Why Every Author Needs to Hire an Editor

Victoria Mixon Editor

One thing I’ve learned this year as a debut author is is that having an idea for a book is a long, long way from having the book. Part of that, if you plan to self-publish, is getting professional eyeballs on your manuscript, so the book will be bought and read and not thrown in the junk pile that poorly written indie books land in.

But I am marketing my memoir to agents. And the agent I sign with will be marketing my book to publishers. So I don’t need a freelance editor, right?

Well, according to the agents I read and talk to, wrong. Writers who go the traditional publishing route need their work edited just as much as self-published authors. Publishers have fewer resources these days and are not putting a lot of money into editing (and marketing) budgets. They are looking for manuscripts that are near perfect.

Because the competition is so fierce,  it is much easier to get an agent to represent you if you have a polished manuscript. It’s less work for them and makes your manuscript more attractive to publishers.

Three ways my editor has made my book more marketable

I met my editor, Victoria Mixon, when we both were honored with a Top 10 Blog for Writers award in 2011. She is an absolute wonder at helping writers find their story and tell it in the most engaging way. I would still be stuck if it weren’t for her.

An exceptional memoir is much like a good novel, with a likable but conflicted main character, exciting plot points and an ultimate climax where two opposable character needs collide in a final showdown. Here are just three of the many things I have learned from my editor:

1. Finding the real story is key.

I may have thought I knew what my story was,  but working with Victoria in the developmental editing stage, I was able to discard everything that wasn’t relevant until I got to the core theme and premise, the whole point of the story.  We dug deep, identifying the characters’ needs and fears, and what will motivate them in the scenes.

In the developmental stage, we created a detailed outline, so that, in Victoria’s words, “every scene had a hook, a development and a climax, every incident causes the next effect and every single twist teaches the reader something they didn’t already know about life.” And we did all of this before I wrote one word of the story.

The Art and Craft of Fiction

As Victoria says so aptly in her book, The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual,

Writers who regularly attempt to plot and write at the same time are the ones who wind up drunks.

2. Stories happen because people need things.

Knowing what your protagonist’s greatest need is —and the very last thing she could ever want to cope with—makes for a tense story, one filled with cause and effect that leads the reader to the final climax scene, when the main character must choose between two overwhelming but opposite needs. Because readers want to know, without experiencing it, what happens when they are confronted with an impossible disaster. What will they decide to do?  How will they survive?

3. There are a lot of words in first drafts that can be safely edited out.

My last post was, in a way, a love letter to Ernest Hemingway and his clean, clear prose. Victoria talks a lot about this subject in her other book, The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual. But what she has modeled for me most of all is simplicity in writing. Her copy and line editing of my first draft chapters are teaching me how to remove every single unnecessary word. If my first draft is 120,000 words, which it may end up being, I expect we will have cut 25-50% of it by the time we reach the final draft.

The Art and Craft of Story

But beyond all this, I learned that an editor is a writer’s best friend. I could have wandered through this story by myself but I wouldn’t have gotten to a publishable story as quickly. And it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

What about you?

Have you used an editor?

What do you think is the most important thing editors do for authors and their manuscripts?

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25 Comments

  1. Kaarina Dillabough August 7, 2013 at 8:36 am #

    I certainly learned a lot about editors when my brother wrote his book (Random House, “Curtains”), and the value they provide. This just sealed the deal on why they are so important. Continued success on your memoir: you know I’ll be tucking into it soon;) Cheers! Kaarina

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn August 7, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

      Wow. That’s very cool. Was your brother’s book a novel or nonfiction?

      So grateful and honored that you were willing to take an honest look at my first chapters and give me feedback with your “reader’s hat” on. Much appreciated, my friend. : )

      Reply

      • Kaarina Dillabough August 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

        When my brother was with CBC he did an award-winning documentary about the “greening”/changes in the death and dying industry. This led to a sabbatical in which he went “behind the curtain” in the funeral industry, and his book was the result. Info here http://www.amazon.ca/Curtains-Undertaker-Training-Tom-Jokinen/dp/0307355683

        Reply

        • Judy Lee Dunn August 8, 2013 at 7:43 am #

          Kaarina,

          Sounds like a fascinating book. I am sure you learned a lot about publishing by following along on your brother’s journey. Thanks for the link because I’d like to check it out.

          Reply

  2. Geoff Livingston August 7, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    It’s hard to imagine success in writing without others looking at your work. As quality decreases, this kind of focus can only continue to differentiate and separate your work. I found hiring editors to be crucial to my success.

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn August 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

      Geoff,

      Thanks for visiting my blog. You know, your last excellent post was my inspiration for this one. I know how much time and effort you have put into your novel, “Exodus,” and that you did it the right way by hiring editorial services. You are getting close to launch date. I am so excited for you!

      Reply

  3. Victoria Mixon August 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    Hey you!

    Thank you for the gorgeous blog post. We have had such fun working together!

    Yes, it’s become an open secret that publishers don’t edit anymore, although a lot of us have known that for awhile, in spite of their protestations. A whole lot of things are changing fast in the publishing industry this year.

    It’s exciting times!

    And I am always, of course, looking forward to your chapters, which we have so lovingly designed into your wonderful story.

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn August 8, 2013 at 7:48 am #

      Yes, my friend. Exciting times, but a perilous journey for the debut author. To paraphrase Shakespeare: To self-publish or not, that is the question. I know you and I have talked about this before. I am still torn because my story is so timely with the social issues that hit the core of my story all over the news right now. And going with a traditional publisher means 2-3 more years before the book would hit the shelves.

      I’m l looking forward to working with you on the next set of chapters, too. I am learning so much from you! Thanks for stopping by, Victoria.

      Reply

      • Victoria Mixon August 8, 2013 at 10:07 am #

        You know we’ve been talking about this on the Lab, right? You should have received emails yesterday.

        I’ve heard big things about self-publishing in only the past week. In fact, this morning I just took on a new client who calls themself a “midlist refugee of legacy publishing” who’s been published by Macmillan and St. Martins and has begun self-publishing—for the first time ever, now making a living as a writer.

        Heady days!

        And more to come. . .

        Reply

        • Judy Lee Dunn August 8, 2013 at 10:24 am #

          Yeah, but I still hear that self-publishing works the best if you’ve had books with a traditional publisher first. If I’m hearing you right, that’s not necessarily true anymore. I am not worried so much about the marketing part, having owned my own marketing firm for twenty years. Now you have me rethinking this—again. : )

          Reply

          • Victoria Mixon August 8, 2013 at 10:58 am #

            You’ve heard right. Traditional publishers do help build audience and can be the crucial link toward developing a viable readership. But things are changing this year.

            Now, I just sent a huge, long response to you (on the Pink Cloud) about all this, but I haven’t seen it come through yet. I hope it’s not out there somewhere tangled up in the intertubes.

            Reply

            • Judy Lee Dunn August 10, 2013 at 7:34 am #

              Victoria,

              Thank you for leaving that thoughtful response to my question on the Cloud. To self-publish or not is such a complicated question for debut authors. And you are right, this is such a period of change for the whole industry. Exciting and scary at the same time. : )

  4. Joan Z. Rough August 8, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    Editing is what it’s all about. Anyone who seriously doesn’t use a pro to edit their work is foolish.

    About the gravitar situation. I do have one and it shows up on other peoples blogs when I comment. Weird.

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn August 10, 2013 at 7:37 am #

      Joan,

      Hello. Thanks for weighing in. I know where you stand on this issue because we’ve talked about it.

      Hoping Bob got that avatar working for you across the web. I notice that your photo is now showing up, so looks like he did. : )

      Reply

  5. Judy Lee Dunn August 8, 2013 at 7:51 am #

    Yes, even if you have an editing background it’s hard to be objective about your own work, isn’t it?

    Hmm. That IS strange, the gravatar thing. Bob is going to check couple of things.

    Reply

  6. Deborah Taylor-French August 9, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    Thank you Judy!

    You hit the nail on the head (or the whole idea into a blog post).
    I believe I have no objectivity when it comes to my own writing, ten years in a writers’ critique group and seven years of hitting the library on how to write well, and write fiction impressed the fact that I often felt I had made my fictional world or poem world perfectly clear, but it often turned out much of what I wanted readers to see and to feel remained in my head. Not on the page.

    Revision, readers, revision, readers, revision, editors…love them or leave writing.

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn August 10, 2013 at 7:45 am #

      Deborah,

      You have mentioned another important reason to hire an editor. All writers need that kind of objectivity because we are just too darned close to our ideas, and on a daily basis. There may be a glaring error, but we’ve read our stuff so much, we might not see it.
      As far as critique groups go, we’ve been having an interesting discussion about them on Writer Unboxed’s Facebook page. They were helpful to me when I was starting out, but, depending on the skill level of the group (and what genre they write), they would bog me down because everyone has a different opinion. (It can get confusing if you try to listen to it all.) In the end, I think I listen but go with my gut if the advice doesn’t make sense to me. All great points you have made here.

      Reply

      • Deborah Taylor-French August 10, 2013 at 9:02 am #

        I agree with the limit of critique groups. The skill set of each writer/read need to be in-sync with me (or the other way round). Currently, I without a group and exchanging stories with those who as readers and writers I respect.

        I have worked with several editors. Some okay, some a bit nasty, and one DIVINE who exchanged 20 versions wilding exciting insights, which shaped and polished my short story. Sheer heaven.

        Reply

        • Judy Lee Dunn August 11, 2013 at 7:32 am #

          Absolutely, Deborah. When you find the right editor, they are with their weight in gold. Thankfully, I hit the jackpot the first time around!

          Reply

  7. Jen Vondenbrink August 10, 2013 at 6:37 am #

    I too believe an editor is important, but there needs to be the right chemistry. They have to get who you are, yet provide that unbiased, objective point of view you were talking about in the comments. I think it’s something writers fear, having their darlings shredded by an editor. When the combination of empathetic editor meets an author with positive self esteem it can be a true learning journey.

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn August 10, 2013 at 7:51 am #

      Hey Jen,

      Good to see you here! And, yes, the right chemistry is crucial. And speaking of the fear a writer can have letting go of their work to get feedback? One of my greatest fear was that an editor would remove my unique writing voice. But Victoria handles that brilliantly. If she sees a scene that might need to be extended a little or a character who needs to be contrasted more with another one, she doesn’t suggest the words, she lets me go in and do the work. So it sounds like me and my voice throughout the book. Same thing with copy and line editing. And empathy? She has tons! I really love working with her.

      Reply

  8. Josh August 19, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    A good editor makes your work sing and a bad editor makes you scream. Not trying to be poetic, just speaking from experience.

    Reply

  9. google.com December 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

    I absolutely love your blog.. Great colors & theme.
    Did you build this website yourself? Please reply back as I’m
    trying to create my own personal blog and would love to know where you got this from
    or what the theme is named. Many thanks!

    Reply

  10. Josen July 1, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    Hello! Does anyone have any comments when hiring one editor for all edit levels or hiring separate editors for each level?

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn July 8, 2015 at 5:38 pm #

      Josen,

      There are a couple of ways to go with this. My editor does both line editing for structure and developmental editing for plotting and character issues. Some editors just specialize in one or the other. So you just need to research and ask around.

      Reply

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