Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Value of Editing For Authors

By Bryan Thomas Schmidt

It’s intimidating to hand your precious words over into the hands of another. After all, what do they know about your story? What stake do they have in getting it right? How can you know they will steer you wisely without allowing their personal tastes and opinions to cloud their advice?

You can’t. Editors are human beings. Their opinions and tastes are always going to be factors. But how those influence their work depends on several factors.

First, are they an in-house editor or a freelance editor?

Second, what role have they been hired to perform in regards to your work: developmental (story) editing, line editing, copyediting or proofing?

Third, who hired them?

In-house editors work for the publisher to find and shape the books they buy into products that meet the standards and expectations of that publisher and its audience. The marketing people know how to market certain types of books to certain audiences. So these editors will be looking at how your story fits with that and what needs to be done so it fits well and sells well alongside the rest of their brand.

Freelance editors sometimes work for publishers, but they can also work for authors. A freelance editor who works for a publisher has the same assigned task as the in-house editors to conform the book to the brand. The difference is that someone else usually acquires the book, i.e. chooses it and buys it, and the freelance editor is brought in for the polish and prep.

But freelance editors who work for you have a different job: to help you identify strengths and weaknesses of your book and make it better, the best it can be. They don’t answer to anyone else. They know their advice may be rejected in whole or in part by you, depending on your tastes, opinions, budget, etc. As a result, they try very hard to tell you what you need to hear, not just want to hear. The last thing they want is to have you wondering why you hired them when someone else tears apart your book for something they could have identified and helped you fix. At the same time, they also know they have no authority to push you to do anything you don’t want to do.

Hiring a freelance editor doesn’t guarantee a sale. But it can increase the chances. And it can help you grow as a writer and really help you improve your work. But in the end, the final choices on changes and revisions will be entirely yours. Freelance editors may come in to work on story, plot and characters for a developmental edit. Or they may help with sentence structure, pacing, word choice, repetition, clarity, etc. as a line editor. Copyeditors will help polish grammar, etc. And proofers go through and look for anything anyone else missed just before your book goes to publication.

All of these editing types are valuable to writers. Let’s face it, we get really close to our words, and by the time our books get published, often we can’t read them without our mind filling in gaps or showing us things we meant to say but didn’t. Maybe there are things we know and assume are clear in the text but aren’t clear to a stranger. Or things that got repeated, words, phrases, or even scenes which don’t stand out to us but would to readers. Lastly, perhaps there are things that make sense to us because of our knowledge of the whole story and wider worldbuilding which won’t to readers because we haven’t laid the groundwork. Editors can identify all of these in your work. And most editors are readers who love good stories, too, so they can also tell you things you do well and right and cheerlead you on to success with your book.

I had a client who’d written his book for a specific audience and posted it online. He had no knowledge of storytelling or formatting or structure standards for the industry. But he did have a passion for science, space travel, NASA, and exploration and a great story and character that incorporated all those things.

In editing, the book needed things I mentioned: knowledge he’d omitted because he knew it so well, grammar and spelling checks, smoothing of sentences, format and structure to make it accessible to a wider audience, etc. The client took a lot of my advice but not all. Later, he sold it to Crown and Hollywood for a lot of money. A movie is in the works, and The Martian by Andy Weir has been on the New York Times Bestseller list since its release last Spring. An editor at Crown still went through the book and made him add things he hadn’t followed from my advice. But in the end, the book was much stronger as a result of our work together. And now he’s a bestselling author.

Finding a good editor can be tricky, but inevitably, good editors will have stories like this to tell, and clients who rave about their work. And those are signs that the editor would be a good choice to help you tell your story better. Because those kinds of editors are always on your side and rooting for you. They love helping good authors make good stories come alive.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut science fiction novel was The Worker Prince, received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases of 2011 and was followed by sequels The Returning and The Exodus. His childrens' books include 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter--Land Of Legends. Schmidt’s anthologies as editor include Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6, Beyond The Sun, Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age and, with Jennifer Brozek, Shattered Shields for Baen Books. He has several more anthologies forthcoming from publishers like Baen and Edge. Schmidt hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.


Pat Hatt said...

A good editor can make all the difference indeed

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I've worked with some great editors. They pointed out things I had totally missed in plot holes or confusing language. Some were easier to work with than others. Enjoyed the post, Bryan.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks, Bryan! I haven't worked with a freelance editor, but my publisher's editor has been wonderful.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Excellent summary on what it means to work with an editor, Bryan. Thanks for pointing it altogether to remind me just how fortunate I've been to work wiht 3 great editors.

kaykuala said...

This is a great posting, very useful and informative. It is also an attestation of what many have said ie good editors are very necessary. Thanks Bryan!


Lori L. MacLaughlin said...

I completely agree about the importance of having your work edited. I've been working with a freelance editor, and she's been great about picking up on things I miss and suggesting things for me to think about.

Bryan Thomas said...

Thanks all!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Good editors make us writers look good :)

Jemi Fraser said...

I love my editor - she totally rocks!! Can't imagine doing this without one :)

Michelle Wallace said...

I'm only just beginning to realise the value of a good editor. It's an empowering experience.

Franny Stevenson said...

I think there is still hope for me then. I have to admit I'm a bit scared and a bit disappointed. The only experience I have with a freelance editor is about a sample editing of 10k words. She completely changed a whole scene with no apparent reason. I set it outside the house and she decided to make the charactes move inside and out for the whole was useless to me and this was one of the major.
For the rest, I'm scared because I'm Italian but I want to write in English. I'm trying to do my best and I was encouraged during workshops because of the strenght of my stories.
On the other hand I know that my English needs a lot of work so sometimes I feel in the mood of giving up..I know I'm weird, but I just want to write so much! Any advice you can give me, will be highly appreciated!

cleemckenzie said...

I was so lucky to have a great editor from my publisher. She saw my work as a whole and also was able to pick out the line flaws. I'll always appreciate her.

Anonymous said...

I've been privileged to work with some good editors. They do make the difference between a mediocre and good book.

dolorah said...

I've worked with publishing editors for short stories; but I'm skeptical for my novel/trilogy. I don't want to pay an editor a few hundred dollars for him/her to tell me "cut out all the sex" and me to say "duh."

So, what I really want to ask is, why would an author who knows they are midlist in the best of times pay for services that probably won't make a difference in tradional publication? Is a freelance editor more feasible to those looking to self publish?

Bryan Thomas said...

It can make a huge difference in opening the doors to traditional publishing, depending on the editor. 1) The more polished your manuscript is the better. 2) Editors know and refer good books to editor friends.

Also, no freelance editor of any integrity is going to tell you to cut the sex for personal taste, but if they think there's a marketing issue, they do have an ethical obligation to point that out. You, being their employer, don't have to do it though.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I can't even write a proper email. An editor is a must for me!!

Sher A. Hart said...

I read this a few days ago and forgot to say thanks. It's good to know I'm not alone in having authors ignore my advice. But usually it's small stuff like "comma" sense, not character or plot problems that might make readers put the book down. Or throw it at a wall! Now I'm faced with graphic violence against a child in a genre I don't usually take--horror. Please read my IWSG post and let me know what you think. If enough people don't give me their opinions, I might email you.

Bryan Thomas said...


I just now saw your comment. Apologies for the delayed reply. I do some work for authors for whom English is a Second Language. It's hard. Not every editor is equipped for it, and for me, it depends on the client. I don't see any excuse for rewriting someone's work unless you are modeling something about the craft that needs work. Even then, just a small portion clearly offered as a suggestion is all I'd do. Rewriting is NOT editing. And if it needs rewriting on the scale described, it's not ready for editing in most cases. There are exceptions.

I think you'll have to expect more editing work on an ESL piece than native English speakers. There's just so many nuances to language. I speak intermediate Brazilian Portuguese, for example, and I'm sure my speech may get me a cab and help me shop and communicate but I sound like an uneducated hill person to Brazilian natives. That's okay. It just means we have an extra barrier to our communication, you and I, when working outside our own language. It can be overcome. Lots of have done it, but you will likely have to spend more money and time on editing and do multiple passes and you definitely need a very patient editor and a willingness to learn the grammar and sentence structure nuances they will point out. Good luck!