Do You Really Need an Editor?

by Robert Gregory Browne

The short answer to the above question we most often hear is this: Yes. Every book needs an editor. And while Joe gave us a nice set of tools for self-editing last week, I’d like to take a moment to answer this question on a more philosophical level.

I spend a lot of time on Facebook. And one day I floated the idea that not every writer and every book needs an editor.

That’s right. I said it.

I’m sure you can imagine the howls of protest. One author was so incensed by this suggestion that he simply would not leave the comment section in peace, and I, of course, took the bait (never take the bait) and engaged in a fairly heated “discussion” about the topic.

The point I made then and will float now is that in nearly every solo creative pursuit I can think of—painting, songwriting, composing, sculpting, furniture making, origami folding, calligraphy, graphic design, illustrating, etc.—you never hear anyone say to these artists, “Make sure you pass that work through an editor.”

So this begs another couple of questions:

Why do people assume—including many authors—that a book simply can’t survive without the help of a good developmental editor? Why is it a commonly held belief that every writer needs someone to help him or her see the forest from the trees before they embarrass themselves with plot holes and shaky character motivation?

Now keep in mind that I’m not talking about a copy editor. I will join the chorus in that regard and say every book needs a copy editor and proof readers, simply because the size of your typical book requires that grammar and typos be caught.

But why do we automatically assume that every author needs a developmental editor?

I’m not suggesting, of course, that some authors don’t need one, but I also believe that many veteran authors—the guys and gals who have been doing this job for years and are pretty damn good at what they do—already know how to tell a fine story, and can quite successfully produce and publish a compelling, well-written book without any help from anyone else.

I know an author who uses only a copy editor on his books, and he’s extremely successful. His books sell like hotcakes, so he must be doing something right.

My own books get a light edit from a writer friend, but the notes are usually minimal and she often says, “this is how I’d change it, but really, it’s great the way it is.” My only real reason for passing it through her is that a) I highly value her opinion; and b) my confidence as a writer is lacking just enough that I figure I should get a second opinion.

But the truth is, after writing about twenty novels, I’m not sure I need an editor at all.

I’m not huge on conspiracy theories, but I suspect the “required” editor/author meme started decades ago when authors were forced to stop self-publishing and go through publishing houses to get their work out to the public. I think the idea of each book needing an editor grew out of the publisher’s desire to make his services more attractive to the author, and to give said publisher greater control over what should and shouldn’t be published (and how much money he could grab in the process).

Now, as I said in my last post, some writers highly value the back and forth they get from an editor and it helps them write the book they want to write. And if that’s they’re particular desire, and it works for them, that’s wonderful.

But I firmly believe that many authors are seasoned enough that this step in the process is unnecessary and they can simply use Joe’s tips to edit their own work.

Just like painters do. And songwriters. And composers. And…

And lawyers writing a closing argument. If a guy who’s writing to keep someone from going to jail doesn’t need an editor, then why should we?

We are, after all, only writing to entertain, and it’s ultimately the readers who will decide whether or not our story sucks.

If you feel, personally, that your work will benefit from the back and forth an editor brings to the table, then by all means go for it. But if you have the chops, going without an editor is not a sin against literature.

Or is it? You tell me what you think.

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28 thoughts on “Do You Really Need an Editor?

  1. Personally, I get confused by the many forms of “editor” that are tossed around among writers so I had to look up developmental editor and see what exactly they do. My first thought on reading their duties was “this is what your trusted crit partners are for”.

    I have no doubt that inexperienced authors like myself benefit by a good pro-edit. But as with much of the “You MUST do” advice in writing, it is not iron-clad, but a guideline.

    • I lot of people get confused by this. As much as I’d like to “kill” them sometimes, a great copy editor is a must. You can ignore them as well, but only if they’re screwing with your voice. And great copy editors are smart enough to know they should never do this.

  2. A lot to chew on, Rob. I know I benefited hugely early in my career by getting to work with a quality content editor, who was the main reason I entered into a contract with that particular house. If a newish writer can find someone like that, it would be worth the investment.

    Over time, as one grows in the craft, a group of trusted beta readers might be able to perform the same function. A writer does need other eyes on the project at some point, though.

    I will note that the best trial lawyers do use consultants and focus groups to help shape their arguments and strategies. The younger ones might lean on a senior partner early on, just like with a great editor.

    So a lot depends on where the writer is in his career.

    I will offer this thought: there are some longstanding bestselling writers who get no editing anymore because they sell anyway and/or they refuse to do any more work on a book. Many of those books are lousy, but they don’t care. Experience isn’t everything, I guess.

    • Good points. I did once work for a defense attorney (may he rest in peace) who wrote brilliant opening and closing arguments, and the only thing he bounced it off was the walls of his office. He won a lot of cases.

      I seem to recall Lee Child saying he never changes a word of his manuscripts after they’re written. Maybe that was a misquote, but his books are pretty damn good…

  3. A trusted critique group or beta readers are invaluable in producing a clean manuscript. I recommend them whether you have a contract or are indie publishing.

  4. I think you are completely correct, Robert. After all, do painters need editors? Do songwriters need editors? Of course not – they’re artists. Right? Who in their right mind would want to edit Picasso? Or Michelangelo? Or Bob Dylan? So . . . .

  5. I’ve written about 65 books. But I also know my weaknesses. My critique partner can point out if I’m missing something I haven’t noticed. I also need a editor and a copy editor. I don’t have a problem with that. The whole controversy about do people need an editor or not? Some people who need it aren’t going to get that they need one and won’t get one. Some people will allow editors to restructure their entire book to the point it no longer resembles their book (which happens a lot and I think is incredibly wrong). Do I believe there are some authors who can create an excellent book with little or no help from an editor? Yes and more power to them. I’ve met a couple of authors who seem to have this ability. 🙂 As a creativity coach I always encourage artists of any kind to find what works for them.

  6. Robert, as you’ve intimated, “whatever works for you (the writer).” I have seen–heck, I have written–more than one first draft of a novel that required a lot of work to reshape it and make it a reasonable effort. But, as Jim Bell points out, the further down the road we are, the better we get. The question that keeps cropping up in my mind is “What about the author who also does a little work on the side as an editor? Do they, in turn, run their ideas by someone else?” Interesting question. Thanks for getting the discussion started.

  7. I think it depends a lot on the writer. Part of my business model includes doing some ghostwriting and some novel critiquing/rewriting, and it’s clear that some people just don’t quite organize things effectively, or there are large holes in their logic.

    That said, the books that I got published through other people had editors and they offered almost nothing. In one book they asked that the order of 2 short chapters be flipped. Frankly, that’s about it. Out of a dozen books, the editing was practically nonexistent. And I’m also a copyeditor, so my manuscripts are pretty clean to begin with, so not much copyediting gets done (authors: really, you can start with using Spellcheck, it’ll eliminate about 95% of your problems, really).

    But again, it depends.

  8. I agree with the above comment (too lazy to scroll back) about there being different kinds of editors. I have a small critique group and although we’ll point out typos, etc., we’re more into keeping the stories on track. We have an acronym we use — “RWIM” which stands for “Read What I Mean” because too often what’s in our head isn’t clear for a reader who lacks ESP.

    I hire an editor who is a blend of developmental and copy editing. We don’t have a lot of back and forth–none at all until I’ve handed in the book. But she’s invaluable at picking up things like, “you need to make your heroine more likeable in chapter 1.” Things I don’t see because I’m in my heroine’s head and I know she’s going to be a likeable character. She’ll also find continuity errors I miss, and in this last book, she pointed out that I needed to watch who said what because I started giving my ‘serious’ character the funny lines that belonged to my ‘sense of humor’ character. Once she’s pointed out her issues, I fix them (and she knows I’m not going to accept everything she says; in fact, most of her comments make it clear these are suggestions, not fixed in stone changes). Then I send it back, and she goes over my changes, and if we still need to discuss things, it’s a discussion. We both know it’s my book.

    I’ve written 20 books, but I wouldn’t put one out in the world without more eyes on it than mine.

  9. One of the chief benefits of having an editor (whether a developmental editor, or a copy editor) is to have a fresh set of eyes reading your work. Beginning writers who are intimidated by the cost of hiring an editor can achieve an approximate equivalent of editorial distance from their work by setting it aside for some time while they work on other things, and continue to practice their craft. Coming back to a piece of one’s own writing after an extended hiatus can certainly bring to light many weaknesses that were invisible during the original fog of creativity. The opposite is also true — you may be encouraged to find that what you had cast into a drawer in disgust proves, on second consideration weeks or months later, to have strengths you had not noticed earlier.

    Of course, the problem is that many writers are too impatient, and thus unwilling, to let a draft “rest” long enough to be able to see it with fresh eyes. For them, the best course may well be to heed the dictum “time is money” and spend their money on a developmental editor, rather than spending their time letting the manuscript rest until they can see it with clearer, more dispassionately critical eyes.

    • This is a wonderful point, L.A. One that I make in my book, CASTING THE BONES: An Author’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction, in a chapter entitled, “Are You Ready to be a Published Author?”

      Too many people think that the moment they’ve committed the words to paper (or word processor) that their creation is ready for the printing press (or KDP upload), and this is not usually the case. Getting that distance or those “fresh eyes” is all too important.

      For the record, I’ve had good experiences with editors for the most part. And I think it’s beneficial to an author to, at some point in his or her career, have that back and forth. To be challenged to write better.

      That said, if you can’t self-edit, you’ll be lost.

  10. I don’t disagree, Robert. But I think the writer who needs no help is rare. (and I second your emotion about copy editors…you’re a fool to think you can live without em!)

    But as Jim and others have said, I think it depends on the writer. Some need help; others are quite self-sufficient. I have to say I’ve seen some work from mega-authors that could have really benefited from someone stepping in and saying no or at least, “you know, you might want to rethink this part here.”

    I think it also depends on the individual story itself. After having 20 books published (all by traditional means and one self-pubbed novella) I’ve found some books come forth fully formed and needing barely a copy editor’s touch. Others are just god awful births that emerge fundamentally sound but still in need a good pair of second eyes. It’s just the way my writer brain works, I think. Some stories are clear in my head; others are like beautiful dreams that need focusing as I transfer them to the page.

    I’ve had developmental editors who’ve been terrible and intrusive and others who’ve been brilliant. We’ve got a rep for turning in very clean manuscripts and definitely have gotten better with the years. But our last book, “She’s Not There” — well, that was made infinitely better by my critique group beta readers (who pointed out I had a dual protag before I realized it) and by my editors at Thomas and Mercer. This book was a departure for us — psychological suspense with an unreliable narrator. We hadn’t done this before. It was jungling with flaming chain-saws when we had only dealt with machetes before. So yeah, I was grateful for the input.

    And if I may be allowed a moment of BSP: our book is no. 1 in the paid Kindle store today in Australia.

  11. Congrats on the #1!

    And, yes, of course, it does depend on the author. Although I would hope that every author strives to get to the point where they have enough skill, enough experience, enough editorial insight and enough confidence to conquer the world without an editor.

  12. I agree with much of what you say.

    And yet, I think authors — debut as well as experienced — are not always the best judges of how much editing they need.

    I make my living as an editor. Often, when prospective clients come calling, they try to frame the job before I do a sample edit or read a single chapter:

    — “This needs just a light copy-edit.”
    — “My wife gave this a pretty good read, so I’m just looking for a proofread.”
    — “You don’t need to read for story issues. My beta readers pretty well took care of that.”

    That latter came several months ago from an author who had placed several book son the USA Today Best Seller list. I was inclined to take her word for it, based on her track record.

    But as I prepared the sample copy edit, I came across some serious inconsistencies and implausibilities in the storytelling, and shared them with the author. To her credit, she acknowledged the problems, and hired me to do a line edit.

    “Line edit” is a loosely defined term (some people think it’s akin to a copy-edit or even a proofread), but I define it as a “the edit that’s done after the development edit and the subsequent revisions.” Think about it. Dev edits and revisions don’t ensure that all dev issues have been dispensed with and that you can go straight to a strict grammar/style/spelling edit — you still need somebody to go through them and ensure that all story issues have been consistently and plausibly addressed. I think that step gets skipped a lot — even when all the editing work is done within reputable publishing houses — and that results in a lot of books with flabby middles, one-dimensional villains, lumpy chapter/scene lengths, weird jump-cuts in time and place, etc. Big story issues can be cleaned up while smaller ones are left ragged.

    I started as a copy editor, but my practice shifted with perceived need, and now I make a living only because I have the skill set to serve as a sort of two-fer editor — the guy who can serve as a second or last line of defense on plot points and character-consistency issues while providing a rigorous copy-edit.

    The struggle remains in convincing authors they need that when they’ve convinced themselves that they need something less. But it’s a struggle worth taking on. For the good of the book, the author and the reader.

  13. Also, let’s not discount “copy fatigue” — the reality that no matter how sharp or skilled you are at making words shine, your eyes will be fresh to your manuscript draft only once. The more you read the same stuff, no matter how rejiggered it may be from draft to draft, the duller your senses are to the small details. There’s no cure for it other than to stick it in a drawer for several months — or to hire a fresh set of skilled eyes.

    • All good points, Jim, and I don’t necessarily disagree, especially since I’ve done a bit of editing myself (see my post 1/13), but my argument has more to do with the *assumption* that all writers need a developmental editor.

      It’s possible that most do, but it’s also possible that many don’t. I would never encourage a first timer from skipping the editing process, however. The things I know now about my own writing are a lot different than what I knew when I was just starting out.

  14. Not to be (too), argumentative, but…

    Movies are loaded with editors – film, sound, music,~ but then they ARE more collaborative…

    Songwriters, who record, typically have producers who do a lot of the “content editing” in the studio ~ at least until the artist gets big enough to self-produce…

    • As you say, movies are collaborative, which is why I didn’t mention them in my post. Even writer-directors are dependent on others to make their work come to life, and that collaboration sometimes makes the movie better, sometimes not. But you can’t really compare it to writing books.

      One thing I discovered when I made the transition from screenplays to books was how much freedom I had. When I was working with my first editor at St. Martin’s, I did a rewrite based on a few notes he’d made, then he called me and asked how I felt about the book. I said, “I think it’s ready to go” and he said, “Me, too.”

      I said, “So what happens now? Do you have to take it upstairs and get approval, then we go through another round—or what?”

      He laughed and said, “This isn’t Hollywood. If you think it’s ready to go, we go.”

      I was a little surprised by that. So writing novels, even WITH an editor is a completely different experience.

      As for songwriters, there are hundreds of popular artists who write, record and produce themselves and have thousands (if not millions) of fans and make a very good living selling their songs on iTunes and hitting the road for concerts. Nobody says to them, “Hey, you need an editor.” They might say, “Hey, your music sucks,” but we all get that at one point or another.

      Where songwriters and artists lose control is when they wind up in the corporate music arena, where artists are packaged and produced, and polished to a shine. As a result, we get music that’s catchy but so homogenized it’s difficult to listen to. There are a few standouts, but it’s rare in that arena, and those who DO standout are like singer-songwriters who have complete control over their work.

      But again, I’m not against editors. I have worked with them and use a writer friend now to give me “fresh eyes.” My only objection is the ASSUMPTION that every writer NEEDS an editor. And that simply isn’t true.

  15. I have several thoughts on this.
    I just put down a 600-page book at page 475 because it had devolved from a smart and exciting first 80 pages to a boring and embarrassing mess. I no longer cared whether the object of the mystery had committed suicide or was murdered. I no longer cared about the protagonist who investigates the case. And I believe that the writer was given too much leeway by her editor at Random House. Surely someone told her not to italicize 10 to 20 times per page, that readers can make their own inferences; and surely someone noticed that she had repeatedly violated Elmore Leonard’s Rule #10 (Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip).
    My own experience as a published writer is that my editor’s insights have been valuable, easy to work with, and ultimately improved my work.
    And finally, as a working editor, I can see–from the other side, so to speak–how writers have built-in blind spots to their own problems, tics, assumptions, and habits.

    • I tend to believe that the best stories are told in far less than 600 pages, but reading is subjective. There may be other readers who thought the book was brilliant. And one of those readers may have been her editor.

      That said, again, maybe this was one author who NEEDS an editor. I’m merely asking the question. Why do we always assume a book needs to be edited? Why do we assume that we, as editors, know more than an author does? Why do we assume that authors are incapable of taking the time to gain perspective on their work and edit it themselves?

      We rarely (if ever) make that assumption with any other craft.

  16. Well said!

    Every time I have worked with an editor, I have ended up with their book. Not mine.

    The day I took back my writing into my own hands was the day I actually started finding my voice and my audience. Now, I look to my readers to tell me what works and what doesn’t. (And believe me, they let me know!)

    I do believe editors can be useful, and I rejoice that many friends have found a good one. But I have yet to find one personally who helps me serve my story instead of trying to make me serve the publishing system. It’s just one of those things.

    Maybe some day?

    In the meantime, I’ll keep on writing exactly what I want, how I want, and focusing on my readers.

    THANK YOU for voicing things I have felt for years. And because I was already in the process of writing my own post about this topic (finally got up the gumption to come clean) … you can be sure I’ll be linking to yours and urging folks to read it.

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