No writer on the planet will find every single error in his or her writing. That’s a given. So yes, of course you need an editor to catch your mistakes. But you also need an editor – a team of them, actually – to help you become the very best writer you can be.
Editors come in three flavors – developmental editors, copy editors (sometimes called line editors), and proofreaders. A developmental editor focuses on story and character development; a copy editor massages your words and makes some content suggestions; and a proofreader catches typos and grammatical errors. Overlap between these three functions is common and you may choose not to work with three separate editors on every project.
For my first novel, I worked with a manuscript consultant/mentor, then a copy editor, and finally a proofreader. For my second novel, I worked with a developmental editor who did quite a bit of line editing, and then a proofreader who corrected errors in the final draft. For my third novel, I worked with a developmental editor and then a line editor/proofreader. In addition, I had all three of my novels read by subject-matter experts – but that’s an article for another day!
In no particular order, here are ten reasons why you need editors:
Editors tell you the truth when something isn’t working. Your feelings might get a bit bruised, but you’re paying your editors (or your publisher is) to help you write a good story, not soothe your ego. Even when you don’t agree with an editor’s assessment of what isn’t working, you benefit from hearing it. Then, once you’ve shaken the tears from your eyes, you can put on your problem-solving glasses and get to work.
Editors – particularly developmental editors – help you focus on story. You may be madly in love with your characters, your settings, and your scenes, but do all these components add up to a good story that resonates with readers and makes them think about their own lives? Maybe. Maybe not. Effective stories grab hold of readers by including elements of the universal human experience. Good editors understand story structure and help you see the big picture.
Editors find repeats. You as a writer sometimes use the same words and phrases over and over again. Yes, you do. We all have words and phrases that we particularly like: “He shrugged,” “She flipped her hair out of her eyes,” “The man hovered at the door,” “The agonizing pain,” “excruciating,” “wonderful,” “hopeless.” You get the picture. I guarantee that you have your favorites and that they become virtually invisible when you’re editing your own writing. Good editors catch repeats and favorites, and I could kiss them when they do. Used once, a distinctive phrase is good and colorful writing; used twice over the course of two books, the phrase is forgivable; used two or more times in the same book, you risk irritating readers so much that they may not finish your book!
Editors know that you’re human and vulnerable and frightened and therefore start their critiques with a list of all the things about your work that are great before they tell you what’s not so great. You then need to be told how to make your work as compelling as it can be, but only after you’ve been reassured that you haven’t just wasted three years of your life on a piece of recycling.
Editors give you something to push against. Sometimes – quite often, actually – their suggested fixes for a plot or character problem don’t work for you. It’s not their job to fix your writing. That’s your job. Theirs is to point out where your work needs fixing and to offer suggestions that you can take or leave. Often, I’ll reject an editor’s suggested fix but come up with my own fix that works for me. That’s the whole point! I love it when an editor makes a suggestion that I really hate but that makes me think. The result of that thinking process is always something better than I had before.
Editors find inconsistencies. Thanks to an editor, the number of children a character of mine gave birth to over the course of The Towers of Tuscany was corrected at the end of the book before I killed them all off in the plague. I had the number of children wrong; things like that happen when you are in the throes of writing.
Editors tell you when a character is acting inconsistently or is not developing or is too passive. Thanks to the developmental editor of The Muse of Fire, I conquered my infatuation with one of my main characters and gave him more flaws and more troubles to push against. I was making things so easy for him that readers were in danger of not caring what happened to him. It’s all very well to have a “good” character, but you also need to show consequences, preferably dire ones, if the character doesn’t get what he or she wants.
Editors won’t let you off the hook when it comes to showing, not telling. In A Woman of Note, I allowed a pivotal scene between my main character and her sister who was incarcerated in an insane asylum (a not too pleasant thing in 1830’s Vienna) to happen offstage. My editor told me that the scene had to be played out for the reader, that the reader needed to experience the trauma along with the main character. He was right, of course. I had to push myself to write the difficult scene, but its inclusion made the book better.
Editors are readers and they remind you of why you wrote the book in the first place. If you only wanted to write for yourself, you wouldn’t be working with an editor, so when an editor tells you what parts of your novel don’t work, you need to listen. Editors catch anomalies and inconsistencies and obscurities so that your readers won’t. Believe me, you’d much rather have your editors tell you the honest truth than get more than a sprinkling of one-star reviews.
And finally? We’ve come full circle to what people think is the main reason to hire an editor – to catch your mistakes, or at least most of them. Copy editors and proofreaders correct typos and grammatical errors; make sure you use punctuation appropriately; correct or at least point out poor word choices; and highlight awkward phrases and over-used constructions. For example, I’m prone to adding gerund phrases to the end of every other sentence, making my readers roll their eyes in agony. That last bit was the gerund phrase and an editor will call me on it if I do it too often.
Editors of all stripes help you whip your book into shape, but without your being super vigilant – and caring more than anyone else on earth about the quality of your work – all the editors in the world won’t make your book great. You are the one who needs to read and re-read and re-read ten more times every single sentence in your novel. You are the one who must push for perfection, and you are the only one who can decide when it’s time to stop editing and start sharing your work with the world.
Happy Writing (and Editing)!
Carol M. Cram is the author of The Towers of Tuscany and A Woman of Note, both published by Lake Union Publishing. The Towers of Tuscany received the 2016 Chaucer Award for historical fiction pre-1750 and A Woman of Note won First in Category in the 2016 Goethe Award for historical fiction post-1750. Both novels were awarded Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society in the UK. Carol’s third novel, The Muse of Fire, was released in January 2018.
Before switching her focus to writing fiction full time, Carol enjoyed a career as an educator and textbook author. For over two decades, she was an instructor of business communications and computer applications at Capilano University in North Vancouver and facilitated business writing seminars for numerous corporate and government clients.
She is also the author of over 50 textbooks on business communications and software applications for Cengage Learning in the United States. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature from Reading University in the UK, a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education from Durham University, an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto, and an MBA from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. She lives on Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada, with her husband, west coast artist Gregg Simpson.
Abandoned at birth, the grandly christened Edward Plantagenet rises from London’s Foundling Hospital to take charge back stage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, only to be blind-sided when he rescues Grace—a young woman escaping an abusive father.
Grace finds an outlet for her passions as a Shakespearean actress, becoming ensnared by intrigues and setbacks that mar the pathway to stardom she craves.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Old Price Riots of 1809, Grace and Ned find common purpose in a quest that threatens to tear both their worlds apart.
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