Some writers swear by editors, and some think editors are the very spawn of Satan. A recent survey shows writers who do use editors, on average, make more than those who don’t. Why the resistance to using editors? There are a multitude of reasons.
  1. Retaining creative control (not wanting someone else to rewrite their story) 
  2. Don’t see the value 
  3. Think their grammar is perfect or they can proof-read their own work 
  4. Editors are just evil.
I think 1 and 3 reflect fundamental misunderstandings. You can’t proof your own work because you are too close to be objective. You can never move away from your own knowledge of what you intended. 1 is slightly silly; you always retain control because a good editor won’t want to rewrite your work. An editor’s suggestions are just that – suggestions. Ultimately, it’s the writer’s job to do what he/she wants with the editor suggestions. 

I’ve seen a few really good explanations of the role of an editor recently.
  • An editor for a writer is like a coach for an elite athlete – from my husband, and perhaps not completely right, but he kind of got the gist of the idea. 
  • An editor helps to make the writing more evocative – for example, instead of ‘the door’, it could be ‘the oak door’ or a ‘carved door’ – Brandon Sanderson, Author of the Mistborn trilogy and the Stormlight Archives. 
  • The writer is the architect – not everything they dream up is structurally sound or aesthetically pleasing. The editor is the builder who helps to make the imagination a reality – @sirra_girl
None of these says the editor wants to seize control or rewrite. They are an aid to the writer only. 

As for 2 – see above about the results of the recent survey. That leaves 4. Why do some people think all editors are evil? When I first came across this attitude, I was struck by the impression of a man (or a woman) hating the opposite sex after a particularly nasty divorce. Writers arehaving bad experiences. Why? Setting aside outright fraud, there are two possible reasons – writers selling their ‘editing’ services when they hold no editorial qualifications or experience, and lack of understanding of the different editing services.

Editing Services

So the first problem is a misconception among many writers that an editor only checks grammar and proof-reading. I have news for you; that is not an editor’s primary role! There are in fact three generic categories of editing service:

Full Edit – Both substantive and copy-edits (proof-reading). Substantive edits look at everything including plot, pacing, voice, and character development. An explanation of a problem is often abstract, so the editor may or may not give some examples of alternate wording. Usually, these would occur first, and the manuscript will be returned to you to decide what revisions to make and to write any extra scenes required, etc. Then the manuscript is returned to the editor for copy-editing i.e. spelling, grammar, repetitive word use and syntax. 

Beta Read – If you are unlucky enough not to know any other writers who can do a beta read for you, you can pay an editor for that as well. This gives you a high-level impression of the book and notes on where the story isn’t working, but it’s entirely up to you to make changes, and even to figure out what changes to make. An editor will probably provide more comprehensive notes than a free beta read by a fellow writer. 

Proof Read – copy-editing changes only. Software is available to check their grammar as well. I can’t comment on its accuracy (although I’ve heard they aren’t 100% accurate) but they will try to correct deliberate grammatical errors. Ever noticed MS Word telling you you’ve used a fragment? Sometimes we use fragments deliberately. You don’t want to spend $150-$300 on software only to have it suck the life out of your story. At best, this kind of software offers a proof-read of poorer quality than an editor’s proofing. 

What’s often not explained is that when a writer is told to have their work ‘edited’, it means a full edit. Hopefully, you’ve already put your manuscript through the beta reading process with critique partners and groups. You probably need to before you engage an editor because professional editing is the last part of the process. The proof-read is the very last (and perhaps least important) part of a professional edit. Don’t be deceived into believing you are paying hundreds of dollars to have your typos corrected – you’re not, or shouldn’t be. 

The Faux Editor

If you do appreciate the different services, then you may run into the faux editor. 

I don’t know what the deal is with this one. There are different types of faux editors. Some are writers who think after a while they know enough to charge others for their wisdom. Um, no. I’ve been around the traps a bit and think I know a lot, but I could never justify charging for it. What I know (and can explain) is but a drop of water in the ocean compared to what my editors know. This is like hanging around with a lawyer for a few years and then thinking you can start charging for legal advice! Writers, you cannot charge for what is essentially a beta reading critique. You do it for free, and others do the same for you. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Karma. Whatever you want to call it. But it’s not a chargeable service. 

You also cannot decide that you have some background in some language related field (law, English, marketing, journalism, or non-fiction editing); and therefore, you can edit fiction work.

The degree of feedback you will get from an editor for a full edit or beta read is significantly more in-depth than what you will get from another writer with no qualifications or experience in the fiction publishing field. Even proof-reading for grammar and syntax, unless the faux editor has some kind of background in this field, won’t be of the same quality as a professional freelance editor. And believe me, your readers don’t need to know your grammar is bad for your sentence to fail to have the desired impact. 

If the editor you are looking at is a writer seeking to charge for editing, or a non-fiction editor offering editing services for fiction, I strongly urge you to go elsewhere. It is highly improbable this person will give you value for money and the degree of feedback an editor should be giving you. Unless, of course, you are well aware of the editor’s background and experience and you are prepared to accept the feedback you get won’t be as comprehensive as it could be – in which case I also hope you are paying a significantly reduced rate. 

What you should look for is some qualification or experience (preferably both) in publishing or writing related fields. The editor should also be a member of the Editors Freelance Association (although some choose not to be a member for various reasons) and/or perform quality work according to their guidelines and charge according to their recommended rates. 

Also, beware legitimate editing companies specialising in non-fiction work. They often operate via a ‘team’ of editors. You may never meet your editor or interact with them in any way and these companies are intended for anything from commercial documents, marketing, in-house policies and procedures to college essays. They are not recommended for fiction, and the only service they offer is technical copy-editing. This service can suffer from the same problems as the software – correcting deliberate grammatical errors for lack of appreciation of the reasons for their inclusion. Even if all you want is a copy edit, this is not a recommended service for fiction.

What are the signs of a good editor?
  • Qualifications and/or experience in the publishing industry
  • Will tell you if the service you have requested is unsuitable e.g. if your manuscript is still at the beta reading stage and you have requested a full edit
  • Will look at plot, pacing, character and voice as well as spelling, grammar and syntax
  • Won’t rewrite your manuscript or make significant changes without discussion/permission
  • Will explain corrections made and technical problems identified
  • May give examples of alternative wordings for problem areas
  • Will do the substantive edits, return to you for revision, and then the copy edits (note: lawyers work this way too!)
  • Has a professional attitude and doesn’t belittle your work while providing honest feedback
  • Has a professional and grammatically correct website
What are the signs of the faux editor?
  • No qualification or experience, or asserts qualification and experience which amounts to:
o   A lot of reading/reviewing experience;
o   Experienced writer offering betas or critiques;
o   Qualifications in fields such as law, journalism, communications or similar but not specifically in writing and with no in-house publishing experience;
  • Doesn’t offer a choice of levels of editing and offers a one-size-fits-all edit service – this may be a sign the ‘editor’ doesn’t appreciate the need for different kinds of editing
  • Rewrites significant portions of your manuscript regardless of need or permission
  • Doesn’t suggest changes but dictates a change you must make
  • Promises a “full’ edit but doesn’t look at character, plot, pacing, voice, or any other creative writing issues
  • Unprofessional in interactions with the writer – not responding to communications, or lack of manners and timeliness, or belittles the writer for their errors
  • A website that demonstrates grammatical errors.

If you’ve been burned by a bad editing experience, I challenge you to reflect on the experience and consider these questions. Was your ‘editor’ maybe a faux editor, or was the bad experience perhaps due to poor expectation management? Not all editors are created equal, so shop around for a real, legitimate editor. If they are professional editors, they will be more than happy to provide free sample edits and references. As a consumer, you have the right to ask questions, so don’t be afraid to ask. Ensure that you’re getting the service you paid for and the result you expected. 

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