Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why Hire a Professional Editor? Can't I Do it Myself?

I am continually astonished at the number of inexperienced writers who don't hire an editor - even more astonished, perhaps, than I am at the poor quality of writing and abundance of grammatical and spelling errors in independently-published e-books. One is directly and inextricably related to the other, of course. (Let me qualify this by adding that there are wonderful e-books out there, but they are the ones that were professionally edited.

I don't say much about it. I guess that because I work as a freelance editor, I am a little shy about appearing to advertise in a fashion that is less than tasteful, by admonishing writers for failing to hire someone to do the final work. But darn it all, lately this is really getting out of hand. Too many sloppy e-books, and such an easy fix. Do you know why it bothers me so much? Not because I could have gotten some work (although...), as much as because when I see a really great concept that could have been a great book had it been cleaned up, it saddens and frustrates me for the author.

I wonder if the author thinks they can't afford it. Editors charge widely varying rates, and offer widely varying services. I tell writers that they might be pleasantly surprised should they inquire. Also, if you have spent months - or sometimes years - telling a story that means a great deal to you, why on earth would you not let someone help you present it all polished and shiny?

A book with errors is frustrating to read. Check out some of the comments on Amazon, around books that contain errors. People get very testy, and I can't blame them. But I truly believe that a book with errors does something else that is much worse than to merely frustrate:  it causes many people to subconsciously absorb the idea that the author in question is less than competent, less than educated, in over his or her head. And that translates to lower sales on that book and the next as well.

When there are typos, spelling and grammar errors, a reader might assume the research and the thought process could be sloppy too. Now, as an editor, I know that brilliant people are sometimes just not meticulous by nature. I don't connect misspellings to intelligence, but that is because my work gives me a lot of experience with new manuscripts from great people who struggle with spelling and punctuation.

Worse is a book with plot-related structural issues, and problems with sentence structure.  An incoherent sentence, which I personally define as one that the reader feels obligated to read a second..third time, breaking the rhythm and music of the writing, is an unsuccessful one. Too many of these, and the entire book is unsuccessful because it does not easily penetrate the reader's understanding, much less move or inspire them.

So... I thought it might be useful to everyone to have some specific reasons why hiring an editor is a good idea. A mandatory idea, in fact, if you are going to take your own writing seriously.

  1. Experienced writers work with editors. They do not do it themselves. Because they know that one's mind reads a sentence and fills in that missing word, sees that word without the can't see your own work realistically. It's actually a thing. A real thing. For all of us. It is a demonstrable psychological phenomenon.Trust me on this. When I was starting out as an editor, many years ago, I delighted in finding errors in Time and Newsweek, whom I thought should have better standards. It was good practice for me, but now I know that the best books contain an error or two - it is nearly impossible to catch them all. Top publishing houses (which can afford it) traditionally use three sets of eyes, in addition to the author, to go over a book. Even then, some errors get through the process! (Nowadays, too many of them cut financial corners, and are putting out books with sloppy grammar, misspellings, etc. Publishing standards aren't what they were a few decades ago.)
  2. A good editor will help you re-work bad sentence structure, fix paragraph breaks that are hurting clarity, and even repair the entire structure if the plot isn't working, or if your non-fiction doesn't flow. (When you hire an editor, make sure they are a "content editor".)
  3. A good editor will have enough knowledge about what constitutes good writing (including some formal education in both writing techniques and in literature) to help you find your own unique style and voice and make your writing sing. Avoid hiring someone with a B.A. in English or Business. They won't have the training to edit. 
  4. Speaking of singing, all writing - fiction and nonfiction - when well-done, should have a rhythm that enhances its meaning and thus enhances the reader experience. If you have no idea what I'm babbling about, make sure you hire an editor who does, and can show it to you. A good editor can help you make your fiction like music. A song that you alone could have written. 
  5. A good, knowledgeable editor, can make you a better writer. The first, and second books, if you use a professional editor, should be great experiences for you, where you walk in thinking you have a pretty damn good book, and walk out thinking Oh my God, NOW I have an excellent book because I learned how to fix all the stuff I didn't know I was doing wrong!  You should feel surprised and pleased that you wrote such a damn good book in the end! 
  6. A good editor will tell you the truth. He or she is not your friend (at least in the beginning) but an outside objective observer, who will be able to suggest where you could be stronger and praise what you do right, without having any agenda as your buddy or family member. A good editor will be straight, but will never make you feel like the object is to tear you down. You should be able to trust your editor, to be someone who truly wants to show you the best path, the way to shine, for you
  7. A good editor will preserve your voice, not overwrite you with his or her own voice and style. In other words, the skilled editor will easily recognize what is unique about your style, tone, and voice, point it out to you, and work to keep that as changes are made.
  8. A great editor works with you, especially if you are a beginner. I tend to work in audio and screen share as I work with newer writers, and most of them really are most comfortable with that process. I can appreciate such a method on their behalf, because they get the opportunity to hear why I would suggest a change, and discuss with me their feelings about it. We have the opportunity to really compromise, collaborate, and the author has the opportunity to learn and improve skills. 
The best reason to hire an outside editor is because your writing is worth it. Your book is in a way an investment, in two ways at least: 1) if it is well-done, it will attract more readers through word of mouth and make you more money, and 2) if it is well-done, it will set a standard by which prospective readers, and publishers, will measure your future work. If you care about your reputation, if you want to be seen as competent and skilled, and if you want to set yourself up for financial success, why would you not hire an editor who can help you achieve those goals?

Pride and/or arrogance is your worst enemy when it becomes to being a serious writer. If you assume you are brilliant and don't need anyone to help you, go ahead. Hope that those readers overlook the inevitable errors (the best of us make them! - even editors in their own work) and hope they don't get annoyed and put the book down, or make a mental note to skip your future releases. But if you are determined to be a skilled writer and a smart businessperson, you will realize that the cost of hiring a professional editor is one that you must budget. Along with a good cover, it is perhaps the best investment you can make.

Hear an informative podcast series that Dean Sage and I made about specific things an editor does and how to use one. These are well worth your time. :

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three: