An American Editor

April 22, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor

My first commandment for authors is this: Thou shall use a professional editor! I know I’ve said this before — many times — and I know that some of you will respond that you are capable of doing your own editing, or that crowd editing works just fine, or that your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law, who taught fourth graders English, does a fantastic job. Yet, haven’t you bought a book or two whose author you wanted to strangle because it was pretty obvious that a professional editor wasn’t used (or the editor’s advice wasn’t followed)?

We’ve hashed through some of the arguments in previous posts; see, for example, The Making of a Professional Editor, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2), and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud, but this is a topic that never dies.

Consider this statement: “Lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in group that usually backs them” (New York Times, April 10, 2013, page A12). What is wrong with this statement? (It was an article headline, which accounts for its brusqueness.) Does your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law know? I would guess that if it passed muster at the New York Times, it would pass her muster and that of the crowd editors, too.

I read this statement several times because I couldn’t quite figure out what was meant. Reading the article clarified the headline, but suppose I hadn’t read the article? Or suppose this was a sentence in your book, albeit written with the missing prepositions as: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs them.” The question that needs to be asked is: “Does ‘them’ mean ‘spending cuts’ or ‘lobbyists’?” Should the sentence be: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs spending cuts” or “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs the lobbyists”?

Two distinct meanings are possible, yet most readers would not catch that possibility. And this is the problem with having your book “edited” by someone other than a professional editor. Experienced, professional editors are trained to catch these types of errors; they have spent years mastering the art of not reading what they expect but of reading what is actually before them.

As the example illustrates, not catching this error can lead to misunderstanding. It makes a difference whether “them” means “spending cuts” or “lobbyists.” Readers will generally give more credence to the former than to the latter. After all, it has become clear in recent years, particularly with the intransigence of the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association over the issue of background checks, that lobbyists are not among the favored species.

There is a second aspect to this commandment, which is the professional editor’s fee. Think about how you work. Would you not agree that the less you are paid (or anticipate being paid) the less diligent you are in your work. What I mean is this: If you are currently paid $20 an hour and are satisfied with that sum for your current job, you perform your work diligently. If your employer comes to you and says that although your job will remain the same, your pay henceforth will be $10 an hour, are you likely to be as diligent? Or will you consider cutting corners? Most people would be less diligent and would cut corners.

Editors — professional and amateur alike — are no different. If you have a 50,000 word manuscript (approximately 200 manuscript pages), do you honestly think that the editor who is being paid $300 will be as thorough and professional as the editor who is being paid $1500? How fast will the editor need to go through your manuscript in order to earn a living wage? Do you expect that an editor who has to work faster will be as accurate as the editor who can take more time?

Most editors do multiple passes; this is especially true when the project is fiction and it is important to first grasp the whole story and get a feel for the characters. How many passes do you think that editor who is paid $300 will do? And if the editor is doing the project at their own expense (i.e., as part of a crowd edit or as a friend for free), how thorough an edit and how many passes is it reasonable to expect? How many passes would you do if it meant giving up your pleasure time?

Again, we all know people who would sacrifice their first-born to do a good job because they volunteered to do so, but that is the gamble you take. And the gamble can be devastating if it is lost. How many bad reviews can your book withstand? How many two- and three-star reviews that complain about the grammar would it take to sink your ability to sell your book, even at $2.99?

Professional editors are word doctors for authors. Just as you (or I) would not undertake to self-treat for cancer, we should not self-treat our books, which are a significant part of our life. Just as we would go to the doctor about our cancer, so we should go to the professional editor about our manuscript.

One reason we go to the doctor to have our cancer treated is because the doctor has experience dealing with cancer. We rely on the doctor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us how serious a problem we have and for suggestions about courses of treatment. We know doctors are not perfect, but we expect them to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught health sciences at the high school.

All we need do is substitute professional editor for doctor and the argument is made: One reason we go to the professional editor to have our manuscript edited is because the professional editor has experience dealing with manuscripts. We rely on the professional editor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us about any manuscript problems and for suggestions about how to correct them. We know professional editors are not perfect, but we expect the professional editor to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught English to fourth graders (or even at the local college).

When an author hires a professional editor, the author is hiring experience with manuscripts and the knowledge that the editor has accumulated about how to structure and tell a story (all manuscripts tell a story) so that the author’s message is communicated and received. You spent months, if not years, of your life putting together a story that you want more than a handful of friends to read and understand. Should you not, then, hire a professional editor and pay an appropriate fee for that editor’s services to ensure that your manuscript is ready and is the best it can be?

Thus the first commandment for authors: Thou shall use a professional editor!



  1. While I quite agree with your main premise, I would quibble about the medical analogy. Most authors’ works may require treatment but only a few have literary cancer while others just have a headache or a runny nose. I agree however that professional diagnosis is required even when the cure is chicken soup not chemotherapy.

    As for the NYT headline, a pronoun should always be tested for ambiguity. On first glance “them” seems to refer to the subject of the sentence, i.e. the lobbyists. However, this doesn’t make sense because “usually” implies a change from expected behaviour, and reporting that someone found an ally among their friends is hardly news in anyone’s book let alone NYT. So “them” has to be the spending cuts. Any assumption about lobbyists in general is irrelevant.


    Comment by Jim H — April 22, 2013 @ 5:02 am | Reply

  2. “Just as you (or I) would not undertake to self-treat for cancer, we should not self-treat our books, which are a significant part of our life. Just as we would go to the doctor about our cancer, so we should go to the professional editor about our manuscript.”

    Not Dr Google then? 🙂

    On a more serious note, I agree with everything you say. Even if some people with cancer do shun professional help, they usually pay for it with their lives in the end. Fortunately for writers, the outcome when they ignore professional advice is not quite so dire.


    Comment by Vicki — April 22, 2013 @ 5:04 am | Reply

  3. If you’re expecting to get a $10,000 advance on your book, paying $500 for a professional editor makes some kind of sense. But if you want to self-pub and are dubious about selling a hundred copies, or if you’re figuring on going with a small publisher at no advance and those same hundred copies, forget it! Stephen King and Janet Evanovitch can afford that professional editor, those of us just trying to break in can’t. You just have to do the best you can and hope it’s good enough.


    Comment by James Hartley — April 22, 2013 @ 8:40 am | Reply

    • If you want that chance at selling more than 100 copies or getting signed by a publisher who will give you an advance, you need the professional editor. It is, unfortunately, a chicken-and-egg situation.


      Comment by americaneditor — April 22, 2013 @ 12:38 pm | Reply

      • And if you want a professional editor, be prepared to spend more than $500.


        Comment by Will Harmon — April 22, 2013 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  4. I agree with you. If I ever go to the next step and need a professional editor for my cancer, I mean writing, I will use one. As an older writer I know my strengths and weakness.Paying one is not an option yet.. I enjoy your hard edge. How do you feel about Emily Dickinson and William Blake…?? If a publisher gets interested in my work I will look into a professional editor. It might be fun.


    Comment by HudleyFlipside — April 22, 2013 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  5. You can find professional book manuscript copyeditors through organizations such as BAIPA and the Bay Area Editors’ Forum ( BAEF ), through online editorial sites, through ads in magazines that are targeted toward writers, and through looking up “copyeditor” on search engines.


    Comment by Marion Deleon — April 24, 2013 @ 7:41 am | Reply

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