The True Glory of Professional Editors: What Happens in Edit, Stays in Edit

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

by Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) The Hot Sheet
In an exchange with a London-based self-publishing author lately, I was given an outline of how some indie writers use beta readers and colleagues rather than professional editing and proofreading services. I’d been writing about Reedsy’s offerings for authors, developed in smart association with IngramSpark. This writer was focused on demonstrating to me that it can be far less expensive to go without formal edits, and many indies—understandably!—would like to ease the costs of professional edits.

(Just as an aside: so would many publishers. Today, traditional editing services are sometimes hired by publishers from freelance editors who once were full-time in-house employees.)

The challenge: With the Wall of Content, as I call it, looming over the industry—so many books, films, television shows, games, music—you’re putting yourself at a huge competitive disadvantage if you try to go to market without the best professional editing support you can afford.

Editing Benefits from Ruth Harris:

In her recent post on editing, author Ruth Harris concentrates on nine benefits primarily of “developmental” editing, as we say in the States, or “structural” editing, as it’s called in the UK—the specialization of editors who work with how you’re telling your story and, if necessary, how to reconstruct what you’re doing to make it far more effective.

Here’s an abbreviated look at her nine points, then I’ll add what I think is actually the No. 1 secret of why serious, professional editing is such a boon:

  • Editing helps you refine what you want to say.
  • Editing will save you from your worst writing weaknesses.
  • Editing can help you distill your narrative and focus its impact.
  • Editing helps you expand or trim your text, as needed.
  • Editing tightens plotting and enhances characterization.
  • Editing helps you pace your story.
  • Editing gives you an expert friend and mentor along the way.
  • Editing helps you refine your work to its essential excellence.
  • Editing catches and weeds out your writerly foibles (and we all have them).

The Number One Benefit

Now, those are all excellent points in favor of professional edits; Harris is right.

But the real secret about professional editing is that it makes it look as if you got all these things right, yourself.

This is one reason that it’s such good form to credit your editors, by name, whenever you have a chance. Your readers still won’t know how many times they had to corral your wandering plot tangents or chase your excessive adverbs over a cliff. And that’s the great secret: The value that editors bring to your work accrues to you in the readers’ and industry players’ minds.

Precious few readers stop to admire good writing and think, “Boy, that author really had a great edit on that paragraph!” No, they think, “Look what this author just did in this paragraph! Brilliant!”

Oddly enough, this secret about editing comes to journalists (my corner of the world) more easily than to authors, and that’s because we live so close to our editors. Journalists are edited daily. And when we’re young, we complain bitterly when our so-smart turns of phrase and sassy references are the first things to be cut from our stories. But there’s a moment for each journalist when the truth suddenly dawns on us: Nobody knows what was cut out of our stories. Nobody knows what was changed. And that revelation usually arrives when a reader drops a note or calls to say how great one of our stories was…the same story we were just complaining had been butchered, gutted! on the edit desk, right?

Do you know the phrase, “Well, shut my mouth”? Suddenly we get it: We’ve been made to look good. By editors. That’s when we start buying our editors drinks after work.

Your Own Mistakes are Harder to See

The other day, I dropped a note to a friend who edits at the journalism think tank and training center, the Poynter Institute, flagging a simple typo for him in his first paragraph. He thanked me, of course. (Journalists are always grateful for this help, especially if you’re nice enough to let them know of the gaffe privately and don’t embarrass them about it in wide-open session on Twitter.) And, as he and I agreed, you can always catch others’ mistakes, but rarely your own.

This is simply the nature of writing. Getting entirely outside your own head, your intentions, and seeing your copy with “others’ eyes”. A superhuman gift. Don’t let anybody fool you, the only “self-editing” you should do is before you turn that manuscript over to a real editor.

Final Thoughts

Self-editing” is quite close to an oxymoron. Professional editing is simply crucial, especially in preparing a book.

But the frequently overlooked gift of that heavy investment you make in bona fide, professional editing is in the regard you gain from readers and colleagues, the ability to stand tall as a writer producing truly well-crafted and rigorously “clean” content in a world absolutely awash in tragically flawed books and other content.

Are you trying to do this “self-editing” thing? Please think again. Would the modern publishing industry have poured millions of dollars over the decades into editing, in-house or freelance, if it weren’t that critical?

And do you have an editor or two already? Then hug those people. Buy them a Campari.

Because what happens in edit stays in edit. They’re there to make you look fantastic. When it comes to that raw manuscript you handed them? Nobody knows the trouble they’ve seen.


Porter Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in book publishing. Formerly with CNN, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media, he is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, founded by the German Book Office New York, the magazine for the international publishing industry. With Jane Friedman, he produces The Hot Sheet publishing-industry newsletter, providing expert analysis and interpretation in a private subscriptionemail newsletter, expressly devised to give authors the news insights they need, free of agenda and bias. Anderson also writes the #MusicForWriters series on contemporary composers for Thought Catalog.