I’ve been a professional editor for quite some time now. As part of my job, I frequent a lot of online writing communities – on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn – and one of the things that often strikes me is how negatively my profession is viewed by writers. “Why should I hire an editor?” they say. “I’m a professional writer! It’s my job!”
Common viewpoints I’ve encountered have come from indie authors telling each other things like, “don’t send your work to an editor – they don’t know what they’re doing / they’ll steal your work and pass it off as their own / they’ll strip out your voice and make your writing really boring / who cares about spelling and grammar anyway, not using proper sentences never did James Joyce any harm … ” And, of course, the perennial, “editors are just ripoff merchants who’ll charge you a fortune for nothing, I really don’t get why it’s so expensive when my friend who’s a teacher said she’d proofread my book for free at the weekend.”
Anyone who didn’t know any different would be forgiven for thinking that an editor is some kind of predatory alien species, intent only on sucking out the lifeblood of its hapless writery victims. Coming out after dark, lurking in your laptop, worming its way through the webcam and extending its oily tentacles into YOUR VERY SOUL.
Let me tell you something, though: I’m a writer, too. Lots of professional editors are. Look, I’m writing this. Right here, right now.
So I’m not out to steal your stuff. Just like you, I’d much rather be writing my own, when I have the time. And besides that, I have a business to run, and businesses need clients. If I earned myself a reputation as someone who befriended innocent writers, promised to help them perfect their prose, and then absconded with their darlings and sent them to an agent, I wouldn’t get very far before the clients found themselves another editor, and I’d probably have to go off and be a drug dealer or something.
Therfore two are better then one, for they
maye well enioye the profit of their laboure.
Ecclesiastes 4:9 (Coverdale Bible, 1535*)
An editor – a good one, at least – is a professional. You know, like a doctor or a dentist. We have training. We have qualifications. We belong to professional bodies that make us pay fees and uphold codes of practice. We’re not just some bloke from your pub quiz team who likes to grumble about you using ‘less’ when you mean ‘fewer’ – although that may well be how some of us realised that editing was our One True Vocation. So, while it’s true that you will come across unscrupulous so-called editors who really don’t know what they’re doing, you can trust a professional to have a detailed knowledge of, say, the correct usage of ellipses and em dashes in dialogue; or the reason why formatting your paragraphs properly is much better than hitting Return twice every time you need a new one; or why it’s not a good idea to have your characters uttering, enquiring and ejaculating all over the place when plain old saying will do. That last one should be obvious, but you’d be amazed.
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W. B. Yeats
A good editor will listen to your authorial voice. They will hear what you are trying to say, and they will help you to say it better. They won’t try to impose their own style, or their own characters, or their own plot. Depending on the kind of editing you’ve employed them to do (that’s a whole other blog post), they may suggest ways that your plot or characters could work better, or to fix plot holes that you haven’t spotted, but they won’t replace your story with theirs. They might stamp out errors – that character in 1980s Britain probably isn’t using a laptop, for instance – but they won’t tread on your dreams.
Every time you use an editor, the chance of your work reaching its creative and commercial potential increases. It’s a competitive market out there, and wouldn’t it be better to have some help than to just shout into the publishing wilderness on your own? A proper editor will cost money, because we have to earn a living, in the same way as the plumber who fixes your leaky loo or the mechanic who mends your motor. Editing your book could represent several weeks’ work for us, and the fees we charge reflect that. But if you’re serious about writing, investing in the right kind of help can be some of the best money you’ll ever spend.
*a fine example of the kind of spelling mayhem that ensues when you don’t employ a decent editor.