YES, YOU NEED AN EDITOR
You want to publish a book? Fantastic! I’m one of those annoying people who believes that everyone indeed has at least one book in them and that it should be let loose in the world. Why not? If only your mum and Aunty Mavis ever reads the thing, who cares. If it’s something you want to do with your time and your brain and your money, then do it.
(Superior types who believe storytelling should be the preserve of some arcane cult of genius elite, please stop reading here.)
Writing a book – a novel, a memoir, a family history, a collection of all your poems, whatever it might be – is a massive achievement. In twenty years of editing and writing and banging on about writing, I’ve never met anyone who’s ever regretted getting their story down. ‘Gee, I wish I’d never written that book,’ said no-one ever – unless Aunty Mavis decided to sue.
But, and it’s a rather large but, if you want your work to shine its best and brightest light, then you need an editor. (A moment of disclosure here: yes, I’m an editor myself, and no, I don’t want to edit your manuscript, because I’m usually either booked up or writing.) I would not dream of having one of my own novels go out into the world without a couple of very rigorous rounds of editing, so why should you?
And yet, I’ve been hearing around the indie traps a lot lately that self-editing skills are sufficient to prepare a book for publication.
They are not.
Even if spelling and grammar are your strengths, even if you have three doctorates in story craft, you will never be your own best editor. I’m one of those doubly annoying people whose manuscripts tend to be exceptionally clean and tidy by the time they do reach an editor’s desk. I’ve fine-tooth-combed the lot, scrutinised every dot and squiggle, triple-checked word choices, facts and figures, and I’ve busted my brain over making sure my story makes sense – and I STILL NEED AN EDITOR.
Let me give you some examples from my very own secret drawer of editorial shame. Even when I try not to, I overuse certain words – ‘now’ and ‘just’ are usually the main culprits. Even though I’m a stickler for crisp dialogue, sometimes I’ve not made it clear who’s speaking. Even though I try to keep my narratives tightly focussed, I sometimes ramble away from the story for a paragraph or two, chatting to myself rather than the reader. And despite my pathological perfectionism, I’ll still fail to spot a typo, or an unnecessary repetition, a character’s name misspelled, an anachronism of some kind, or a plain wrong fact missed in the rush and clutter of writing.
There are so many things going on in your head when you’re at the task of getting a story down, you can’t possibly see them all at once, all the time, and even over several readings, there will still be things you miss.
A personal favourite from Jewel Sea: ‘She rolled her eyes across the table.’ I picked that one up myself, in a paroxysm of laughter, but imagine if it went out?
Of course, books do go out with silly errors in them, but they’re usually small, blink and you’ll miss it, and most readers are forgiving. Most readers understand that books are big things and even with a whole troupe of editors, little mistakes will still be made. So long as the slip-ups don’t interfere with meaning or break the spell of the story, no-one is going to get upset.
And yet, increasingly, I’ve noticed readers getting upset at indie books that could have done with a decent edit. Comments like, ‘I might have enjoyed this novel but the sloppy punctuation throughout was too distracting and confusing.’ Problems with paragraph formatting, tenses, and all manner of easily remedied failures of clarity, seem to be common complaints.
Readers just want to read. They don’t want to walk through rubbish to get to the good stuff. And why should they? Whether they’ve paid $0.99 or $10.99 for a book, they expect to be able to concentrate on what they’re reading without tripping over mess, and if they aren’t able to do that, they’re not going to come back for more. That’s a pretty simple equation.
If it comes to a financial choice between investing in design and marketing or in editing and typesetting, go the editing and typesetting. What’s the point in great window dressing if what’s inside is going to be a letdown? Okay, yes, yes, there are plenty of books out there that have sold squillions and could have done with a firmer editorial hand, but this is your baby. Your book; your forever thing in the world. Your legacy. The traces of you that maybe your great-great-great-great-grandchildren will unearth one day on an ancient library database. Give them your very best and clearest expression. They’re not going to care about your Amazon ranking.
Besides, working with an editor can be a wonderful learning and nurturing experience; it can be the beginning of a great relationship in words and ideas, too. A good editor is not only a highly skilled and dispassionate reader, but someone who cares deeply about books and writing – and writers.
A good editor can help you reach deeper into what it is you’re trying to say. An example here from my not-so-secret drawer of editorial love: when I wrote Wild Chicory, it came out in such a mad torrent, I knew it was a trove of the things I most needed to say, but little Brigid, the child whose story it really is, became lost in the wash along the way. Without the care and insight of my editor, Alex Nahlous, I might not have seen how necessary it was that I hold Brigid inside the narrative more closely for the reader. I’d had a nagging suspicion that something was missing, but my conversations with Alex gave me that ‘Aha!’ moment I needed to find that piece and place it right where my heart needed it to go.
A good editor never tells a writer what to do, but through a combination of objective wisdom, respect and enthusiasm strives to inspire a writer.
Where can you find a good editor, though? In this new realm of online everything, where anyone can whack up a shiny shingle, it can be difficult to know what you’re getting, and there are some shonks around, so go to your local or state writers centre as a first port of call; the Freelance Editors Network is also teeming with talent; and there’s nothing like the endorsement of another writer – if someone you know has sung the praises of their editor, go read that book and look at the quality. Educate yourself on the editorial process and reader expectations; ask questions; make connections.
It might take some time to find the right editor for you – the one who really gets whatever it is you’re trying to do. But it’ll be worth it.