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.