It’s about more than typos

Why should you hire an editor? I mean, your neighbour, who taught high school English, looked over your manuscript and said it was really good, so probably it doesn’t need any work, right? Or you gave it to a friend who has a degree in English literature and they said it was fine. In fact, your manuscript is probably perfect and could just be published right now, as is, without any further intervention, right?

I love you dearly, and you’re wrong. A manuscript is NEVER done. Not even after it’s been published. Even eagle-eyed copy editors and proof readers miss things. I *guarantee* you that your friendly neighbourhood English teacher, who might be an excellent English teacher but who probably isn’t a trained editor, is going to miss things. I guarantee you that your well-intentioned English major friend probably has plenty of errors in their own papers; they may or may not have even understood what the errors were in the first place. You wouldn’t expect someone with journeymans’ papers in electrical work to do a good job on your plumbing, would you? Or a mechanic to do your drywalling? Or a doctor to provide you with good legal advice?

You probably think it’s painful to spend time with those of us who sniff in derision at restaurant menus. “Look,” we say. “Can you BELIEVE they did THAT with an apostrophe? Give me your pen. Give me. Your pen.” Or worse, we stop you in the middle of a story to tell you that you didn’t really mean to say “the beer cans emulated from section X of the stands”, because “emulate” means “to imitate or reproduce or to surpass in imitation”, and that you PROBABLY meant to say “emanated from section X of the stands”, which isn’t *exactly* right but it’s a damned sight closer than ’emulate’. The truth is editors are insufferable. We love each others’ company because we can get all pretentious over things like a transitive verb being used incorrectly or – holiest of holies – humourous dangling participles. We’re insufferable and we’re hopelessly nerdy.

We will agonize for days – DAYS – over whether that sentence ought to read “he had run out of shotgun shells” or “he ran out of shotgun shells”. We are moved to tears by a superbly placed piece of punctuation. Good syntax sends shudders of pleasure up our spines. We choose to study editing because we are perfectionists (even if not all of us can button our shirts properly), because we are detail-oriented (in language; please don’t ask how detail-oriented I am at cutting the dogs’ hair), because  we love challenges (‘does this sentence say what you intend it to say? It reads this way. Unless you assume this. In which case, oooooh!’), and because we love language (I am ashamed to admit how many listserves/RSS feeds/mailing lists I belong to that talk about word origins. It’s a lot).

Editors’ work is usually undervalued because folks think anybody can do it. Folks think that because spell check exists, you don’t need to pay an editor (let me remind you that ‘pubic’ and ‘public’ are both spelled correctly in this post, as are ‘can’t’ and ‘cunt’). Spell check won’t make your writing sound as good as it can, and it certainly won’t correct your pubics and your cunts. Assuming you want them corrected to publics and can’ts.

We do a hell of a lot more than just check your spelling and your diction and your syntax and the flow of your work. We check facts (I’m working on a manuscript right now about cowboys and ranches, and while I’ve spent time working on a ranch, I had no idea what a sleigh bung was or what calf scours were, so I looked them up to make sure the terms were being used correctly. I researched the places mentioned in the manuscript because although I didn’t know many of them, the people reading this book will, and you don’t want a town’s name spelled wrong), figures, charts, and in some cases we even check your arithmetic. We move things around within your manuscript so that the narrative is logical, whether it’s fictional or non-fictional. We make sure your voice comes through in a way that no one could tell anyone but you has ever touched it.

We are ghosts; we are the wind behind your words – you should never be able to tell that an editor has ever been through your work, but without us, you don’t shine the way you should.

Also published on Medium.



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5 responses to “It’s about more than typos”

  1. Dirck Avatar

    ‘We will agonize for days – DAYS – over whether that sentence ought to read “he had run out of shotgun shells” or “he ran out of shotgun shells”. ‘

    Surely that’s down to context, isn’t it? “…the previous winter, and was reduced to making snares to catch squirrels for the pot” vs. “…just before he ran out of intolerable co-workers, but a willing mind and a three-hole punch took care of the remaining problem.”

    Of course, I’m not a professional.

    1. cenobyte Avatar

      It CAN be down to context, but context can be variable depending on what you’re trying to accomplish and the tone of the rest of the passage.

      Seriously. DAYS.

      “Just change the tense of the entire rest of the manuscript to match this line; that’s easy!”

      But also, to many writers, that context is clear. To many other writers, it isn’t. That’s why you need editors.

  2. Cori Avatar

    I have shared this with the editing corps at work.

  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Avatar

    If it doesn’t lead to the edited writer learning how to do this better next time, it isn’t learning.

    I think it’s disgraceful the way ‘writers’ who publish depend on someone else to ‘fix’ their work; they can’t be bothered to learn how to do it themselves. Many don’t even KNOW they can’t do it themselves.

    The editor’s job isn’t to catch and fix your mistakes, it is to find the things you didn’t which would embarrass you terribly if they were still there when you finished. You should know.

    Some writers really care.

    1. cenobyte Avatar

      Actually, Alicia, I disagree with you. It IS the editor’s job to find and fix your mistakes. That’s why there are copy editors and proofreaders. It’s also the editor’s job to make your writing the best it can be. While many writers are extremely talented, not a single one of them produces work that can’t be made better with constructive criticism, error correction, and, in many cases, developmental work on the manuscript.

      Editing isn’t primarily about fixing grammar and typos (although that’s primarily the job of some kinds of editors). Writers don’t depend on editors to fix their work. Publishers (whether they are self publishers or submission-model publishers or hybrid presses or Scholarly presses or newspapers or magazines or websites or what have you) depend on editors to present the best product possible. Writers who eschew all editorial treatment are not going to be competitive in the marketplace.

      Yes, the writer should be learning something during the editorial process. A GOOD editor is also a teacher. Also sometimes a therapist. Also a cheerleader. A GOOD editor doesn’t tell you how to do things and how not to do things; she makes recommendations based on her experience working with hundreds, possibly thousands, of other works. Some editors work solely on games; some work solely on fiction or poetry manuscripts. Some of us do a little bit of everything and have worked on corporate documentation, government legislation, fiction, poetry, scholarly/academic articles and books, journalists’ articles, restaurant menus, etc., etc., etc..

      A good WRITER is someone who can tell a story. I’m working with a manuscript right now that’s been written by a master storyteller who, for a multitude of reasons was not able to complete the fifth grade, so their writing skills are not strong. But the STORY is. The challenge for this manuscript is to not rewrite it. It must remain in the author’s voice (which is very strong); I have to make sure I correct what’s wrong, question what I don’t understand, maintain good and open communication with the author (f’rinstance, I moved some things around within a chapter because they made more sense in a linear manner; the author told me it would be an error to keep it that way, and explained why, and that evolved into the author adding more material so that it would be clear to the reader), and make sure I’m only making the author’s words better. A good editor has a keen eye for details that are very, very easy to miss. Even for a writer.

      Yes, every writer should learn how to edit her own work. But that doesn’t mean that writers are the best editors for their own work. It means they know how to prepare a professional product that always – ALWAYS, without exception, can be improved simply by having a second set of eyes take a gander. All writers SHOULD care. I have never, to date, read a book that does not contain at least one error, regardless of who edited it. Sometimes those errors could be chalked up to errors in judgement or style (sorry, the rest of the world, but the Oxford comma is simply necessary at times); sometimes they’re just things that even six sets of eyes miss in the production process.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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