November 9, 2015

Talking Shop: The Responsibilities of Editors

I’ve heard it said here and there that, “The best thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. And the worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it.”

There’s a lot of criticism out there for self-published and Indie authors, based on the opinion that a good deal of self-published and indie material is simply not good. Poorly written, poorly researched, poorly edited...there are dozens of different components that go into publishing a good book worth paying money for, and with the freedom afforded by all the new self-pub services we have to choose from, the quality control of all these components can get by as largely unchecked.

I’m not going to say it’s an unfair criticism. There are a lot of really, really terrible self-published works out there that probably haven’t seen the business end of an editor’s red pen, or a basic spell-check program. It’s very, very easy for writers to get it into their head that writing a polished work is simple, and quality control is beneath them. Especially if they’re surrounded by a support network of people who, with perfectly good intentions, refuse to call out any of the flaws in their writer’s work.
If you’re a writer looking to get self-published, it is imperative you get an editor’s eyes on your work. It doesn’t matter if you graduated top of your class in English and Composition, or even if you are an editor yourself. You really, really must have a fresh set of eyes on your work that don’t belong to you, and are able to help you polish your work to be the best it can be. If you’re not willing to do this, you’re probably not ready to be published in any format.
But this blog post isn’t about the authors. This time, I want to talk about the editors offering their services out there. One thing I’ve come to learn, swimming in this grand indie author sea of talent, is that for every writer out there putting out work that isn’t well-edited and tidied up for presentation, there is also someone calling themselves an editor and charging money for a service they don’t know how to provide.
I’m not entirely sure what sort of resume editors are required to provide in the Indie Author’s Market. I lucked out by having an editor assigned to me by my first publisher, and having that particular editor be exactly the kind of supervisor I needed. All of my books so far (not including a few anthology submissions here and there) have been edited at length by Jayne Wolfe, a woman with a keen eye for detail and a frank, sensible manner of correction. As I said, though, I lucked out in being assigned to Jayne. We developed a relationship and a familiarity with each other’s working style before I ever had to consider hiring her on an independent basis. For an indie author navigating the waters on their own, finding an editor with the right credentials can be much more difficult.
Since my own first book came out in 2014, I’ve read a good deal of books by other indie authors and, with all honesty, I’ve read quite a few that had great potential...and terrible editing. Most recently, I was asked to read a book by a close friend and fellow author, someone whose work I was familiar with, who had hired an independent editor to help her in putting out her first self-published work.
Now, as I said, this was an author whose work I already knew. And, as I said, she hired this editor, paid them money for their service. Their editing, however, was—to my mind—unacceptable. Basic grammatical errors, missing punctuation, incorrect sentence structure...this so-called editor had taken an author I knew to be strong, on the whole, and “corrected” her work into something really, really poor.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen this among indie authors, either. In this case, I felt close enough to the author to give her my honest opinion, and offered to proof-read the manuscript again before she released it so full of errors. For almost anyone else, though, I fear the ultimate result would have been a release that A) rightfully received negative reviews based on shoddy editing and B) would reflect terribly on them as an author, regardless their actual talent.
What upsets me most about this is that the “editor” she went to was paid actual cash for the work, failed to live up to basic editing standards, and would have left my author friend none the wiser until reviewers began publicly pointing out errors that the editor should have caught. Even worse, this editor also works on-staff at a small press many of my indie friends have submitted to. Are these the standards employed at that press? Do the authors working with this “editor” realize how lackluster the work will be?
Just like anybody can self-publish a book these days, anybody can take a quick course in grammar and composition and call themselves an editor as well. Unfortunately, for writers looking for legitimate service providers, there’s no quality control for these editors besides our own awareness and willingness to demand critical work.
I don’t offer services as an editor and I don’t pretend to know the business of book presentation as well as a (good) editor, like Jayne, does. But I am a critical reader, and I’ve taken more than a few courses in grammar and composition. In fact, my specific degree is in English Language and Literature with an emphasis in Teaching. Perhaps it’s that last bit—the emphasis in teaching—that makes me so much more critical than most. The fact is that I’ll pick apart a book with poor editing, poor outlining, poor plot, grammar, continuity, and so on, sometimes with an almost joyful relish. This also means when I get an editor who doesn’t take me to task on my own shortcomings, or who tells me I don’t need any extra editing, I get suspicious and even a little angry. I do have faith in my own skill...but I’m not perfect, and I know it. An editor who can’t tell me that, or who shuffles my work aside because they think it’s a favor to me not to put me through edits, is not an editor worth paying.
The reason I think Jayne is a phenomenal editor is because she pays serious attention not just to the work in her hand, but to the style she knows I have developed. I don’t like to settle. I know from our history that Jayne doesn’t either. She could look at a manuscript and say, “Good enough, onto the next one!”, but instead she delves deeper to find ways in which “good enough” can be turned into something even better, something that stands out above all the other “good enough” books.
If you’re an indie author and you’re paying good money for an independent editor to help make your work the best it can be, don’t ever settle for an editor who is happy with “good enough”. This probably means the editor either A) doesn’t really know what he or she is doing, or B) wants to be finished with your work quickly so they can take on another client (selling more editing spots, putting cash over quality).
Authors, not every editor is worth your money. In the Indie community this is especially hard because we develop friendly relationships quite often, and we’d like to think we can trust someone we get along with casually to be someone we can also work with professionally. This isn’t always the case, however. A good editor is not measured by their friendliness or their sunshine factor (i.e., their ability to blow sunshine up your ass). Certainly you want to work with someone who is friendly and supportive, but an editor should be those things second, and an editor first.
Here are my personal expectations from a professional editor:
·       A critical reader. A good editor should be able to spot grammar and syntactical error and also monitor the continuity, believability, and strength of the plot from beginning to end.
·       Strong foundation in composition, punctuation, and grammatical structure. Your editor should know what a comma splice is and how to explain it to you. You do not want an editor who will “correct” something technical which you don’t believe is wrong, without being able to show you and explain to you why they suggest the correction.
·       Understanding of literary device. Your editor should know enough about literary device to understand and respect your use of it, or discuss with you why the device is not effective. There’s a difference between a casually repeated word (which should be changed if it sounds awkward), and intentional repetition for purposes of emphasis. Editors should be aware of this.
·       An honest manner of marking correction. An editor who can’t point out your errors and help you improve them is absolutely no use to you. And as the author, you need to know you have errors, even if you’ve polished the work as much as you think it can be polished! If your editor ever returns your work and tells you there’s really not much to correct, get a second opinion. If your editor doesn’t think your work really needs much editing, they shouldn’t be charging you to edit it.
·       A willingness and availability to discuss. One thing my editor always made clear to me was, as the author, I had final say. Anything she red-marked, I was perfectly at liberty to ignore (at my own risk, of name is on the cover, after all). An editor should be someone who will be absolutely honest with you about the quality of your work, but also willing to work with you on improving that work. Many times, if Jayne and I couldn’t agree on a correction, I asked her for suggestions and she provided a sounding board for me. Knowing I had final say was a comfort, but learning to exercise that privilege only in the rarest and most important circumstances was key. Jayne and I worked together to address corrections.
An author isn’t the only person whose work goes into the final, published product. Unfortunately, it’s usually the author who gets mud on their face if the product isn’t up to snuff. If you’re hoping to receive positive feedback on a book, you must take ownership of all its aspects, and you must seek out collaborators who will also put the quality of your product at the top of their priority list. If someone wants to be paid for editing your book, don’t accept sub-par performance. Seek out skilled and trustworthy editors, and when you find them, shout their praises. There are too many out there who will simply slap “Editor” on a business card and give your work a simple, cursory glance before moving on to the next manuscript, pumping them out on a fast-track assembly line while they charge authors money to do so.  If you’re paying them to work, make sure their work is worthy of your work.


  1. Great post! Will be sharing. I think more people should realize a lot of the points you showed in this article.

  2. Thank you so very much. I am not a writer or an editor, but I am a reader. Recently I started reading a book a friend had released, I had been debating if I should speak to her about some of the issues I had found (missing words mostly).

    After reading this, I think as a friend I will talk with her privately. I love her story, but it can make it hard to read.


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