“Please turn to page 127,” she said.
The word “I” had been circled every time it appeared on the page.
“How many circles are there?” she asked.
I counted fourteen. The page nearly jumped and jostled with circled I’s. But I was not sure what to make of this. Every time I’d written “I,” I meant “I.” Was it wrong to mean “I” so much? Or did the problem have to do with the word itself? Ought I find a synonym–is there a synonym?–for “I?” But no, I suspected the problem ran deeper.
– Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark
Deliberate is a good word.
As adjective, it means purposeful, the opposite of careless: careful.
As verb, it means to engage in careful consideration.
Deliberate, de-liberate, is to remove carelessness. It’s a good word for clarifying why editors are so feared and often untrusted. Their work is frustrating. Writers need them, sure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dread their constraining, de-liberating work.
After all, the editor’s job is to constrain the writer, to bind her wandering words to her intended meaning. You recognize the implication here? The blinding light of inescapable judgment? Like a reckoning?
To the extent you’ve found liberation in writing, an editor de-liberates, evaluates, measures, balances, and masters it. Like a dog.
Famous editor Sol Stein talks about writers getting out of the way of their work, the way Fitzgerald said his editor Max Perkins helped him do. All the throat-clearing distraction and unprofessional insertion and interpretations an author tends to give, the explaining and artful hiding they do, it’s not needed, so editors are helpful, if annoying, sort of house elves.
But honestly, professional editing is not required for any author anymore. Only those entering the traditional industry of royalty-paying publishers. It’s only necessary for reaching a broader audience than the author can reach on their own, if that’s what they want. This painful sacrificing of your way–the unconsidered way–for the better way, it requires an uncomfortable humility, a submitting.
And if you’re gonna do it, that’s not optional.
When I was a self-conscious writer just starting out as an evil editor, I used to try and make a case for editing, try to argue for the professional painful poking and proding of editing. But after so many years, I’ve given up. I’m tired of convincing. I finally decided professionally edited books speak for themselves.
But how can you know when you need an editor? Is there a best time to seek editing?
I think, yes. At least, when you’re a beginner, an editor can help right away–although I wouldn’t recommend hiring an expensive one until you’ve got some experience writing and being critiqued by strong readers. Learn from their books, classes, videos, posts, and articles. Find one or a few you like in your genre and enjoy that learning stage. You can gain so much online these days it’s not even funny.
When you first seek out an editor, you’ll need help with structure, theme, and deeper issues than style and craft. Most editors are better writers than you, but it’s because they know how to set up a story, create context, and identify the underlying promise with tangible examples and sensory detail. Their word choices, clarity, efficiency, and sentences are all secondary to satisfying storytelling.
For example, many writers begin by frontloading their story with backstory. We need to care about our primary character first, so polishing the flashback scene doesn’t help. It needs to be moved to later in the book. In nonfiction, the big problem or context for the promise you’re offering readers hasn’t been sufficiently developed. Developmental editing (substantive editing, or content editing) ensures the book feels weighty and important at the outset.
That’s the kind of thing you’ll get once you’ve written the book, so it’s best to simply write and not worry about wasting time and effort. It’s often more easily solvable once you’ve completed the journey.
But if anxiety about having to edit later is derailing you from writing, or if you’ve gotten some strong pushback from readers about fundamental elements–character, plot, setting, theme–an evaluation or consult with an editor may be a good idea.
Coaching is for writers who need deep encouragement to face their dragons and go into that cave they fear. It’s one thing to know it holds the treasure and you just have to do it, but it can be quite another to keep showing up day after day and struggling to explain why you’re doing this to yourself. But specific editing comments during writing are minor and mainly for reassurance.
The best time to hire an editor in my opinion is after you’ve completed two full drafts and had 2 or 3 trusted readers offer detailed feedback. Building that community is essential and prepares you for professional feedback. Then when major revision or minor recreating is recommended, you’ll have some idea of why and how to do it.
Everyone is different, so you need to consider your personal situation and experience level. If you’re a freshman, senior level classes are going to be hard to apply–and vice versa. What you read and how much you pick up from it are very important factors. If you’re in the writing process, enjoy that and if/when you get stuck, consider a consult if no trusted friends can advise.
While editing is about far more than fixing errors, identifying issues that require some revision is not as painful, horrendous, mortifying, life-altering as most authors tend to think. Take heart, warrior. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to survive a rewrite.
You’ll be assessed, you’ll be shaped, and you’ll grow. All good things come in good time. Don’t short-circuit the supercharging work your inspirer’s intended to challenge, spur, and revise you.
I looked at my manuscript in my suitcase, thought about all those beautiful, hilarious, poignant people I had been working with for almost three years, and all of a sudden I was in a rage. I called my editor at home. He was not planning on going to work that day. He was a little depressed, too. “I am coming over,” I said, and there was a silence, and then he said, very tentatively, “Okay,” like he wanted to ask, “And will you be bringing your knives?”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
It’s all, always been, for a higher purpose,