading what commentary or changes I’ve given, and talking about it. It can be as simple as “I don’t like any of it, go soak your head” or “This is awesome, thanks” or a back-and-forth where one of us explains to the other their thinking, and compromise as necessary.

Make the best book you can

No one sets out to write the worst book ever. No one wakes up and commits to writing a book without having it read by someone else, often in exchange for currency or cupcakes or some kind of services. The process of writing is an exercise in decision-making and discipline. Growing the idea from something that rattles around in your head to something that exists somewhere concrete to something that exists in a state that someone else wants to read is a challenge to self-doubt and our habits. And it’s scary.

Part of making the best book you can is arming yourself with the best knowledge you can. The internet is packed with resources: books, blogs, classes and whatever else (eventually holograms, right? We need holograms) and they’re available to you, so use them.

Another part of that is surrounding yourself with people who can help make you better: editors, agents, copyeditors, proofreaders, beta readers, writing groups, writing partners, accountability buddies, sponsors, mentors, co-conspirators are all available to you, if you’re willing to be brave enough to step away from the fear and doubt and make the declaration that you’re going to make a thing. If you’re about to say you don’t have anyone you can think of, please count me. I got your back, and I’m one guy writing this guest blog post. Also, I wear bathrobes and comfy clothes and I play video games, and if you want, I’ll cook awesome food and we can hang out. I won’t even ask you for a ride to a doctor’s appointment or to borrow stuff from your garage without returning it.

The tricky part here is that you can surround yourself with people who say good things, but no growth happens. People can love what you do, but that’s not going to help make the book happen. That’s not going to get you to stop calling yourself an “aspiring” writer. Are you writing? Then you’re a writer.

Avoid the echo chamber

The internet is a huge place full of furious roads and dystopic wastelands. In order to cope with its expanse, we return to our roots as tribal primates and build communities. Over time, and given limited influx of new viewpoints, those communities can become echo chambers, whirlpools of masturbatory praise and flatulence sniffing where the status quo goes unchallenged and growth stalls.

And that growth is critical. It’s what pushes into new efforts, it’s how we get better and level up our skills (so presumably we get good enough to turn undead or have a honey badger for an animal companion. I would name mine Clyde.)

An editor, as a new entrant into your community of creativity, brings two assets with them: an ability to say “No”, and an ability to motivate. Nobody likes hearing “No”, but it’s the negative that can lead us to change, the same way rejection can prompt a new attempt. If a community is built out of people who only say “Yes” it’s much harder to develop. This is not to say your mom, your spouse, that nice coworker, and that friend you’ve made every morning when you wait for a latte can’t read your book and cheer you on, but they’re not going to be critical. I mean, these people love you on some level that will prevent them from saying that your plot is hollow and your character is as well-crafted as a sweatshop knockoff brand sneaker. They might just call the whole thing “interesting” and tell you they liked it, but they’re not going to get their hands dirty. That’s where an objective outside opinion can come in. Yes, that’s also a great way for you to insulate yourself (“The editor just didn’t get it.”), but that’s just cowardice, that’s fear talking. And you, creative person, are greater than your fears. You challenge them every time you put a word on a page.

You expected editing tips? Here you go

I’ve tried to write the preceding two thousand or so words without talking about myself, which has proven difficult, since I like talking about myself, and it gives me a chance to help people. If you follow me on Twitter (@awesome_john), I do a lot of “writing tweets”, which are digestible pieces of information about writing or publishing. Often they’re motivation, reminders not to give up or encouragement to write even when you would rather clean toilets after a Mexican lunch at an IBS symposium. So here, have some writing tips that run a little longer than 140 characters:

Mind your pronouns. When you have two characters of the same gender in a scene, and they’re interacting, it’s critical for the reader to keep them separate and distinct in their mind. Suppose you have two women, maybe they’re sisters, and they’re talking. Your exposition has this sentence: “When she came across her photo album, she froze.” Which “she” is which? Who did what action? Whose album is it?

Stop building “And” centipedes. How many and+verbs are you going to use in a single thought, let alone a single sentence? “I went to the store and I got eggs and they were out of milk and then I bought a candy bar and then I stared at that ugly baby and then I thought about why we call radishes radishes and I got lost in the frozen food aisle and then I ran into my friend Patrice.” Chaining all those actions together creates the idea that all those ideas are equal in weight and importance. Also it’s a slow read. When a person (who isn’t a cute child) speaks to us this way, we’re bored. And boredom makes readers leave books behind. Challenge yourself any time you want to trail a lot of and+verbs in a single sentence or idea.

Purge these words from your writing and watch your writing sharpen: that | reallyjustvery | kind of | a little | sort of | Like all those adverbs you’re already burning with fire, these words add qualifiers and description that could be better accomplished with stronger verbs or different sentences. Anyone can describe using clichés and tired expressions, but you’re you, and through your word choices (which are framed in your experiences as a reader and a liver of life), you can ditch the common expression for one unique to you.

I am ever so grateful, lucky, and privileged for the chance to write this guest blog post. I do my best to put material like this on my own blog (http://writernextdoor.com), in between all the life-stuff I talk about. Let me leave you with one last thought.

It is through words that we find ourselves. We use language as a tool of discovery, a tool of experience and as a tool of forging ourselves a path in life. We too often mark our lives by our hardships and failures, and sometimes we are hesitant to call attention to our successes out of fear we will be thought of as arrogant or selfish. But it is neither arrogant nor selfish to take a moment for positivity. It may feel foreign or hokey, I know it does for me, but it is okay to give yourself a gold star when something goes right. Consider this sentence your permission slip. Our ability to share stories and transcend boundaries through creativity elevate us from bipeds wearing pants to true wizards, Istari with adjectives and a burning passion engage other people with story paintings we can draw in their minds.

You may not always feel good enough to do be a writer. You may feel discouraged. You may look at your friends’ successes and wonder if you will ever come close to that. You may look at your life outside and beyond your creative projects and wonder if you have enough time. You may spend nights and days and afternoons angry or scared that precious time is wasting because you’re not writing that paragraph or that chapter or even that word. You may wish for a TARDIS, and mastery over chronology. You may wish for superpowers to write faster, or greater intelligence to conceive of better ideas. You’d not be able to even have those wishes without people creating TARDISes and superpowers so you could be aware of lacking them. The story you’re telling, the thing you’re making, it will be what inspires someone else down the road. You need only keep writing it and then make sure people know it exists.

Let’s all keep doing our best for as long as we can. Let’s believe in each other. Let’s support one another. Let’s tell the best stories we can.

I’M JOHN ADAMUS, I’m the Writer Next Door, and I help people make ideas turn into projects. Whether that’s a novel, novella, script, role-playing game, radio drama, ad copy, teleplay, anthology … I usually say, “If it has words, I can help you make something with them.”

102 comments

  • Great article, John. A few questions:

    1. Do you work on particular genres and not others?
    2. How many passes does it take to complete all this work (quote)

    There is more to editing than pressing a single key. There’s checking grammar and spelling, yes, but also there are checks on a manuscript’s plot, dialogue, word choice, pacing, character arcs, character names, expositive flow, and consistency in consequences. There isn’t one keystroke that checks, questions, and certifies all those elements. (unquote)

    3. Plus all the discussion back and forth?
    4. Do you read a manuscript start to finish before editing it?

    Thanks.
    JJ

    • Hello!

      Thank you so much for reading the post.

      1. I work in any genre, though I have the least amount of experience in westerns.

      2. Every editor is different, so what I do in 2 to 3 passes other people do in 4 or 9 or however many. For me, I do 2 to 3, unless the contract specifies a different number.

      3. The discussion back and forth happens before, during, and after each pass, right up until everyone’s satisfied with how the MS looks and feels.

      4. Yes, I do read the manuscript through once as-is before doing anything to it. I do make a list (usually on a legal pad or notepad) while reading, just to help me track where I need to dive in or what the common problems are.

      These are wonderful questions, thanks for asking them.

    • I’ll work with a writer at any stage of the process. I particularly like the early stages, as there’s often an extra dose of passion fueling the discussions.

  • Thank you John for a great article and read. I took the step of getting a editor last year and i was amazed at what they came back with. I was worried i wasn’t going to get value for money, gibberish or worse nothing of value or insight. What I got exceeded expectations; 13,000 words of a breakdown of overall appearance (plot and characters), then a break down of character pro’s and cons and finally a chapter by chapter breakdown of what was good, bad and just ugly. I now appreciate more than ever what a good editor can do. Now if found one sticking with them!

  • Thanks for the great summary of what an editor does.

    I use as many beta readers as I can get because the more eyes I can get on a project, the better.

    But I find an editor is a necessity. They have the experience, training, and sensitivity to do the additional levels of story edits as well as seeing word patterns and other issues that bedevil that beta readers miss.

    I appreciate editors, and I liked the summary of what your work. I really liked the “and centipede.” I had one of those going on yesterday so it’s funny you bring it up in your post.

  • Simply brilliant. Editors are worth their weight in gold – I ALWAYS use one.

    And I now have a mental image of the ‘and’ centipede; he’s big ans squishy and bright purple, in case you were wondering.

    • Katherine,

      Really? Purple? I fancied mine to be mottled amethyst and gold with hints of burnt umber. I feel like I should commission a picture and put it up in the office now.

      Thank you for reading, thank you for commenting. Write well.

  • I was surprised you blue-pencilled the word “that”. I can’t imagine why. I’ve been carefully replacing “which” with “that” wherever I can. Following suggestions by other editors, I try to remove certain other words and phrases that distance the reader, words/phrases like felt, could feel, heard, could hear, knew etc. Another editor (can’t recall who) suggests the use of the verb to be in all its forms is verboten. Again, I’m flummoxed by this idea. What do you think?

    • As with the others in that list, “that” is often the first step to a clunky everyday sentence structure; it can become part of a lulling rhythm, one to avoid. It’s not *always* wrong, of course, but a good idea is a good idea.

    • Every editor comes to the work with their own set of flensing tools. I, for instance, have no problem with “heard” or “feel” because they’re active verbs that do describe something. When I’m worried about the psychic distance between story and reader, I look for the depth of detail and how each sentence can impact the ideas.

      “That” gets axed because it so often becomes a crutch or template for explaining something when you could use a sharper description:

      “A chair that’s cold.” –> “A cold chair” (it’s an overly simplistic example, but I hope you see what I mean)

      Distancing language gets flagged in part because it slows momentum.

      • Precisely. While it’s useful for representing many normal vocal rhythms, even /that/ can make a cumulative slowdown, dulling the flow. /Everything/ can be useful…in the right context, at the right time, and at the right frequency.

  • I was expecting a wonderful post about the glories and function of editors, which was here in spades, so thank you for that.

    I wasn’t expecting the wonderful discussion about the power of the written word and the extra bit of motivation I didn’t know I needed this morning. I’m editing, and it’s been a long, hard slog with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thank you for the pick me up!

  • So much great advice! Thanks for taking the time to share.

    A note on the ‘and centipedes’ (awesome term, btw): Have you read Cormac McCarthy? He loves them, and his centipedes are hypnotic. You’ll be bouncing along the list, nodding, humming, and then someone is dead. (I guess that describes his books in general?)

  • This is a great testimonial to an often misunderstood, but critical, function for a professional writer. I’ve learned the hard way that having an independent editor is the difference between good and great. I am fortunate to have an editor who is a close partner in my writing. As you point out, a great editor makes my work better. A deft hand and a way to challenge me to make a phrase or thought better is what it takes. More often than not my editor tells me where I have fallen short and engages me to fix it. I learn. My voice is preserved and my final product is so much better. I think you need two editors. One who is the writing partner and one who provides a neutral eye for copy and general storyline issues.

    Thanks for posting.

  • My cousin wrote a book–a long, long book–and self-published it. My sister handed it to me, having read most of it before her enthusiasm flagged, and said, “Too bad she didn’t get an editor,” to which I responded, “Note to self: Don’t self-publish without an editor.”

  • While I agree on a ideological level, on a practical level, hiring a good editor can become a massive financial burden. My book is going to cost over $2,000 to be edited by a competent professional. TWO. THOUSAND. DOLLARS. And yeah, I checked with competent sources (namely editors I respect in their own right or those who’ve edited for authors I respect). A good editor is worth paying for, but it’s just not a practical consideration in so many cases. The catch-22 of this, of course, is that due to the size of the book, I know it’s even more important that a professional third party look at it, but in what universe can an unpublished author afford something like that?

    • Though when you view this through the lens of being not just an author but a start-up publisher, it is safe to assume that every business incurs start-up costs. That doesn’t make the sting any easier, mind you, or make it magically affordable, but from a business standpoint it’s a sensible expectation.

    • Payment plans are totally a thing that happens. Yes two thousand dollars is a lot of money. Taking a longer view – if an edited book sells better, if it is better received by an audience, isn’t all the hard work validated (the hours spent writing, the coffee consumed, the cost of a good chair, etc)?

      You also don’t have to get the whole MS done at once. Or even at all. Editorial consultations can be helpful too, since there’s no denying that someone somewhere needs to edit the book before it goes out into the world.

  • While at a contra dance in my community I saw a man wearing a red t-shirt that said, “EDITING. IT’S CHEAPER THAN THERAPY.”

    I loved this post more than I’ve loved some lovers. I will print, frame, hang on the wall in my office for I am also a mutant and a freelance editor. (Or maybe I’ll re-size, print small and tuck this essay into my undergarments for fun…and to symbolize how editing is one of the most intimate processes on Earth.)

  • Now I want that t-shirt. I bet it would look awesome under my fuzzy robe.

    I hope your undergarments treat you well. Thank you for reading. It’s good to meet another mutant out in the wasteland.

  • Thank you, John, for explaining what we editors do. We’re not monsters out to eat the books of innocent writers and spit out word crumbs. Terrific post. Thank you, Chuck, for asking John to your blog. :)

  • Thanks John! A great article! Love that you used flummery and twaddle. An editor that plays video games? Sounds like an awesome combo to me! I’ve always known how editing can make my writing better since Writing a manual for software back in the day, but I didn’t know how editors felt they were viewed. Thanks for expanding my world!

  • Here’s another thank you. I’m a copyeditor establishing myself as a freelancer and have already received the response, “I’m an editor and edit my own work.” I’ve been proofing and editing manuscripts for government and law for years and thought I knew it all until I took a copyediting course and found how much I didn’t know. One thing I learned is “that” and “which” have a definite place in a sentence. “Which” is used with a nonrestrictive clause, and “that” is used with a restrictive clause that provides essential information. I much prefer editing fiction, where a writer needs to know the tools, but can use them to express creatively.

  • I work in three day old jeans and coffee stained t-shirts. Your fuzzy robe sounds fancy and cozy to me!

    Ever since I was a little girl I loved to read the acknowledgements in my favorite books and I noticed that accolades always went out to the editors. I’d often imagine the author and editor sitting in a coffee shop debating the subtleties of words and the flavor of punctuation. I would envision the writer drawing a sophisticated picture of reasons while the thoughtful editor pointed to the sophistication of clarity. Ya, I was a strange sort of child!

    I have this big picture idea, born out of the truth that I couldn’t afford an editor for my first book which is a collection of stories: I made the theme of my book seeing truth and beauty in the mess of amateurishly edited lives and words. Then, with all the money I make from that book (Yikes!) I’ll cultivate an editor/writer friendship for my first novel.

    Thank-you so really very much (tee hee!), John, for writing this post! It’s reminded me to keep on envisioning and to keep on writing. Perhaps one day we’ll meet at a coffee shop to discuss the subtleties of words and the flavor of punctuation. Assuming they’ll let us in with our stained t-shirts and fuzzy robes!

    Hmmmm… Perhaps we should just meet in the virtual world. Then I won’t have to feel bad about forgetting to use deodorant again. Giggle!

    (Thank-you so much for inviting an editor to share his thoughts here, Chuck! You attract the greatest guest posts. It’s no wonder why.)

    • Tsara,

      I can actually get pretty far in the world with the power of a bathrobe. I think it’s due to the pockets.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Enjoy your t-shirt, may you make some new stains while doing something awesome.

  • Wonderful post! So many good points. I am ever grateful to my editor(s). While I am still an unknown, I am happy with what I have out there. And much of that is due to the people who helped me take it apart where needed, and put it back together as a stronger piece. I will admit, when I open up that document from an editor, and see all those paragraphs of “Yeah, so about this” and “Umm, this thing here?”, I sigh. Because, of course, to me, it was perfect before I sent it, right? Ha ha ha. Every time, and even though I don’t always take every suggestion, those editorial comments have made my work stronger and better. Love your editors, folks. The good ones are gold.

    • I think it’s important to remember that what gets said is just a suggestion. You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to implement it. But it’s there, and it might help. And it ended up in the margin, in that comment, wherever, because someone wants to help you make your work better.

      Thanks for reading.

  • October 1, 2015 at 12:28 PM // Reply

    Dear John:
    (No, not that kind of Dear John!) This was such a timely article for me. I have just been asked to help out as an editor for a friend’s e-zine because “hey, you’re a writer, you must know how to edit, right?”
    I, however, am well aware that I have shortcomings, and may even (horrors!) have blind spots. I can’t at the moment afford a copyediting course. Could you recommend a hood how-to book on the subject? (Maybe you’ve written one yourself?)

    • Varina,

      Thank you so much for replying. I hope your editing goes well. I have not yet put out my chapbook on editing, but I can make some recommendations on resources. Write me an email and I’ll put some stuff together for you. (thewriternextdoor at gee mail)

      • October 2, 2015 at 2:10 AM // Reply

        Thankyouthankyiuthankyou! (Effusive thanks & praise accompanied by the sounds of tappy-dancing feet and little squeals if joy)

  • John and Chuck, Wow! This was such an insightful post. I dabble in writing, and know how important it is to have another set of eyes on my work. I also teach writing in high school, and I have such a difficult time getting my students to see that editing–even for student writers– is not just using spell check and relying on their word processor, no matter what I tell them! I have a website for my students. Would you mind if I re-post this there? (I’d also be happy to link them here.) For them to see a professional writer and editor mirroring what I tell them about the writing process would be awesome! Again, thank you for the fantastic post!

  • Thank you so much for your insightful article John. As a fledgling writer nearing the completion of my first manuscript, the spectre of soliciting an editor and submitting my work is a tad bit terrifying to say the least. While I recognize the dire need for some serious trimming of my literary verge (so to speak), there’s that pinch of pride that nonetheless rebels at having ANYTHING that I’ve put down be questioned or removed. Intellectually, I know that this is not an adversarial or punitive part of the process, but it’s hard to shake that feeling. Your article has put a more intimate face to that stage and it has certainly calmed the yammering demons inside.

  • Thank you! That was a great overview of the process and of a mutually supportive frame to hang the work on. (I do a little volunteer editing… My mother writes stories starring each of her grandchildren for Christmas each year, and I edit them for her.)

  • John – thank you – loved this. Found myself scribbling a few of your paragraphs down and tacking them on the wall beside my writing desk. On wards and upwards – very inspiring – I’m off to follow you on Twitter :) Ruthie Morgan

  • Really great post. (I’ve made the I/me mistake and I used to teach English.) Grammar is taught and dropped too early in education. Anyway, how do you find a good editor, and how do you know if he/she is a good fit? Can you ask for a small sample to see if you feel comfortable with what they offer?

    • Jenni,

      I tell people to find editors more through social media than anywhere else. Yes, you can google lists of them, but that information may be out of date. Twitter, in particular is where I direct people most often.

      An editor is a good fit for a writer (here come my opinions) when:

      1. The writer is treated like a person,

      2. The writer feels comfortable talking to and hearing from the editor, even if the substance of that conversation is difficult (like when you talk about what needs to be worked on)

      3. The writer’s experience writing is made better because of the lessons learned from working with the editor.

      So, while yes, you can ask for a sample of the work, it’s so much more than how many times a person corrects grammar. It’s about a conversation, it’s about developing a relationship that’s supportive to making good things happen.
      Thank you so much for taking the time to read, comment, and ask a great question.

  • I join other freelance editors in thanking you, John, for this post. I’m happy to see the comments from writers saying they’ve had good experiences with editors. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had only positive working relationships with writers and have never fought with anyone or encountered suspicion from clients about my motives. I think it’s because I respect their job and they respect mine, and we understand we have the same goal: a bright shiny book that’s the best it can be.

  • Good read. Makes me want an editor (which I currently am nowhere close to being able to afford) even more than I already do.

  • Excellent post, John. I’ve always found I get a greater response when I say I’m a writer than when I say I’m an editor (when I say both, some go cross-eyed with confusion — and I NEVER edit my own work, just sayin’).
    Having someone of your authority explain the editing process and its need, and that editors are adversarial rather can be an author’s champion, is great to hear. Those tips to all writers are worth their weight in gold.
    Thanks!

  • Thank you, John! Very good information. I look forward to the completion of my book and can’t wait for the editor’s comments.

  • I’ll admit that this was the first time I’ve had someone suggest that a writer hire an editor to go over their manuscript before subbing if they’re going the trade publishing route. I didn’t know this was something authors generally did. This probably explains why I’ve had very little love at all from agents so far. I wish I’d known this before I’d blown through most of the agents on my list.

    But as someone who isn’t going the self-publishing route in part because I don’t have the money to hire a professional editor to get my manuscript into trade-published shape to self pub, I did have a couple of questions:

    1. How much should an editor who works on development as well as scanning for those smaller grammar and wording errors actually cost? I was under the impression it was at least a couple thousand or more for a 100k word manuscript. That’s a lot to sink in a manuscript that still might not get accepted for any of a thousand reasons that don’t have to do with the quality of the prose, or even the plot holes.

    2. How can you find a good one who knows how to work with your genre and to help you improve within the voice and narrative style you’re aiming for? Because I have run into some people on writing sites who have gotten what sounds like really bad advice from editors they’ve hired.

    3. What if someone asks for editorial help, and they write well, but their story is just really flawed to the point that fixing it would make it something so different that the person might as well start over and write a new story? Will pro editors for hire be honest and say, “I can help you polish this up so it shines like a diamond, but it will still be a rock, and agents and publishers who handle this genre aren’t looking for polished rocks. I don’t think this is the best use of your money.”

    • Hi, i thought i might share my experience with you. My novel came in at 70,000 words, and decided to find an editor to check that i wasn’t wasting my time writing something that was rubbish. When i voiced at work the one day i needed an editor, i found a co-workers husband was married to one, Having spoken to him about what services he provided, he advised an overview edit of my word costing £286, what he produced was 13,000 words of breakdowns of characters, plots, chapters etc.

      To me this shows that yes it can be expensive, but shop around.

    • Yeah, I’m kind of leery of this as well. I fully absolutely and totally support hiring an editor (possibly more than one given the differences between content editing and copy editing and so forth) if you’re publishing your book yourself, but for traditional publishing, it raises with me the same questions you’re raising, and breaks Yog’s Law pretty thoroughly. ( https://www.sff.net/people/yog/ )

      It’s not the first time I’ve heard this idea of hiring an editor before querying agents–I’ve known people who think it’s a matter of course to do it this way–but I don’t quite trust it. If I and my writing groups and beta readers and so forth can’t pull together a book decent enough to interest an agent (who will then help edit and then hopefully get it to a publisher who will have their own editing process), I feel like my next step isn’t “hire someone to make this book better,” it’s “study and practice until I learn how to write a better book.”

      Am I wrong about this?

    • I don’t think an editor is essential if you’re subbing traditional — I didn’t — but some folks could use the help, potentially. But it is a cost sunk for less return.

    • Good morning, I’m so sorry to write you such a delayed response. If you’ll still permit me, I’d like to answer your questions:

      1. Editorial costs range, there isn’t a firm codified standard (I doubt you’ll get enough people to agree, let alone get enough people to pay it), so I tell writers to look for a range of anywhere between $.01 and $.15 a word, depending on the type of editing going on. (For the 100k manuscript that’s $1000+, but out a contract can spell out a number of payment options and schedules)

      Yes, that’s a fair bit of money, and yes I could join you in that thinking that it’ll get rejected, but post-editing, you’re reducing the number of things that could get you rejected. Editing is no guarantee of acceptance, nothing is, but anything that helps the MS look its best is certainly worth it, I think.

      2. Editor hunting is about having a lot of conversations with people, seeing if you can have a back-and-forth with them where you feel like this person you’ve spoken to can help you get the best out of your MS. Finding editors means combing through social media (I like Twitter and Google-plus), writing emails, asking editors and writers for suggestions.

      3. I’m unsure as to what you’re asking – are you asking if editors will nip a writer in the bud to spare them the expense as though they’re wasting time? Yes, it’s happened. It’s not a common thing to have happen, but yes, it’s been done before (by me, by others I know).

  • I’m a huge fan of editors so I loved this post. But I have met a number of authors who think of an editor like a mechanic—the editor will turn off the check engine light. And even if the editor explains why the light was on and how to ensure it doesn’t come on again, fingers will go in the ears and the tune of “Lalalala” will fill the air. It’s as though they don’t have to learn the business of editing because they paid a fee. But without learning the lessons a great editor teaches, they’ll never be able to manage developmental edits from the publisher, and will likely repeat the same errors on the next book. How do you deal with authors who just expect you to “fix it” over and over?

    • Totally agree, Cathy. Editing is a learning experience, and by taking on what an editor teaches (notes, suggestions, explanations), it will only make you a stronger, more competent writer. It’s a collaboration that can make magic.

    • Cathy,

      Sorry for the tardy reply.

      To answer your question: I drink a few cups of tea and write “You’re doing X again” as a comment, where “X” is whatever the problem is, then I write the author an email explaining why X is a problem and why I only marked the first 20 times it happens. Then I trust them to at least try and fix it, and if they don’t, I drink more tea and then keep working.

  • John, thank you for a great post. Fine stuff, especially the bits about time and quality and ting. I knew I needed an editor from the get go but it was a long time before I realised what I needed the editor to be able to do: or, indeed what things in my work that needed actual editing if that makes sense. I think I went into this realising there was a lot I didn’t know but not what it was. having your book edited is an opportunity to learn so much stuff that I’m amazed anyone turned it down.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Every author needs to take the advice from this post. I don’t care who you are, if you write, you need an editor. Not a friend, not your cousin who took a class, a professional editor. This will cost money, it will be worth it. I’m of the opinion that one cannot be a great writer and a great editor, at least when it comes to their own work, it’s one or the other. You can be good at both, but if your passion is writing, then guess what? You need an editor. Sorry, I should clarify, you need a professional editor. This is especially true for Indie authors. Like it or not, the work of one reflects on the Indie community as a whole. I’ve read some excellent Indie stuff, and I’ve read some trash. And most of that trash came in the form of unedited nonsense. It’s hard enough to stand out and get noticed, but with heaping piles of unedited dreck towering into the sky, it’s just unfair. Unfair to those of us that do our work, our research, and unfair to those of us that shell out fistfuls of cash just in insure that our books resemble something intelligible. Okay, I’ll cool this rant, but before I do, I want to say two things. First, Indie authors have a responsibility. Not just to ourselves and our own work, but to all Indie authors, to the community. Indie publishing is a great outlet and opportunity but, in order for it to ever truly rival traditional publishing, we all need to look at ourselves and feel absolutely certain that our very best is being cast out into the aether before hitting submit. The second is this, after having my first book edited, my writing has improved noticeably. I didn’t just purchase a service that began and ended with that book. I bought experience that will help me for as long as my fingers continue to bang off of the keyboard. Now, how can you put a price on that?

    • Excellent points. I wish every indie author would read advice like this, and, more importantly, follow it. Some of the stuff I have read- yow. And a pro editor doesn’t always have to be a huge monetary expense. My first editor, who has worked professionally as an editor for many years in many different fields, is a friend. He edited my stuff not as a friend, but as a professional who wanted to help me be a better writer. I learned a lot from him and I contiune to learn from my current editor. But that first one? He worked for a good bottle of wine. Lucky? Yes, I was. Just don’t skip that step. I don’t care how good a writer you are, there is always something that can be improved. And you won’t see it. But your editor will.

      • It always makes me sigh a little when the talk about editing turns to money, because so many times after that the editor almost has to justify their existence, and prove to the author that the job isn’t frivolous. I’ve been editing now for twenty years, and I still find people who see the cost and put that ahead of the goal of getting their book into a better shape so that someone (an audience, an agent, your grandmother, whomever) can have a better experience with it.

        In the two decades I’ve done this job, I’ve worked for: meat, transportation, furniture, video games, dog grooming, rug cleaning, instruction on home repairs, a date with someone’s sister, pizza, medical services, Lego sets, movie tickets, a pool cue, business cards, and yes, money.

        Not everyone is that flexible, and sadly many people may try and exploit this to avoid paying in cash, but it is wholly possible to make arrangements to cover the cost without opening your checkbook. It just needs to be an honest discussion and bear something near equal value. It’s not standard, but it happens.

        • I really hope that you didn’t take my comment the wrong way. But for most authors, editing will cost them money. I don’t think that this should be a dark secret that no one discusses. In fact, I feel that it’s something that needs more discussion. If an author can’t afford an editor, whatever that cost may be, (cash, favors, a bed, heavy petting, etc) then that author is not ready to publish. Too many Indies see the cost of editing and then say ‘whoa, that’s expensive, but I think this is good enough without it’ Most things in life aren’t cheap and I never expected editing to be cheap either. And I never minded a single cent that I paid my editor. She was fantastic.

  • Hi, Mr. Adamus. I loved your article–it was so true and so inspiring. I’m working on a second draft of my novel, and it’s in no shape to pass on to an editor just yet (although I fully intend to do so once I work out all the kinks). But my question to you, and to Mr. Wendig, is–should a second draft take as long to write as a first draft? And should it make me feel like I want to reach down my throat and pull out my spleen? Because that’s where I’m at right now.

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