Monday, May 14, 2012

The Reasons You Need an Editor

By Lourdes Venard

We’ve all had the experience of reading a book, being completely immersed, and then, whoosh, we’re thrown out of the story. It can be as simple as a misspelled word or as grievous as a character whose name has suddenly changed.

This is where the editor steps in—or should have stepped in, I should say.

Editors often get a bad rap. Most writers don’t like their words to be changed, trimmed or otherwise played with. Editors are seen as nitpickers, at best; an intrusive presence, at worst. A good editor, though, leaves behind a better story, without having left a footprint behind.

If you are a first-time writer, this experience can be invaluable, as Toby Speed, a Long Island Sisters in Crime member, found. Speed spent 15 years crafting her first novel and another year shopping it around.

“After many revisions and a couple of overhauls, at 101,600 words it was perfect,” she said. “I’d had two groups of beta readers go through it carefully and I incorporated their helpful, detailed comments.”

But Speed’s mystery story was going nowhere until one editor wrote back, explaining the importance of pacing and suggesting a cut of 15,000 to 20,000 words—and, best yet, the editor had shown her how, by editing the first 70 pages. But, at first, this only annoyed Speed.

“She had even deleted my prologue, the best writing in the book!” Speed said. “I walked around grumbling for 24 hours, wondering how I could possibly cut that many words without harming the story."

"Then I read the editor’s version with the tracking turned off. It read really well—in fact, a whole lot better than the original. The story got started right away and moved right along. The first two chapters ended in the right place. I took a deep breath and over the next six weeks, following her example, I shaved nearly 16,000 words from the story and resubmitted it."

"No one else had seen my story as it was—or as it had the potential to become.”

Speed resubmitted her book, and a publishing company is considering it.

Her experience is not uncommon. As a writer, it’s hard to be objective of one’s own work. A fresh set of eyes—an experienced set of eyes—is always helpful.

When searching for an editor, you should be aware that there are three levels of editing--developmental editing, copyediting and proofreading. Some editors will work in all three areas; some editors specialize in only one of them.

Developmental editing (also called substantive editing).

In traditional publishing, this is the first round of editing, and it may reshape your manuscript quite a bit. Not all writers may feel they need this, but if you do, you should expect a developmental editor to look at:
  • Plot structure
  • Character development and voice
  • Story pacing
  • Scene structure
  • Improving the flow of the story, which may mean moving around sentences, paragraphs or even chapters 
  • Point of view and dialogue
  • Gaps in the story
  • Themes and whether your book is appropriate to the genre in which you are writing

Copy editing (or line editing), which includes:
  • Grammar, spelling and word usage
  • Consistency in names, the timeline and other details
  • Consistency in dialogue and point of view narration
  • Glaring factual errors, as well as fictional ones (if you’ve established something as fact in Chapter 1, it should remain the same throughout)
  • Repetitiveness
  • Smooth, clear writing that will be understood by the reader


If you’ve worked with a good copy editor, you are not likely to need this last step. Generally, proofreaders are employed by publishers to read the story in typeset form, to look for any remaining errors in spelling, punctuation, or typesetting. 

The next steps

This is part one of a three-part series on editing. The upcoming blog posts this week will look at questions to ask when hiring freelance editors, what to pay, and what to expect when you work with an editor.

About the author
Lourdes Venard, a Long Island, N.Y., newspaper editor, also freelances and teaches an online copyediting course. She’s edited mystery, science fiction, memoirs and nonfiction. You can find more information on editing and self-publishing at her website,


Dana Stabenow said...

Every single one of my books has been significantly improved by a rigorous editorial review. Let me tell you one -- just one -- story:

I handed in the first Kate Shugak novel and my editor at the time, Laura Anne Gilman (who later went on to her own successful writing career), very wisely waited until I had signed the contract before telling me I had to cut the first chapter. "It's great, Dana," she said, "but it has nothing to do with the rest of the book.

I went to bed steaming with rage over this desecration of my deathless prose, and woke up the next morning thinking, "She's right." The first chapter was great (I've still got it, cut-and-pasted into its own forlorn little file) but it didn't have anything to do with the rest of the books.

I cut it, and the book now starts not with a long, character-establishing scene but an arrival, a report of murder, and a call to adventure, which of course the hero at first very properly refuses. (And I hadn't even read Joseph Campbell at that time.)

The great first chapter was all there as I had originally written it, but it took a clear-eyed, pragmatic editor to point out that it came a chapter too late. I couldn't see it, I was too close to the story.

Subsequent editor Chris Pepe and current editor Kelley Ragland have performed similarly heroic tasks with I'm sure similarly gritted teeth. Reality story check, that's what I'm looking for in an editor, and it's what we all need whether we know it or not.

Warren Bull said...

A truly excellent editor can make your writing sound more like you than your version does. It has happened to me several times and I really appreciate good editing.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Excellent advice, Lourdes!

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