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.


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.


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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Guest Blog Post by Alice E Keyes

Today I have the privilege of having writer and soon to be author Alice E Keyes as guest blogger. I met Alice on the 8 Sentence Sunday on Dieselpunks forum some time back and then in the Twitterverse and on G+.

I very much enjoy her artistic imagination and how it comes out in her fiction. I look forward to the release of Miss Winsome and the Scientific Society later this year.  And now, here’s Alice!


When CW asked me to do a guest blog for his web page, I wondered what I could possible blog about. My own blog has gone from laborious and naive posts on the writing process to occasional flash fiction and snippets from works-in-progress. When I read CW’s “What’s Cooking?” post, I was inspired to write this blog post.

CW has become a great online writing friend who has been encouraging me to finish a novella, which I started in November 2014. It’s July and I’m a good nitpicky rewrite and line edit away from self-publishing it. He has inspired me from his own self-published books to his recent editing of said novella.

The people online and in person, who have given me eureka writing moments since I began scribbling ideas and scenes in a blank notebook, have been an unforeseen benefit in my pursuit of publishing a book. When I first started writing, I wrote for the creative outlet. I hadn’t painted or drawn in years and my brain begged me to do anything creative. The notebook would come out when I was waiting for my children to finish up an activity or when the idea of doing housework was abhorrent to me. The wacky tidbits were strange, odd, and what I wished I could find in novels being sold.

Noodling around on the Internet and looking at the growing world of self-publishing vs. traditional, I discovered NaNoWriMo which was already three days into the writing month. Yes, I’m another author propelled into writing a complete novel in a mere thirty days or in my case, twenty-seven days. When I finished 50,000 words on November 30, 2009, the joy was indescribable. I actually finished something I started. I thought the premise of my novel was good, but I was unsure of my writing abilities.

Writing in school was tortuous for me. The amount of red corrections on my papers would make me cry. I worked so hard on every essay, story, or poem. I would reread and rewrite to catch the typos and other mistakes. Because of this experience, I sought out ways to have people read what I had written for free. I didn’t ask my husband because he doesn’t read fiction except on rare occasions, nor did I ask friends, because I was too embarrassed my stories might be bad. Really bad. I went to Goodreads and found a couple of beta readers to go over, what I thought were, four carefully edited chapters. Their critiques were a rude awakening and made me realize I had a lot of work to do.

There are countless blogs telling you to not publish before you have had your manuscript read by an unbiased editor and to have that done after each rewrite and then finally have a line editor go over it for the typos, grammar, and misspellings. I couldn’t afford the editor’s prices for these services, so I started to post chapter by chapter on Critique Circle. This started to improve my writing and I had little eureka moments, but comments like, “it needs more emotion,” or “you have a lot of awkward sentences” confused me. I put chapters through edit programs and I had a few more eureka moments. My writing improved and the critiques I received at Critique Circle also improved.

Along the way, I met other writers struggling to improve their work. CW was one and when he asked if he could edit, Miss Winsome and the Scientific Society, I was nervous. He had become my friend and I had read a couple of his novels. What if it was another critique telling me my writing abilities were sophomoric or worse that he would wonder why he had spent his valuable time on such bad work? His edit was thorough and explained why trying to use third person point of view wasn’t working and then gave detailed instructions on how to change the problem. His edit was the most helpful I had ever received even above “professional” editors who would look at a few chapters for free to see if you wanted their services. I had another eureka writing moment.

I now feel that my first self-published book won’t be a sophomoric self-published effort, but something that might have a chance in the saturated indie book market. My slow and steady education on writing a novel has been fraught with disappointment, but the friendships I have made along the way will keep me motivated to find the next writing eureka moment and push me to achieve the goal of becoming a self-published author.

My advise on the need to getting your work edited before you publish is you don’t have to find a professional and expensive editor. The editor you need is someone with an understanding of grammar and an understanding of what makes a novel an enjoyable read. That person can be a spouse, a sister, or friend but never someone who belittles your efforts, tells you everything is great, or gives you vague, unexplained critiques.


What Alice is saying was said by the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke over a hundred years ago to a fledgling poet. Once you’ve decided you can do nothing but write, then structure your world so that is what you can do. The importance of supportive people, who will give you honest appraisals cannot be overestimated. Neither can our listening to the advice these people give us.

Thanks, Alice! Looking forward to the release of Miss Winsome and the Scientific Society.

And now here is little bit about Alice herself:

Alice E Keyes will be publishing her debut novella in 2015. Yellowstone National Park is the location for the steampunk dime store novella and has played an important part in her life. Her mother spotted a cowboy there and decided he was the one. Alice graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana and she now lives in Cody, Wyoming, both of which are a mere hour’s drive to the first national park. Though she has left the Rockies, once to student teach in England and once to meet her husband in Maryland, their mountains, streams, and towns call her back. She lives four blocks from public land where her favorite mountain biking trails are located. Besides biking and writing, she spends her time with her husband, son, daughter and two Britney dogs.

Connect with Alice at the following places:

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