An author’s best friend is her/his editor

Posted on August 28, 2015

a writers best friendI worked out long ago that I’m not a naturally good writer. A strange admission for an author to make, you may think, but read on because it’s true of more authors than you’d think – and nothing to be ashamed of.

I knew I had a great story to tell with the Ilmaen Quartet, but for the first 20 years what slowed me down was my writing skills. This was despite my excellent English, good grammar and a successful career producing writing that needed to be understood quickly and easily – software user manuals, QC plans, audit reports – not to mention articles for charity newsletters and drafting my novels, short stories and novellas. I’ve developed both my storytelling and writing skills a lot further since then, and there are three facts about being an author I can state with absolute certainty:

  1. Good storytelling and good writing are two different things.
  2. You won’t spot 25% of your own errors.
  3. Every author should have a suitably qualified editor.

Given how long I have been writing fiction, how much I pride myself on my English skills and how many times I’ve edited my own work, you’d think I’d be pretty depressed to get a 90,000 word manuscript back from my copyeditor (take a bow, Lynn Curtis) with nearly 6000 corrections and suggestions.  Far from it: I have learnt to be thankful I spent the money, and get stuck into the re-work. (I’ve also learnt to be relieved, as Lynn tells me that’s not a bad markup rate.)

Recognizing the three facts above is enormously liberating. We write primarily because we feel we have a good or important story to tell, not because we think our fabulous grasp of language needs showing off, and that’s exactly as it should be. However, when it comes to writing, most authors are perfectionists, and we will re-edit our own work until someone puts a <insert your weapon of choice or literary genre> to our heads – but we’re still not going to see a quarter of the mistakes we’ve made. So we authors have to look at independent editing as an opportunity – not a cost, added chore or unnecessary extra to our writing process.

So, you’re going to take my advice and get an editor. What should you look for?

You don’t want to ask a mate. If they’ve been your mate for years, the relationship will trump the honest critical editor’s eye you’re asking them to use for a few days. We authors need honesty in an editor, even if we don’t want it. And we need our mates.

It’s important you trust your editor’s professional skills. Check out their CV, the genres they’ve worked in, the other writers they’ve edited, their references. They ARE going to make criticisms: you WILL have to take most of them if you are going to improve your writing, and probably your storytelling too. It’s why you went to them, after all. If you expected to be told your manuscript was perfect, you weren’t being realistic (see the facts above).

Have a budget. A 90,000 word book is likely to take around 30 to 40 hours to professionally edit.  You may have a favour you can call in from someone suitably qualified, but a week’s earnings – that’s quite a favour.

And what should you expect from your editor?

If they’re good at their job they’ll have other clients. Plan well ahead, set a realistic timetable and if you want them to meet your deadlines, make sure you meet theirs. If you couldn’t wangle that favour, expect to be asked for an advance, and the balance when their work is done. They have a living to make.

Be aware that sometimes they’re going to say something needs major rework. It may be your favourite section. When you’ve finished crying, man up, look at why and fix it. If J.K. Rowling can do it, so can you.

Sometimes they’ll suggest an alternative word or phrase, to help make your meaning clearer or the story flow better. Often they’ll hit what you were really trying to say bang on the head; other times their words aren’t right for your style of writing, or the character involved, but that may prompt you to some more work. Occasionally there will be ambiguity in your writing, so they’ve taken the wrong message away. You don’t have to make every change proposed but they’ve written a comment for a reason, so check every one out.

In summary, every comment from an editor is an opportunity for YOU to make YOUR writing better.

And if you find your perfect editor, treasure them!

To check out my editor, Lynn Curtis, visit www.lynncurtis.co.uk

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