Ask a writer if editors are a needed service and you will get a variety of reactions. Some writers rave about their experiences with editors, seeing them as the savior of their manuscripts, while others see editors as self-important villains, put on this earth to rob writers of their voice and vision. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between the two extremes. To address the question of whether a writer needs an editor, let’s explore the definition and philosophy of editing and editors.
What is Editing?
Editing is the act of scrutinizing a completed draft of a manuscript, looking for ways to improve it. The editing process can be divided into four main levels:
- Developmental/structural editing
- Stylistic/line editing
Each of these stages serves a different purpose.
Developmental editing looks for any problems with the structure of the story and can include suggestions for increasing and improving pacing, tension, plot points, character development, inconsistencies in characters and plot, vague areas, and the like.
Stylistic editing will improve the story on the sentence level, looking for ways to tighten, clarify, and make the wording clear.
Copyediting is an editing service that addresses grammar, punctuation and capitalization, and looks for inconsistencies in terms, names, facts, and so on.
Proofreading is the last stage of editing, when the manuscript is in print form. The proofreader looks for any mistakes in formatting and discovers any additional mistakes that have worked their way in during previous stages.
In general, an editor will give each stage of editing two passes, sometimes three, depending on the length and difficulty of the manuscript.
What is the Philosophy of Editing?
Most editors consider their skills and training to be a humble service they offer to writers. Good editors consider the writer to be the driver of the bus, and the editor, merely the steering wheel. That is to say, the writer determines the destination, and the editor helps to steer the manuscript in that direction. The editing process is a collaborative one between writer and editor. It is ideally one of mutual respect, each party honoring the experience and skills of the other.
The editor’s goal is not to take over the story, but to provide a second set of eyes, a fresh perspective to help the writer spot things they may not have considered. An editor works to preserve the voice of the writer, to be non-intrusive, to suggest rather than demand, to maintain the proper balance between offering advice and opinion and trusting the writer’s instinct to know their own story and characters.
The editing philosophy is that an editor be as non-intrusive as possible while having the confidence to bring their skills, training, and knowledge to the project, so the writer may rely on their professional training. Ultimately, the editor has a love of literature and wishes to help the writer achieve literary excellence by offering their training, experience, and insight.
Are Editors Only Necessary for Inexperienced Writers?
Editors work with writers of all skill and experience levels. Some of the best writers of our time work with editors, in fact, some of the best writers of our time were once, or currently are editors. Would you like to know who? Here’s just a few:
Margret Atwood worked for the Canadian Publisher Anansi in the 1970s. According to Anansi, it was Atwood who saved the press by publishing her notes about Canadian literature in the book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.
Toni Morrison was a textbook editor for Random House in the 1970s. Later, Robert Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief of Knopf (a Random House imprint) became her editor.
David Ebershoff was Vice President and Executive Editor and Random House. In 2013 he was the first person ever to have edited the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history in the same year. He went on to edit the 2015 winner of the National Book Award in fiction and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in biography.
Max Porter is an editor and proofreader for Granta & Portobello Books and has edited 2013 Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, and The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
It’s important to realize that prominent editors went on to become renowned writers and then worked with editors on their own books. Even though they were knowledgeable, skilled, and talented editors, they still employed editors to make their books the best they could be.
Can a Writer be Their Own Editor?
Absolutely, a writer can be their own editor. Just as a person can cut their own hair, be their own therapist, and represent themselves in court, a writer can edit their own work; however, the real question is, should they?
One reason why editors exist is to provide a different perspective on a work that a writer, being the creator of that work, might be too close to. As a writer, it can be a challenge to have an objective view of one’s own work. A writer’s vision and voice are sacred, but they are not infallible, unfortunately.
An editor can offer a writer a fresh view of their work, help them see it from other angles and other possibilities that might help them to expand and deepen their story in ways they never considered. Think of it as looking at a piece of land up close and looking at it from different compass points, and then think of looking at it from the overhead view of a drone. The editor can help a writer see the story from alternate vantage points and then flesh out the story based on these varying perspectives—a benefit the writer may not necessarily be able to achieve on their own.
When it comes to copyediting, a writer may appreciate a second set of eyes on his or her work, as the eye is a trickster, filling in missing words that aren’t there. Scientifically, the human body is wired to fill in missing info, so the simple act of spotting small errors in text is one of the hardest tasks to succeed at, especially in a manuscript of some length.
We use professionals for many reasons: they can take care of tasks we don’t have the time or energy to deal with ourselves; they can assist us with their knowledge and expertise; they can give us the support we feel we need; they can guide is in areas of uncertainty; and sometimes, it’s just really nice to feel like you are not doing it all by yourself. Sometimes it’s nice to be part of a team. These are all great reasons to use an editor.
Bottom line: Do writers need editors? Well, as a writer and an editor, I wouldn’t be without mine. I don’t feel I would have grown had my editor not been there to help me with the mechanics of story, and to assist me with the final heavy lifting.
Ask yourself if you would like to grow as an author, if you would like professional support, and a second set of eyes to polish your work to shine, and then, my friend, you’ll have your answer.
If you are looking for an editor, I invite you to view my webpage for more information about my services. Contact me for a free five-page edit to see what an editor can do for you.