An American Editor

May 2, 2011

The Editor: A Writer’s Fairy Godmother or Ogre?

Today’s guest article is by Australian author Vicki Tyley. Regular readers of An American Editor will recall my review of her mysteries in On Books: Murder Down Under. She has 3 books available and you can buy them at a significant discount until May 15, 2011 using the codes found in Worth Noting: A Gift from Down Under or in Worth Noting: A Gift From Down Under Redux.

In previous articles (too many to list here, but you can see Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem and the articles cited therein), the need for professional editing has been discussed, but primarily from an editor’s perspective. Vicki Tyley provides us with the author’s perspective.


The Editor: A Writer’s Fairy Godmother or Ogre?

The digital age opened the floodgates to all those writers who’d been trying for years to break through that almost impenetrable publishing wall.

No more “does not suit our current publishing programme.”

No more “we’re too overcommitted, and as a result, can’t take on any new projects.”

No more “sorry, not for us.”

Screech! Wait. What about quality control? Where once upon a time it was the role of the publishing house to hone and polish a manuscript until it gleamed, in the case of an Indie publication it now falls to the author to produce that high quality, marketable product.

Readers love the opportunity to sample fresh and new authors, books that cross genres, books from around the world. However, they (and I am one of them) expect those works to be up to the standard of mainstream books. Unfortunately, the complaint I hear most about self-published works is that many fall a long way short in the editing department.

In the Amazon Kindle store alone there are 750,000+ titles. That’s a lot of choice for a reader. So why then, I asked myself, would a writer not give his/her book a fighting chance and have it edited?

Initially, I thought that maybe it was the expense. For a writer struggling to make ends meet, the investment of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars can make the idea of employing an experienced editor out of reach. I soon discovered that whilst this does hold for some, it isn’t the major deterrent.

First, do writers even need editors? How essential are they in the publishing process? To answer that, we need to understand the editorial role and the different levels of editing services available.

According to the Australian Institute of Professional Editors, the tasks that an editor performs can be grouped broadly into three levels: substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading. A comprehensive edit involves all three levels of edit. [For the An American Editor perspective, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.]

Substantive editing (sometimes called structural or content editing) aims to ensure that the structure, content, language, style and presentation of the document are suitable for its intended purpose and readership.

Copyediting aims to achieve accuracy, clarity and consistency in a document. It does not involve significant rewriting, providing a single authorial voice, or tailoring text to a specific audience—these belong to a substantive edit.

Proofreading (usually called this, but, more accurately, known as verification editing) involves checking that the document is ready to be published. It includes making sure that all elements of the document are included and in the proper order, all amendments have been inserted, the house or other set style has been followed, and all spelling or punctuation errors have been deleted.

Shelley Holloway of Holloway House sums it up simply: “You need another pair of eyes on your work to see what you don’t.” [For the An American Editor perspective, see The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud.]

Or as freelance editor and author SM Jobar puts it: “Most of us think we’ve written the best/most entertaining book ever, and then have the scales fall from our eyes when the failings are pointed out. It’s far better to publish a work you are sure you can be proud of than something that falls short of its potential.”

And most would agree with them. So why would any writer serious about his/her career skip this vital step? Are editors that scary — ogres to be feared? Well, that depends on the editor. Every industry has its good and bad operators; editorial services are no exception. I’ve heard mention of editors who have pressured writers to change his/her name, and of others who’ve tried to sway an author’s career in a completely different direction.

But by and large, the biggest issue is that of an editor changing an author’s “voice.” A good editor doesn’t do that. I learned a very expensive lesson about six years ago when I commissioned an editorial agency (I was never given the name of the editor, although I did later discover this through a slipup in removing document properties) based on an advertisement and testimonial in a writing magazine. No sample edit. No references. No anything. More fool me.

You can imagine my shock when I received the manuscript back to discover that the assigned editor had decided my book should be a dark thriller and not the mystery I’d written. I have no doubt that this particular editor was skilled in her job, but we weren’t a good match. She wanted to make the book into something it wasn’t.

Fortunately, I’d had a wonderful editor previously (sadly, she passed away), so I knew Ms/Mr Right existed. After a couple of days of licking my wounds, I decided that if I wanted to succeed, I had to find another editor. This time, though, I asked for a sample edit and references. I also decided not to mention the experience with the previous editor.

This time when the manuscript came back, I decided my new editor was a fairy godmother in disguise. The changes she’d made (using “track changes”) improved the book no end and added a shine I couldn’t have achieved on my own, yet it was still my voice. Thin Blood is my bestselling novel.

As William Campbell, author of the Dead Forever trilogy, points out, there are also two other kinds of editors to steer clear of:

1.Editor in disguise who really wants to ghost write.

The job of an editor is not to write your work. Copy editors and proofreaders will correct typos and change words to correct usage, but you shouldn’t see entire sentences rewritten. Even a developmental editor won’t. They might make large-scale suggestions to flesh-out a scene or character, or drastic cuts when you’re being redundant, but not write it for you word-by-word. That’s not an editor; that’s a ghostwriter. If that’s what you want, fine. Just don’t confuse one for the other. Me, and I imagine plenty of others, are NOT looking for ghostwriters. Any editor needs to be clear about their intentions for your work.

It’s these kind of disguised editors who strip away the author’s voice. If that’s the goal, fine. Just be aware.

2. English teachers who can’t stop teaching English.

While they may be helpful in correcting grammar, they can also ruin a novel. Business reports, or a college thesis, are not novels. Novels are by nature more colloquial and good editors understand that and take it into consideration. This is not to say grammar can be thrown out the window, or these editors will ignore it. A good editor knows the boundaries of what will “feel wrong” to the reader, in either extreme — bad grammar the same as grammar “too good.” Common people’s dialog does not sound like a college professor. Just hang out in any diner, listen a while, and you’ll see what I mean.

I also think some writers feel intimidated by editors. Not surprising as a skilled editor has a lot more experience than the first-time novelist. But just remember that if the author (versus a publisher) is paying for the editing services, the author is the one who has the final say. Editor Shelley Holloway of Holloway House agrees:

I am very clear that the author is the boss, and I am respectful that it’s his/her name on the cover — not mine. The control lies in the “accept/reject” buttons! If I make a word change, I explain why. If the author doesn’t like it, he/she can click the “X,” and it’s gone forever. I take full advantage of the “Insert Comment” tool! If there are paragraphs that are confusing; scene changes or voice changes that seem to come out of nowhere; dialogue that doesn’t sound like the character would say it; too many pronouns in a sentence or paragraph to know who’s who; excessive use of certain terms or phrases…and more — I point these things out. I often offer suggestions. Again, the author can accept or reject. I strongly believe it’s these sorts of things that an editor should provide in addition to grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.

Lynn O’Dell, Red Adept Editing Services, bills herself as an Indie Editor:

This means that while I make suggestions to ensure that books follow the common rules of writing fiction and presenting it to the public in good formats, i.e. using correct viewpoints, I do not try to force authors to change their actual plot, subject matter, or storyline. I tell my clients that I am going to make their story the best it can be.

In other words, I talk to the author (yes, by phone) and find out what their goals are with plot, storyline, and characters and use that information to edit or give suggestions.

See: they’re not all that scary. A good editor only wants what’s best for you. Not all editors are created equal. The author/editor partnership is like any other partnership — some work and some don’t. Each just needs to find the right fit. But don’t leave it until the last minute to start looking. Many editors — especially good ones — are booked months in advance.

I’ll leave the last word to freelance editor and author Rhonda Stapleton: “Don’t be afraid to ask around and get quotes. And ask for samples or references too. But please, take your work seriously. Even if you don’t hire an editor, get a trusted critique partner. They can find a lot of that stuff you miss.”


I know that fellow editors will agree with Vicki Tyley, but what about her fellow authors — do you agree? Is it cost that is the determining factor as to whether or not you will hire an editor?

One thing that is not addressed in the above article is the difference between having a professional editor work with you or the next-door neighbor who is an editorial dabbler. I know I wouldn’t presume to be capable of writing a novel at the high quality level of an author of Vicki Tyley’s caliber, but I do know authors who assume that their self-editing skills or the editing skills of friends and neighbors are on par with that of a professional editor. Speaking generally (there will always be an exception who demonstrates contrariwise), do those of you who are authors believe there is a difference between editors that breaks down into the professional and amateur categories? Do you view an editor as an ogre or a fairy godmother? Tell us what you think.


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