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Janey Burton

PUBLISHING CONSULTANT

Editor & Contracts Negotiator

There are many myths out there about editing and editors, and these myths discourage writers from engaging in this crucial step in the publishing process, the one that can make their book as good as it can be. Here are some myths I see regularly in my inbox, at publishing events, and in online writing advice groups.

Myth 1: An editor will steal your book or idea

By far the most common objection I see from amateur writers, especially in Facebook writing groups. They all seem convinced they’ve written something original and amazing straight out of the gate, and that everyone they encounter is plotting to steal it as soon as read it. Actually, the bigger problem is always getting someone to read the book at all.

It’s always the tough-talking amateurs who bang on about how they’ve avoided the many scammers out there – they’re so busy fighting off the hordes of imaginary thieves they can’t see that no one has expressed more than a polite interest in their work. In most cases the work itself is likely to be both highly derivative (the irony!) and a first draft of a first book (and therefore not worth buying or stealing). Even if it is good, no editor is interested in stealing their book because editors are well aware that would be a silly crime.

Myth 2: Editors are too expensive or aren’t value for money

Yes, editing can be expensive. My services are somewhere in the middle of the market in terms of price: you can pay a lot more, especially for specialist editors, and equally a lot less for a new editor trying to build up a little experience.

If the editor is properly trained and is a match for you and your work, then they’re definitely value for money. ProWritingAid and similar tools can’t catch everything, and require a knowledgeable human to use properly because, being computer programs, they look for patterns and cannot understand context.

Depending on what type of editing you’re looking for, human editors will catch: the confusables like past/passed or affect/effect; that a character’s pregnancy is now entering its fifteenth month or their cropped hair has overnight become shoulder-length; and suggest ways to make the beginning more compelling, the middle less baggy, and the ending more satisfying – none of which a computer program can do.

Basically, you can’t afford not to have an editor – every successful writer is edited.

Myth 3: An editor will change your voice or cut all the good bits

Bad editors might do that, especially when untrained or overwhelmed by a manuscript that needs a lot of work, but a good editor will see the difference between your voice, and writing that is distractingly flowery, or bogging the narrative down.

This objection is often from a writer who doesn’t want to ‘kill their darlings’ – they fall in love with a passage or a scene and this prevents them from noticing that it isn’t adding anything. As I’ve said elsewhere, that a passage contains some of your best writing is not a good enough reason to keep it – it has to earn its place, or it has to go. In fact, cutting the unnecessary material often results in huge improvements to the manuscript as a whole.

Myth 4: Editing will turn it into a bestseller!

There’s no such thing as a guaranteed bestseller. As the late William Goldman memorably said, ‘Nobody knows anything’, and this is borne out by the many stories of writers who wrote a sure-fire winner that sank without trace, or an unexpected hit. No one can know a book is going to be a bestseller until it is.

As many rounds of layoffs have reduced in-house editing considerably, many acquiring editors expect the books they buy to be basically ready to publish. Getting a book professionally edited merely means it is closer to ready to publish than it was before.

Editors aren’t the ones who create bestsellers. A book’s popularity often comes from a fantastic premise or amazing storytelling or writing that compels the reader to continue – these things aren’t created by the editor, merely excavated or polished up.

Myth 5: An editor will hand back an error-free, ‘perfect’ book

No one is perfect, including editors. Neither are books – can you think of a ‘perfect’ book? It is not possible for one person to catch every error in a manuscript. Typos can remain even after several passes by different editors.

An editor who catches around 95% of the errors in a manuscript is doing good work (so if you find a single typo after you’ve paid for professional editing, that doesn’t mean the editor’s work was shoddy).

Editors are not superhuman – we cannot create a good book out of a bad one, so beware giving up on self-editing too soon and thinking ‘the editor will fix it’ because, remember, the more work the editor has to do, the more it will cost.

Fact: Every successful writer is edited

Now these myths have been exploded, let’s deal with realities.

What you should do is find an editor who is trained (either by accredited courses or via experience as an editor at a publishing house), who works in your category, and with whom you feel comfortable, and then trust them to do their job.

An editor is on your side, they’re not an enemy who is trying to tear your work down out of envy (it’s another myth that we’re all failed writers, and it’s much better for us as editors if our clients’ books do well). Of course, you should ask questions – any editor will be able to tell you about their experience or why they made that particular change to the manuscript – but don’t be blinded by myths.

Don’t let a few misconceptions dissuade you from entering into a valuable relationship with the person who can do the most to improve your book.