Professional Editing — Is It Necessary?

From the New Yorker on Charles Dickens’s 200th Birthday

Is professional editing necessary? The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe.

But before we get into this subject, we need to define what is meant by “professional editing” and what is meant by “necessary”.

What is Professional Editing?

A professional is one who does something for a living. An editor, in our context, is a person who “corrects” a typescript for a novel or story.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of editors: content editors and line editors, or proofreaders.

Content editors edit a book’s content. They look for continuity issues, plot holes, structure issues, character defects, and the like. This is high level editing.

Line editors, or proofreaders, look for typos, misspellings, grammar issues, punctuation problems, and the like.

The purpose of an editor is to alert the author to problems with the book so the author can fix them and supposedly improve the book. However, a professional editor isn’t the only person who can do this. As we’ll see.

Necessary

Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, defines necessary, in our context, as something “that must be done; mandatory; not voluntary; required.”

Is an indie author required to use the services of a professional editor? Obviously not, since they are voluntarily hired in the first place. Therefore a professional editor is not necessary. Is one recommended? Maybe.

The Problem with Editors

The problem with editors is the same problem with any professional: they’re human. They’re people like you and me and that’s the problem with them.

Professionals charge money for their services — but in the end can really guarantee nothing. When I hire an editor, I’m simply hiring one person’s opinion. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

This goes for any professional. Whether your doctor or your mechanic. We all know there are doctors who make bad decisions (I was the victim of one) and mechanics who are unscrupulous. We who are the non-professional need to be as informed as possible, so we aren’t taken for a ride.

Every editor I know, puts his or her pants on the same way I do. Sure he or she may have gone to school to learn the craft of writing. But I know of few editors who make a successful living from writing fiction. If they can’t make a living from writing fiction, then how valuable is their advice?

“But so-and-so — an award winning author — has John Doe for an editor. So John Doe must be good.” That’s assuming the writer’s success can be directly attributed to the editor. And if it can, then I question the writer’s ability to write. If a writer can’t succeed without an editor, then in effect the editor has become a co-author.

At the end of the day a professional editor has biases, prejudices, agendas (just like everyone else) that have nothing to do with my writing or me as an author. Yet those biases, prejudices, and agendas can adversely affect me as author.

The Problem with Writers

We writers, as many in the creative arts, are plagued with a host of self-defeating problems. They seem to go with the territory. I know I’ve had my share. Here are a few:

  • Insecurity issues
  • Inferiority complex
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Procrastination
  • Perfectionism
  • The need of approval by others and from those in authority

These problems open writers up to be easy marks for the unscrupulous.

Writers fall victim to people who provide them with approval. Writers who seek approval from authority figures lose their sense of self.

I think that’s one reason why we still have traditional publishing today. Because the insecure writers need to get “approval” from the “authorities” in order to shore up their self-esteem. Getting a publishing contract makes them feel worthy. And let’s them look down their noses at the indie author “who just couldn’t make it”.

Traditional publishing is an ego trip. My agent. My editor. My publisher. And many writers want that ego drug.

And many indie authors seek the same high. “I couldn’t have done it without my editor.” Or my cover artist. Or my formatter. Or what have you. These people sound just like their traditionally published counterparts.

The point of being an indie is independence. Freedom from all that crap. The indie movement is about the producer marketing directly to consumer. Cutting out the middleman. Kind of like the farmer’s market versus the grocery store.

Solution

Are indie authors therefore free from the task of editing? Heavens no! Not if they’re concerned about putting out a quality product. The question is, do they need to hire a professional editor? And the answer is, no they don’t.

If a writer knows how to tell a good story, there is little need for a high-level edit. The content editor has little to offer. If a writer is concerned about the craft of storytelling and is in the lifelong process of honing his or her craft, then a content editor will have little to offer.

Now that same writer might benefit from a proofreader. But one doesn’t need to hire a line editor to get those services.

If a writer is not very good at telling a story, then a high-level edit may be of great help. But what may be of even greater help is simply more writing. If you’re going to an auto mechanic, do you want the one who is fresh out of school with little to no experience? Or do you want the guy who’s been doing it for 20 years?

It’s the same with writing. Practice makes perfect. It’s why Edgar Rice Burroughs advised writers to write lots. One story has little chance of getting published (in a magazine). But write a hundred and one or more will probably be accepted.

Robert Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing operate on the same principle: lots of writing and the constant submission to market of that writing.

Writers can only improve their writing by writing. No amount of academic learning or professional editing can improve a writer’s work. Bad writing can’t be edited into good writing. It’s just well edited bad writing.

The first novel I wrote, Festival of Death, way back in 1989, was not ready for publication when I finished writing it. I was honest with myself. I read the manuscript and it just did not compare with the novels I was reading. I put it away, also realizing I didn’t have the stuff to rewrite it and make it better. Twenty-five years later, I had that stuff, rewrote it, and was pleased with the finished product. I didn’t need an editor to tell me all that. In the interim I did lots of writing. I gained confidence. I became a better writer.

We writers don’t need to spend any money to edit our own work. There are many tools available to help us and even without all those tools, there are people who won’t charge anything to proof our work and offer constructive suggestions for improvement. And I heartily recommend the people approach.

Here are a few suggestions based on my own practice:

  • Read your story with a critical eye. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes.
  • If your characters don’t make you laugh or cry, they won’t make the reader laugh or cry.
  • Read your story aloud for flow. It’s a great way to catch clunky sentences and sections that are confusing.
  • Have the computer read to you while you follow along. The computer reads exactly what’s there. A great way to catch typos and misspellings.
  • Have someone read the text to you. This combines reading the story aloud and having the computer read to you — with the added advantage of the reader being a human other than you.
  • Use the spell checker and grammar checker in your word processing program or something like Hemingway or Grammarly.
  • Use good beta readers to catch issues you didn’t catch. A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in gold. What is a good beta? One who likes your genre and ideally your writing, who has a good understanding of what makes a story work, is someone you can trust will be honest with you, understands grammar, and knows how to spell. These people exist. Go find them.

That’s all you need, and none of it costs money. Unless you choose to buy some editing software — which isn’t at all necessary. But a nice little luxury.

One other caveat: don’t be in a rush to publish. We’re indie authors. We set our own schedules. There’s no one to tell us what to do except ourselves.

We indie authors are independent authors. Don’t become a victim of the Should Mentality or the You Have To Mentality.

We write for readers, not editors.

Enjoy your freedom from the man. I do.

Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you think. And until next time, happy reading!

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6 thoughts on “Professional Editing — Is It Necessary?”

  1. Well, no, an editor isn’t necessary to publish a book, but he/she is necessary to make a novel the best it can be, in my opinion.

    What you fail to point out here is that the job of writing a novel is a different skill than the job of editing a novel. This is why even editors, when they write their own work, they then hire an editor too.
    It takes two different sets of skills altogether and we are very unlikely to have the ability to do both, at the same level, especially on the same piece of writing, if none other because we’ll never have the necessary detachment from it.

    To go with your simile, if you needed to be operated of appedix, would you perform the operation yourself? Of course not, you’d want a doctor. And if you had to choose a doctor, would you prefer one that operates in his own house or in a hospital?
    I’ll go with the last answer, a hospital, am I right? 😉
    That is because there is something that is called professionality, which comes for knowing the practicies, having the right tools to perform it, gathering experience in doing the same job repeatedly and in facing many different problems in the same field, and also in working in close proximity with other people who work in the same field as yourself.
    This is a professional environment. A hospital is something the like. A publisher also is.
    So yes, professionals are humans, but if I needed an operation, I’d most certainly go for a doctor in a hospital.

    When you hire an editor, you don’t hire his/her opinion: you hire his/her experience, which, in terms of writing and editing, is a lot wider than yours. This is because the only work you’ll analyse, dissect and cunstruct will be yours. You’ll be accustomed to your own way of building characters and setting, your own way of constructing a plot. Your own way of writing a sentence and a paragraph. It is you, your voice, and a writer needs it, but it certainly is limited in terms of what you expereince.
    A good editor who regularly works will have seen many different novels from many different authors, maybe even from many different genres (I worked with an editor who was specialised in speculative fiction and with one who worked in many different genres. There are pros and cons with both). So he will have seen many different ways of building characters and settings, of constructing plots, of writing sentences and – here is the value – he/she can compare them. An editor won’t have just ‘seen it’ (as we do when we read) but he/she will have ‘work’ on it, analyse it in search of its strengths and weaknesses, which is a completely differnet level of experience.
    So, if he/she is a good one, he may see where your writing could go even if you don’t see it, or you think you don’t need it.
    This is the invaluable thing editors have done for me, something that – for some reason – nobody else have done, not beta readers, not critiquing buddies, and certainly not readers. My editors pushed me that steps further, which made my novel brither, clearer and more polished.

    Ultimatly, it’s up to us and what we’re after. What I’m after, is the best story I can write, and I’m clear I can’t possibly do it on my own.
    To achieve that, I’ll work with enyone who can help, beta readers, writing buddies and yes – if I have the possibility – also professional editors 😉

    1. I don’t disagree that an editor can help. My point is that one isn’t needed to make the book the best possible book it can be. That is traditionl publishing thinking and traditional publishing originated in the 1800s. Prior to that there were no professional editors. And even in the early part of the 1800s, publishers often simply put into print what the author gave them.

      So if writers got along without professionals ever since Aeschylus and Homer, why do we need them now? The answer is, we don’t. But can they be helpful? Yes, they can. There are many sustitutes that work in place of the money-charging professional. We’ve been trained by traditional publishing to think only the professional can do it. Like professional publishing. The indie movement has shown that independents can thrive without professionals. They might be helpful, but they aren’t needed. IMO. 🙂

  2. I love it when you get serious about The Craft. You cut to the heart of your chosen issue, and have the nads to take the unpopular position. Like this one. You are the first person I can remember just coming out and saying that professional editing isn’t necessary, and I love it.

    My own experience: When I finished my first novel in 1998, there was no “indie” publishing that I was aware of, though there was vanity, a pay to play racket that somehow hangs on to this day, so I attempted to find that illusive agent. One finally came back to me, and told me that my book had a solid premise, but needed a good edit. In fairness, she was right, but I began to approach editors, and eventually found one who wasn’t “too busy” to at least take a look (why do they advertise if they can’t accept work from people who answer their ads?). I sent her the manuscript, which I have to assume she read, after which she told me that due to the high quality of the basic work, she could make it saleable for a mere $3500. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make a living, but when I pay $3500 for something, I’m driving it to work!

    So I bought some how-to-edit books, taught myself the craft, and have been a solo pilot ever since. I write in a niche genre from the love of doing it, but my three indie novels have high ratings by strangers on every site from Amazon to Writing.com, and unless dozens of strangers have gotten together in a conspiracy to stroke my ego for no return, they’re legit. My take, then, is that if you can’t learn the craft of editing yourself, then you need that professional, just as you hire a plumber or electrician for any other job you can’t do yourself.

    Thank you, CW, for your courage in posting this essay. If nothing else, it should spark a lively discussion!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Jack! Appreciate it! I agree 100% we can learn how to edit. The first step is to get out of our writer shoes and step into our reader shoes. Then seriously ask ourselves: did I like what I just read? If not, go to work to fix it. And I agree, if you can’t learn how to self-edit then hire someone. But I think most of us can. Seriously, $3500? Yeah, I’d be driving it to work too! 🙂

      1. Maybe the editor fills a different niche. I have to walk away from my own stories for an average of about three weeks before I can return with a critical eye that isn’t in love with my own prose. I mean, you have to be able to look at something you wrote in the honest belief that it was A-1 special, and say, “Man, that was some lousy writing!” Maybe some folks are never able to reach that level of detachment, and that would be a case when a professional editor would be needed.

        1. Yes, one must be able to detach from one’s writing. To look at it from the reader’s point of view. I give myself 1 to 3 days. However, as you point out, some folks may not be able to do that at all. Then, yes, they need someone else to do it. Or maybe they need to mature as a writer.

          My point is in response to those writers who say one absolutely needs a professional editor. This came up in a closed Facebook group I’m a member of. My point is simply that one doesn’t. There are alternatives to paying someone to critique your work. And those alternatives do not result in a lesser piece of fiction.

          Besides, if I saddle my book with a $3500 editor’s fee and a $500 book cover and a $200 formatters fee — that’s $4200 I have to make back before I even see a positive return on the book. To be honest, I have yet to make a $1000 period. With all 20 of my books! Mostly because I haven’t focused on marketing. I’ve been generating product. Nevertheless, $4200 times 20 equals $84000!!!! That is one heck of a nice set of wheels to drive!

          Now if people choose to spend money on professionals, that’s their business. And some folks may have to for a variety of reasons. And some think they have to for a variety of reasons. I’m just saying they don’t have to. I’m encouraging a change of mindset. We’re indies — independents — after all.

          I think a lot of this professional editor thinking comes from the traditional publishing world. And it comes from out of work editors trying to make a buck off the new indie movement. The same with agents. I remember when authors didn’t need an agent. Isaac Asimov didn’t use an agent because he “made 10% more”. We’re indies. Let’s not shackle ourselves with trad pub thinking. That’s all I’m saying.

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