The evil secret to ALL WRITING – editing is everything

Editing is everything.

I don’t care who you are — you need an editor. And you always will.

In fact, the more successful you are as a writer, the more editing you’ll need.

Here’s why:

The time crunch.

You’ll never have as much time as you did when you were struggling to break in.

A journalism student can get away with writing and polishing a major story for weeks or months.

Once you get a job as a reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper, the first step on your path to The New York Times, you’ve got to crank out two stories a day, every day.

I used to write three or four stories before 10 a.m. every deadline day at papers of news. You get used to it. But it’s a shock at first. The time crunch is real. Which leads to problem No. 2.

The sophomore slump

Think about famous debut novelists who had a tremendous first book, and when you hopped inside your automobile and raced to Borders — back when Borders existed, and sold these things we called “books” — to buy their second novel on release day, it made you weep like a Charlie Sheen who’s run fresh out of tequila and tiger blood because that second book sucked like Electrolux.

Why does this happen?

Because debut novelists spend years polishing that first novel until it shines like a diamond made of words.

And when a debut novelist finally makes it, and has a three-book contract with Random House to crank out a book a year, it’s a struggle. They aren’t used to writing that good that fast.

You only need editing three times: when you start out, when you’re middling and when you’re a busy pro

Some people who write for a living — and didn’t spend time at newspapers or magazines getting edited every day — sometimes think success means they’re infallible. Their words are perfect, becausee otherwise why wouldn’t they be famous? Or they are richer than God and simply don’t care.

And even great writers sometimes just write long. They’re in a rush. They have to crank out the product and move on to the next thing.

Stephen King, who I adore, writes beautiful little short stories and novellas while cranking out novels that clock in at 800 or 1,000 pages.

I could close my eyes, reach onto my bookshelf in my secret lair and grab five King novels that weigh more than most second-graders. Some of these novels are fine being that long. Others are overloaded semis with a sleek sports car of a novel lurking inside and waiting to burst out.

Even literary snobs now admit that King’s  novels — even the giant ones — are good. But you could chop 400 or 500 pages from any of his monstrously overlong novels and make them even better.

Think about J.K. Rowling, and how with every paycheck and movie deal, the next book in the Harry Potter series doubled in size, until Boeing had to invent a new freight version of the 747 just to deliver the last novel so we could find out why Hermione winds up with What’s-His-Face, the redheaded doofus sidekick, instead of Harry, her true love.

Get the right editor

Most people get the wrong kind of editor.

You don’t need an editor for nancypants nonsense like dangling modifiers and misplaced commas. That’s a proof-reader, not an editor. Any semi-literate fool can proof-read a document. Microsoft Word can take a whack at that.

The editor you need is (a) a professional who (b) edits or writes for a living in (c) the specific type of writing you want to do FOR MONIES.

Any old professional will NOT do

A roomful of reporters and editors at a newspaper is a good example. They all write and edit for a living, and 99 percent of them want to write the Great American Novel — but 99 percent of the time, they fail.

Because it’s not their specialty.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Writing short non-fiction newspaper stories is far, far different than writing 400-page novels. The structure reporters use for news stories — the inverted pyramid — is exactly backwards for fiction.

Now, there are exceptions. Opinion page editors and columnists could make the transition to speechwriters, and vice-versa. The structures and techniques for persuasion on the page are quite similar to the ones used in speech and rhetoric.

But if you want to make a switch, the fact that you already write for monies doesn’t guarantee anything.

It’s like professional sports. The fact that you play shooting guard for the Bulls doesn’t mean can play left field for the White Sox.

That’s exactly what Michael Jordan tried to do. This is the greatest basketball player of all time. He’d won enough NBA championships. He’d climbed every basketball mountain. He was one of the best athletes on the planet.

So when he decided to try playing major league baseball, it wasn’t a silly dream.

And he did it right. He didn’t try to muscle his way onto the White Sox starting lineup by having lunch with the owner. He trained with baseball coaches and played for the minor league Birmingham Barons, batting .202 with 3 home runs, 51 runs-batted-in and 30 stolen bases.

Batting .202 isn’t good enough. Jordan went back to basketball.

When you try to cross-over, you’ve got to be just as careful and serious and hard-working as if you’re trying to break in for the first time.

Your editor needs to do it for monies

If you really want to pay the mortgage writing full time, you’ve got to go all in with an editor who wields their Red Pen of Doom for monies, too.

Not your husband or wife or best friend. Not a coworker or a buddy who writes something sort of close to what you’re doing, even if they do it full time.

It’s an achy breaky big mistakey to use a non-pro as your editor. Friends and family may be great readers of books but horrible at editing. Either way, you’ll take what they say far too personally.

Dreams will be crushed. Friendships will fray. Marriages will sour. DO NOT DO THIS.

Even if you’re friends with somebody who writes or edits for a living, and they say sure, they’ll edit you as a favor, that might be OK for one small piece. A short story. Your first shot at a stump speech. But not anything of length. And not as a habit. When you start cashing checks for what you write, stop being a freeloader. Set your friend free.

Better yet, don’t lean on the friend too much in the first place. Because they’re your friend. They won’t tell you if you truly stink up the joint.

Your editor must be in your specific field

It’d be silly to use a professional writer or editor in a different field.

They won’t know the conventions and quirks of another type of writing. They’ll make you feel confident that your text is perfect when it has some formatting flaw or deadly structural boo-boo that neither one of you spotted, because your buddy writes screenplays and you’re doing a novel about elves with lightsabers who ride dragons.

Find an editor who does exactly what you want to do, whether that’s writing novels, newspaper stories, magazine features, non-fiction books or speechwriting for the politicians.

Now, the natural response to this is, “Professional editors cost money, and I am a poor, starving writer with six kids who lives in a cardboard shack and feeds my family Top Ramen, raw, like popcorn, because we can’t afford a pot to boil the stuff in, so there’s no way I can pay some fancy editor to bleed on my words, words that I carefully put on this paper towel in my own blood because Bic pens and Underwood typewriters and Toshiba laptops are out of my budget, unless I spend my every weekend robbing the local 7-Eleven, which for some reason hates AP style and won’t go with Seven-11.”

To this I say: suck it up.

Professional editors don’t cost THAT much. Scrape together $100 or $200 and have a pro look at the first chunk of whatever you’re writing. Believe me, they don’t need to read all 400 pages to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Though it’s a lie that you can figure that out after five pages. It only takes one page, to be honest.

If you were trying to cut hair for a living, it’d cost you more than a couple hundred bucks to get a license. A writing conference plus three days in a hotel can run you $1k, and that’s if you NEVER EAT ANYTHING and completely abstain from bourbon. So suck it up and find somebody good to look at your first bit, long before you write the entire shebang.

Because a great editor is priceless.

PlugTheresa the Stevens, who reads this silly blog and makes witty comments, is a professional editor and former literary agent who also edits for publishers.

Theresa the Stevens is also kind, because she does a special deal where she wields her wicked pen on the first 75 pages of a novel PLUS the synopsis PLUS the query letter.

Think about how long it takes a human being to write and rewrite and rewrite a novel and synopsis and query letter. Hundreds of hours. Bazillions. Think about paying yourself minimum wage for those hours.

Then close your eyes and imagine there’s a glowing mystical being who, for the price of the complete first and second seasons of The Jersey Shore on DVD, could save yourself hundreds of more hours of pain while making you (a) seem incredibly brilliant and (b) have ten times the shot of not only getting the thing published, but making decent money at it.

Is that worth a couple hundred bucks?

Cowboy up. If you really want to write for a living, and not toy with it as a hobby, find yourself the best professional editor possible. And pay them in something other than thank you’s and cups of coffee.

67 thoughts on “The evil secret to ALL WRITING – editing is everything

  1. This morning I read this

    and thought “what we’re missing here is a conversation about the role of an editor.” Then I read your post and thought I’d just hook you and Pendragon Dan together. Maybe ya’ll can guest post about how every published writer, indie or otherwise, should seek editorial help.

    Great work! Glad to know ya!


  2. Ewe are sew write about the knead four coppyeditters. Eye sea sum horribble things out their in print.Once its published it’s out they’re fourever, sew why knot due it? Spend a liddle doe and pollish you’re werk frist. Yew never no. yew coud bee the nekst JK Rolling (my apologies to JK).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amen! I’m making a list of potential editors *just in case* I self-pub.

    I just read a book by a solid, traditionally published author who crossed genres and private press pub’ed a novel. Disaster! Halfway through the book, it abruptly switched genres into the author’s more comfortable territory. It was as if someone ripped two paperbacks in half and glued them together. A good editor would have nipped that in the bud. Too bad, because it had been shaping up to be a decent novel. 😦


      1. I agree with Guy. For a first time novelist, it will be easier to build a reputation with a traditional publisher. That said, it can also work the other way around but marketing (if you’re not a marketer) is a lot of heavy slogging. Come to think of it, it’s a lot of heavy slogging even when you know what you’re doing.


  4. Completely agree with so many parts of this…!
    Writing is the most fun part of any project, I think, because it’s about creating. Self-editing can be a truly gratifying process, too, because (once I’m finished with a story), I can start to pull together (and push out) pieces that make the whole thing flow better for the tale I want to tell. But getting someone else – a pro – to edit is certainly the hardest and most crucial step. Yes, it’s scary to see so much red, but when it comes from a pro (someone I’ve PAID to do this), I know it’s genuinely helpful for my story. THAT’S what I’ve found invaluable for hiring an impartial editing party.
    And you’re so absolutely right that you should never, ever get your friends or family to edit you! They’re your support structure; they’re meant to tell you what a beautiful work of art you’ve created (even when it’s not one).
    Once again, insightful stuff. Thank you!


  5. Editing is painful. That’s why you should pay for it so you will see your writing in a clear light with no rose-tinted glasses. Tony Morrison makesxthe mistake of big writers and says she doesn’t need editing. As you say, not true. It’s why her early stuff sings & the later work crosses into occasional excess.


  6. Carol the Terry,

    Thank you for reading my silly blog, and for sharing the link with editors.

    For some reason, all the British editors are awake far, far earlier than people on the West Coast, and have been busy reading this post, though they are too polite to wade into the comment section and start literary knife fights.

    Which is too bad. I can see the stats. I know they’re reading it, and are repressing the urge to type phrases like “sticky wicket.” I read THE ECONOMIST and know your secret words.


  7. Because you approach my impressively badass editor self with the proper respect, and rightfully urge writers to do the same, I am in love with you and want to have your children. Well, at least I totally dig you and will never miss one of your blog posts again.


  8. Definitely food for thought here.

    As usual your wit is astounding. My favorite line from this post: “I could close my eyes, reach onto my bookshelf in my secret lair and grab five King novels that weigh more than most second-graders, literary fatties with a slim novel lurking inside, just waiting to burst out.”

    Pure awesomeness. 😉


    1. Gwen the Hernandez,

      You are too kind. Also, it’s unintentional. I wrote that post INSANELY FAST and don’t remember half the lines people have pointed out as being spiffy.

      How the hell are you? I’ve been busy and anti-social, though that should end soon, when things slow down.


      1. So what you’re saying is you’re just *that* good. 😉

        I’m great. Thanks for asking. Just found out on Friday that I’m a Golden Heart finalist. The only thing better than that is getting a contract. =)

        Good luck with your busy-ness!


      2. Well, since you asked… The Golden Heart (R) is the contest for unpubbed romance writers sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (R). The finalists are announced at our national conference (this year in NYC). Go here to see my name in pixels: (near the bottom under the single title romantic suspense category)

        As far as how I did it? I guess the judges I had connected with my writing. Like any contest, it’s a bit of a crapshoot, but it’s also validation that you’re doing something right, and it opens a lot of doors with agents/editors.

        Nothing to do with The Man with the Golden Gun, or the warmth of my heart, or how cold my hands are. All I can say is thank goodness for fingerless mittens…


  9. As usual, your pearls of writerwisdom have a lovely sheen of truth.

    Side note: As indie-publishing (aka self-publishing, but way cooler sounding) really takes off, I think we’ll see a definite bifurcation in the market between writers who are serious and use real and actual paid by monies editors and those who wing it.

    We paid actual monies to an editor before going indie on our latest, and it was money very well spent. To me it’s not about ego – it’s not about my words being precious and lovely. It’s like taking a suit or a wedding dress to be tailored/altered. It’s theoretically possible you bought one off the rack that fits well, but highly, highly unlikely. But once the professional works their magic, your suit or wedding dress fits perfectly and you shine like a diamond. Similarly, it’s theoretically possible your book doesn’t need editing – but that’s ridiculously improbable. Editing allows the awesome of your story to shine through.


  10. “Professional editors cost money, and I am a poor, starving writer with six kids who lives in a cardboard shack and feeds my family Top Ramen, raw, like popcorn, because we can’t afford a pot to boil the stuff in, so there’s no way I can pay some fancy editor to bleed on my words, words that I carefully put on this paper towel in my own blood because Bic pens and Underwood typewriters and Toshiba laptops are out of my budget, unless I spend my every weekend robbing the local 7-Eleven, which for some reason hates AP style and won’t go with Seven-11.”

    This is so funny because it’s so true! And you are absolutely correct. We all need editors. REAL editors. Not just a glorified spell check, but someone to see through the holes we are blind to. Someone to analyze the structure and plot and flow. Someone to step into the lives of our characters and see if we really fleshed them out or if they are still just taking up residence in our over-active imaginations.

    And I have missed these writerly posts.


    1. I am completely disappointed and outraged for two reasons.

      (1) I don’t have the time to properly respond to everything in this post because I’m running #CSAR on my blog and it’s an effin full-time job. Plus, I have a full-time job that’s an effin full-time job.

      (B) There is absolutely nothing in this post I disagree with. So I came here with flame-throwers and blazing guns for absolutely no reason.

      But it was still an enjoyable non-debate. I couldn’t agree more. And I can’t say more without swearing. Not because I don’t agree, but because it’s impossible for me to agree and not be pissy about it. That’s how contrary I am and how much I am longing for a good fight.

      Okay, back to brackets and giving away prizes. You keep me posted if you write something that I can come over here and dump on. I am nothing if not a self-righteous bitch who likes to pick fights with everyone.

      Also, if people are going to NOT buy Jersey Shores, in addition to giving them editing services, we need to applaud their general brain chemistry.


  11. This post is epic, as all of your posts are, giving me my minimum daily requirement of wisdom wrapped in wit.

    Ms. Stevens gave me such nice compliments on a contest entry last year, so she has a lifetime most-favored status with me. 🙂


    1. Those compliments were earned, every last one of them. It was a good entry. Actually, that’s a really strong contest across the board. I lost track of how many authors I bought from that contest.


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