Chip MacGregor

July 14, 2015

Editing for Authors: Part 1, The Importance of Being an Editor


brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my Tuesday blog on craft! I’m starting a new series this week in response to several questions that have come in from authors over the past couple of months on the subject of editing your own work. If you’ve spent any amount of time on this blog in the past (or read any resource on getting published, or attended pretty much any class on writing), you know the importance of submitting a clean manuscript to an agent or editor. “One chance to make a first impression,” “These people work with words for a living,” “We’re looking for a reason to say no–” you’ve heard all the warnings, and you would never submit pages without having thoroughly proofread them, right? The problem many authors have is that they equate “proofreading” with “editing,” and while proofreading is certainly an important part of the editing process, your manuscript usually needs a lot more than just a proofreading to be ready to submit for consideration by an agent or an editor.

“But I’m a writer, not an editor!” Obviously, writing and editing are not identical tasks, and the skill sets needed to perform each one well differ enough that some authors have a really hard time putting on that “editor hat” beyond a basic proofread for punctuation and spelling typos. Some people don’t have a great eye for editing, while others flat-out just don’t like the process, and many don’t trust themselves to see their own story realistically after being so close to it throughout the writing process. I understand that it can be hard to switch gears from neck-deep-in-the-middle-of-the-action author mode to cool-and-detached objective editor mode, but as many excuses as there are for not being an editor of your own work, there are a lot more arguments in favor of developing your editorial skills.

“Can’t I just pay someone to do that?” Sure, there are plenty of great editing services out there that will provide everything from developmental edits to line-by-line copy edits, but not every author can afford to pay for that service, and not every author is happy turning his work over to a stranger for editing. By developing your editorial eye, you can save yourself money by delivering a stronger manuscript to your editing service and so (hopefully) needing less editing done. Becoming a better editor also makes you better equipped to recognize the weaknesses in your manuscript and get more targeted results from an editorial service by steering you to ask for help with specific trouble areas, e.g., requesting help with your inconsistent pacing rather than requesting a full (and more expensive) developmental edit. Knowing the kinds of editing attention your manuscript needs can also help you find the right editor for the job– if you know you need help with refining your voice, you can seek out an editor who has a really good feel for voice rather than one who’s a better plot editor.

“Um, isn’t that the editor’s job?” The idea that they need to be both author AND editor comes as an unpleasant surprise to many authors with a rosy view of the traditional publishing system. One author I heard from last month raised a pretty reasonable question: “I was told by an agent that my story and writing were pretty good but that I should consider having my manuscript professionally edited. I thought the publisher took care of that after I got a book deal.” That kind of mindset is understandable– somewhere along the line, someone whose job title is “editor” is going to be handling your manuscript, so why should you fall over yourself trying to do a job you’re not equipped for and not getting paid for? Well, yes, if you land a publishing deal, your manuscript will most likely pass through the hands of a professional editor, but– and I’m about to shatter some illusions here, so brace yourself– even after you’ve landed a publishing deal and a professional editor has started to work on your manuscript, you’re going to be expected to do a lot of the editing yourself. Unless you’re a celebrity author bringing little more than your name and photo to the project, you’re going to be expected to work with your editor to implement their changes and the suggestions they make, so the more familiarity with the editing process you have, and the more you practice looking at your manuscript with objective eyes and a big-picture mindset, the better equipped you’ll be to partner with a professional editor later in the publishing process.

The good news is that, even if it’s not your natural strong suit, you CAN learn to be a better editor of your own work. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about the editing process– the different levels of editing, the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript, and various strategies to help you develop your “inner editor.” If you have any editing questions you’d like me to address  in the series, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to respond in future posts. Thanks for reading!

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  • Erin, I have just completed a 71,000 word manuscript for a YA novel. My first pass edit has been daunting – I’m 75% done. But I’ve learned ‘tons’ and I know I need to learn more about the editing process: developmental, copy-edit, etc.. As a journalist I’ve worked with magazine editors and know I can’t be a one-man band. I look forward to your upcoming blogs on the craft of editing.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I’m eager to hear what you have to say. As an author and a freelance editor, I can see the benefit of authors learning to edit their own work better. I need to learn to edit my own better, to be honest.

    As an editor, I know that the cleaner a manuscript is when I get it, the better the end product will be. I often equate editing with cleaning house. You wouldn’t leave your dirty socks on the floor for your professional house cleaner, right? You want to fix all the obvious stuff before you pay somebody to edit for you. Otherwise, they’ll miss the cobwebs in the corner because they’re focusing on your dirty clothes. Even an editor at a publishing house can only work with what you send them, so you ought to send them the best story you can.

    Looking forward to this series.

  • Nick Kording says:

    Great advice!

  • This sounds like another great series, Erin!

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    I am really looking forward to this series, Erin. Perfectly timed. I am editing a ms. that I gave up on 5 years ago and I could use all the help I can get. Incidentally, not looking at a story for 5 years really helps you to get into the editor’s mindset. You see the big picture mistakes. I’ve had to cut 12,000 words and change my villain and all sorts of stuff I could never have done back before. I find it helps me to get the editor hat on if I have 2 stories going at once. I write one and then let it sit and plot out a different story and then go back and revise the first one once and then jump over and write the second story. And then revise the first one again and then the second one and back and forth until one of them seems done.

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