Letters to the Editor have been a valuable feature of traditional journalism publications likely as long as print has existed. I wrote several to the local paper where I grew up, and the sense of credence and value I felt it lent my opinions, to see them in print and to know that the circulation of the critiques or accolades I had to share would be wider than I could achieve on my own, boosted my confidence as a young writer. It also underscored the suspicion I held, as an idealistic adolescent, that a well-written page could itself be a form of civic engagement and an appropriate avenue for social change.
“For a country to have a great writer … is like having another government. That’s why no régime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”
-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1968
Now that I am an adult, and an editor myself, I encounter a variety of works, all serving different purposes. On my desk right now, there are stories meant to entertain and stories with philosophical underpinnings. There are nonfiction books meant to instruct and nonfiction books created to heal or reconcile the past. There are papers from peers for university classes, medical research and attachments for government land use permits. There is ad copy. There are first drafts of novels, my own and my colleague’s, there are blog posts, ideas for blog posts, lists of titles for blog posts. There are poems and letters. Ever the letters. There is a slim volume of letters to a poet.
It got me thinking, why not write a letter from the editor, because just like when I was 13, 17, and 22, I have something to get off my chest.
Though I am adept at finding comma use errors and have an extensive vocabulary from which to pull when I have to repeatedly find a synonym for you, I would prefer to do less proofreading and more of what I do best: helping you craft outstanding and purposeful messages.
It’s not that I am ungrateful or mean to posit myself as being somehow “above” cleaning up typos and grammatical details. It’s that, lately, I have been feeling sad and discouraged about the state of affairs in the social justice and environmental responsibility arenas again. What does that have to do with writing, editing, and you?
Well, only this: When I get down about a pervasive feeling of helplessness in the face of doom conspiracy and some very real and very alarming facts about soil, bees, and energy policy, the only thing that keeps me from eating heaps of refined sugar and going back to bed to Netflix something more upbeat, like pillaging Vikings or documentaries about pharmaceutical companies, are my relationships. With a power greater than myself, other human beings, living creatures, and the natural landscapes I am blessed to freely access. That, and creativity.
I want to take our relationship to the next level. There. I said it.
Writing is a challenging, and solitary act. We need bouts of psychological distance from the practice of it, and to let its products breathe for a while before even entertaining thoughts of sharing them. Once we have made a decision, “Yes, these things are worthy. I will bring them forth for others to see,” the solitude stage is over. Who will we trust at this juncture, to look over what we have just made, unwieldy and awkward in its infancy and rife with little problems?
Not a professional editor.
Here’s why, I think, your pal that taught English at the community college one summer, your Pastor, former cell mate Tony “The Fist” DelGrasso, or wife, the guy at the gym who has an unexpected knack for grammar or someone who can answer a Craigslist Ad with complete, correctly punctuated sentences, would be a better choice:
Time is Money – Don’t hire a professional editor too soon.
Why? Well, imagine your book is like a diamond. And your first draft will almost always be a very rough diamond. Just like a rough diamond, a book must go through several stages of additional work to make it truly shine. If you send you rough draft to a professional editor, they will have to spend most of their time working on fixing minor errors before they can even get to the good stuff, like helping you become a better writer and communicator. If you just give your first draft to an editor and expect them to hand you a final manuscript, you’ll find yourself sorely disappointed.
Unless you have a huge budget for editing, you’ll probably be better off enlisting the help of beta readers – friends, family and fans who will read your rough draft and help you find many of those typos and grammatical errors. Great beta readers will also help you with additional ideas and tips as well to make your book shine.
Of course, an editor can do the same thing. But you’re going to have to pay for it. And a third-party editor often won’t be as in love with your work as your greatest fans. So, if you can find some fans to be beta readers for your next book, they can help with ideas and tips that an editor couldn’t, simply because they might not be as familiar with your work.
Secondly, editors are human beings with human frailties like eyestrain and wandering minds. Exhaust them with awkward sentence structure, verb tense agreement issues, and over capitalizing, and like all mere mortals, they will start to play down a level. Yes, editors are usually pretty savvy when it comes to spelling and will reliably attend to detail, but submitting error-ridden drafts diverts time, energy and focus from an editor’s ability to foster more comprehensive improvements to your piece while developing a relationship with you as a writer to help you define the vision and purpose driving your work. Most editors do their best work with a manuscript that’s already gone through a few revisions. Editing is not just a one-and-done process.
Most traditionally published books go through a minimum of three rounds of editing and revisions. Even if you’re self publishing, most writers should expect several rounds of editing and revisions before a manuscript is ready.
Reviewing the Roles: Proofreader VS. Editor
Here are some examples of what a proofreader can do to help you improve your work:
- Make spelling corrections that spell-check tools and people who don’t read much or have solid command of the English language may miss. Even the best computers and devices don’t recognize incorrect homonyms, neologisms, and jargon. A trained editor can spot such mistakes instantly.
- Suggest changes to sentence and paragraph structure to enhance understanding and flow.
- Know when to capitalize seasons, that commas and periods always go inside of quotation marks, and how rarely an ellipsis should appear in dialogue.
Usually, serious writers morph from having a love/hate relationship to a hate/hate relationship with the drafting process. It’s normal as a writer to sometimes get tunnel vision from spending so much time working on a manuscript. At times, even the thought of reading a manuscript again line-by-line to check for typos can fill an author with dread. This is exactly the opportunity to pawn off that dirty copy to a trusted friend, aunt, or the barista whose tip jar you pad weekly. Everyone can find somebody who cares enough to take the time, is naturally good at, and possibly enjoys hunting for mistakes and making corrections.
If said person also knows how to use the Track Changes feature in MS Word or Google Docs, that’s definitely a bonus. There are also online resources where you can source proofing services for dirt cheap or free.
Have more than one person, other than you, proofread everything intended for publication or sharing. In the age of email attachments, this is a simple habit that will elevate the esteem you feel about what you produce and the people you invite to share in that process will be honored. If not honored, they will at least be grateful for a distraction from their own tasks that has a hair more intellectual engagement than consuming another Buzzfeed video.
A professional editor, while capable of proofreading, can do a lot more for writers, including assistance with career development.
Potential roles of an editor working in their ideal capacity:
- Deals with grammar and usage issues that are more specific or harder to catch and define. Things like use of the passive voice, dialect, and conceptual flow are on their radar.
- Editors also keenly understand form and can help writers decide how formal decisions affect the overall feel of a piece.
- Assists with fact checking and cross-referencing research. Great editors enjoy sleuthing. Fantastic editors make certain your message is contextually situated.
- Ruthlessly cuts out words, sentences and entire passages that the writer toiled over. This is not because editors are unfeeling, but because they understand the value of brevity and succinctness to receptive audiences.
- Forms enough of a relationship with the writer, their characters or nonfiction argument, and the intended audience to know if the monologue in chapter 13 is honest, if descriptive sections are crucial to understanding and how this work may fit in the larger picture of the author’s career or creative objectives.
- They keep tabs on the field. They are aware of what matters, what sells and what proportion of overlap between those two is possible for a given piece.
“It is also easy to see why publishers need human capital: like other organizations, publishing firms are only as good as their staff. A highly trained and highly motivated workforce is a vital resource for a publishing firm and in many ways the key to its success. This is true at all levels, but particularly true at the level of editorial staff, since this is the creative core of the publishing firm. The success of the firm depends crucially on the ability to attract and retain highly motivated editors who are able to identify and acquire the new projects that are likely to be successful and are able to work effectively.”
-John B. Thompson Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century
I find it helpful to think of an editor like curators of an art collection, wildly successful music producers, art directors on film productions, or even a bit like an executive chef. They mentally manage a lot of elements and can symphonize them beautifully. They have read so much, that they can usually forgo running a draft through litmus tests or calling on formula. These standards are already functioning in them, meta-consciously.
It really is about sense, taste, and comprehensive insight into what will work best in a given arena and situation. At best, an editor can be almost shamanic in their ability to coax Truth out of a writer, applying deft pressure and interludes of nurturing that enhance the evolution of the author and what they then create.
There’s a reason why their names appear after “my editor,” right up there with God, moms and life partners on the Acknowledgements and Thank You pages of people’s books. Trust them.
No service-minded editor will refuse to drop in a semicolon when needed. But smart writers find a team of individuals who can contribute different strengths in their movement toward optimal quality. Proofers, editors, colleagues, kids, and a half-asleep cat can all play a crucial role. But we don’t expect the cat to be capable of character analysis any more than we expect a kid to want to have an hour-long discussion about archetypal themes.
Growing up, my dad often said, “Use the right tool for the job.” At the time I was probably trying to dig a hole with the snow shovel instead of the spade or cut a piece of steak with a butter knife. Now, I understand that he was speaking to my wellness; I would be safer, save more energy and be less likely to break his stuff by following that advice. I should write him a letter telling him that I appreciate it.
About the Author
Susannah M. Cyrus is a writer, editor and marketing consultant. She is an Editor and Contributing Writer for TCK Publishing, an independent book publishing company. She is also a manager for the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview bestselling authors, publishers and agents on their strategies for success. Susannah is passionate about helping people more effectively express themselves. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO and is a stickler for quality communication. When she isn’t editing manuscripts or working on her own writing projects, she is probably outside