Working on your craft: Can you publish without an editor?

So, there was an interesting question that came up in one of my Facebook writing groups, and essentially, she asked, Can you really make a living publishing without an editor?

Considering that’s what I’m trying to do with my new pen name because I can’t afford to hire out, it piqued my interest.

All the answers, as you would imagine said, of course you need an editor. I was the only one who said, not so fast. There are a lot of variables when deciding something like that, and some of the questions I threw back at her were, How long have you been writing? Have you ever gotten feedback before, like, ever? Do you have a good memory to keep track of your own (in)consistencies and details? If you don’t know how to write a catchy beginning, avoid a saggy middle, create interesting and meaningful character arcs, and know your grammar and punctuation backward and forward, then you’ll probably need help. (It also helps immensely if you know what you don’t know and have the wherewithal to look it up.) During the first couple of years when decided to try write books to publish, I needed help, and I did use editors and beta readers. That was back when I had a large circle of friends who were willing to trade or charge very little and we all came through for each other. Now most of those friends are gone, and I’m alone. I said in my post, if you’ve written enough words to find your voice and style, then you’re one step ahead of most newbie authors. I’ve edited for a few new writers, and no amount of good editing will fix bad writing. The writer first has to give you something to work with, and if s/he doesn’t….

If you, or the original poster of that question, are looking for an easy way out, there isn’t one. Writing is like any other skill and it takes practice and a knowledge of the genre you’re trying to write in.

I admit, I love a writing craft book, and I read them all, but some of them get too formulaic, and I can’t follow. I tried reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody, and it just wasn’t for me. (She also has a blog that you may find helpful.) The way Jessica broke down a novel’s components made my head spin. Another book I’ve read, (though not recently) is Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels (How to Write Kissing Books) by Gwen Hayes. Romance authors a million times over swear by this book, but I just couldn’t make it work for me. And it’s not because I’m a pantser and want to write as I discover the story. I’m a plantser, and have a general idea of how I want the story to go, what the characters’ backstories are and their emotional wounds from their pasts that haven’t healed and how they affect their futures, which is what any romance book is about. But turning writing into a formula, or consciously chopping up my plot into the three act structure is really difficult for me to grasp and I can’t do it. The only two things I do with regards to planning that way is making sure something happens at the 50% mark to avoid the saggy middle (the Mirror Moment as James Scott Bell calls it), and breaking up my characters around the 75% mark, because that’s most what romances do. To be honest, them breaking up and thinking all hope is lost is my favorite part of any romance, and I would do it anyway.

When you’re a new writer, betas or developmental editors are valuable. They’ll tell you where the story drags, if you’ve rushed your ending, if your characters have no substance, and over time, if you listen to their feedback, your writing will smooth out and you’ll start to include those elements naturally. I don’t think any writer who is writing a debut novel will have all that figured out, never mind having written enough to find their voice and style. It’s why whenever I see a writer saying they are querying their first ever book, I say good luck, because chances are, your book will sound like you’re a brand new writer, and an agent can’t sell that.

It’s really not fair, because a lot of good writing comes from gut instinct, or following an intuition that you’ve honed over a million words. You develop your own formula based on genre expectations and how you twist those reader expectations to make your tropes fresh and new. All that comes with practice and listening to feedback.

Once you have your voice and style down, once you know you can deliver to your readers, then yeah, I think you don’t need an editor, not someone who will deep-clean your manuscript, though it does mystify me how many people get angry when I say it. (I even left a Facebook group over it.) I don’t know if it’s because they resent having to use an editor, or are just defensive of indie publishing as a whole and how much crap is published on, let’s face it, a daily basis, or what. I really don’t know what makes people so mad when I say it, but that doesn’t make it less untrue. Besides, no one has any idea how hard someone will work not to need an editor. I read craft books like crazy, read in my genre (though not as much as I should) and write. Maybe that’s the issue people have? They aren’t writing? Look, it doesn’t matter who you are, you need to practice to get better, and that goes for anything you want to try to master. Olympic gold medalists have been honing their skills in their chosen sports since childhood. Same as musicians. But I suppose if you have twenty hours a week to write, and you’re talking to someone who only has five free hours a week, yeah, maybe there will be a little resentment there. I write a lot. I don’t have many friends, I work from home, I don’t go out much. When I’m not working, doing chores, running errands, or going to Tuesday movie night with my sister, I’m writing. That’s not something I’m going to apologize for, and neither should you if someone is giving you a hard time.

In reality, it’s a moot point, anyway. I know 6 and 7 figure authors with one-star reviews that say they needed an editor, when I know that hiring an editor is part of their publishing process. You won’t please everyone, so you might as well be honest. If you need help, get help, and if you can write a good story without help, don’t worry about it. You can’t achieve perfection, and I’ve already said this will be the last time I go through my 6 book series. I will ALWAYS be able to find something to change, but I need to let them go. I’m tired and I have many other stories in my head that I want to get onto the page.

So, how do you make your writing better, level up so you don’t need an editor?

Read a lot in your genre. A lot of developmental editing is finding those tropes and elements that make your genre what it is and helping you meet those reader expectations. You won’t know what those expectations are unless you read a lot in your genre. I know this stinks like writing to market, but every genre, be it romance, domestic thrillers, detective novels, have elements that you can’t leave out or you’ll just make readers mad. Writing a good story is all about the overall picture as much as knowing where your commas go.

Listen to feedback early in your career. When I first started writing again, it took me a lot of feedback to find my groove. My very first beta who volunteered pointed out all the “justs” and “thats” and that was my first lesson in filler words. That was a great start to learning what I was doing wrong. Another beta/editor told me to trust my readers because I had a habit of “reminding” them of what they’ve read in previous chapters. That was another great lesson, and one I still apply today when I find myself rehashing information. Repetition is tedious and boring. Echoing was another thing people pointed out to me, and I still do it, and it’s part of my editing to delete or replace repeated words. That’s one of the reasons why I’m going through my series again when I thought I was done. Because I found a couple of words that I used over and over and over again and I wanted to tighten up my sentences. Those are words I will always watch out for now, and you can make your own list of filler and crutch words to refer back to when you’re creating your own editing process.

Work on new projects. I learned a lot working on different books, and it’s the only way you’ll be able to practice crafting an engaging plot. As Kathryn Kristen Rusch says, rewriting will only teach you rewriting. You need to work on fresh projects to move forward.

Realize it will take time. “They” say you need to write a million words before you find your voice. I think that’s true–I wrote a 5 book fantasy series that will never see the light of day, plus a few novellas, and a book that would turn into book one of my first trilogy before I found my stride. That was in 3rd person past. I wrote a quarter of a million words in first person present before I found my voice in that POV, and I can tell reading through my series. That’s why I was so paranoid editing these books–I wanted book one to sound like book five, and it did take me a few extra thousand words added to books one, two, and three for them to smooth out and sound as good as books four, five, and six.

I feel bad for the beginning writer with no writing friends or money for resources. But as they say, if you don’t have money to spend, then you have to spend time, and that might mean swapping projects with another author who is in the same position as you. That’s not a bad thing. You can learn a lot editing for someone else, so it’s a great idea to join author groups on Facebook and make friends with authors who write in your genre. You’ll get help, and you’ll help others, so it’s a win-win for you and your writing career.

This was a very long introduction to what was supposed to be a list of craft books that have helped me. I linked to Save the Cat Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat above. Just because they didn’t work for me, doesn’t mean they won’t work for you, and you should definitely give them a try.

It’s surprising but one of the books that helped me a lot isn’t necessarily a craft book. It’s The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. This breaks down why bestsellers sell the way they do. This might be my favorite book in the whole world because it mixes craft and the publishing industry. I love it. I can’t recommend it enough.

The second book that changed my life is Tiffany Yates Martin’s book, Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. I love everything about this book. She reminded me about conflict, character arcs, character motivation, and stakes. Important elements that, if you skip or miss, will make any book fall flat. You need tension, and this book will help you find it. There’s even a section that mentions other editing resources if you can’t hire out. If you like audiobooks, she posted on Twitter she narrated it herself! (She also blogs, and you can sign up for her newsletter.)

Though I haven’t read it for a long time, it was one of the first self-editing books I ever read, and it helped me a lot: Self-Editing On a Penny: A Comprehensive Guide by Ashlyn Forge.

This book made so much sense. It was a real eye-opener, and now I recommend it to every new author: VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing (Bell on Writing) by James Scott Bell.

When I went to the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference a few years ago, every agent in attendance said this book is a must have. I do have it, and it’s a great resource: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Someone recommended this book to me, and his sense of humor keeps this book from reading like a textbook–it was an enjoyable read, and I also learned a lot: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer.

And last, but not least, Mignon Fogarty’s grammar guide is a must have. Written in a light, conversational tone, Grammar Girl is easy to understand, and she goes through everything you need to learn grammar and punctuation for all of your writing projects: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (Quick & Dirty Tips) (Quick & Dirty Tips)

This post turned into its own animal, and that’s okay. Thanks for reading if you’ve gotten this far. In an age where everything is pay to play, including beta readers, even if you have plans to hire out, making your manuscript as perfect as possible will save you money. The less your editor/proofer has to do for you, the better for your wallet. You’ll never regret teaching yourself as much as you can. I haven’t.

Thanks for reading!

***Per usual, this post does not contain any affiliate links, and the book covers are screen grabs from Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Working on your craft: Can you publish without an editor?

  1. Might these many people who said ‘of course you need an editor’ have been editors?
    I proofread our writing group’s stories for publication. (It’s amazing how many copies can be sold to friends and relatives of a u3a group.) I had previously taken a proofreading course (and decided it wasn’t for me) most of which I’d forgotten, but I did a LOT of research for that first anthology. I still do. But there is plenty of authoritative help out there.(Grammar girl is one of my favourites.)
    I’m totally with you on agreeing an editor can’t make a silk-purse story out of a pig’s breakfast, but I am better now (I hope) at not trying to shoehorn the Voice of an amateur writer (writing for his or her grandchildren) into a Correct English mould while dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for them (and relocating their commas).

    Liked by 1 person

    • They might have been. I have come across that attitude from authors who edit on the side, the ones who say you shouldn’t be allowed to publish if you can’t afford to hire an editor. I guess the stickiness comes from knowing that writing and editing are two different skill sets, some even going so far as to say editors are just wannabe writers who don’t have the talent, and just because you can write doesn’t mean you can edit and vice versa. I think the only issue with editing your own work is being too close to it, not seeing the mistakes because your brain will fill them in. I can’t tell you how many inconsistencies I’ve found editing my series–and with a big project like that, help would probably be the best option, but unfortunately, the most expensive as well. Thanks for reading, Cathy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with the issue about editing blindness when reviewing your own work. It’s worse when I’ve found errors in our anthologies after I thought I’d proofread them to death! That’s one reason why I gave up the thought of being a proofreader in retirement. I can’t concentrate for that long without losing focus. But we’re an amateur writing group publishing for our grandchildren so can’t afford a ‘proper”editor.

        Like

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