What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing

A lot of the focus on this blog (and in the news) has been on the challenges that the digital revolution poses trade publishing houses.  Most of the talk is about what is best for writers, and how they will be affected.  But today, I want to talk about editors.

Editors are the unsung heroes of the publishing world.  While some of their names might be known inside the industry, the reader rarely has a clue.  Yet the books they buy would never have been the same without them.  Editors have suffered the most from the upheaval in publishing, and I fear their pain will continue as the Big Six continue to make missteps.

Aside from acquiring books from agents and writers (although their power here has diminished, and they almost always need approval from sales and marketing before they can make an offer), what do editors do? 

Well, they edit. They take an author’s work and turn into the story the writer meant to put down on the page.

They have the requisite emotional distance from the text to cut without remorse, tightening the prose, making it more powerful. They comb the story for plot holes, red herrings, clichés, cardboard characters, split infinitives, and dangling modifiers. They cross-reference, they fact-check, and they nudge flabby prose back into line.

Some writers need more work on their manuscripts than others, but all writers need editors.

Take Raymond Carver, a legendary short story writer and master of economy.  You would struggle to find a wasted word in much of his work.  His long-time editor, Gordon Lish, worked with some of the biggest names: Ken Kesey, Neil Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Don DeLillo, T.C. Boyle, as well as Nabakov and Kundera.

Carver’s prose would not have been the same without Lish’s input.  And if you want to see this for yourself, The New Yorker published Carver’s original draft of his famous story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, with his editors corrections visible.  I recommend you all to read it, in full, and when you do, you will see that Lish’s contribution is huge.  He even came up with the title (it was originally called Beginners – not quite as catchy).

Gordon Lish was no one-off.  There are excellent editors in every imprint of every trade publishing house, who improve every book they work on, but they are under threat.  The consolidation of the industry led to downsizing, and many talented editors were let go.  Some ended up at other houses, while others founded their own small presses, or became agents.  Many, however, were lost to the business forever.  And one of my fears is, with the inevitable next round of lay-offs, we may lose a lot more.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  I think the digital revolution is going to lead to an increase in overall readership, with people now reading on devices and smartphones, people who haven’t bought a book in years.

Readers will always want new books, and writers will always need editors.  And while some self-publishers have clearly decided to bring their books to market without using an editor, this always shows, and readers are great at separating the wheat from the chaff.

Indie writers shouldn’t consider editing an expense; they should consider it an investment.  The smart ones already do.  There will be more and more freelancing work in this brave new world.  There will be opportunities to partner with agents to set up new companies that help writers with design, editing, formatting, and marketing.  And some of them, like Gordon Lish, are fine writers themselves.

And maybe, without having to deal with all that corporate crap, editors will have a chance to spend more time doing what they really enjoy: editing.  They will be able to work on challenging fiction, without having to get the nod from sales and marketing, and they will be able to help a writer grow, without worrying that poor sales figures for their first novel will see them cut loose.

A good editor can be one of the clear advantages of going with a trade publisher rather than self-publishing.  So what is an indie writer to do?  In the next episode of INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS we will talk about your options.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

15 Replies to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing”

  1. A good editor makes all of the difference in the world. Most readers have NO idea how much editing takes place, often between the author’s “final draft” and the final book. I have a couple of good freelance editors I work with, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

  2. Too true. Once a writer finds a good editor, and develops are relationship, they are loathe to look for another.

    With all the bad news hitting corporate publishing (and some in the self-publishing world taking joy in that), I wanted to remind people that there is a lot of good work done in New York and London, and people whose skills should be appreciated.

    But the good editors should survive, one way or another.

  3. But are we looking at the next big Catch 22 situation for debut indie writers – can’t afford an editor without significant sales, can’t sell well without a pro edit?

    And then again, would the public really know? I’ve read plenty of books that probably were professionally edited – well, they’d have to have been – where I thought, ‘Wow, this really needs some trimming out.’ So whilst it’s easy to see the benefits on a text that was edited, and both versions can be compared, if a decent debut never felt the touch of an editor’s calloused hand would a reader even notice? I’m talking subjectivity here – the parts of a book that I think are ridiculously waffly whilst someone next to me thinks are eloquent and poetic? No matter which way the edit goes, someone is always going to be unimpressed with the outcome. So… (deep breath before this one) do we really need editors? As an indie writer with the usual concern over the bottom line – will it directly affect my sales?
    Just a thought!

    1. Hi Tony,

      Two things. First of all, there are all sorts of editors with all sorts of reputations, and prices to go with it. In the U.S., standard rates for a copy-edit are from $30 an hour to $250 an hour. It is possible to get an excellent edit at the lower end of the scale. It’s all about getting a recommendation, checking their references, seeing a sample of their work. The higher end will include editors with big-name, prize-winning experience. I will talk about this in detail soon.

      Second, all of the books you have ever read (if they were traditionally-published), would have been edited. I have no idea of what the percentage is in the self-published world, but remember, when your book goes on sale, you are not just competing with other self-publishers, you are competing with the best that New York and London have to offer.

      In other words, yes, you need an editor. Yes, it will affect your sales.

      Every editor has a different style, I recommend getting sample work edited from at least two before making your decision.

      I’m trying to do all of these as cheaply as possible, but there are two areas where you cannot skimp or it will show, mark you as an amateur, and affect your sales: cover and editing.

      Don’t forget most readers sample the novel first (they can download around 25% before buying). If they find mistakes, they will leave you a bad review, without even buying the book, warning others not to buy it.

      If you want an extreme example, check this: http://www.amazon.com/The-Greek-Seaman-ebook/dp/B003ZSILSW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1303030977&sr=8-1


  4. Nicely done, David. A very thoughtful and accurate piece about such an important part of the publishing process. As a writer and editor myself, I have just completed the final edit on our anthology, which is 544 pages containing 56 short stories, including of course your terrific story, “Into the Woods.” To know that writers respect editors so fully is refreshing. I’m enjoying your blog pieces. Keep up the insightful writing!

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks for reading. I’m looking forward to the anthology, and to letting everyone know about it. It will be a proud day for me (the first time I will see my name in print, in a proper book at least), and for you too I am sure. Roll on next month!!!


      1. Exciting indeed, Dave. Yes, my writing has appeared in print magazines and online, but never in a book, particularly not one with the heft and quality of this one. And every author in this book has reason to be very proud of the excellence of the anthology. In my opinion there are none better in the past ten years. It shows what nearly fifty quality voices can do together in one large volume.

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