Do Writers Really Need Editors?

Today I have a Savvy Writer with me. 🙂 She’s a former journalist who was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize! When she switched careers to write books, she won the Christy Award for “Best First Novel” and has since written a dozen more successful and brilliant books. (She’s one of my heroes!) Introducing… Sibella Giorello! She’s going to answer the question—do writers really need editors?

Lora: Sibella, you have years of professional writing experience under your belt and are a successful, award-winning author. What is your perspective on using editors, proofreaders, and/or beta readers to review your book before publishing?

Sibella: Never go swimming alone.

Seriously, knowing how to swim does not mean you can cross the English Channel by yourself. Writing is blind work—we really never know where the story is going to take us. And sometimes our imaginations lead us to places that make us feel lost. So in addition to all the typographic necessities of syntax and grammar, there’s the greater narrative. Does the story make sense? Are the characters real or cardboard cutouts? Good editors and smart beta readers flag that stuff. Taking that advice, however, requires a balance between humility and belief in what you’re doing. As a writer, you could be wrong—or they could be wrong. The key is to get many opinions and see if there’s consensus on something. Does everyone think that red herring clue is stupid?

Lora: What have you found to be most helpful and least helpful in your experience?

Sibella: The most helpful part has been learning. Good editors not only improve the story but also gently teach as they go. They point out the mistake AND they inform you why it’s a mistake. With that kind of editing, a writer can grow with each book—and go on to make other mistakes. 🙂

The least helpful experience is when an editor says things such as “Parentheses are never used in fiction.” Or “Colons are outdated.” That might be true from their perspective, but from where I sit, punctuation is there to serve the sentence, not the other way around. So if I want to use parentheses or a colon, and it works in the sentence, then I feel safe ignoring such a rule. However, as the saying goes, you need to know the rule in order to break the rule.

Lora: What should writers look for when selecting an editor/proofreader?

Sibella: Look for conscientious kindness. You want an editor who will really dial down on things—both the overarching story and the nitty-gritty sentence structures. It’s very challenging to find an editor who can do both (Lora, I think you’re among those editors who can), so you may need to hire two editors—one for the developmental edit that focuses on the story mechanics and another who is more attuned to copy editing errors. Finally, in a proofreader you want someone who almost doesn’t read the story but can meticulously spot typos, extra spaces before a period, etc. All of these skills can be learned, but there are people born that way. I have readers who, even after three edits and three proofreaders, can still spot errors. What an eye!

But kindness is important, too. Writers are hanging their hearts on their sleeves. If an editor comes down with too many “I can’t believe you’re making that mistake again” comments, the writer will feel utterly defeated.

Editing should be more like a careful collaboration.

Lora:  What does it feel like when an editor sends a corrected manuscript back to you?

Sibella: Terror. Absolute terror. Every single time. The best book you ever write is still going to come back covered in red ink.

And that’s the way it should be! You are a writer and you are human. You will make mistakes. You will mess up the timeline, character names, settings, on and on.

Years ago, Stephen King decided he no longer needed editors. He published a book without them and it was dreadful. I couldn’t even get halfway through the thing. At least 100 pages needed to be cut. Since then, I think he’s come to his senses. At least in terms of books…

Lora:  Those are insightful responses! Do you have any questions for me about editing?

Sibella:  What is the best part and worst part of being an editor?

Lora:  The best part is that I get to know writers personally. I’ve become close friends with many of the authors whose books I’ve edited (including you!), and it’s a very bonding experience to work together closely on a manuscript. I also learn personal information about the author when we discuss why they chose to write things a certain way—and how to communicate their message most effectively. It’s a privilege and honor to have authors not only entrust their books with me but parts of their personal lives as well. They also get to know me personally, which helps us develop—as you put it—a “careful collaboration.”  (Another perk is that I get to read my favorite writers’ brand-new books first!)

The worst part is…I have to be the “bad guy.” I’m not supposed to be the enthusiastic cheerleader gushing over the book. My job is to find every error in the writing—copy edit errors, plot or character inconsistencies, confusing areas, errors in factual information, etc. I have to point out everything negative for the writer to address so that the published book will be as professional and powerful as it can possibly be. Of course I also comment on wonderful things as I go, but the bulk of my comments are negative. So I feel “terror” as well when submitting my edits to the author. Usually they are received well, but I’ve had some negative experiences, too. It’s important that both the writer and editor have mutual respect for each other to be able to successfully work together.

Sibella:  What is something important you want writers to know?

Lora: Writers are astounding. They create entire elaborate worlds in their minds! But readers can only envision the limited details that actually are contained in the book. We don’t know everything you do. So if something doesn’t make sense to me or I stumble over it, most likely other readers will, too. When an editor says, “This isn’t working for me,” take it to heart. A good editor will explain why it doesn’t work. Maybe the wording could be misinterpreted. There might be missing blanks the writer needs to fill in. Or maybe the writing makes sense, but it’s repetitive or dragging. An experienced editor suggests ways to tighten up the writing to make it powerful and riveting. Editors are not nitpicky faultfinders—their goal is actually to make your writing awesome! Try to view their comments in a positive light.

Sibella:  What can writers do to help editors do their job better?

Lora:  Oh, I love that you asked this question! My biggest wish is … that writers would keep notes. Keep updated notes and constantly refer to them. When I edit, I take down notes on each character, settings, names, places, facts, figures, everything. As I read, I constantly refer back to the notes. It’s frustrating to me that in literally every book I’ve edited, both fiction and nonfiction, writers are inconsistent with their own subject matter. They spell names differently, pertinent information to the characters or story or setting unexpectedly changes, details get mixed up or altered. I truly understand that books go through a zillion changes over time as they evolve—I was a writer before I was an editor. But if writers would keep careful notes and refer back to them, it would eliminate a vast majority of errors. These are details that the writer should be the expert on (right?), so if writers do this one thing well, it will significantly free up the editor to focus on the essential and critical edits. 🙂

Savvy Writer Tip:

Writers and editors need each other. As the saying goes, “The eye can’t see the eye.” It takes a lot of vulnerability on both sides to work together successfully. There needs to be mutual respect of each person’s role. Writers need to remember that excellent editors are truly pouring themselves into making your book the best it can be—they are not trying to cut you down, they are trying to build you up. Editors need to remember that they are performing surgery on a person’s heart and be as gentle as possible when critiquing, using the opportunity to help the writer grow. When both parties appreciate each other and communicate clearly with each other, the powerful combination of brilliant creativity and expert polishing will produce tremendous results! 🙂

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