What Is the Value of an Editor?

Molly McCowan Business Storytelling, The Art of Editing 39 Comments

About a year ago, I was at a networking event when I was approached by a middle-aged man wearing a black sport coat over a lightweight periwinkle sweater. He was holding a glass of red wine in one hand, and the word “author” was written in blue Sharpie underneath the neatly printed name on his name tag. My name tag didn’t sport the word “editor,” so for the moment I was free to learn more about him before divulging my career.

We shook hands and exchanged small talk for a moment before I asked him what he was currently writing. He responded, “Oh, I’ve been working on my second novel. It’s part of a fantasy trilogy that I’ve been writing for the last few years.” I asked him about his first book and discovered that he had self-published it. I also learned that his trilogy focused on a main character who wields a magic sword that sometimes tries to attack him, which made me laugh out loud.

When I told him I was an editor, a scowl flitted across his face. He said, “Honestly I don’t know why anyone would need an editor. I know how to write properly; I don’t need someone to cross my t’s and dot my i’s for me. I would never let an editor touch my books. I’ve spent years working on them. Why would I want to pay an arm and a leg for someone to change my writing? Editors charge a ton of money to mess up someone’s hard work.”

My heart sank—not because my feelings were hurt, but because I realized in that instant that his book was probably not very good.

He didn’t see the value that an editor could bring to his novels. This made me sad, because I was intrigued by his main character’s amusing dilemma and thought it could make for a great book.

I spoke to him for a little while longer, explaining that good editors always strive to “do no harm.” I tried to convince him that a good editor—one who really “gets” his writing style and what he’s trying to say—would only improve his books, and therefore improve his career. I explained that editors have to be good writers, but writers don’t always have to be good editors (although knowing how to edit your own work is very helpful). After a while, seeing that my arguments were to no avail, I politely excused myself.

"Look over there Marjorie! I've spotted an author who refuses to use an editor! Let's chase him." (photo c. 1941, via Flickr user cometstarmoon)

“Look over there Marjorie! I’ve spotted another writer who doesn’t know the value of a good editor. Editors, put the pedal to the metal!”

I remember thinking as I was walking away from him, “How could he not see the value in hiring an editor?” Later that week, I downloaded his novel. I could only get through nine pages of it before closing it in exasperation. Typos, inconsistent formatting, and periods outside of quotation marks* made my brain cry out in pain. How many other potential readers had downloaded his novel and given up on it before the second chapter? His main character had promise. His plotline was interesting. All he had needed was an editor to take his book—and his career—to the next level.

Unfortunately, this writer didn’t understand the value of an editor: he only saw the potential price tag.

And his writing career will likely suffer because of it.

Think about your favorite children’s book when you were a kid. Remember all the pictures, the words on the page, how it made you feel curious, happy, sad. Now imagine that book without the editors’ work. What would it look like? Would the spelling errors detract from the book? Would children learn the wrong usage of the word “their”? Would the illustrations match up to the words on the page? Does little Sally have blue eyes on page 11 and brown eyes on page 15?

Even editors need editors: the more you read through your own piece of writing, the more difficult it becomes to see the potential errors. I read through my blog posts at least 20 times before hitting “publish,” and I still miss little things sometimes. Being a good writer doesn’t mean you can—or should—edit your own work.

That’s because editors are specially trained, and often naturally gifted, to spot things that you might otherwise miss. The table that goes along with the paragraph on page 24? It’s numbered incorrectly. The footnote on page 16 should be on page 19. The introduction to chapter 31 uses “effect” when it should be “affect.” The made-up slang word in the dialogue on page 28 doesn’t gel with that character’s Irish accent.

Editors are trained as eagle-eyes who care about retaining an author’s voice, style, and message—while making the writing clear, error-free, and honed to fit your audience’s specific expectations and needs.

Paying a good editor to edit your writing is an investment in your career.

You will look more qualified and professional if your audience doesn’t see any typos, misused words, factually incorrect statements, inconsistent character descriptions, etc. Some writers understand this from the get-go, while others take some convincing. The writers who don’t see the value in hiring an editor will also probably never see their writing career live up to its potential.

Odin's Raven

“Great Odin’s Raven! I think I remember seeing a typo and completely forgetting to fix it.”

Think about the last thing you wrote (other than an email or text message). Maybe it was your Ph.D. dissertation, an article for a newspaper, a proposal letter to a client, a paper to be submitted to a prestigious academic journal, or a blog post for your website. How many times did you read it over again after you wrote it? How long did you tinker with it until you felt like it was 100% ready? Did you ever feel like it was 100% ready, or were you paranoid that you would send/publish it and later find a typo or something worse, like a key person’s name spelled incorrectly? A headline with a glaring error? Perhaps a date that you forgot to fact-check and later realize is—oh no!—incorrect?

Now think about how much easier it would have been to give that piece of writing to an expert who can make sure that it is 100% ready to go. Ready to make you look good. Ready to represent you, your skills, or your business in the best way possible. It seems like an easy decision, doesn’t it? It should be.

Just remember: an editor’s job is to make you look good.

That’s our contribution to the world: helping writers show off their talents, and their voices, in the best way possible. How do you quantify the value of that?

*    *    *

Editors, have you had to prove your value to writers? Writers, have you had good or bad experiences with editors? What do you think the true value of a good editor is? Tell me in the comments.

This post is part of the Word Carnival series of monthly blog posts. Click to read more posts on this month’s topic, “Value and Price: What’s Your Work Worth?” written by other whip-smart entrepreneurs, marketing mavens, and small business owners. Also, thanks to Katharine O’Moore-Klopf for inspiring me to write about this topic, whether she knew it or not! Check out her resources for copyeditors here.

*Periods outside of quotation marks aren’t necessarily wrong—British English uses them this way quite often. In the U.S., however, periods and commas should always go inside of quotation marks.

Featured image: “Women in Quiet Study,” 1850–1920 (approximate). Courtesy of Boston Public Library on Flickr.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.
  • Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen.

  • Working for campus or low-budget community publications, editing isn’t always there. Just because someone has the title “editor” does not mean they have the skills, time or commitment to truly edit. I can not tell you how many times I have readers point out errors to me when on a printed page, which is disheartening because I submitted that work to my editor, with trust.

    It wasn’t until earlier this month that I am working for a really great publication, that I have realized the beauty of a great editor. I learn so much every time I see my work transformed from before, to after editing!

    • That’s great, Mary! Editors should always act as a helping hand to the writer, offering improvements but retaining the writer’s voice and style. I’m glad you’ve experienced having your work edited by a good editor!

  • This is an excellent representation of what editors are up against. I understand the authors’ reluctance to spend the money, but once they do, they realize that it’s well worth every penny.

    • Thank you, Anneli! Sometimes authors have a bit of “sticker shock” when they realize how much a good editor’s services cost—especially on a full-length novel, for example. But it is most definitely worth it in the end!

      • Exactly!! But it is a big job and very time consuming. Also very worthwhile for the author. Makes all the difference between success and mediocrity (or worse).

  • Reblogged this on Desolie: thoughts about editing, writing and words and commented:
    Thanks to some fellow editors who introduced me to Molly McCowan’s blog, I want to share this with you, to encourage you to really consider just how much a good editor can add to your writing.

    Enjoy – and remember to leave a comment.

  • I love the final touches the editor gives with the images and the jazzy title. I feel editors are helpful. But yes, I have also spotted spelling mistakes in print and feel annoyed as to how it missed the editor’s eagle eye!

    I also wish editors (the ones i have dealt with so far) were more approachable. I sense the stiff attitude and makes me feel “where did i go wrong?” Either they communicate in one line which may have hundred meanings or they don’t bother to respond at all making the writers wait endlessly. It will be nice if writers and editors work as a team than giving the boss-employee attitude. 🙂

    • I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had negative experiences with editors so far, Suja. We’re not all like that, I promise! I try to be a helping hand and partner to the writers with whom I work: I offer suggestions and advice, and if I see a writer make the same mistake repeatedly, I gently help them break that bad habit. I think most of the great editors are also teachers (at least to some extent).

  • Good post – and I’m sorry if the first commenter has found their editors to be stiff and uncommunicative. I try to explain myself as fully as possible, and will always explain decisions and comments further if my author needs them. I suppose editors are like therapists – you might need to go through a few to find the one that fits with you (aha – an idea for a blog post myself!).

    • I completely agree! It can definitely take a few tries to find an editor who gels with your writing style and personality. It can be frustrating at first, but a great editor is really a partner in your writing career. I always celebrate when one of my clients gets published!

  • Jenny

    As a copy editor I quite often have people wondering whether what I do is worth doing, and why I do it. I find myself justifying my job to friends and acquaintances because they think it’s *just* about ‘dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s’. I’ve even had friends who, while e.g. studying or similar, have asked me where they can get work, not understanding the years of training and mentoring I’ve had to get to this point, and just how much goes into the work I do. Quite frustrating really!

    • I’m right there with you, Jenny. I find myself having to explain what copy editors actually do all the time—but I’m usually just happy that someone is interested in learning more about it. There is a huge amount of misconception surrounding our profession: it’s our job to fight it!

  • Great blog, Molly. I’ve found the easiest way to prove my value to writers is by providing a sample edit. Writers who have never used the services of an editor often make assumptions about what editors do and don’t do. I think some are a little afraid of us — how sad! The gentleman in this story is a typical example: on the one hand, he implies that editors simply cross t’s and dot i’s, by which I assume he is referring to the most basic aspects of proofreading, but then he also implies that editors will completely change his work: “I would never let an editor touch my books. I’ve spent years working on them. Why would I want to pay an arm and a leg for someone to change my writing?” This comment indicates a reluctance to invest money in his writing career, but it also suggests a misconception, even apprehension, about editors.

    As a freelance editor with my own editing business, I attract many newbies — writers who have never before used the services of an editor. Some are novice writers, but many have been writing for some time. I always suggest they allow me to do a sample edit for them. Once they see for themselves how quality editing can help their writing to be the best it can be and that I won’t change their voice or “mess up” their hard work, they are always keen to have their work edited.

    • That’s great advice, Wendy! I also offer sample edits for new clients, and I’ve found that it can be a great way to show them exactly how I can help. A few of my ongoing clients were referred to me by academic colleagues, who basically said, “Here is someone doing great research, but it’s hard for me to read through their work.” I’ve offered free sample edits to these authors, and most of them have been returning to me for years. I think many writers are intimidated by editors because they are concerned that editors would change their work too much. It’s a barrier that can be broken down by educating writers on what editing is and how to find a good editor, but it’s still a major hurdle!

  • Words of wisdom here for sure. And laughed with you over the pain of “periods outside of quotation marks.” I seriously want to poke my eye out every time I see that happening (commas, too). Editors — whether we hire them (we should) or we work with a buddy — are indispensable when it comes to looking professional. And it’s not just about errors, but also about flow. Are there questions unanswered in the text? Is there a hole in the logic somewhere? So much can go wrong. That’s why I started my critique groups for biz bloggers. Everyone needs this kind of help!

    • Exactly, Tea! It’s so much more than just fixing the small errors. Just knowing the main types of editing is eye-opening: developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, proofreading…and variations on each. Basically, working from the “big picture” to the “little picture,” and everything in between. 🙂

  • As a translator, I relate to your article. I went through a similar experience some time ago. Certainly, authors will see in the long run that it’s harder (if not impossible) to get their audience’s complicity if the book wasn’t edited, even if it was translated.

    • I think most serious writers realize that a good editor can only help, Sandra. But there is still so much distrust, and it’s a hard sell—especially to writers who have never worked with an editor before.

  • Profound thought and big fat takeaway:
    “The writers who don’t see the value in hiring an editor will also probably never see their writing career live up to its potential.” No matter how you stack it up, that’s a sad and needless shame … period.

    I think it was serendipity at play when you met that author at a networking event, Molly. Although he had a closed mind to the notion of hiring an editor, I felt you did a great job of helping to see the “other” side. He’s one who will, obviously, never bite the bullet but that’s to his demise. Sometimes I think authors are some of the most stubborn creatures on earth! To some extent, they’re like artists, don’t you think? They’re so possessive of their work. For you, it must be like pushing a hippo uphill to get them to understand what an editor brings to the table. I commend your courage!

    Wonderful read! Thanks for another awesome post.

    • Whoops! I left out “him”. I know you’ll find exactly where I made that boo-boo. I’m having a real problem getting my comments right today. Must be because Mercury is still in Retrograde! LOL!

      • No worries, Melanie! Like I wrote above, even editors need editors sometimes—no one is immune to the occasional typo. 🙂

    • Ego can definitely play a part sometimes, but I think authors like this don’t want someone editing their work because they don’t know what editors do, or how they can help. It’s the fear of the unknown combined with a fear of the price tag!

  • Periods after quotes!! One of those things that drives the screaming liberal academic elite in me nuts 🙂 And I’m pretty liberal about taking rules into my own hands!

    I can only assume that guy had a bad editor once who red-inked his page to death and bruised his ego. Just having an outside perspective is hugely valuable. When you write it’s impossible to then get objectively outside of it to review it. Typos, inconsistencies and just plain nonsense can be easily missed. Some people can’t be convinced but who wants to work with them anyway?

    • Yes! It’s amazingly difficult to edit your own work. After the tenth read-through of my own writing, I find that I can no longer really “see” the piece. Once you get to that point, it’s time to call in a second pair of eyes.

  • Finished editing my first book, and yes I did have to prove my worth to him. I was not the first person that came to mind as an editor. After a stagnated experienced with another editor, he decided to proposition me on the job. I am glad that he did, since that was my first paying editing job. He liked what I did to his book, and he has other novels that will be published soon. Fingers crossed, he will come back to me!

  • R C

    I have discovered that a good author realises the value of an editor without needing to have it pointed out to him/her. However, for every author who believes an editor is an unnecessary strain on his/her budget, there are at least a 100 readers out there who don’t care either way. The decline in the quality and expectations of readers from written material is also what makes authors such as this complacent about their writing skills.

    • While I think it’s arguable that there has been some decline in readers’ expectations of written work—most likely due to the “quick-draw” way we write these days in social media, text messages, email, etc.—I think most readers still expect a certain level of writing in books, magazines, and other published work. But to your point, some extremely popular mainstream books boast (in my opinion) pretty terrible writing. I tried to read the first Twilight book to see what the fuss was all about, and I found it to be so poorly written that I put it down after two chapters.

      When an author doesn’t pay any attention to the basics—spelling, grammar, syntax—it dramatically decreases the value of the writing as a whole, as well as the probability that people are going to take the author’s (good) ideas seriously.

  • Editors really are the unsung heroes of writing, Molly. I say this as a (completely unbiased) former editor. 🙂 When I worked on a trade mag in London, we’d get compliments on some of the articles we published. Invariably, those were the ones that had taken the most editing. Made me smile every time! 🙂

    • It always works that way, doesn’t it? I love the “push and pull” that goes on when you have a cohesive group of editors working with a writer on a piece. The quarterly newspaper I edit, the Fort Collins Courier, is wonderful in part because the publisher is a talented editor himself, and he is also extremely creative. He brings new ideas to the table, and he pushes me to think outside the box as well. The pieces that we get the most compliments on are usually the ones that we wrangled with the longest. 🙂

  • Shailaja

    I think editors can add value beyond copy-editing. It is a pity most of the discussion is about punctuation and spellings. The editor’s task goes well beyond that!

    • Indeed it does, Shailaja! We haven’t really talked very much about developmental or substantive editing.

  • Molly I can relate to the author, yet I also feel your pain. When I started working on my first book I thought – I know how to write, and I know the subject matter, no sweat. Ha!

    Then I discovered creating a book that was consistent from beginning to end, leveraged my theme (Finance Rock Star), and used consistent phrasing was much harder than I realized. I discovered that there are all sorts of subliminal cues we give our readers through word choice, conjugation, flow, etc. For example alternating between didn’t and did not creates an inconsistent voice – who knew? Certainly not me!

    Editors truly are the unsung heroes in writing. So where’s your bat signal?

    • Hi, Nicole! Yes, consistency is one of the main things that an editor watches for while working on a piece. Does the tone shift? Is the author using different spellings of the same word? Etc. It’s a huge part of the process, and one that often does not come intuitively (at first) to the writer.

      P.S. I would love a bat signal! Or would it be a “bot” signal? Haha.

  • I think it is only natural for a writer to be a little defensive, but even writers who can edit still miss things that make them look bad! It’s too bad they can’t see it as “a second set of eyes” and realize it doesn’t mean they aren’t awesome. Although, in this case, he wasn’t anyway :).

    That’s so funny about the sword. Done right it could be interesting. Done wrong, well, you know all too well…

  • A friend who joined a writing group recently confessed to me, “I never got editing before joining this group. After joining, I really understand the concept of ‘critique what they wrote, not what they’re trying to say'”

    One of the things I wish I’d done before I went to press on my book was get it edited. Now I’m going back and re-writing it because some of the things I’d written about no longer exist or better options exist now. Editing wouldn’t have fixed that, but I definitely know I missed a step in the process. All in all, it’s a good book but it could have been made much better by just having been edited.

    But it’s just like any other professional – there are some folks who will believe in you and the value you have to offer and there are some folks who just feel they’re being sold down the river, even if you know you can help them.

    Thankfully, there’s more than enough people who value your work and expertise enough to want to work with you. I’ll get in that line, too 😀