Monday, 20 January 2014

Do authors need editors?

My last blog post was picked up by The Passive Voice, and has so far garnered 285 comments. There's a lot of interesting stuff there, if you have an hour or two to read it. My eye was caught by a comment from author Kathlena Contreras:

My experience with people acting as "editors" is that they've tried to change how I tell my story. And ruined it in the process. My point is that we, as artists of the written word, should stop asking authority figures to validate our work and have some faith in the vision we're trying to communicate.

It's often stated on indie forums that no book will be the best it can be without the help of a professional editor. I think this is nonsense. While I'm sure a good editor can contribute to a book, a bad one can ruin it. I've never blogged about the critique that Remix won on Authonomy from an anonymous Harper Collins editor back in 2010. Not sure why - maybe I didn't want to appear unprofessional. This is part of it:

Here’s how you might take your story into the real world. In this darker alternative, instead of dossing down on the roof terrace of a penthouse flat [sic] in London, for example, Ric would be living in a ramshackle shed at the edge of some property in France possibly inherited recently from the protagonist’s mother/aunt etc. She could come to stay for a few weeks, figure out what she’s going to do. 

He was telling me to change the setting from London, which I know, to France, which I don't. Yup, that makes sense.

But she hears noises, she’s disturbed, thinks there’s someone threatening in the night… doesn’t know what to do… tension builds… next day, she has a poke around, finds evidence of someone living rough, at first she thinks he’s dangerous but then they meet (right there, we’ve gone from a few pages to several chapters with new beginnings, red herrings, tension, uncertainty, plot twists). 

Several chapters where all that happens is a timid woman meets her neighbour. Great.

I think its [sic] unwise to cast a world-famous, very handsome rocker who’s only recently disappeared [in fact three years before] but hasn’t disguised himself at all and has just climbed some tall building [actually three storeys] in Hoxton as a ‘mystery stranger’. Better for him to be more like a cult figure who hasn’t been seen for years – bearded, a bit bedraggled perhaps… but suspiciously well-kempt as if he has money. Then let the relationship build up for a while before the revelations

Revelations of what, exactly? If Ric's living openly he can't be a murder suspect, so there is no plot.

I remember having to read this critique two or three times before I believed it. I wasn't foolish enough to take any of its advice. But I pity the poor authors that particular HC editor works with.


  1. Lexi, I can't imagine why you haven't blogged about this before. It is hilarious! That's the critique from a frustrated writer desperate to tell his or her own stories, not an editor dedicated to help authors tell theirs.

    To balance things out, it's worth noting that sometimes editors can improve an author's work. Years ago, I received an editorial critique of one of my novels from an Australian publisher that was sensitive, insightful and practical. There's no doubt the book became stronger as a result. Sadly I suspect that's not typical in the publishing industry.

  2. David, I've had extremely useful input on my books from betas, but particularly from my daughter, when I can persuade her to read the WIP. She's come up with some excellent ideas.

    So I'm not against any outside influence. I can see why trad authors with good editors cling to them. But that doesn't make using an editor essential for all writers.

    I really hope the HC editor did attempt to write his own book. Whether he finished the thing and got it published or not, it would have been a much-needed learning experience for him.

  3. I'd argue that having work at least proofread by someone else is essential. All the evidence from cognitive science says you will usually gloss over your own errors, seeing what you intended rather than what's on the page.

    Development editing, though? I think I might be with you on that one. Some development editors out there want all stories to conform to a formula and will request uncalled-for changes to squeeze works into that formula. There are more sensitive, visionary types out there, but I imagine they are not especially easy to find. But then again, neither are truly good critique partners. Sometimes you have to suffer some hamfisted crits to find a good fit.

  4. Laurel, this is a subject for another blog post, and a contentious one at that :o)

    Some people are able to spot their own errors. I don't use a proofreader. Check out my samples if you think this means my books are full of typos, wrongly-spelled words and errant punctuation.

    *checks comment extra carefully*

  5. Hi Lexi
    That is really an eye opener. I Loved Remix and if you'd agreed to the changes it would have ruined it. As I write with my sister, we spend so long editing and re reading it together. I do like getting opinions but only from people I trust. I may use a beta reader or critique forum in the future especially for advice on historical facts and language for my next novel. However, I think if you have a good command of English and enjoy your own writing, you should always have faith in it and not let anyone change or distort your own vision.

  6. The only thing authors have to sell is their unique take on the world, so it's crazy to let someone else tinker with that.

    One literary agent wanted me to rewrite Remix as Young Adult. I declined. Jane Wenham-Jones says she totally rewrote a book at the behest of her then agent. The agent failed to sell the rewritten book, and JWJ subsequently sold the original version.

  7. I had similar comments from various literary agents, who presumably thought my story would sell better if various alterations were made. Stupid advice has led writers into making mistakes that hurt themselves (James Frey comes to mind).

    On the other hand, I can think of established writers who would have benefited from having someone to curb their impulses. So it remains a judgment call.

    As for other levels of editing, I too think I can spot my typos and such, but even so I'm glad to have had an editor who alerted me to certain distracting "tics" such as overuse of colons. And given what I see in the books I buy, a great many writers do not spot their own errors (be they typos or atrocious grammar). So my short answer to the question is that authors do need editors.

  8. Great post and I'm glad that there's someone else who agrees with me on the editing front.

    I've had some of my work proofread, which I found useful but I did use an editor for a couple of my stories and I didn't like some of the opinions she gave. For one of my stories, she made me feel guilty for the relationship that was being built up and that meant that I wasn't going to use her again.

    I did an editing course at evening school and it was really useful. I edit my own work because I'm thorough, I can't afford to spend a grand a time on a full copy edit and I don't want to change the tone of my stories.

  9. I'm so glad you ignored the advice you received!

    I don't know if many people can proofread their own work as well as you can but anyone who can, should!

  10. Kathlena's comment is spot on. New writers definitely need to seek feedback... I prefer directing writers to critique groups where there's a dialog of equals rather than the "authority figure" making "fixes." Plus, I have found that giving useful feedback is essential for developing the ability to write well and also to self-edit. But at some point the writer has to reach a level of maturity to understand what feedback is right and what is wrong for them. I can still remember the point at which that happened to me.

    (Thanks, fairyhedgehog, for this link.)

  11. Stephen, one of the biggest mistakes (there are plenty of candidates) that publishers have made is handing the slushpile over to agents. You’re right about writers’ tics – but if editors spot them, why am I noticing them in trad pub books?

    Jaye, I recognize a fellow obsessive when I come across one :o)

    FH, I’m very fond of advice, and always consider it, but have no problems these days ignoring it. I think we all need the ability to think, if not say, bog off.

    Peter, totally agree about the benefits of critiquing others’ work. I did this on YWO. Also, non-professionals tend not to have that tiresome de haut en bas attitude which agents and editors share – they are closer to readers. So what was the point when you reached the level of maturity you mention?

  12. Shocking that, Lexi. Surprised at HC for employing such a fuckwit. Editor's Rule 1: don't screw with the author's voice, Rule 2: remember that this is the writer's story NOT the story YOU would write. Tsk.

  13. Johnny, I knew there was a word eluding me to describe that editor :o)

  14. FH, I left you out! I always welcome your coming over here and waving your magic wand.

  15. I'm strongly in favor of editors and believe most writers can benefit from a good one, but that's the point isn't it? Not all editors are good. Some are pretty awful as the one you've described was.

    The best advice on receiving critiques/feedback was: 1.When people identify a problem or stumble over something, it's probably a problem. Not necessarily exactly how they articulate it, but somewhere in the area is a problem. Pay attention. 2. When people give suggestions for how to change/improve, they're mostly wrong. Ignore them.

    I have tried to adopt this in my reading of other people as I think it makes great, simple, profound sense. I can easily tell you quickly and clearly where I struggle or check out of your story. I cannot nearly as easily tell you what your vision of the story is or what you're trying to achieve - what is inside of you that's trying to emerge on the page. Therefore, to give suggestions as to what different road you should take to get where you're going is absurd.

    In short: explain what you don't like or what doesn't make sense, isn't clear; but be very, very hesitant to recommend "fixes." IMHO, it would be a better world if more critique groups and editors embraced this philosophy.

    Thanks for lending me your soapbox for the space of a comment!

  16. Judith, I think what you are in favour of is beta readers. They are much closer to what you describe than editors, who reckon they are experts in how to fix a novel's perceived problems.

  17. Good post, Lexi. I think the HC editor just assumed as you were a new writer you couldn't possibly understand what was needed to create a saleable formula.
    An editor looked at my non-fiction book about my time in Afghanistan and suggested I add more about women being whipped by Taliban. As the book was about a time before Taliban came to power and I did not witness this sort of thing happening I said no. What she was suggesting was that torture porn would make the book more appealing - and never mind that it wasn't true to my experiences.
    Copy editsI did find when I formatted my novel for Amazon there were a few mistakes I had missed int he print version so I'm moving towards thinking a copy editor might be a good idea.

  18. It's appalling that the editor should expect you to sacrifice truth for sensationalism. Perhaps once upon a time publishers cared about books; now it's all about the money.

  19. I wonder if it's significant that this was an editor from a big publisher? Remember that agents offer representation, publishers offer deals, and publishers' editors edit - all on the basis of what they believe they can sell. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but nowhere along the line are any of these people motivated to safeguard the author's story. And even though this was a different context, old habits die hard.

    I wonder if you'd have a different experience with an independent editor who you are paying. With you as the paying client, they'd have more of an interest in polishing up the story you want to write rather than what their employer can sell.

  20. Judith, I totally agree with you and I wish that members of online critique forums would adopt the same attitude!

  21. Totally agree with Johnny Crowman.

    Fortunately I have an editor who does exactly as Johnny says and he and I have the perfect working relationship. I need him to polish my novels for publication, he knows my style and works within that parameter. He, my cover designer and my formatter are my much appreciated team.
    Great post and even better post on Passive Guy!

  22. Bot, I got the impression that HC editor wasn't taking the critique too seriously - it was only Authonomy, after all, not proper authors - and was riffing, showing how clever he was. Another quote: It nestles charmingly along with those books starring small-town journalists, PIs, village bobbies and any book involving a loveable pet as a character in the ‘Cosy’ genre. These confections are sometimes known, disparagingly, as “Mayhem Parva” – an area best avoided. Mayhem Parva, when it's not set in a village and there is one murder three years before the opening of the book?

    Prue, you seem to have collected a good team :o)

  23. I came here to say what Botanist said. Editors from big publishers are not the same as independent editors. And then there's a third group: bad editors. And they're everywhere.

    It's a firm Yes from me. All writers need editors. It's not just about proofreading. We all have bad habits--words we like to overuse, scenes that need tightening up, regionalisms we don't realize are regionalisms, darlings that need to be killed, etc. Beta readers can help with some of these but not all.

    And the great thing about being an indie writer is that *you* hire your editor. If she or he suggests something you feel just isn't right for your story, all ya gotta do is click Reject Change. If your editor is good, no hard feelings. If you're clicking Reject Change more often than Accept Change, you've picked the wrong editor.

    I don't think it's a question of whether we need editors. I think it's a question of have we picked the right one. :)

  24. I think that no matter how many times a person re-reads their own work there are always blind spots - it is impossible to catch ALL your own spelling/punctuation mistakes. So I think editing/proof-reading is essential for a professionally finished product. I think the key is to find an editor who gets your style so doesn't try to change it but just polish it up.
    When my manuscript was edited, it wasn't changed but suggestions were made. It was then up to me to incorporate what I agreed with. I didn't incorporate everything but I thought the process was invaluable for polishing up my work. I don't think a bad or heavy-handed editor invalidates the editing process. A good editor is supposed to flag mistakes as well as bring their knowledge to the table to bring out potential where it needs a little enhancing. Finding the right one is the trick! Thanks, Lexi :)

  25. So... the advice is take one different, highly original book and normalise it into greyness. Hmmm....

    Ho hum...



  26. Aha, disagreement in the ranks! Controversy. This is what we want...up to a point :o)

    Fiona, because most writers can't proofread their own work doesn't mean that no writer can. Of course a good editor is helpful, just as my betas are helpful. I'm just not convinced one is necessarily superior to the other.

    Kay, you are more impressed than I by professional qualifications. I've read a Lee Child where two paragraphs a page apart gave the same description in different words. I'm sure he gets the best editing, if anyone does, but that slipped through. Betas have the advantage of being ordinary readers, and it's ordinary readers we write for. I'll do my own polishing.

  27. MTM, I see you've brought a spoon rather than a wand :o)

  28. I'm not at all impressed by professional qualifications because that idea itself is subjective. I'm impressed by great work.

    I hear you! I'm reading a Nora Roberts book right now that has 9 paragraphs in a ROW that begin with "She." I'm irritated but not surprised. What I'm seeing is big publishers getting lazier (is that even possible?), and indies working harder. But far too often I read a self-pubbed book that's in obvious need of a good edit. It could be such a great book! It's just disappointing.

    Writing and publishing are two completely different things. What ties them together is a good editor.

  29. Kay, if you agree that editors don't always do a good job, I'm puzzled as to why you remain adamant that they are a magic bullet.

  30. This is very funny!

    One of the things that troubled me as I took took the indie route with my book was a kind of disappointment that I wouldn't get the assistance of a "real" editor, a real expert rather than someone simply taking my money and doing a bit of hack work with my manuscript.

    This, though, makes me feel that I probably escaped a dreadful fate!

    With my current book - my first - I had the services of a copy editor (but not, actually, someone who usually works with novels - it was someone who mainly does corporate copy and marketing material, who a colleague put me in touch with).

    I've been wondering about whether I would benefit from hunting out someone more specialised in books for the next novel. Still not sure, but I definitely wouldn't want to end up at HC!

  31. Alex, from what I've read, trad pub editors come in three varieties, good, bad and meh, and who you get is mostly chance. Some midlisters grumble that they don't get edited at all. Some very successful authors get 'too big to edit' - see the last three or four Harry Potters. And you don't get to choose your editor.

  32. The thing that has always bothered me most, and this may be because I spent many years in Public Health And Epidemiology, is why no one ever quotes any numbers. I have never, ever seen anyone say that they have any evidence that their edits get more book sold. Nor have I seen anyone saying that the authors who accepted their edits sold more books than those that didn't.
    In an industry that is obsessed with best sellers, it appears that no one knows how to create one, well, apart from having a writer with an original idea.
    Of course if your grammar is good and your ideas are crap, then why not make some money from gullible authors by selling them editing on the unproven premise that it will do them good.
    OK that may be going a bit far, but to all those editors out there all I have to say is prove that you services are worth buying.

  33. Good point, Rod. When the Big Five buy up an indie hit, they give it a new cover, tidy up the spelling and punctuation and bung it out there. Rather sensibly, they figure that any interference might inadvertently weaken the magic. They have no such respect for new, untried authors.

  34. Lexi, I'm not saying they're a magic bullet. I'm saying they are a necessary part of the publishing process.

    No they don't always do a good job. I think we all know that. Just like all mechanics don't do a good job, all roofers don't do a good job, and all doctors don't do a good job. But that doesn't mean we don't need mechanics, roofers, and doctors.

    It just means we have to find the right one.

    I think I'm repeating myself. I'm not exactly sure why I'm being so misunderstood.

  35. I'm not misunderstanding you, Kay; what I'm doing is disagreeing.

    You only need a mechanic, a roofer or a doctor if there is something wrong with your car, roof or body. If there isn't, you don't. Same with books.

  36. But I have been misunderstood. I've been told I'm impressed by professional qualifications, which I'm not. I've been told I think editing is a magic bullet, which I don't.

    All I'm saying is I believe editing is a necessary part of publishing. And as a reader, I wish all publishers would hire a good editor for their work. If the book's free, maybe I can't complain. But if I'm paying money, yes, editor please.

    No you don't need a roofer if there's nothing wrong with your roof. But when was the last time you were up there inspecting it? It's hard to know if there's something wrong with it when you live underneath it. It could leak tomorrow without warning. And if you were to put it up for sale, well, nobody wants to buy a house with a possible leaky roof.

    We go to doctors for check-ups. We take our cars in for inspections. In the US, you can't get your plates renewed without an inspection. All these things we do to make sure something's sound even though it appears, to us, to be working just fine.

    Maybe my standards are too high. My Nora Roberts book is now plagued by confusing head-hopping. My indie book I'm reading has overuse of the word "particularly." These are things that should have been caught. I should probably just take a chill pill and read the darn book...

    I know you're disagreeing. I read the blog post. But I also read the title, which has a question mark in it, so I thought I'd chime in with my opinion. I see now the question is rhetorical, so that's my bad.

  37. Kay, in what way is "editing a necessary part of publishing"? I'm not sure I'm following your argument.

  38. This is such a fascinating subject. But Lexi, if you don't need an editor (for all the reasons you've stated), why do you need beta readers? Or any other input? If you're truly confident in your ability to tell your story, what do anyone's else's subjective opinions have to do with it? All they're going to do is cause you to second guess yourself. At the point that you bring in betas, you should have already hammered out all the various options available.

    Whoever heard of a painter seeking beta viewers to give input on her colors or compositional elements? Yet writers, who should consider themselves at some point just as capable of making their own decisions regarding their work, are so quick to seek outside advice. Why?

    It seems that there should come a point at which you've learned your craft well enough to trust your own judgement and to hell with other people's hairsplitting opinions.

    This is assuming, of course, that you know your craft, and your fundamentals (spelling, grammar and punctuation) are solid. All that other stuff--voice, pacing, transitions, dialogue, themes, plot, and so on--are too subjective and personal to benefit from outside meddling.

    A little bit devil's advocate here, but how do you know where the line is as far as outside input?

  39. This is honestly not something I have a problem with - I know a good idea when I see it. I recognize a bad one too (all the HC editor's). My daughter in particular - when I can prevail on her to read my WIP - has made suggestions I've pounced upon, or told me the story is heading in the wrong direction, or that my hero is too nice. Maybe I'd have got there on my own eventually, but at the very least she saved me time.

    I could manage without betas, but I like having their input. What I don't like is being told no book can be acceptable unless the author pays a professional editor, because this is not true. I get very fed up with people making up rules for indies based on their own experience - "I've done it this way, so everyone else should too."