You Need An Editor

Why self-publishing is a bit of a misnomer, Part II

After working as a freelance editor for several years I began to get annoyed about a few aspects of the job: People I didn’t know well would ask me grammar questions, even in social settings. I felt like the proverbial doctor at the cocktail party, invited to diagnose someone’s abdominal pain. Others would preface emails to me with apologies for any and all grammatical errors they were about to make; writing to an editor, they wrote, made them anxious — as if I were an unsatisfied 4th-grade teacher, the sort who doesn’t actually enjoy the company of children, and eager to scold anyone who fell short of my exacting, unreasonable standards.

The thing is, these people weren’t wrong about my grammar issues. (Unhyphenated compound adjectives really bother me.) My problem was that they didn’t understand what my job was; I’m not a copy editor, and anyone who hired me hoping that I’d fulfill that function for them would be sorely disappointed.

Developmental editing, the sort of editing I do, starts much earlier in a project. Some of my clients started working with me before they’d written much of anything down. They wanted to discuss whether their idea would even make a viable book in the first place. They wanted someone who would ask intelligent questions, but who also wasn’t afraid to ask dumb ones that would help them clarify their message.

There would be a lot of talking in our sessions. My client and I would get to know each other well. Here’s how I described the process in a preface to a short book on editing that I’ve yet to publish because I’ve been too distracted and fearful (honestly) to do so:

The kind of editing this short book concerns is not about tidying up grammar, or even “cutting out the bad bits.” Editing is a longer process that involves intense vulnerability and a shared commitment for an extended period of time — often months, sometimes years. The goal of editing is to make a piece of writing as good as possible. The effects of editing, however, go deeper. Which is to say it’s an instrumental process (people want editors because they want a better book / website / museum label) that somehow creates a way of interacting that’s powerful and generative. The best editor-edited relationships are creative sanctuaries: they become the first place a writer goes to when she needs creative fuel.
Editing could be considered a strange undertaking right about now. It happens in the context of one-and-one conversations, and as such does not scale. At most I work with five clients at a time; it’s better if I limit my attentions to three or four. You cannot edit one thousand people at the same time, and if you tried, you wouldn’t be editing, not in the way described above.

About “scale”— that’s the other aspect of the job in 2013 that began to bother me: Smart people who fancied themselves savvy yet ethical entrepreneurs would suggest that I scale my editorial services business by subcontracting out editing jobs to less experienced (read: younger and easily exploited) editors, and then take a huge chunk of the fee for myself.

I’d thank these people for their advice and pledge to the universe never to follow it. Pimping is just constitutionally incompatible with a good editorial dynamic.

Back to that short book:

Needless to say, professional editors do not come cheap. But something happens to people, I’ve discovered, when they experience the kind of sustained attention a good editor provides. If forced to list editing’s side effects, I’d say this: a creative person who has a good editor feels calm, encouraged, better able to confront her weaknesses, more confident in her decisions.
Strangely enough, this deeply gratifying sense of self emerges via discussions of relatively small-bore concerns:
What words should we use in this sentence?
What order should these sentences be in?
Have we explained this idea adequately?
Who is our audience and what do they want from us?
Does this audience exist or have we imagined them?
What are we missing?
What can we cut?
Intense concentration on getting a text right yields a sort of alchemy.

So copy editors have a role to play in this as well. But they come later in the process.

The truth is, I’ve long imagined that editors could be well used not just by authors, but by a number of different professions.

Any ideas?

Meanwhile, as StreetLib Market grows, we hope it becomes a place where everyone can find the editor they need to release their stagnant creative energy. If you’re a copy editor, developmental editor, or — better yet — have some strange sub-specialty, please consider joining us.