The book editor kerfuffle

The latest twitter tantrum concerns whether amateur writers should hire an editor or manuscript readers to help the author clean up and develop their manuscript.

Some of the people providing editing services say it’s necessary to hire them if you wish to produce the kind of quality work agents might be willing to take a chance on.

But, the loudest voices in this conversation are from those people trying to urge aspiring writers not to bother unless, as one person put it, they are independently wealthy.

I believe the people who say you don’t need to have your book edited in order to win over an agent. There’s no guarantee doing so will help you succeed.

However, with the advent of easy self-publishing, uptick in vanity press services, an entire cottage industry of writing advice gurus (most of whom, ironically, have never written an interesting piece of fiction) and independent publishing houses, there are arguably as many people who call themselves writers as readers.

And the result is not good.

The standards which once prevented amateurish book design and subpar writing, I’m being generous here, have largely disappeared.

This drop in quality hasn’t only affected Indie writing.

More and more, I pick up copies of books produced by university presses, literary magazines, and even traditional big publishing firms and am both dumbfounded and irritated by the poor writing quality.

“How did this schmuck get a book deal?”

Two reasons writing quality in finished products has decreased:

  1. If anyone, regardless of ability and dedication, is allowed to do a thing, the overall quality of the thing—be it sports, cooking, or writing—suffers. Worse, there is more competition among authors for the reader’s eyeballs than ever before. This means readers have to sift through piles of costly garbage to find the occasional work that touches them in a special way. You might have to buy 10 bad books to find one good book. All that money goes not to supporting great writers but crawling around in the literary murk while trying to locate them.
  2. Publishers don’t have the time or money to put into developing books like they did in the old days. Gone are the months or years of work that a talented book editor can spend working with the writer to turn their ideas into a literary masterpiece.

Sure, you might be a competent writer—something most writers are not. You might find an agent who likes but doesn’t love your manuscript. That agent might convince a publishing house your mediocre book will sell enough copies to cover the costs associated with producing it.

But, even if all that happens, if you started the process with a mediocre product, the best you can hope for—even with the aid of a professional proofreader, line editor, and developmental editor—is mediocre-plus.

And that’s what most books on store shelves are—mediocre-plus.

The stories are coherent and the grammar is correct and there are some interesting turns of phrase and there might even be a moderately interesting storyline.

But they’re not good and they’re not great.

No one will remember these books in 100 years or 50 or even 10.

I’m not suggesting you send your manuscript to an editor after the first draft. Someone asked that question the other day and I about screamed.

My historical fiction novel—which could be panned by readers should I ever get it published—went through four rounds of beta reading and 12 rounds of revisions before I even considered hiring a developmental editor.

“Who am I?” You might be asking.

I’m me.

Who the hell are you?

  1. Don’t hire an editor because you puked up 100,000 words and are too lazy or disinterested to clean up the mess.
  2. Don’t hire an editor in hopes they’ll tell you what a genius you are. Because you’re probably not.

I get it. I’m a snob and a meany and an asshole because I don’t see writing as a team sport. I don’t think everyone has a story to tell. I don’t believe you should keep on going if you’ve failed at writing for years and years because chances are 99.9% that you aren’t good enough. Most of us are not.

People point to Stephen King and J.K. Rowling as evidence of the power of sticktoitiveness but they are the .0000001% of writers who try and fail and fail and fail and then eventually win.

I cringe when I see people on Twitter complaining about how they have writers block … when what they mean is they’re lazy and uncommitted. I fume when people calling themselves writers demand other people online give them motivation so they can write.

If you don’t come screaming to the page with passion and desire, you certainly should not waste money on an editor. Find a different hobby.

The work can be boring, soul-sucking, and terribly hard. But writing should be something you’re compelled to do over all other things … besides breathing and pooing.

Writing is art. It’s craft. It’s what separates us from the animals. It’s arguably the most important thing humans have ever done to improve our race’s quality of life.

It’s my reason for living. And if it’s yours, too, then hoo-fucking-rah!

So, yeah, I take it deathly serious. And I hate anyone who plays at writing while pretending they take it seriously.

I wouldn’t dare go try to be a professional athlete or painter or musician unless I was prepared to put all my time and energy for a great many years into developing my skills in those areas.

I sure as hell wouldn’t call myself any of those things.

But, that’s the odd thing about writing: you can be feckless in every aspect of your life but somehow cover for your shiftlessness by calling yourself a writer … even if you spend close to zero time actually reading and writing.

Sacrifice and dedication are what separate real writers from people who like to talk about being writers.

Sacrifice might mean scrimping and working your day job a little extra because good editing isn’t free or even cheap. It will cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

I’ve put near $600 into proofreading and editing my historical fiction novel. Money I’d rather not have spent.

Of course, when I look at my first “finished” version of the novel from a few years ago, and where it is now, I both cringe and rejoice—at how truly awful bad it was then and how amazing it is now.

My paid readers pointed out things I simply couldn’t see in my early work. They let me know I had too much narrative in the beginning, that my dream sequences and flashbacks were real boner-killers, that some of my passages were purple or preachy, that my poetic prose sometimes pulled them from the story in a bad way, and that character richness and motivation were sometimes lacking.

Thanks to all that valuable input, I was able shape my story, cut the boring stuff, strengthen the people who live in its pages, and make what I think is going to be one hell of a book.

Look, nobody is going to put a gun to your head or force you to hire an editor or pay your beta readers. Though, those are big jobs and people deserve to be paid for their work.

You might be one of the very few who can write 80,000 words of near-perfection.


If you’re not, but you take your work seriously, you may want to look into getting some help from people other than your friends and family and other frustrated writers … none of whom will give you the kind of constructive feedback you’ll need to improve your book.

In the end, I hope you decide not to use any editorial services because that means less competition.

Don’t like my big stupid opinion? Here are some great pieces with all sorts of ideas on whether to hire a book editor: