What follows is a series of posts that I originally wrote several years ago, as part of the process of articulating the importance of the work of the literary editor. I've revised (2016) and collected them all here, in the following sections with original publication dates in brackets:
Now that I am offering editing to independent authors, here are some thoughts about what I think you should expect from a literary editor.
What is a Good Book? I’m sure the reply is pretty much unanimous: a good book is subjective, personal. But just as I can tell a good violinist from a bad one, although I know nothing about playing the violin, so most people can recognize a bad book. So can most people be editors? I don’t think so. Most people can be proofreaders, however.
The techie culture surrounding indie publishing has made “beta-reader” the favoured term. Literally, ‘proof read’ means ‘test read’. A proofreader is someone who reads as if they are the intended reader, whether for pleasure, information, study, who is able so state, thereafter, whether the book met their need.
Who is a good editor? Derek Prior and I both studied drama theory, and in the course of our studies learned the craft of textual analysis. Textual analysis arises on the one hand from the kind of literary criticism developed by F. R. Leavis and his contemporaries, and on the other hand from the desire to apply scientific rigour to the study of literature.
I have applied textual analysis in every type of work and writing that I have done (In French academia, there is a vast, rich, and mostly redundant vocabulary of technical terms that can be applied in textual analysis. I try to steer clear of this kind of thing, though some of the terms are indispensable).
A good editor needs to be able to combine his analytic skill with a deep understanding of what makes a story work.
What makes a story work? This is not as hard to pin down as what makes a good book, because what makes a story work is contextual rather than subjective. I have read manuscripts that contain no story – just a series of related events. Sometimes this results from the naturalistic fallacy (that I will discuss another time), sometimes just from narrative incompetence. Narrative incompetence is the inability to tell a story. As long as your manuscript features a story, your story can be made to work. How to make it work means getting down to the nuts and bolts of narrative mechanics, and putting right what is obviously wrong. Sometimes an editor’s work is limited to this, but this alone does not make a good editor.
So what makes a good editor? A good editor is aware of the greater literary freedoms that are possible with indie publishing, and will aid and encourage you to take advantage of them if you want to, but will also know how to shelter you from their uncertainties if that is what you need.
A good editor needs to know what makes a good writer. After all, an editor needs clients, and a client who is a good writer will be good publicity for an editor. So a good editor will be able to show a writer not only how to improve his book, but how to become a better writer.
All editors are not alike. Each will have his preferred methodology. Each will have strengths and weaknesses, just like a writer. I am aware that there are editors whose principle is that there are a few “standard” ways of writing a good (or saleable) book, and they will coerce your text into meeting the standard. This may well suit you.
One might be tempted to divide editors into those who edit to create a commercial success and those who edit to help the writer improve his work. This would be wrong for a couple of reasons:
What a writer ought to get by working with an editor is a better book.
I’m going into opinion here – so don’t hesitate to disagree, especially if you are an editor. An editor needs to be a rigorous, skilled critic, and an ally. Here are the things I think an editor must provide:
So what in concrete terms should you get for your money? At the very least, you should get your text back from the editor with lots of notes in the margin. Much as I am loath to say so, MSWord is very good for this purpose.
Some editors will not touch spelling, grammar and punctuation until you deliver a final draft. Others will do it as they go. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Any other changes that the editor makes should come with some explanation.
I don’t usually apply literary corrections directly to the text. I prefer to flag the problem, explain it, and let the author make the correction, as I think this helps the author to assert his personal style, and to learn.
I think the editor’s job is to help the author to improve his book, not to correct the author’s book for him.
I also like to provide a summary of my editorial notes. This includes a short literary analysis, and details of any general issues that I think the author needs to address. This is valuable because it is hard for the author to get a view of any global issues when reading notes in the margin. I also like to chat with authors (via Skype call) – though I understand entirely why this is not possible for other editors.
You can expect me to ask you if you have a preferred style manual, or what consistent style rules you apply. I will make a choice between proposing one of the commonly used conventions, that, with your agreement, we apply across the board, OR I will infer a set of personal rules for you from the choices of style and presentation that you make, and ensure that those are applied consistently.
I’ve been thinking about how I set out my stall. To this end I have been re-reading past posts that deal with my literary ideology, as well as those that deal with what I think editing is all about. I have also made use of the wonderful educational tool, InspireData to help me think about how I think about editing:
Each of these diagrams shows the same set of editing “interventions” (e.g. spelling, grammar, diction, punctuation) sorted via Venn diagramming three different ways, first by general editing domain, then by the type of checks (or controls) used, and then by the origin or source of those controls.
The broad outcome of this analysis is that in my thinking, editing can be divided into four general domains, as follows:
The purpose of this analysis is not to create something new; it is to describe what I am already doing, what I have always done, and how it has evolved in the light of the indie publishing phenom.
Two major points arise from the co-evolution of indie-publishing and literary-editing-for-indie-publishing:
In the case of 2 above, I think that the author has a duty, and the editor a responsibility, to ensure that the author’s eccentric, esoteric or merely mildly divergent choices remain consistent within a given book (so they do not confuse or alienate readers), and do not hinder clarity or accessibility.
Like never before, however, we writers and editors have an opportunity not merely to democratize publishing, but to democratize language; to celebrate regional variation; to experiment with alternative means and modes of expression. I for one feel that (f’rinstance) there are many situations where the common US and UK conventions for laying out direct speech are stifling and inflexible, and I would love to see more writers looking for something better (and simpler).
Great (and apparently, Irish) writers have in the past had to establish and fight for their own authority before being allowed to go outside the conventions (Joyce, GB Shaw). You don’t have to. As long as you don’t compromize comprehensibility, you don’t have to compromize on your style.
Not every book needs a literary edit. I think that every book should go to a professional editor for style and format (copy-edit), but a literary edit isn’t needed for everything. But how do you know if your work needs one or not?
I suspect the only way to know is to go through the literary edit process at least once. It also helps a great deal to talk to other writers who use, or have used, a literary editor. Those who can tell you why they decided they didn’t need to will be the ones who help you to discover if you need to. So why not?
For one thing, it is expensive. A book of 120k words will take me anything from 30 to 50 hours to edit, more if you include communication with the author. Your first two or three full length novels will take longer to edit than later ones, which means that those who charge a fixed rate per word may have to do a lighter edit than your work really needs, and those who, like me, quote based on an estimate of the time required, will charge more to edit your early, weaker work than for your later, stronger work. This is one of the ironies of our profession – but it applies to everything that authors do:
The more you write, the faster you write, and the fewer errors you make. So even if you don’t use an editor, the effort it will cost you to write your better work (the books you haven’t written yet) will always be less than the effort you are investing now.
Many writers see using a literary editor as an investment. They hope that it will lead to their becoming a better writer faster. I hope this is so, too, since this is my main professional intent: to help you become a better writer. It is both a privilege and a pleasure to watch this happen, when I am the right editor for you.
There’s the crux of the issue. Not every editor is the right editor for every writer.
It is far more important, in my opinion, that a writer find an editor who is a good match to his immediate needs, than the writer find an editor who is a good match to his purse, or who he perceives as being the best editor.
This is a major reason for my posting the kind of things that I do here in my blog. I want you to have a chance to discover what sort of edit you will get, and to discover a little about my personality and my approach. I think that if the kind of things that I say appeal to you, then we can probably work together.
But you can’t know if you have the right editor until you try him or her. There are plenty of us out here. It makes sense to try more than one. More than two.
And if you have a bad experience with an editor, it is likely that the editor was a poor match to your needs. Probably more likely than your impression that he or she was a “bad editor”. If you found your editor on Kindle Boards, they’re probably good. If they were recommended by another author, they’re probably good.
Even for copy editing, a good match is necessary. Some editors will, unless otherwise instructed, edit spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary in strict accordance with an approved Style Guide. They are absolutely right to do so.
Some authors find this sanitizes or anonymizes their work. Others are glad they don’t have to think about those details. Some editors will copy-edit with a very light touch indeed; correcting obvious errors, but not standardizing anything. They are absolutely right to do so.
But some authors find that certain (ahem, fussy) readers make comments that suggest that editing has been sloppy or nonexistent. You can’t please all the readers all of the time; having an editor on board if only for a light copy edit can help you to go into this with your eyes open.
A discussion started on Kindle Boards a couple of days ago about editors and editing. The tone of the discussion is rather forceful in places, but as a crash course in what you should expect, what attitude and approach to take, and how to protect yourself from a bad experience, this is REQUIRED READING: Editing Rant (via Kindle Boards).
If you have an editor, and you think they are the best, then you have found a good match. Please gush about them on your blog in and in KB – but try to say why they suit you so well, and this will help other authors to find the right editor for them.
I think that these posts about editing should probably be taken as a view of my thoughts on editing as it evolves over time, so it is probably a good idea to ensure that you have read all of them (links top right).
I’ve been thinking about this one for a long time, and as I specialize more and more in story development and do less and less copy-editing, I think there are a couple of lines that I can draw fairly clearly on the subject of what you should not expect.
To get copy-editing out of the way: from a copy edit, you should not expect your manuscript to be error free, and conform perfectly to every style guide. But you should expect errors to be few and conformities to be maximized.
For a content edit, here are a few things that you shouldn’t expect, after your edit has been completed:
1. All content editors agree that your manuscript needs no further editing.
The truth is, your editor might think that the manuscript needs further editing, but doesn’t want to overwhelm you. A content editor is not just working with your manuscript. He is working with you. Even an experienced writer can still learn and improve, and working with an editor is a good way to stimulate this improvement. So an inexperienced writer might, not to put to fine a point on it, have a lot to learn. A responsible editor may well chuse not to draw attention to all the problems, because it can end up looking insurmountable. Actually this doesn’t happen all that often, but it is worth being aware of it.
More often, different editors will have different preferences and priorities, and what you chuse to do to solve one problem might be considered a new problem by a new editor.
Editors’ preferences might run to your turn-of-phrase or even vocabulary choices. Editors’ might prioritize, narration, characterization, plotting differently. This is why I’ve already blogged on chusing the right editor for you. Complete your rewrite, your editor might tell you it’s all good, you send it to another editor and he might tell you something completely different. Hence point number 2:
2. Your editor will tell you when your manuscript needs no further editing.
Content editing is expensive, time-consuming and its results are uncertain. Even though those who have tried a professional content editor generally want to do it again and again, it’s worth looking for alternatives. Discussing your work in writer’s groups is good, as is using a panel of beta-readers. I think that a content editor brings something else to the table, though, and that is a service tailored personally to you and your book.
Even so, only you can decide when your book is ready for publication. I think if you use an editor and are not satisfied with the draft you do afterwards, but the editor thinks it’s good, it probably means the editor wasn’t a good match to the book, or to you, or both.
3. Everyone who reads your book with think it is great, and…
4. You will sell loads of books because your book is great.
It may seem obvious that these two are false, but it is worth preparing yourself mentally for the reviews that say: “this book seriously needs editing!”.
And indeed, mentally preparing yourself for not selling many books.
It’s the subject of much curiosity and discussion, that the quality of a book doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in its (initial) success. That seems to be largely luck. Once the book is established, the better books will continue to make good sales for longer, we hope.
Tangential to these two is what is, for me, the bottom line of what not to expect:
5. Your book will be great because your content editor is great.
If you have a great content editor, she will have done a great job at finding the problems and opportunities, documenting them, communicating them to you, and suggesting what you should do about it. However, she won’t be the one rewriting you manuscript. That will be you. No matter how good your editor is, your book can only be as good as you can make it. I believe that if your editor is great, then you can make your book a whole lot better with the editor than alone, but it’s still you the limiting factor.
I find I can be very open about this with my authors; most of you think you are worse than you are; all of you are trying to become better. I believe that working for authors who are humble but ambitious, keen to learn and hardworking, is what makes me become a better editor. Since I work with lots of authors, while most authors work with two or less editors, I reckon I get the better side of the deal, which is why I advise all writers to try more than one content editor: even if the one you have really suits you, you can learn a lot by working with someone else from time to time.
For the second time in as many months, a new customer has said to me something along the lines of:
“You weren’t the cheapest option, but I guess good work costs.”
In reality I suspect that there are two ways of getting a good edit: for free, or by paying what the job is really worth.
You can get a good edit for free. Generally speaking, when someone does you a favour, they do it conscientiously. (Is that really naive of me? I hope not.) I’d be inclined to suppose, though I admit on no evidence, that this is more true for a copy edit than for a literary edit (yes, I’m still using this term as an umbrella for story development, content editing and writer mentoring).
If you pay someone for an edit, there is a very simple way to work out if you are paying enough.
For a writer who is experienced and reasonably competent at narration, I won’t need to make notes more than once every few pages – and mostly on story and characterization at that rate, I can read and take notes at more than 5,000 words an hour.
If the writer is less experienced, or makes lots of errors or there are generalized narrative or stylistic problems, my speed can be cut down to about 2,000 words per hour. This is excluding time that I take to think (anything up to 2 days for a book of that length), the time taken to organize, structure and write up my notes (1 to 2 days) and time spent discussing all this with the writer (2 to 6 hours, though sometimes as much as 25 hours; I don’t count this however as writers’ needs can vary so much).
So for an 75,000 word book with average problems, I would need just over 40 hours. I base my prices on my estimate of the amount of time a book will take me, because it does vary a very great deal.
Going back to (1) above, if you paid me at the same rate as someone flipping burgers, I’d still need $ 293. But you ought to expect to hire an editor with qualifications and experience that are more difficult to acquire than those needed for flipping burgers, and such people are not all that easy to find. In short, someone who is going to help you to add value to your work is going to cost more than the minimum wage.
In my case, my lowest rate would, based on the figures above, be about $ 28 an hour. Someone charging you $ 200 dollars at that rate would have to work at a rate of 10,500 words per hour! That sort of speed is not possible.
In my opinion, there shouldn’t be much difference in cost between a copy-edit and a literary edit. The skills, knowledge and experience required may overlap, but they aren’t different degrees of the same service. They are different services provided by different specialists (many editors offer both, and I assume in my usual naive way that that means that many editors are equally or nearly equally good at both; I am not). In both, you require a degree of specialist knowledge, thoroughness and attention to detail that is relatively uncommon.
Ultimately, you should pay what you can reasonably afford, and of course, you get what you pay for. What I hope to have done with the above is show that you can, to some extent, work out if you are being charged too little. This is only possible because you know that the job requires both time and undivided attention.
I don’t think there’s any meaningful way to judge if you’ve been charged too much based purely on the price. You have to see the completed edit before you can tell.
Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I've learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It's called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.