The Added Value of Editing

Editor Heather EbbsGuest Post
by Heather Ebbs

Have you ever looked in a mirror a few hours after arriving at a social gathering and discovered a blob of barbeque sauce on your chin, a shirt turned inside out or an unclean nose? Your degree of horror equals the intimacy of the blemish (the nose being worse than the sauce) times the number of people who have seen it. “Why,” you wonder, “didn’t someone tell me about it before the whole world saw?”

Your editor would have told you.

Indie authors can be reluctant to spend money on the services of an editor, despite the tremendous amount of time and energy you have already expended on your book. Your book and the ideas behind it deserve to be presented at their best.

“My friends said it was a page-turner!” Your friends want (presumably) to make you happy, not to tell you that your masterpiece is flawed. “But I have a brilliant plot!” True, but sluggish pacing will cripple it. Stilted dialogue takes the reader out of the dramatic scenes. An egregious error of fact upsets the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief”. An editor will identify these problems and help you fix them before you send your opus out into the world.

Because the world will notice those problems. Just take a look at all the reviews of indie publications available through Amazon or Goodreads. “Needed editing” is a common complaint. Not hiring an editor can mean that your book is panned for its uneven pacing, inconsistencies, errors of fact, unrealistic dialogue and those pesky mechanical errors of punctuation, spelling and grammar. A good book editor will help you avoid all those things, and she (or he) will do it nicely, too. Negative reviews = fewer sales. Positive reviews = more sales. It’s simple math.

Good editors see their role as helping you, the author, get your manuscript into its best possible shape, using your words, your tone, your voice. That said, there are different levels of editing available, and most books need some degree of each.

The editor wipes off the sauce

Substantive or structural editing looks at the overall structure and content of the book. Does the opening draw the reader in? Does the narrative flow with a steady pace? Is something missing here, or is there too much extraneous material (extra sauce) there? Does the conclusion make sense?

The substantive editor may describe an issue for you to revisit yourself, or may suggest alternative wording or structure for you to accept, decline or tinker with.

The editor straightens your clothing

Stylistic editing, sometimes called line editing, gets down into the sentence-by-sentence flow of your manuscript. One of my colleagues calls it “smoothing and ironing” — ensuring clarity, making sure the dialogue fits the character, helping the words, sentences and paragraphs to flow.

Usually the stylistic editor makes the corrections but will use tracking or queries so that you can see what changes were made. Again, the final decision to accept, decline or tinker is yours.

The editor cleans your nose

Even the most meticulous writer can miss basic errors of spelling or grammar, the kinds that make us groan when we read someone else’s book: “Long may he rein!” “Every dog has it’s day.”

These types of errors are captured through copyediting, which looks at the mechanics of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

A publishing house might have one editor for the substantive and stylistic work and another for copyediting and proofreading, but if you are hiring an editor directly you will probably want her or him to look at all three levels.

Okay, I’ve convinced you. Now what?

Don’t hire me to edit your book. I started professional life as a book editor, I’ve taught book editing and I continue to edit books now and again, but it’s not my passion. I can tell you the names of a number of passionate book editors, or you can find them yourself through such organizations as the Editors’ Association of Canada, the Editorial Freelancers Association (U.S.) and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (U.K.).

Look at an editor’s qualifications, check her website, look for testimonials, look at the reviews of some of the books she’s edited, talk to her by email or phone, talk to other authors. Be prepared to pay the going rate — good editors don’t work for fast-food wages.

Don’t hire me, but do hire an editor. She’ll save you from the embarrassment of that dirty nose.

Heather Ebbs has been editing books, journals and reports for over 30 years under the name Editor’s Ink. Heather is a past president of the Editors’ Association of Canada and the Indexing Society of Canada, and she is the winner of the 1985 Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence.

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20 thoughts on “The Added Value of Editing”

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post. I agree with you 100%.

    I hire a developmental, copy and proofing editor for everything I put out – short story, novella, or novel. I am aware of my limitations, but I can’t fix what I can’t see. I can’t imagine releasing something without those phases.

    My developmental editor asks me tough questions: Is this beginning strong enough to suck a reader in? Where is the conflict necessary to drive the story in the middle act?

    My copy editor untangles my sentences where they need it, while retaining my voice and intention.

    My proofer ensures that I don’t get those “Needed to be edited” reviews.

    I know I could release without all these steps and many people probably wouldn’t notice, but there are many readers who would. For me, writing is about building long term relationships with readers. The best way I know to ensure that is by hiring professionals who can see what I can’t see.

  2. Full disclosure: Heather is a friend of mine, and I suggested she write this piece. She also had nothing to do with my book. (Except as a reader). See Heather’s note above: “Your friends want to make you happy”.

    That aside, I spent a lot of money bringing my book into being, with varying results. Some was mostly wasted – competitions. Some had mixed results – website design.

    Of all the money I spent the biggest bang for the buck was definitely hiring a pro for a thorough and ruthless editing.

    Just please, Heather, don’t bring out the crumpled kleenex and lick it before wiping my face, like Mom used to do. I HATE that.

  3. Well, no book–professionally edited or otherwise–is perfect, but we have to try to make our books the best they can be. If a writer can’t afford an editor, then it’s up to the writer to learn the technical aspects of the craft (grammar, punctuation, syntax) and to study fiction writing techniques. It means finding reliable beta readers and revising your manuscript multiple times. I rushed to get my first book “out there.” It’s not bad, but it could be so much better. I refuse to make that mistake again!

  4. I couldn’t agree more. This was very nicely done.

    I am an editor myself, and take the holistic approach to editing. Since I don’t know the nuances of the different levels, I do all of it all at the same time.

    Have to tell you, though–I did not know how time-consuming this job would be when I first decided to do it. But I love it–when someone is successful, it makes my day.

  5. Heather,

    Absolutely. Whether you’re writing a book, press release, or blog post, a second set of eyes is always an asset whose value is proportional to the amount of time/effort that was put into the piece, or the value you’d like extracted from the work.

    Here’s a mistake I see too often: letting a friend or relative who “has talent” do the editing. As you noted in the article, friends rarely want to be the ones to tell you about that BBQ sauce on your chin. A friend might be okay for some “softer” promo materials or posts, but not your book.

    It pays to go pro!

    Mickie Kennedy

  6. Great article and advice. I’m so glad she addressed the how to find these “good” editors. Most of the bloggers I’ve read on this subject don’t. Nonetheless, I’m unconvinced. I’m still a DIY kind of dude I guess.

    1. Every author should be a “DIY writer.” If an author decides to hire an editor, it will make his/her work–and yours–much easier. I would pull my hair out by the roots if I had to edit full time!

  7. Thanks, everyone, for the positive responses.

    My favourite authors are those whose work over time reflects my queries and comments — they learn what areas of their own writing they need to pay particular heed to. These writers generally require less and less substantive work, but often they’re happy to leave me to do the final “nose-cleaning.” I guess they are DIY authors to an extent. And I’m a DIY writer myself, but I personally still need an outside eye to review my work before I publish it. I even had a colleague look at this blog before I submitted it.

    Thanks again,

  8. Hi Heather, I tend to get to these posts a little later than most; I’m on the other side of the planet and my life situation is, lets just say, busy. However I do like your article and totally agree with the logic.

  9. Great article! I’m the poster child for doing it completely wrong on my first book. I was a newbie and for some reason didn’t realize I couldn’t DIY. I put my book on Amazon as an eBook and then discovered it had many many errors. It cost me a lot of money to pull it back out of the Amazon system and hire an editor. I had to pay the book formatting company to do it again after my editor was finished. Paying for her services was the best money I’ve ever spent. She made me think and fixed lots of errors. I came to realize I’m not the best at punctuation. I adore her and I’m her biggest fan. Not only did I have an unclean nose, I had egg on my face. Good beta readers will catch some, but a good editor is the golden fleece of self-publishing.

  10. The moral of this story is always go and visit your editor on the way out to a social event.

    Great post Heather. You remind us of so many points we take for granted and all to easily overlook. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. I knew all that, thanks for reinforcing it. My three Beta readers gave me rave reviews about my new book (Terrorist University). However, there is absolutely no substitution of a professional editor. She is starting in a week. I negotiated a three payment plan with her and she accepted. She loved the book after the initial Critique run she did. I paid her also for this and her feedback and margin notes helped me improve the MS. I read your posts and find then very helpful. Keep going

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