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I'm firmly in the camp of "your novel needs an editor, and that editor better not be yourself." But recently I was asked why that was, and I couldn't articulate an answer that was passable.

Young novelists often underestimate their need for an editor, so frame your answer in such a way as to convince one of them.

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And that's why young novelists usually aren't ready to be published... –  Joel Shea Sep 1 '11 at 8:33
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6 Answers 6

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Here are my reasons:

  • As the author, you are too close to the material. Writing which may seem clear in your mind could be confusing to the audience.
  • Small mistakes in grammar and poorly-worded sections need a second set of eyes to be discovered. Advise the novice writer to re-read some of their writing after setting it aside for a month or more. I find that when I do this, the mistakes jump out at me. Using an editor will speed up this process.
  • Getting feedback from someone else might give you new ideas.

If all else fails, tell them to try it out and see if it's beneficial. (And if they don't find a benefit, it is unlikely that they will be successful as writers.)

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Writers can't help but fall in love with their own writing. As we know, love is blind; therefore, an editor is the cool head that is needed to make the tough decisions. Apart from grammatical mistakes,

  • An editor will make recommendations as to where the text can be pruned.

  • An editor will pick up on inconsistencies in argument or plot, and fallacies of logic.

  • An editor will point out areas of text that could be rewritten to improve flow and cohesion.

  • An editor knows when to reign in a writer who has galloped out of control, especially in indulging in prose that is too flowery or turgid.

And the reason an editor can do this is because he or she is an impartial and experienced observer of prose. For example, an editor would almost certainly tell me to rewrite the words in bold. Basically, most writers will benefit from having their work edited, no matter how good a writer they are.

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Here is a great example of how an editor can upgrade the writer's work. The author of this article shares the draft of one of his novel chapters, and shows how the editor commented on it in order to refine and improve it. A great read, even if you're not into Fantasy and Role-playing.

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Just another (abbreviated) way of saying what some have already said here...

You can't un-know what you know. Writers often leave out details and exposition that they fail to recognize as important.

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Let me ask a question right back: Why does an author need/want to show some friends or workshop members the work he's done?

It's not required, sure. But somehow everybody does it anyway. And they listen to what the friends have to say. Because they want and need constructive feedback.

Well, an editor does the same. Except he's more thorough; devoted (by your contract) to your book; he's got a lot more professional experience than your friends do; and so on, and so forth. In this sense, an editor is awesome.

What a lot of people have trouble with is with that advice coming from a position of authority. The editor doesn't merely advise - he can make huge decisions about the book. Starting with whether or not to purchase it.

In the immediate sense - the author doesn't need an editor in authority. Pretty much by definition, if the editor can't convince the author to make a certain change, then forcing the author to make that change can't be in the author's direct benefit (I'm assuming the author has a decent idea of what's good for him; few authors will confess they don't). The editor's authority comes from the publisher, and that's who he's truly serving: the publisher is the one who needs editors to find new authors, to bring the best out of manuscripts, to assure new novels are salable and appropriate to the line, etc. .

The author doesn't need most of that; not directly. The author just needs the system to exist. The author doesn't want an editor to set him in competition with a thousand other MSs - but indirectly he does need him to do that, because otherwise nobody publishes anything. The editor serves as the publisher's sieve, its gate-keeper, its gem-cutter. Does that serve the writers being kept out or shaved off? Not directly - but it upholds the quality of the entire industry, without which nobody would have anything at all.

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Because you can't see your own mistakes.

You know, in your head, what you want your story to accomplish. You know who you want to end up with whom. You know who you want to punish, and who you want to see succeed. You know which characters you like and which are your villains.

But the challenge is writing your story so that anyone else who reads it sees the same things you do, without having you there to explain it. You need to get everything out of your head onto the page, and convincingly.

A good editor will help you to shape what's on the page so that it guides the reader to see what you want the reader to see. A good editor will also point out where you made the heroine a wimp, the love-interest so perfect that he clearly leapt fully-formed from the brow of Tiger Beat, the villain into Snidely Whiplash, and how the final twist can be seen a mile off.

Without an editor, you won't necessarily see those things are there, or you won't think they need fixing. The editor is there to bring out the best in your work.

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