Earlier this week, I was invited to talk to a group of aspiring authors at the Book Brilliance’s monthly Voice and Pen networking event on the topic of the importance of editing. It was lovely to hear from so many motivated and talented authors about their current projects, and it was a privilege to be invited to speak. The event was recorded, so you can watch the full event here, but here is a rough transcript – because, yes, in true me-style, I dropped my notes! – of the first part of my speech: Why You Should Work with an Editor on Your Next Book.
Although it’s exhilarating to publish your first book, it’s a steep learning curve for first-timers, so that’s why it’s paramount to surround yourself with a strong team to not only to guide you through the technicalities and support you when you need a helping hand, but who is also able to author you honest advice tailored to your particular project.
And the person who will do just that, your best friend in the publishing process, is your editor. In the traditional publishing model, they act as your project manager, taking your book from start to finish, but in more independent and partnership models, they are just as useful, providing you with helpful feedback so that you can do your best work. Some writers argue that they don’t see the point in an editor – they’ve got Microsoft spellcheck for that – and would rather spend their budget elsewhere, on marketing or cover design, but an editor is so much more than just a spelling check.
So would I be right in assuming that the majority of you would love to be published traditionally with a nice advance to go with it?
Yeah, me too. But alas, the world of publishing has changed so dramatically with infrastructure, culture, technology and even the pandemic, that it’s even harder than ever to get noticed by the acquiring editors and agents, which is why it’s so important to make sure that your manuscript is as strong as possible before you even think about sending it out into the big wide world.
The literary agent Stephen Laube once said that if he gets sent a submission that is 90% of the way to a sellable manuscript, he can take it past the line. However, if it’s only 80% of the way, he’ll reject it. That’s not a lot of margin of error, really?
This may be a daunting prospect, but this statistic is not supposed to scare you, but inform and inspire, to motivate you to put your best foot forward, and the best person to help you do that is an editor.
(As a short aside, although I specialise in fiction, the majority of these tips and comments that follow are applicable to both fiction and non-fiction publishing, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re publishing a children’s book, a self-help manual or a fantasy fiction trilogy, these pointers apply to all types of writing!)
Writing can often be a isolating experience, with just you, the pen and the paper, beavering away for months on a single project. However, the problem with this is that because authors have been working on their manuscript for so long, they are unable to see the word for the trees when they finally come to revise their manuscript as they simply know it too well. This is when an editor is a godsend because they act as your fresh pair of eyes, seeing the manuscript differently, providing feedback that you simply haven’t thought about yourself because you’re too close to the manuscript. As editor Mary Kole points out, another word for editing is ‘revision’, so breaking this down, ‘re–vision’ is the process of seeing again.
This leads to the second point of why working with an editor is important, because no author can ever be objective about their own work, no matter how hard they try. There will always be bits you favour or parts that you know aren’t quite right but are avoiding dealing with. I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard of the writing concept of ‘killing your darlings’ – where if you love it, it probably has to go? It’s so hard to make those decisions, but much easier to deal with when an objective editor suggests that perhaps you might want to think about cutting those three extra chapters that you tried to sneak in there, or that anecdote that you find hilarious but that isn’t quite come across that way.
And this is why some writers are hesitant of working with an editor because they’re worried about the feedback they’re going to get, plus it’s bloody terrifying sending your work out to someone you don’t know. It’s easy to ask your family and friends, because you know – for the most part anyway – that they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but with a stranger it can feel like a gamble. What if they hate it? What if it’s rubbish? What if they tell me to start again? Well, in the spirit of honesty, the feedback you get might not all be positive, but then again, that’s what you’ve hired them for, to suggest places where you need to improve. If it’s all positive – congratulations, you’ve achieved the impossible: a perfect manuscript! – but it also doesn’t help the writer to learn, and is just an exercise in ego-stroking. However, so although they’ll tell you some parts that might need more work, editors are also aware of the privileged position they occupy, and so will treat your manuscript with respect. In this way, it’s also an editor’s job to tell you what you’re doing really well. Therefore, an editor can act as a vote of confidence to cheer you on when you’re doubting yourself, reaffirm your motivation in any wobbly moments – because we all have those – and give you the push you need to make your manuscript as strong as possible, whilst giving you actionable advice on how to get there.
Because that’s another key point about working with an editor as opposed to just asking your immediate circle to read your manuscript. Not only will you benefit from objective advice, you’ll also be on the receiving end of years’ worth of expertise – a vital tool when striving to find a place in the competitive book market. Editors often specialise in a particular field or genre, so when you work with them, you don’t just have their general knowledge about grammar, structure etc, but also a wealth of specialist knowledge and experience to draw on. As I said before, I specialise in crime, suspense and thriller, so I keep up to date with market trends, trade buzz etc so that I can transfer that knowledge to my clients’ projects. So, for example, if you’re a crime fiction writer and are thinking about sending in that lockdown-inspired locked-room thriller, you may want to think again as listening to commercial publishers, the market isn’t quite ready for that yet – it’s still a bit too raw!
With a little pressure taken off you by your editor’s market knowledge and expertise, this then frees you up to focus on what matters: the story. One of the things that many writers complain about is that they find it so hard to finish their manuscript because they are obsessing with the details, but if you know you’re sending your manuscript off to an editor, you can rest easy and know that you can concentrate on writing the best story you can, because that’s the most important part, and leave the details to them, because, no matter how correct your grammar and spelling is, no amount of editing will make a bad book good!
Because that is ultimately what those acquiring editors and agents are looking for; a good story! And as we know, getting your book noticed is not easy, and it’s even harder when you’ve only got one shot at it, because when you send your manuscript out into the world you only have that one chance to make a first impression. Whether you’re submitting to an agent or publisher, or self-publishing your book, you don’t want to be judged by typos and poor grammar, or any plot holes or clangers that have been left behind in the manuscript. Because the sad fact is that agents receiving thousands of submission a year, added to the fact that nearly 200,000 thousand new books are published in the UK each year – it’s more like a million, globally. So, yep, there’s a lot of competition out there. And if an agent, publisher or reader gets the impression that the manuscript is hard to read, isn’t offering the information they’re promised, or that it’s unprofessional – because, an unedited book is an unprofessional book – then that’s a reader lost. And with so many other books on the market, it will be very hard to convince they to try again. In this way, you have to put forward the very best version of your manuscript – and yourself, because as an author you are a brand – and make the strongest impression you can the first time around.
Working with an editor is an incredibly rewarding experience and can take your manuscript from merely good to great! But this isn’t restricted to just the one manuscript, because as a writer you’ll learn from the editor’s feedback and therefore apply the comments to your next manuscript and so improve your writing skill – and there is nothing more rewarding for an editor to see their author improve with every novel. The irony of an editor’s role is that the sign of a job well done is that your client’s need you less and less each time!
Why You Need an Editor when Writing Your Next Book:
– They act as a fresh pair of eyes
– They offer an objective opinion
– They can be a vote of confidence, your personal cheerleader
– They have years’ worth of expertise to share with you
– Having an editor frees you up to focus on what matters: the story
– You only have that one chance to make a first impression, so you’ve got make it count.
– The benefits extend beyond one manuscript