How to be edited

One reason I’ve seen people put forth to stay away from self-publishing is the need for editing. People believe that they must be edited before they can put something out. This ties into a question new writers often have—how do you know when something is ready? 

I used to be an editor, and I still wouldn’t put something out that hadn’t been edited (and I mean edited, not copy edited, although obviously I’ve seen the light on the latter as well). The question is not, Should I get edited? The question is, How can I find a good editor? 

An editor is not an accountant or a doctor—an editor goes through no specialized training and does not get licensed. New writers tend to think of an editor as “the person who makes your writing good,” but honestly, that’s not the editor’s job. The editor’s job is to make your writing consistent with their employer’s standards, whatever those standards might be. You might write a great mystery novel, but to the editors of both Highlights and Penthouse Forum, your work is unacceptable. And unfortunately writers and editors both can get into some very bad habits working for places with lousy or peculiar standards. 

Also, some editors just aren’t very good—they want changes that make your work less entertaining and harder to read. I had a particular animus against editors who were vague. They would ask, “Could you make this better?” which got them an instant, “Could you be more specific?” Vagueness to me indicated both laziness and a cover-your-ass attitude—an editor who expressed a vague dislike for whatever you turned in felt like they were insulated from failure (which they weren’t). 

To be of any use, an editor must have opinions—clear opinions about how to improve a piece of writing. They are just opinions, even when they are gatekeeper opinions, which is why so many bestselling books first went through endless rounds of rejection. But opinions are an editor’s stock-in-trade, and a good one has lots of them that they can express clearly to you. 

How do you find someone with opinions about your writing? Obviously, I am fond of critique groups (free!), but writing classes and workshops are also good places to go. But don’t just get the group read of your first chapter: Treat these places as editor auditions. 

You want to find people to edit your work who are not afraid to be brutally honest—no, it’s not fun at first, but you will come to value it. (Maybe it’s just me, but I think that my feeling vaguely insulted is a sign of a quality edit.) That said, you want to avoid sociopaths, abusive and insecure writers who will screw with you to make themselves feel better, and people who hate your genre. Look for someone who shows some enthusiasm for your work, even if they are critical of the specifics—if they love your kind of book, they’ll be more likely to help you create something that appeals to people who love your kind of book. 

And take feedback seriously. I think everyone has met the wanna-be writer whose work would be a thousand times better if they would just drop bad habit X and embrace good habit Y, and they never do. No matter how many people tell them the exact same thing, no matter how many times they hear it, they exist in an impermeable field of delusion—they would rather write badly than work at it. That’s them; it doesn’t need to be you. 

Other ways to find editors are to hire people or to sign away your rights and a chunk of your future earnings to a publisher who will hire people. That might be what you have to do, but remember, just because you’re paying for it doesn’t make it good. All the horrible, crappy editors I had over the years—all of them—were professionals. Respected professionals with years of experience (goldbricking). They all got paid to go, “Could you make this better? No, I can’t be more specific right now—I have to go get a manicure.” It was always a crapshoot with the professional editors because I was just a working stiff and I could not audition them. Nowadays, I just don’t tap the horrible amateur editors. 

Speaking of horrible amateur editors—try to make sure you’re not one. If you are able to find people who are willing to edit your work for free, guess what? You’re going to be paying them back by editing their work for free! (Nothing is really free, sorry.) 

But guess what else? You’re going to get paid back a second time. That’s because as you develop your editing skills on other people’s work, you become a better editor of your own. If I notice in three manuscripts that the opening drags because we don’t get to the main plot until chapter 15, I’m going to cut to the chase in my own book. If I read a bunch of repetitive descriptions that drive me crazy, the next time I look at my own prose, I’m going to be chopping excess adjectives. 

Eventually, if you edit enough, you may even reach the exalted state where there is no difference to you between something you write and something somebody else writes. That kind of distance from your own work is precisely what you want—it’s like writing Nirvana. (You’ve heard about how you should stick a manuscript in a drawer and forget about it for an eon or so? That’s an exercise to help you develop this distance.) If you can get there—or at least close to there—then of course you’ll know when your work is ready, because you’ll be judging it by the same standards as you do everyone else’s.