Why do writers need editors?

editing-apps-800x600Before you say, “Duh!” please remember that some people have lots of self-confidence. Others can crawl off into a mental state and ignore the world around them, which can be considered a skill in the writing biz, but conformity is comforting to readers. Other writers seem to think that the rules don’t apply to them, like ee cummings. A few insist on ignoring the red and green squiggles that the word processor uses to offer help in eliminating common mistakes. Writers suffer from any of those problems, or have other idiosyncrasies that make editing necessary. Yes, I considered dealing with editors to be something of a pain, because I am self confident and not afraid to break a few rules.

However, I have learned quite a lot from writing teachers and editors. Friends and family will offer a few tips, but if those friends really like you, brutal honesty is off the table. Sometimes the distance combined with authority that goes along with having an editor is transformative. My first novel was a hot mess when it finally got a full length reading at the micro press that ultimately put it through line editing. My second novel was better, but still needed a lot of work in the editorial phase, beginning at conceptual, then line by line, and finally, proofreading. At that time, WCP did not pay proofreaders, instead relying upon volunteers, which was a bad business decision. My work suffered from that lack, as a few errors made it into the printed work, and sales were less than optimal.

Publishers seldom take on a fiction manuscript that isn’t complete, which leaves out the project development phase. Once the novel is finished, most writers will attempt to put it into the hands of either an agent or a publisher. Problems with style or continuity may crop up at this stage, but if the work is compelling, those can be addressed. What most people consider editing is copy or line editing, which is a line by line examination of grammar, spelling, mechanics, and style. Any “big changes” in the manuscript probably occur at this stage. The back and forth over details can be annoying or even funny, but most problems in the work are solved at this phase. Once, an editor challenged me on a detail where I described a man wearing a glen plaid suit. I thought it descriptive, but she thought it was a weird description that no reader would understand. Ultimately, the description remained, but that is the kind of thing that comes up in line edits.

Before printing comes proofreading, when any style or content changes have been addressed—so what’s left is a last look at spelling, capital letters, and adjustments to make the page layout work. I remember the copy editor at Whiskey Creek Press had to substantially change one sentence to avoid a page with a single word on it, and I was okay with her changes.

A good editor makes printed work better—by questioning, suggesting changes, and insisting on being absolutely correct. Real editing makes the author’s work shine, without the distractions of mistakes or inconsistencies. Nowadays, many people think that word processors have made editors obsolete. Unfortunately, that is simply wrong, and writing is suffering mightily. Errors abound, and the solution is a great editor who reads and corrects. Technology is advancing, but it cannot replace editorial expertise.

What’s selling from my “used” collection? Old grammar books!

I’ve been selling off my “teacher” stuff for about five years. During my on and off teaching career (at both private and public schools, in grades 6 through college) I did manage to accumulate a lot of books. One thing that surprises me is that really old books do sell, especially grammar books. Today, I received notice to ship an eleventh grade grammar text, published in the early 80s. Believe it or not, that one is modern. For whatever reasons, during the mid 80s, grammar began to gradually fall out of fashion in the classroom. Budgets seemed tight, and textbook price inflation was just getting started. Our school, like many in that era, bought new lit books, and each of those generally had lots of ancillary materials, including “daily grammar” lessons— usually one concept illustrated via a handout or a transparency for an overhead projector, and grammar books were either not used, or we used old ones. My friend, Janet, used a set of Warriner’s until the covers came off. Then she got the administration to find her some more of the same one on eBay. Until I left teaching high school, I used the same ones, over and over. I taped them together each August, and hoped they would make it another year.

My current teaching gig is as an adjunct at a local technical college. (For readers outside of Georgia, you would probably term it a “community college.”) Anyway, our institution pays for students to take self-paced grammar lessons online. The reason we do it that way is that we never know how much grammar the students might have already mastered, so they take assessments and are required to do lessons based on the topics they did not pass initially. From my experience, there are many students who have to take all of the lessons (known as modules) which is probably due to their teachers having been trained in the “non-grammar” era. The lessons are quite basic, including each part of speech, sentence structure, and so forth.

From time to time, I do sell grammar books, usually really old ones, and that lets me know that some people are either teaching themselves, or someone else, English grammar. I’m glad, because I see a lot of bad grammar in student writing these days. Actually, I see it in many other places, too!