The role of the editor

I think it was TS Eliot who said: ‘An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.’

At which stage of your writing process do you need an editor? Should this happen first, before you send the manuscript off to a publisher or agent, if this is the route you are choosing to go? Do you need an editor at all?

To my mind this depends on what you understand by editing. When I put this question to aspiring authors I always get a variety of answers. None of the answers is wrong, however. Every writer’s needs are different at different stages of the writing process, and where one manuscript might benefit from a certain kind of editing at what might feel like the end of the journey to the author, another could need something else entirely. Different editors have different skills, too, and some specialise in working on fiction or non-fiction so my advice would be to have a good sense of what you believe you need before you engage one.

If you know that spelling isn’t your strongest talent and you have never been all that good at grammar and you’re not all that accurate on the keyboard either, then what you are probably looking for is a copy editor. This is someone who is good at those things you’re not brilliant at and will go through the manuscript and fix them.

Will it improve your chances of getting your book picked up by a publisher or being noticed by a sharp literary agent? A little, maybe, but to be honest, not really.

If, however, the intricately clever plot of your contemporary thriller or the inspiration in your heartfelt memoir makes for an unputdownable story but you suspect that your writing is rougher than you’d like, and that the manuscript is going to be extra challenging to read because of it, then yes, do have a copy editor work through it. You don’t want the publisher to give up the chase for that reason when the story may actually be very good and the characters compelling. But if you’re confident in your seven drafts and you just want the manuscript to be tidied up and for someone to check you on the technical stuff, then by all means get a copy editor to run through it.

This is step one to presenting a clean manuscript. But do find a professional freelancer, someone who copy edits for a living, not the smug and annoying friend who rings typos in library books and is doing you a favour in his spare time.

Most manuscripts have mistakes in them of the punctuation and grammar kind. And most publishers jump right over them at this point. They’re not fussed about your over-use of adverbs, too many paragraphs in italics, or cute use of symbols to differentiate sections of text. This isn’t what the publisher/editor/agent is reading for. They are looking through to the core of the book, what it’s saying and whether it’s doing it well. Is there something original here, a gripping narrative or a literary read that takes your breath away? That’s what they’re looking for, that elusive spark of originality or an angle on a topic that is fresh and intriguing.

Mistakes are expected. A handful of typos isn’t going to swing a yes or no decision. Sloppiness, however, can cost you. It says volumes about your seriousness about writing.

All respectable publishers will need the specialised skills of a copy editor at a specific point in the production process once they take a book on; they will either have in-house copy editors or they will outsource this function to a freelancer.

Should you engage an editor (as opposed to a copy editor) to work on your book with or for you before you submit it to an agent or publisher, or before you self-publish or go the vanity press route? The answer, at least in my opinion, is definitely Yes, if you’re thinking of going it alone, and Possibly, if you’re looking at the traditional commercial publishing route.

When you tell a commercial publisher that your book has already been edited by a friend, this mostly doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to them. In fact, it can even cause a frisson of alarm. What is this author telling you – that it’s ready to go to print and that there’s no need for the publisher to bother with wasting time on editing? Or that you’re in a real hurry to see your book in print and have already planned the launch function?

Publishers shouldn’t ever let a book hasten through the production system without an editorial stage, whether they use their own in-house editors or a freelancer they trust. Publishers have a reputation, too, and they will also want the book to be the best it can be once it goes out on the shelves. If it’s been sloppily edited or proofread, this reflects on the publisher, not the author, and reviewers are sometimes quick to say so and to dismiss the book in the same breath.

A commercial publisher will assign an editor to a specific book, and should try to match you with an editor who will be compatible with you personally, or who either specialises in fiction, if you’ve written a novel, or in lifestyle publishing if yours is a book on interior decorating, for example.

So unless your editing friend does this for a living, rather secure professional help in this preparation period. A good freelancer who is established and already has a good reputation in the business, can be a significant plus. The chances are that the editor is someone the publisher will already know and may routinely use. There are freelancers who only take commissions from publishers and not direct from individual authors, so check this out, too, when you’re doing your research. You might have to be a little patient. The local industry doesn’t have a very big pool of editors and the good ones are always kept busy. The publishers know who they are. And the good freelance editors, like the professional readers and copy editors, want to work on books where they see potential. Frankly, it’s more interesting and rewarding for them and it’s also good for their CVs and professional reputations to be able to say “I worked with Bess T Selling on all her crime novels,” for example, but less useful for them to record working with unknown authors whose books were never going to have a hope of seeing the light of day with a St Martin’s Press logo on the spine. Good freelance editors want to keep working and mostly they don’t want to work on books that might never be very good, despite their own skills being brought to bear on the manuscript.

There are also some poor or downright bad editors out there, who may do you more of a disservice than help your book be the best it can be. It’s very easy these days to set up a website and offer an ‘editorial service’. Always look for testimonials or ask them what books they’ve worked on before. Have a look at the books and contact their authors. No editor worth their salt will decline to allow you to talk to their clients. Referrals are how they work. The better ones rely on word of mouth and personal endorsements. A good idea is to filter your search through an organisation like PEG (Professional Editors’ Group).

If you are going to self-publish, pay a vanity publisher, or go the online ebook route, I would strongly suggest you employ a least a copy editor before you put your work out there, even if this is just for a bit of light dusting. You will want the book to be the best it can possibly be, surely, free of clumsy sentences and recurring habit phrases, and spelling of typographical errors. There’s nothing less appealing than a book that looks unprofessionally published, on whatever platform it’s showcased, and most readers are alienated by this and by typos as they trip over them. It’s disrespectful to your reader, if nothing else.

It’s astounding what you the writer can miss in your own manuscript, despite having read it through probably a hundred times – did you spot the deliberate typo in this posting, I wonder? Whatever you decide, in the end I think it just helps to have a fresh pair of eyes, and sometimes that’s all you need.


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