Paying an editor

Twitter is great. Everyone argues so much that I’ve walked away with many new opinions! Today’s controversy is this: do you need to hire an editor in order to be a good writer?

The advice rubs me the wrong way because I’ve seen how, online, everyone is desperate to monetize their talents. E-courses! MLMs! Consulting! And you don’t need to have any qualifications to give people advice. So whatever your hobby or goal is, there is always somebody on the internet telling you you can’t possibly achieve it without paid help from…them, of course. In 5 easy payments of 29.99!

What I’ve always loved about writing is that there are a lot fewer gatekeepers and expensive supplies than other crafts. You almost can’t compose without going to music school, and then it can’t ever be played without an orchestra. But poor and disadvantaged people have been writing amazing work with nothing but paper and pens for centuries. So this was the one dream I had as a kid (actress, ballerina, figure skater, sculptor) that I wasn’t priced out of. If you’re going to come in here and say, “You can’t write without $2,000 to spend on editing,” you’re going to make a lot of people really angry.

That said, I get it. It’s hard to judge your own writing. On alternate days, you think it’s the best thing ever written…or you think it’s junk and barely legible. With the rise of self-publishing, you can get your book in front of people’s eyes without ever having anyone tell you “Umm, ‘polise’ is spelled with a c.” That’s a good reason to pay for an editor.

The only trouble is that an editor you pay will never tell you straight out, “This book is not good and you should not publish it now.” They will sell you on the idea that they can make it good, but they may or may not be able to deliver. That’s part of why I want to publish traditionally – I want gatekeepers of some kind who will not publish my work till it’s actually good.

But, they tell me, even when traditionally publishing, you should hire an editor because the agent won’t want to represent you if your work isn’t polished. Even though once they sell your work, it will be professionally edited at no cost to you.

At that point, I get really cranky. Your MS is like your audition with an agent. Is it fair to boost your chances by hiring help other authors can’t afford? And what’s going to happen when the agent says, “Hey, can you rewrite chapter eight?” and you do, but it’s terrible because it turns out most of what was good about your writing was your editor?

Maybe that’s not fair. I mean, lots of people self-publish not because their work isn’t good, but because they want full control or full profits or because their book is best suited to it – for instance, it’s for a small audience that you have access to, like your blog followers. And if you’re going to do that, you feel confident that your work is good enough, but you also know your grammar isn’t perfect…you should definitely hire an editor if you can.

And some people want to publish traditionally, but they want to clean the typos out and know self-editing isn’t their strong suit. That’s a good reason to pay for editing too. It doesn’t mean you’re disguising terrible writing, you just want to put your best foot forward. I’ve heard from lots of agents that they aren’t going to throw away your pages because of one or two typos in the submission, but if there are a lot and you think you may not catch them, an editor can be a great choice.

And if you’re in these categories, but you can’t afford an editor? Good news! Grammar is a learned skill. You absolutely can get better at it, and you don’t need to go to college. Your library will have plenty of books. Elements of Style is my personal favorite, but there are zillions of books focusing on grammar, usage, and style. How do you think that expensive editor learned?

Call me a stickler, but I think grammar is part of the skill of writing. The reason it takes so many years to become a good writer is because it has so many skills, from drawing a plot arc through the whole story to where you put every comma. You should work on all of that. If you know how to put the commas, you’ll spend less time and money on editing, and your sentences will flow better at the moment you write them.

So, pay an editor, don’t pay an editor, it really is up to you. But don’t pay any editor who will call you a fool for thinking you’re just as qualified to edit your work as they are, or that it isn’t smart to spend thousands of dollars on a project that may earn you nothing. Pay someone who can demonstrate they can provide the value they’re charging for, and who treats writers with respect.