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Is a Good Editor Really So Hard to Find?
by Deborah Greenspan
As a book publisher, I’ve been answering the same questions from writers about editing since Breezeway Books was created fifteen years ago. That’s a long time and a lot of questions. Many writers ask how to tell the difference between a bad editor and a good editor and wonder if they can get by without editing.
If you’re not an editor, it’s hard to know what’s well written and what isn’t. I’ve seen books that were “edited” by “editors” who thought the best way to write was to add as many adjectives as possible. This is not good editing or good writing. A good editor will clarify what you’ve written, make it clearer and usually more concise. Good editing is like walking a tightrope: making the grammar correct while leaving the ideas and the author’s voice intact. If the author is already a pretty good writer, this is not too hard, but if the author needs rewriting or heavy editing, then it can be very difficult. A good editor requires a touch that is both delicate and ruthless at the same time, wielding a pen as if it were a surgeon’s knife.
Some inexperienced authors wonder if they really need editing at all. Why can’t they just go with what they’ve written the way it’s written? Writers who’ve been around, on the other hand, know from experience that they don’t want reviewers telling them that their work needs editing or readers telling them that they just couldn’t finish the book; there were too many mistakes. Even professors with Ph.D.s have proofreading done; they know the value of a good editor and how embarrassing little mistakes can be.
What about the spelling and grammar checking functions of your word processor? Some writers think they should be good enough, but truth is, they don’t work that well. Often, they fail to locate the actual mistakes and tell you to correct things that are already correct. If you’re really good at grammar, if you’re a good editor yourself, grammar check is useful for catching things you might have missed. If you’re not, grammar check is nearly useless, underlining the wrong words in the sentence.
What if you’re a good editor as well as a writer? Why would you need editing? As an experienced writer, you know that it takes draft after draft to get your ideas and your language perfect, to get the words right, so that what you say is what you meant. And as a writer, you also know that it’s easy to start seeing words on the screen that should be there and aren’t. If you’ve read your work through frequently enough, it’s easy to read right through the errors. In that case, a good editor reading with fresh eyes will uncover what you’ve missed. A good editor will also be able to tell the difference between homonyms (bear/bare), which your word processor cannot, and no one but a good editor can provide the feedback you need to create a better book.
A good editor will look at your manuscript at no cost to you, and give you an idea of what, if anything, your book needs. You may need proofreading to correct errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, along with inconsistencies in format and capitalization; or you might need editing, which does all that, and also looks at the bigger picture of style, clarity, and questionable grammatical and structural choices. Some writers may need rewriting, which does everything proofreading and editing do but also includes rewriting sentences as well as looking for holes in the plot, finding better ways to build character, tying up loose ends, and helping the writer handle point of view and build momentum. Whatever condition your book is in, a good editor is your best friend.