How to decide if you need an editor for your book

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I’ve been hearing a lot of advice about book editing lately, and I wanted to clear something up:

You do not need to hire an editor for your book.

Well, not necessarily. Let me explain:

A lot of writers are self-publishing these days, and that’s fine. And if you’re self-publishing, it is in your best interest to hire a professional editor for your book. But writers sometimes state that this is a requirement no matter what.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

If you plan on traditionally publishing your book — which means you want to query agents and secure a publisher, all that — then you do NOT need an editor prior to querying. You do not need to pay anything involving your novel (and editors do not come cheap).

Here’s why:

Sure, you can increase your chances of publication if your novel is more polished from a good round of editing. But while an editor will make a lot of developmental suggestions, they’re not going to do the work for you — you are.

You can get the same result from working with critique partners or beta readers, who will do it for free or in exchange for a critique of their own writing.

But what about grammar? And punctuation? And typos?

Fix. this. yourself.

If you want to get into the writing business but you don’t know when to use a comma and when not to, then you’ll only do yourself a favor by learning. Take a course on grammar, or buy a grammar book and teach yourself. Just learn the rules — or at least get a friend who’s good at that stuff to proofread your book.

Hiring an editor is a waste of money when there are no guarantees in traditional publishing. Save your money and instead spend your energy honing your skills and making sure you can beat the odds. Study your craft and learn how to revise, how to proofread, how to stick it out until you have a damn good novel and a fine query and synopsis on your hands. Be the most versatile writer you can be.

Future you will thank you.

When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

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Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

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You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

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But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

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Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.

The benefits of creating a chapter outline for your novel

chapter spreadsheet template

Making a chapter outline is one of the best things I’ve done for my work in progress (WIP).

I’m in my second draft now, so this chapter outline (pictured above) is different than the one I made for my first draft. It’s a lot more focused on what I wrote, not what I planned to write, and it helps me to spot the strengths and weaknesses in my story.

To make the outline, I used Google Spreadsheets. First, I “froze” Column A and Row 1 (click “View” –> “Freeze”), which locks them in place. I set columns for chapters, color-coded by point-of-view (my WIP features multiple character perspectives). Then I created rows for all the major aspects of storytelling that I wanted to keep track of — plot summary, conflict (external, internal, and escalation), the quality and content of the writing (dialogue, body language or action beats, description or sense of place/setting, verb strength), worldbuilding, and character relationships and subplots.

Here’s how I color-coded the rows:

Plot = bright yellow
Conflict = bright green
Writing = medium blue
Worldbuilding = bright blue
Character relationships, arcs, and subplots = medium purple

I made a lot of different purple rows — for a character’s relationship to another character, a character’s interactions with and feelings about the world, and any side issues that I wanted to explore. Basically, these rows let me track a character’s arc, relations, and development, as well as any subplots.

I always colored in the cells for plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding and added notes — but I only colored the purple cells when something in the chapter contributed to those elements. For example, if Character 1 and Character 2’s relationship changed, I colored that cell and wrote how.

If one of the purple cells should have been colored in, or one of the main cells (plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding) weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be, I colored the cells orange and wrote notes on why they were lacking and ideas for how to address the problem. These orange cells are basically a “red” flag to tell me that I need to work on a certain aspect of the chapter — I just used orange because it’s a less stressful color than red. :)

This chapter outline has been crucial for getting me to analyze and reflect on how each chapter is contributing to the novel overall. Each chapter should pull its weight and be invaluable to the story. It should deepen character development and relationships, reveal a new aspect to the world, intensify or add conflict (or sometimes resolve it), and occasionally introduce or develop subplots. The writing itself should also be the best it can be. Filling out the outline for each chapter gives me a better sense of where the gaps are, which helps me determine where I should focus my self-edits and revision.

I made a separate spreadsheet for assessing each character’s relationship to another, which gives more “life” to characters other than the protagonist, but maybe I’ll cover that in another post. :)

Tip: This is just my personal strategy. Your spreadsheet (if you want to use one) can look however you want. In fact, I’d love to hear what you’ve done with yours!

But remember, anything you can do to help yourself revise smarter is important — because revision will make your novel awesome:

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Do you make any spreadsheets to help you with writing/revising your WIPs? Let me know what approach you take in the comments!

Encouragement in unlikely places: a review of The Forest for the Trees

“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one,” explained John Updike in an interview reprinted in his collection Hugging the Shore. “I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy LernerYou’d think a book subtitled “An Editor’s Advice to Writers” would be about useful editing techniques, right? Wrong — at least not in Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, which views the process of writing and and publishing through a literary editor’s lens. This is an insider’s look at the business, with juicy secrets from within the publishing house, from an editor who fearlessly bares her soul and, by way of it, encourages her readers to do the same.

As someone who discovered the world of copy editing only a couple years ago, has made mistakes and learned what the editor-writer relationship means and should be, and has since filled both shoes at once, I expected pages of wisdom about good, hard editing. What Lerner provides is much different: I knew it wasn’t going to be Strunk and White, but I wasn’t prepared for a collection of experiences throughout the years. Lerner reveals the beautiful and the ugly sides of the industry — and the bitterness and optimism that comes and goes for editors, agents, publicists, publishers, and writers alike. These people must all work together for a common goal, but their perspectives and priorities couldn’t be more different from day to day.

First, Lerner tackles the needs and neuroses of the writer, who is simply someone, of any walk of life, who must write. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good or bad, chronically unpublished or successful. A writer is someone who writes against all hardship and commits to whatever amount of work is necessary to improve — even if that means rewriting an entire book from a different character’s perspective or surviving a storm of criticism that never seems to clear.

And as far as the phrase, “Write what you know”? Lerner says it’s redundant — all writers, by fault, write what they know.

Lerner also urges aspiring authors to write like they don’t care if their mother will read it. You’re not going to shock, awe, or inspire any other sort of emotional reaction unless you’re fearless in what you put down on the page.

But to editors, agents, and publicists, writers are like children. So easily can they stray from the well-lit path into any manner of darkness: writer’s block, desperation, jealousy of peers, an insatiable need for attention, and even drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. They’re naive and impatient, and so often the rewards of publication are built on hopes and fantasies that, once shattered, can never be repaired.

Getting published isn’t an instant miracle. Sometimes it makes the struggle harder, Lerner tells us, and she backs up what she says.

She also explores all angles of the book world and shows how the people caught up in it interact with one another. Publicists get little love. The inside of a publishing house is a brutal environment where discouragement and thrill go hand in hand. And the business is always changing — with the growth of social media and the constant yet unpredictable threat of competition. No one ever really know what’s going to sell.

But Lerner shares the little joys, too — those rare, literary wonders that you fight for, and the ones that are runaway hits and a fleeting source of euphoria for everyone who made them happen. What’s even more amazing, though, is how safe the author makes readers — and writers — feel despite the hostility and enormous chance of disappointment. She holds in her hands not a pen, but a little flame of hope that refuses to go out.

Bottom line: Not for practical applications, but contains invaluable insight into the publishing industry that any aspiring writer should take the time to read.

What I liked: The author’s swift use of language and her bravery.

What I wasn’t expecting: No concrete editing tips and advice to speak of.

The importance of voice, flow, and courteous editing

Luc Sante wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal recently about finding (and listening to) the editor within. He hits some really good notes—like how being a good writer is not the same as being a good editor, although the two are closely linked.

Toward the end, Sante offers what is arguably his best advice:

One of the means to assure such things is constant rereading. I reread from the top—or some similar landmark if the work is long—whenever I take a significant break from writing, and that doesn’t just mean overnight but includes eating lunch, going to the bathroom, answering the phone and searching for elusive facts.

Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don’t trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.

In the time I’ve worked as a writing tutor and copy editor, I’ve learned two undeniable tenets of the trade: Ripping other people’s writing to shreds is easy. Doing as much to our own happens far less frequently.

The key is a balanced approach. Take a little space and time to let the writing simmer and breathe, no matter whose it is. Reread not only for flow, but to concentrate on various aspects of the piece and allows yourself to catch different sorts of problems. Keep the voice, cut the excess, and dispose of words that hinder effective communication—no matter how enamored you are with a particular phrase. Most importantly, trust your gut. If something feels wrong when reading a sentence, it probably needs work. This instinct applies to whole paragraphs, too.

Be gentle with other people’s writing. As much as you might want to because you’re a Grammar Nazi or the Best Writer Ever in your world, don’t take sadistic joy in tearing another person’s efforts apart. I learned this through experience. The best method is to look for weak openings in grammar, punctuation, and style while keeping a close eye on readability and clarity. Don’t overload sentences and make sure, whatever you do, that the author’s voice is intact. Have a firm, irrefutable reason for changing anything.

Voice is important for our own writing, as well. Sometimes when we edit we’re tempted to iron out any hint of personality for fear that it might sound too informal or risky. But often a little flavor can elevate even the most perfected writing, taking it from flat to extraordinary! Like Burrito Kitty here.