Editing, not alchemy


Many authors are reluctant to hire editors for various reasons. The most common are expense, hubris, and dread.

Expense: Professional editing is expensive. That’s why it behooves an author to select an editor who’s a good match for both the manuscript and oneself. The wrong editor can make what sometimes feels like an excruciating process worse. An incompetent editor overwrites the author’s voice and makes unnecessary changes. An incompetent editor may “edit” by running the manuscript through editing software and calling it done. Editors like that are frauds, usually dirt cheap, and should be avoided at all costs.

You can use editing software yourself. There’s no need to pay someone to do that for you

Hubris: I was guilty of this with my first few books. Being an editor myself, I assumed I did not need one. If I was good enough to edit other people’s work then surely I was good enough to edit my own. I was wrong. I learned the hard way. I try to educate others, so they do not make my prideful mistake. Other authors rely on editing software and call it done, not realizing or understanding that editors do far more than “merely” correct copy errors. And some authors believe their work is perfect and simply does not need editing. That, I believe, is the height of arrogance.

Dread. Many authors dread an editor will change their stories. Many are right to fear an editor’s meddling, especially if they’ve hired an incompetent, fraudulent, or arrogant editor. A good editor is empathetic to the author’s story and intent and helps the author express it. A good editor won’t overwrite the author’s voice or change the story’s plot. A good editor does far more than find flaws and point them out. A good editor suggests improvements.

That becomes lost in translation. An editor focuses on improving the content. Yes, finding flaws and correcting them is part of the job, a crucial component of the publishing process, but that’s not the only thing editors do. We identify anachronisms, implausibilities, lapses in continuity, missing transitions, and more. We point out where the story jumps and leaves the reader behind, where something needs to be changed to make sense, where explanation is merited and where it’s best to condense, consolidate, or eliminate description. We may even provide examples to show the author what is meant, to demonstrate that change. We help the author find the best, most effective way to tell his or her story.

If you’re an author and you’ve sent your manuscript to an editor, then it’s important you understand that this story is yours. The editor merely suggests; he or she does not impose change. You are obligated to consider the editor’s suggested changes, but not obligated to implement them.

It’s also important for you to understand that an editor is not an alchemist. Editing is a process similar to that of refining ore. A skillful editor extracts the gold from the ore and draws out the impurities. No editor, no matter how skilled, can turn dross into gold.

If your writing is poor, a skilled editor can and will improve it, but turning something terribly written into beautiful, poetic prose is your job. The editor improves what exists; the editor does not change the nature of the content.

Because editing is not alchemy and cannot turn dross into gold, the editing process often involves multiple rounds of revision until the author is happy with the manuscript. The process may involve mutiple editors, as each editor will have his or her own perspective to contribute. An indecisive author may succumb to the lure of perfection without realizing that nothing is ever perfect. A smart author settles for excellence and avoids being trapped by unending rounds of editing and revision.

If you’re writing a story or have written a story and want it improved, then hire a professional editor. That’s what I do. After making the manuscript as good as I can get it by myself, I turn it over to my editor. She identifies the lapses in my logic, holes in my plot, and the ambiguities that a reader needs explained. She suggests alternative versions of sentences here and there to tighten flabby, sometimes convoluted writing, improve the flow, and make better sense.

In short, I don’t necessarily understand what a reader won’t understand without her help. I do the same for my clients whose manuscripts I edit. Like I advise my own clients, I do not accept every change my editor suggests. I will also find some copy errors she misses and correct those as I go through the manuscript, line by line, word by word, to review every single suggested change and decide whether to accept it, reject it, or take the hint and revise in my own manner.

I expect no more of my clients than I do myself. That’s how we achieve excellence, not perfection.

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