I wouldn’t want to be an editor. It’s one of those thankless jobs where you get all of the criticism and none of the praise. Even when you’ve done a stellar job, the kudos goes to the author alone.
A lot of writers (note that I said writers, not authors) don’t see what the big deal is about hiring an editor and don’t feel the need for one. The thing is, an editor is as essential to a writer as a mechanic is to a race-car driver. And just like mechanics, really good ones are hard to find and worth their weight in gold medals.
A good editor is someone who works with the writer to trim and polish their work until it’s ready to be submitted to an agent or publisher. A good editor knows what their job is and what it is not. A good editor can transform finished but raw writing into a publishable product.
Now, quite often the green writer will say “what do you mean, my work isn’t publishable! Of course it is! I worked like a dog on it, revising, editing, making it as good as it can get! I don’t need an editor!” The blunt answer to this is yes, yes you do. And the more arrogant you are about your writing, the more you need an editor. This begs a couple of questions:
Q. Why do I need an editor?
A. Because your writing sucks. HAHAHA! No, really; it’s true because Ernest Hemingway says so: “The first draft of anything is shit.” But it’s not my first draft, I hear you whine. It’s my second, or third, or fifty-fourth! It doesn’t matter, dear heart - it’s still shit. You need an editor to see what you, especially after the fifty-fourth draft, cannot: your story.
I recently entered a short story in a contest. It was a story that was close to my heart, and I’d already revised, edited and proofed it to within an inch of its life. It was (I thought) perfect. The only trouble was, the contest word limit was 6000 words and my story was 7258. By myself I managed to cut out 200 superfluous words, but try as I might I could not see how to cut another 1000 words without destroying the story. That’s when I enlisted the help of an editor friend. Having never seen the story before, she immediately cut 500 words. After having at it a couple more times, she got it down to under 6000. I took it back from her and managed to cut another 70 words, which allowed me to actually start putting words back, and save a few of my favourites. The story went into the contest at 5996 words.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the story was greatly improved by the editing process. My friend saw the story with fresh eyes and although she cut over a thousand words, she left the storyline, with all its subplots and twists, completely intact. Having no emotional attachment to particular paragraphs, phrases, lines that I’d wrestled with and spent loving hours over, she was able to cut swathes of unnecessary text that it would have broken my heart to do. And here I have that horribly over-used quote, variously attributed to William Faulkner, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and even Stephen King, “You have to murder your darlings.” Or at least, hire a hit man.
Q. How do you know if you have a good editor or a bad editor?
A. Ay, as Shakespeare wrote, there’s the rub. A good editor respects your voice, and suggests revisions that will not compromise that. A bad editor replaces your words with their own, and trust me, you’ll be able to spot them a mile away. You see, there’s this thing called the “fictive dream”: this is the state of mind or consciousness that the reader enters when reading a story. Anything that pops the reader out of that state is bad. A story should read smoothly as one “voice” and that should always be the voice of the writer.
Bad editors also tend to forget what tense the story is in. This is a cardinal sin and writers should read the edited proofs word by word to make sure this hasn’t happened. As well, never assume your editor has a handle on grammar and spelling!
A good editor will make you fact-check. I had a fantastic editor once who would mark up my story (it was a historical romance) with notes such as “Did they really have stage coaches on the London to Exeter road in 1790? Prove it.” And she meant it: I had to forward my Google results to her with historical research to back up my text. I found this to be invaluable and I only wish she was still available as an editor.
A good editor will track your plot and tell you where it falls down. The same editor I talked about in the previous paragraph would mark up my text with “this does not track” and then explain why. This is incredibly useful for a writer who sometimes cannot see the story for the words. Plot is a tricky thing and an editor with a keen sense of logic is invaluable.
A good editor will allow you to push back. This is critical - after all it is your story.
… and my allotted word limit is reached! Until next time. :)