Saturday, July 7, 2012

Every Writer Needs an Editor

A couple weeks ago, on a site where some successful mystery writers gather to talk shop, one contributor made an astonishing assertion: Novelists don’t need to hire—for pay—copyeditors to do a final review of their book. All they need to do is have the writers in their affinity group, be it website or writers group, copyedit their manuscripts as they’re passed around for review.

“So let’s start passing those manuscripts around RRRRIGHT NOWWWW!”

[Here, I lean out over the table, my hand raised in objection: “Excuse me! I have a problem with this!”]

First a couple of digressions: The writer in question—who shall go unnamed in this small town--has likely sold more books than I ever will. He’s also published by an established imprint, where, I presume, his books are copyedited in house.

(However, that may also not be true, as it’s said that more and more trad publishers are shouldering authors with the burden of hiring their own copyeditors, not to mention doing their own marketing, their own publicity . . . say, what is it you people do, anyway? Oh, you just collect most of the money. Oh, OK . . . .)

Secondly, as I am an independent author/publisher, the writer’s assertion that I can rely on a team of my fellow authors is a luxurious mistake none of us lone cowboys can afford to make.

I’m not saying this simply because, in addition to being a novelist, I’m an underemployed editor. (I don’t copyedit fiction, for reasons I’ll explain some other time.) If we have any pride in what we do, we want our books to be almost indistinguishable, from cover to colophon to comma, from the best that the Big Six have to offer.

As a novelist, I don’t want another novelist copyediting my novel, unless he’s already a professional copyeditor, and we have a business agreement where he will copyedit my novel. And I mean copyedit it. Not read and review as a fellow novelist and reader. I mean copyedit.

Because copyediting is different.


I have been a copyeditor—professionally trained and certified through the University of California, Berkeley—for the last seven years.

Copyeditors are disinterested third parties. While we should have an affinity, or sympathy, for the genre a writer works in, or a keen interest in the subject matter, we are firstly technicians, craftspeople, grammar and language geeks who work mostly on the level of computer programmers and coders. Many of us write on the side, but when we copyedit, we are not writing. We employ a very different skill set. Our Inner Tolstoys are packed in away in a locked closet.

Are you the successor to Herman Melville? Or another hack with dreams of buying the mansion next door to Stephanie Meyers?

We don’t care. (Actually, I do care a little, which is part of the reason I don’t copyedit fiction.)

By the time a manuscript reaches us, the majority of it has, hopefully, been done: looked over by developmental editors, writing coaches, or an astute group of readers. Most of the factual, intellectual, and literary issues have been settled. (Sometimes they’re not. But that’s another issue and more money.)

Copyediting is a separate stage that ideally takes places just before the manuscript, usually done in Word, is sent to the interior designer to be converted in a published manuscript, using a program such as InDesign.

We strive to see that whatever style decisions have been made, they have been applied consistently throughout the book. We check your usage, spelling, and your grammar; your commas and your semi-colons. We check for continuity, sense, and flow.

Some paragraphs may need switching around, or broken up and rearranging. There may be lumpy redundancies here and there. Is your character bald as an egg on page 22 and then suddenly sprouting curly yellow locks on page 222? Have you given her a sudden gender change? (And then back again?) Your plot gets muddled and confused on page 158. Did you know that manzanita trees don’t grow in Delaware? It’s your last chance, chum!

We’re here to catch things like that, goofs that all writers make. Count the author of Dragon’s Ark—me, a copyeditoras chief among those goof-makers. When this copyeditor writes a novel, he wants a copyeditor who is not the guy in the mirror to do the copyediting.


When I submitted my third draft of Dragon’s Ark to my readers, I specifically asked them not to copyedit, not to sweat those little, though essential, details. I asked them to the look at the forest and not squint at the trees, the leaves, the bark, the roots, and the loam from which the roots draw their nourishment. I wanted them to look at larger, broader things and I believe Dragon’s Ark was a better book for it.

When I read a draft of another writer’s novel, I read it the same way: for its literary qualities; for its characterizations, setting and action; for pleasures it provides and pleasures missing; for how closely it fulfills the writer’s goals and what he might do to get it there. (I mean, I’m reading this book for free anyway.)

Only after all comments had been returned and digested and I’d finished my final draft, did I hire a copyeditor, that disinterested professional, to look out for those many, small, last details.

How did that work out? Well, next time I have to be more careful in my search and be willing to spend more money . . . because, with few exceptions, quality costs more.

Despite the cost and difficulties, I don’t see what benefits I would have accrued by having my beta readers also copyedit my book. To ask an author-colleague to take on the specifically technical act of copyediting (for free, no less), would have been, at best, insulting to him and likely end in something less than what it should be.

First off, few writers are professional copyeditors. And of those who are, few of us would be willing to look at the same manuscript with two different pairs of glasses, especially at the same time. I know I wouldn’t. No matter how much I love you.

Further, having several writers putting in their dime on comma placement on one book can only end in confusion and fatal inconsistency. Those commas and connectives matter. You may not notice them consciously, but your unconscious does and it affects your experience of the book.

It takes one set of eyes, one mind, to achieve that necessary consistency. Editors differ in their styles to start with, so setting a bunch of them loose on my manuscript would have made a mash ending in a confusing reading experience. A single copyeditor may make some errors, but more copyeditors will only make more errors. One copyeditor per book, take my word for it.

I would never ask any fellow novelist, no matter how intense our mutual admiration, to copyedit my book, for love nor money. Hell, I wouldn’t ask Nabokov if I had the chance (and I’d run and hide behind the Moon if he even offered). I don’t want a writer to edit. I want an editor to edit.

And should a fellow novelist should ask me to copyedit his book, I’m likely to give him my snakiest bullet-eyed stare as I calmly open my hand: “When I’m paid . . . .”

Because I don’t edit for free. I need to be paid. We all do. (And, again, I don’t copyedit fiction.)

And so, when it comes time to copyedit your book, by all means, pay the fifteen (hundred) dollars. Your novel will be better for it, whether you’re Melville or Meyers.

Photo by author.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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