No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.
—J. Russell Lynes
Writing is rarely a group effort.
Whether penning books, essays, poetry, short fiction, or copywriting, or even secretly working on our memoirs and plotting literary vengeance upon select family members, we rely upon—for the most part—ourselves, and only ourselves. Among friends, family, and even our peers, we’ve become used to being “the writer” or “the editor” that others turn to for assistance, for corrections and editing, and for writing advice.
But when it comes to our own work, sometimes we have a hard time taking our own good advice. And the truth is that successful books benefit from the very group effort we’ve so far avoided.
Occasionally, when I venture into the hall of mirrors that is Twitter, I'll see the inevitable post or poll about hiring editors. “Do I need an editor?” or “How do you edit your own work?” and even the fallacious “Good writers don’t need editors.” The discussions and arguments erupt, opinions are tossed about faster than exploding potatoes, and eventually people emerge from the discussion hot, sweaty, and burned. (Or blocked entirely.)
It’s easy for us writers to feel confident in our abilities—especially if we’ve been able to make it our job as well as our passion. After all, we’re good at what we do.
And that, my dear fellow writers, is where our blind spot lies.
MYTH: WRITERS CAN CATCH OUR OWN MISTAKES.
Fact: The mistakes our eyes don’t see are the first ones our readers will.
The same skill in the brain that allows you to skim paragraphs quickly and absorb the meaning is the one that makes it nearly impossible to catch your own mistakes—especially the most glaring ones like misspelled words (including character names), missing or duplicated words, and transposed words. This is because our brain knows what we’re trying to say, so when we read our own writing, we literally see what we expect to see. Our brain erases the errors and fills in the corrections because it knows what we intended to write.
On the other hand, our words are fresh to a reader, so the mistakes our authorly brain skimmed right over are the very ones that leap out to the new set of eyes. Even the most veteran, skilled editors ask other editors to read their work—they know they can’t possibly catch all the mistakes themselves.
And your favorite books that grace the bestseller lists? They've had, at minimum, THREE different editors working on them throughout the production process: a content, or developmental, editor; a copyeditor; and a proofreader.
MYTH: YOU CAN’T TELL IF A BOOK HAS BEEN WELL EDITED.
Fact: You might not notice a good editor; you will definitely notice the absence of one.
When something works well, we take it for granted. Clean drinking glasses, good health, a smooth-running car, a speedy computer, and even a favorite pair of jeans. But the moment those things become dirty, broken, or destroyed, we notice immediately.
Good editors are often the unsung heroes in the publishing world. If they do their job well, the quality of the book is increased without readers ever having known the difference. You won’t ever put down Love in the Time of Cholera with a sigh and think, “Wow, that book was so...so...well edited.” A well-edited book is a seamless transport into another world, another life, another place or time.
But if a book is poorly edited or not edited at all? Then it becomes glaringly obvious, and quite quickly. After struggling through the first few pages or chapters of an unedited book, some readers will stop reading entirely. After all, if the author didn't care enough to make sure the text was error free, it's easy to assume that they also didn't care much about research or plotting or character development.
When you work with a professional editor, your readers won’t notice it. But you, as the author, will just look clever, careful, and brilliant. That’s the whole point of hiring an editor.
MYTH: A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR HAS NO BEARING ON YOUR BOOK SALES.
Fact: A poorly edited book will sell fewer copies and is less likely to be well reviewed.
So you skipped hiring an editor and your book ended up with more than a few mistakes—and your reader has noticed. There is a chance that you’ll lose that reader forever. Even worse, that reader may share their negative experience with others through online reviews. Feedback like “sloppy, repetitive writing” and “tons of typos” can send other potential readers running in the opposite direction.
And that doesn’t just go for book buyers. Bloggers, reviewers, and press may—at some point—all look to read or review your book. If it's filled with glaring errors, they’re going to be hard-pressed to give the book a positive review or endorsement. And that can drastically affect not only your bottom line, but future books sales.
MYTH: GOOD BOOKS DON'T NEED EDITORS.
Fact: Editors can turn a good book into a great book.
There seems to be a misconception in some circles that editors are only for bad writers and bad books. This is a flagrantly false assumption. The best writers in the world have excellent editors. After all, a good editor does more than just check your spelling and grammar. A good editor can identify plot holes, spot inconsistencies, improve story structure and flow, provide feedback for clarity and context, and even suggest ideas on how to make the book even stronger. They’ll fix sloppy writing, repetitiveness, and most important, they are the one person that can see what’s happening in your blind spot...and correct it.
Oh yes. You have one. If you’ve been working professionally as a writer for any period of time, you know it’s there. Maybe you don’t know precisely what it is, or how widespread or problematic it may be, but trust me—every writer has a quirk or tic. And every writer makes mistakes they don’t notice. But a good professional editor has found those errors, corrected them, and let you know where the issues are so you can avoid making them again.
But there are many writers and authors who seem to think that working with an editor is an attack on their writing and their creative process. Others see editors as compromising the creative integrity of their work. But the reality is that a professional editor isn’t there because your book is terrible or because they want to take your work and make it their own; a job well done for them means making your book the very best it can be.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.