The editorial process seems to be one of those things that seems elusive to newbie writers and some seasoned authors as well. I’m a professional editor who has worked for a number of big publishers, so I thought I could share my expertise from both sides of the red pen, as it were, to help break down what the editorial process is and should be to help you put out the best books you can. This is the first in a series of columns to explain what editors do, how the editorial process works, and how to find a great editor to work with. But first, WHY you need an editor!
I had a leg up on my classmates when I took a copyediting class at NYU in 2004, not just because I’d been working for a big publisher for over 2 years at that point, but also because my mother, who worked in publishing for decades, used to mark up all my high school papers in red pencil, using copyeditor’s marks. In olden times, before so much of publishing went digital, copyeditors and proofreaders marked paper manuscript in colored pencil using their own code of squiggles and symbols. I still edit by hand this way sometimes.
I tell you this to illustrate that I have been schooled in the ways of editorial work, literally. I’ve spent my entire adult life working in publishing. I subscribe to the Chicago Manual online. I can tell you all about how to use commas and when to use which dash and how to conjugate verbs in the subjunctive tense. What I’m saying is, I probably have more grammatical prowess than your average writer.
And I need an editor.
These discussions periodically break out on author discussion loops I participate in. “Do I really need an editor?” Yes. Hard yes. Absolutely every writer needs to be edited, and edited well.
Here’s the main reason: when you as the writer review your own manuscript, you are more likely to see what you know should be there and not what’s actually there. You can read and reread your manuscript a dozen times and still not catch that you described your hero’s shirt as blew instead of blue. And even if your novel is brilliant, you still need an outside perspective to see it with fresh eyes and offer feedback, no matter how seasoned you are.
My eighteenth novel is about to be published. I still need an editor.
I’m going to discuss the editorial process and what different kinds of editors do in a future column, but for now, I thought I’d focus on when you should hire an editor.
Which is to say, yes, you need an editor. You may not need to hire one, though. It depends on what your goals are.
If you plan to submit to an agent or traditional publishers…
You may not need to hire an editor yourself. If you acquire an agent, many will give editorial feedback. The traditional publisher will do at minimum two editorial passes (usually a developmental edit and a copyedit—we’ll get into those next in a future column) so your novel will be edited. If your aim is a traditional publishing contract, your book will be edited as part of the publication process and you won’t need to hire one.
The exception is if you want to hire someone to help you get the book ready for submission; some editors offer manuscript consultations for less money than a full edit, in which they will give you some advice for big things to fix. You can pay them to do a more intensive edit, too, if you feel like you need it. You may not; finding a few beta readers, friends, or family members to read your story and give you feedback may be sufficient. Workshopping your book in a critique group or class could serve this purpose, also. Whether you pay for this kind of help is at your discretion.
If you plan to self-publish…
Then you 100% need an editor. Possibly more than one. Every book should be edited. Every book. You might find other consultants also—fact checkers, translators—depending on the content of your book. But, please, at minimum hire someone to give the book a final polish before you publish. I’ll give you a couple of examples without naming the titles or authors to show you why.
As a reader, I’m willing to overlook the occasional typo. Mistakes happen. Publishing schedules are short these days. But a great number of errors are distracting and hard to overlook. I read a self-published novel last year that had several typos, spelling, grammatical, or other errors per page. What that told me is that the author decided not to hire an editor, because any decent copyeditor would have caught and corrected a lot of that. (Not to mention, the hero was a native Italian speaker. Italian is my second language, so I can tell you that just about all of the Italian in the book was wrong. The author probably just typed the phrases into Google translate and cut and paste.)
This level of error made what might have been a good story hard for me to read, because the mistakes kept pulling me out of the story. What you want is the sort of book that sucks in your reader and doesn’t let them go until the last page. Some readers are willing to overlook mistakes, but a lot aren’t, and with so many books available these days, you have to make your book really stellar both to stand out and to ensure your readers come back for the next book.
What’s almost worse is hiring a bad editor. We’ll get into this a little more next time. But I just read a book put out by a small press that had an editor listed on the copyright page, so clearly the book was edited, but not by someone who knew what they were doing. The book was plagued by obvious grammatical errors—random verb tense changes within the same paragraph, incorrectly formatted dialogue, etc.—and it was a real shame, because I actually enjoyed the story. (It was my trope catnip, with a suspenseful plot and likable characters.) But I kept thinking that the book would have been amazing—and thus might have sold better via stronger word of mouth—if a better editor had gotten her hands on it.
I plan to get into how to find a good editor next month, but for now, hear my cry: you need an editor. Yes, even you. ♥
Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She is Past President of RWA/NYC. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at www.katemcmurray.com.