Why Your Novel Needs an Editor

Why Your Novel Needs an Editor – Three Benefits and Three Pieces of Advice

My latest post was going to be about what horror fiction means to me as I just self-published my first e-book, the dystopian novella The Curse of Jaxx, on Amazon. But I had a Google+ exchange this past weekend that highlighted the importance of finding a good editor for your novel. So thank you, Denise Drespling, for bringing up the ethical importance of knowing what you’re doing if you claim to have the credentials to edit a novel.

Back in 2006, I completed a manuscript for my Border Patrol novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. After shopping it around to several literary agents in the search for representation and receiving multiple suggestions about why it wasn’t ready to be published, I finally decided to hire an editor.

I had heard–and continue to hear–of some writers having poor if not disastrous experiences with their editors; fortunately, I had a positive experience. That didn’t mean all she had to do was dot a single “i” and cross a couple “t”s before saying, go forth and publish. In fact, it meant that after working with her, I ended up shelving my manuscript for several months, taking it out again and blowing off the dust, rewriting about 70% of the story and then workshopping it all over again!! I completed my second version of the novel a little less than a year ago and have started shopping it around again.

Below are three reasons why your novel needs an editor.

You’re Not Objective Enough to Do It

You can let the first draft of your novel sit on a closet shelf for months before coming back to it, to start the editing process on your own. In fact, you likely SHOULD shelve your story a while. The problem is, you will still return to your manuscript from the viewpoint of the person who wrote it. Time may pass, you may read the story now with a fresh perspective since it’s been a while, but you still bring to your work the same opinions, prejudices, priorities and values that have made you the writer you are. In other words, you’re not objective enough to see all the potential flaws, shortcomings or areas that still need to be addressed.

One reason writers need to workshop their manuscripts is to gain new perspectives, consider questions readers may have that the writer never considered and gather what feedback is possible to rewrite a more complete and holistic novel. You need an editor for the same reason: feedback. The only difference is that, while you can workshop 20 to 50 pages, an editor will consider your entire manuscript and its structure. Not a bad opportunity for a writer who otherwise would be forced to use their own subjective take on the story.

You Can Find an Editor Through a Reputable Source

Having lived in the Washington, DC metropolitan region, my search for an editor started with The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, a local nonprofit that runs workshops and events for writers. It’s a mecca for writers, editors and teachers in Montgomery County, MD. I’d already taken a few workshops, made some friends and attended some readings so I already knew I could get good suggestions when I told them I was looking for an editor.

Recently, at the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA, I met Lisa Hartz, co-founder of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. She said writers’ organizations are sprouting out of the ground in a lot of communities. Case in point, at this short conference, I also met Heather Gerry Kelly of The Writers’ Loft in Massachusetts. It’s my experience that, if you’re a writer looking for an editor, you shouldn’t have to look far in your community to find a place like The Writers Center close to you. Do some preliminary research and you will be all set.

In my case, when I arrived at the Center, I checked in with the front office, told them about my interest in connecting with any reputable editors they knew about, and promptly received a list of instructors at the center who edited manuscripts on the side. The speed with which I received this information suggests I wasn’t the first writer to ever ask for this information.

You Can Work with Someone with Proven Expertise

From the list of editors, I ended up interviewing and working with Tammy Greenwoo d.  She was not only an instructor at the Writer’s Center but a published novelist herself. She also provided me with a list of references she’d already worked with who gave her the thumbs up. Not bad credentials. Even though I’d never worked with an editor before, I figured finding someone with that kind of proven experience was a good way to start. And, like I said, the experience ended up a positive one, as I will share below. These days, it is easy to Google any editing service and you’re liable to find links to a number of self-proclaimed book editors with a great presence online. But beginning your search somewhere other writers hang out is likely to generate some strong candidates.

Now, I’d also like to share three pieces of advice for working with an editor:

Ask for the Kind of Editing You Need

Editors do expect payment (imagine that!), as I will discuss below. Of course, I call it an investment, not an expense. But you don’t want to hire an editor for basic proofreading purposes if their experience positions them to review, analyze and comment on overall novel structure, or plot or character development. Basic proofreading services exist, and they come at a cost too. But you really want your editor to dig deep into those elements of structure that elude you–and you need to tell her what they are, at the outset.

How will you know what those areas are that require polish (or, in my case, significant restructuring)? I refer back to my earlier mention of writer’s workshops. If you belong to a writer’s group, and you’re hearing the same feedback over and over about something that’s not quite working for your readers, that is a good place to start. You shouldn’t also discredit your own experience as a reader. I mentioned that putting a manuscript away for several months, before you review it, is a good idea. While that may not position you to edit your own work with complete objectivity, you still–after several months’ time–will be more objective than you were when you first finished writing, and can likely make at least some insights into the story that will be valuable to speak about when you hire an editor.

Listen, Be Respectful and Don’t Take It Personally

After submitting my manuscript to Ms. Greenwood’s care, I waited for weeks (was it a month?) for her response. When it finally came, I marveled at the work she had done. She did provide line edits including some proofreading, thus contradicting my last point to some degree, I suppose. Whatever those line edits were, however, were not nearly as meaningful as these two suggestions, which I took to heart immediately, because I knew she was right:

a. Delete the first 200 or so pages. The protagonist of my novel, Billy Maddox, becomes a Border Patrol agent to come to terms with his younger brother’s death on the border years ago. Yet, in the first version of my manuscript–the one I gave up for editing–Billy doesn’t actually become an agent until around page 225 or so. What comes before that in the narrative is mostly poorly placed backstory. Ms. Greenwood made her suggestion in a slightly apologetic tone, as she must have realized the profound impact this might have on me as the story writer. But she made the point, to her credit, since bare-bones honesty was what I had asked of her. So after the first shock, I picked myself off the floor, read her comments again and nodded. I saw her point.

b. Provide a character arc. Billy Maddox does not go through any noticeable character development throughout the novel, she said. Again, she was right. This fundamental underpinning of every good novel was nowhere in my first novel, Journeying Away. And while the hint of it might have existed in my first version of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, a hint was all there really was.

These observations made me realize I needed to completely restructure the novel. These observations made me put the novel away, AGAIN, so that I could return to the editing phase with a clinical perspective once Ms. Greenwood’s suggestions had sunk in. And these observations made me realize that, in some ways, I needed to start over again.

Listen, be respectful and don’t take it personally. You’ll know whether your editor did her job not because she says your novel is really great but because you know you’ve ended up with something like a black eye and cut lip. Her feedback, in other words, will be what it needs to be. I didn’t like hearing it. But anyone truly dedicated to the craft will celebrate any forward movement in their own development as a writer. The chance to appropriately develop and write in backstory, and develop a strong character arc are two key takeaways I took from working with Ms. Greenwood. I had to do a lot more work. But the editing experience was a good one.

Look at the Editing Experience as an Investment

Editors are professionals like anyone else and you will have to pay for their service and expertise. That is frustrating after you’ve put in your own hours, days, weeks and months writing the manuscript at an hourly rate of $0.00. Nevertheless, the sweat equity you’ve invested should hopefully mean you’ll also recognize the value an editor can bring to your project. There is no sense in spending all that time typing away at a novel only to have a manuscript with some fundamental flaws that make literary agents pass time and again.

This is not a judgment on you or your writing abilities. According to anecdote, roughly 90% of would-be novelists talk about their story ideas but never actually sit down to write their books. You’ve earned your creds as a novelist simply by doing it. Publishing is often a nasty business, too, where writers feel they’re not worthy unless their book is in print. Don’t get caught up in that nonsense, be proud of yourself for finishing that book and look at working with an editor as an investment.

Editing is a part of the process of developing a novel, not just for you but for every writer. Consider editing an investment to help you develop your craft (which truly is a reward), improve the quality of your fiction and complete a more publishable book. Yes, it means more sweat, paying someone and waiting longer, perhaps, before introducing your manuscript to a marketplace of agents.

But assuming you’ve taken some smart first steps to find yourself a good editor (and not a snail oil salesman), and that you can work with them in a constructive and professional way, no bad can come of the experience.

Really, your novel needs an editor. Good luck with your manuscript! Good luck working with a kick-ass editor!

About Joe Kovacs

I am a writer of literary and horror fiction pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and a proud husband and father. To contact me, fill out the form in the right column and click submit.
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  • Denise Drespling

    Thanks for the mention! Great post. I wish all writers would take this advice to heart. When we start seeing higher quality self publishing across the board (because there is some high quality stuff now, but lots of low quality), it will change the world of publishing again. It needs to be assumed that in order to put your book out there, you have hired a professional.

    • / Joe Kovacs

      Well said, Denise. I agree!