Ask Max: “Should I hire an editor?”

As a full-time freelance editor and writer, I am often asked this question by clients and colleagues alike. My response to this particular writer’s query follows.

“There seems to be two schools of thought in regards to submitting manuscripts to Publishers. One that claims Publishers have their own editors so it is not all that important to have your work edited prior to submission, and others that say your work should be as polished as possible. What are your thoughts?”

As an editor, anything I say will sound biased, of course. But I am above all a writer, and passionate about my craft, snobby as that may sound. I would never send out anything that I felt was less than my very best work. I am my own harshest editor. Yet as you probably know, the closer you are to a work, and the more time you’ve spent lovingly connecting one word to another, the more difficult it becomes to see what’s really there on the page: you see what you meant to say. So if nothing else, every writer should have one trusted, eagle-eyed person read through the manuscript for surface errors.

Yes, publishers have their own editors, and regardless of how clean and typo-free your manuscript may be when it lands before the first reader, if your book is accepted it will pass through at least one editor. However, you must edit for that first reader (probably an overworked, underpaid editor or writer wanna-be who hopes to find the next J.K. Rowling). Agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts and queries every week, and when then turn to the first few pages, they are looking for any reason NOT to keep reading—a typo, a hopelessly mangled sentence, a cliché…any of these things means they can shunt that work aside and move on to the next one on the pile. For this reason, I personally have a handful of faithful detail-oriented friends and family who are happy to read through anything I plan to send out. I don’t “pay” these people, but they are editors all the same, and I reward them in every way I can.

As an editor I can tell you that there are writers with excellent ideas and fascinating plots who couldn’t write a sentence that made sense to save their own lives. There are also people who can write delicious sentences and create wonderful, fully dimensioned characters but whose books go nowhere and will put you to sleep after a page or two. There are also mediocre writers with so-so ideas, a basic command of grammar and punctuation, a workable story, and an interesting character or two. Any of those writers could get a book accepted, but the odds favor (unfortunately) the one whose book represents the least amount of work required on the part of the publisher. Once you are established, you can “get away with” a lot more: Stephen King or Dan Patterson could scribble six words on a paper towel and have a publisher send a contract for the upcoming book, because they know what they’ll be getting. For the unknown writer, you absolutely need to send in your very best, most highly polished work.

I will say that as an editor, I approach every work with the goal of making it the author’s very best work. I do not want everything I touch to sound as though I wrote it—the editor’s voice should be invisible—and apparently I am successful at that. My clients (fiction, nonfiction, short stories, novels, academic works…everything) have all said that I made their books better without stomping all over their style. This has been true even with writers who have sent me books that needed serious substantive editing.

Whew, that was probably more than you asked for. So yes, everyone needs to send out only their most polished work. Whether you pay someone to do it or take your chances with friends, family, and your own biased eye is a choice only you can make. (And yes, I have found three typos so far in my first edition of Live Free or Die, all of which were introduced during my last read-through—which I foolishly did not show to may faithful detail-oriented friends, so it is my fault, not theirs. $$%@@!!)