Ah yes, editors…the people no one notices unless we screw up. We’re like ninjas that way. No wonder we’re always
the first ones to get the axe when a company tanks so damn cheerful all the time.
No, but really, we’re actually lovely people. We just want the best for you and your writing, I promise. Still, you may be wondering: “I’ve got Spell Check and I’m writing in my native language, so why do I have to pay someone to do what I can do myself?” Good question, I’m glad you asked. The truth is, no matter how long you’ve been speaking a language or how many classes you’ve taken, you probably have quite a few weak spots. That’s not me being self-righteous, either—I say that from personal experience, because I have quite a few weak spots, too.
Your Tax Dollars Have Failed You
You know how you look at your paycheck every week/month/year and do a double take at how much of it you lost to income tax? Sucks, doesn’t it? If you’re like me, you try to soothe the hurt by remembering that those tax dollars help support all the wonderful infrastructure you and your family depend on. (…Wait, that pot hole still hasn’t been fixed? …You mother—okay, okay, fine, moving on.) I’m sorry to have to tell you this, friend, but even though your roads might be nice and pockmark-free, your tax dollars have probably failed you immensely when it comes to your K-12 education.
Diagramming sentences is a great way to learn grammar. Did your teachers show you how to do this in elementary, middle, or even high school? My teachers sure didn’t. Sure, I learned what nouns, adjectives, and commas were, but gerunds? Participial phrases? Subjective case, objective case, and conditional verb tenses? You must be joking. But all of these things are really important to understand when you’re writing, whether that be an essay, an article, or a novel.
Writing in your native language means that a lot of grammar rules will be instinctual to you. You might not be able to say why you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, but you’ll remember that at some point someone told you that you couldn’t. You might not be able to explain why “I should of didn’t go to that party” isn’t standard English, but you’ll be able to recognize that it sounds…off. Those instincts will help you with the vast majority of grammar and spelling fails, but not all of them. And that’s where editors come in.
For example, that old rule saying, “You can’t end a sentence with a preposition”? It isn’t true. And yes, you can totally start a sentence with “and” or “but,” especially if you’re writing for a casual audience. Language is fluid, so rules and conventions change constantly. While your K-12 teachers probably focused on hard-and-fast rules for grammar, most professional editors today are taught both prescriptive language (“The rule says it has to be written this way”) and descriptive language (“This is how people actually write it in everyday usage”). Depending on what the target market is, we might rely on one approach much more than the other. In journalism, Associated Press Style is pretty much law. You might be used to seeing “offsite” as one word, but AP says it should be “off-site,” so that’s what it’s going to be on the page unless the newspaper has additional in-house guidelines that supersede that rule.
For fiction writing, however, many rules are meant to be broken. Run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, and slang are all things that I’ve seen in manuscripts and left alone, because they work for the voice and tone of the project. If you’re writing a YA novel in first-person perspective, it would feel weird and inauthentic if the narrator obeyed every single grammar rule. Teens don’t talk or think like that. So a good editor will be willing to compromise quite a bit more with fiction than investigative reporting, although you still have to know the rules before you can break them. If you intentionally “break” a grammar rule or protest an editor’s change and can adequately justify it? You’ll get no pushback from me. But if you want to use creative new spellings or definitions for well-established English words, I’m probably going to advise against those.
Speaking of me personally, I was always good with grammar and spelling because I read a lot, but I didn’t really understand grammar until I began taking Spanish and journalism classes in college. Why Spanish? Because learning a foreign language means you can’t rely on instinct—you have to start from scratch. And that means you need to know what a participial phrase is.
Your Brain Will Trick You
If you read anything enough times, you’ll start to see things that aren’t there. You’ll skip right over that missing ‘s’ in “Missisippi” because your brain recognizes what the word is supposed to say and fills in the gap for you. Usually, this is a good thing. Not so with writing for the masses.
This is why having a second (or third or fourth) pair of eyes on your work is beneficial—the editors aren’t familiar with your novel, so their brains can’t fill in intent for them like yours can. That means it’ll be a lot easier for them to suss out grammar and spelling mistakes or continuity problems. This unfamiliarity, combined with our relative mastery of prescriptive language, ensures we can make your novel engaging without sacrificing readability. Don’t let readers trip over typos and get pulled out of the story—once they are, many times it’s impossible to reel them back in.
A Dialogue, Not A Dictatorship
So how do you find a good editor? If you’re working with a traditional publisher, they’ll supply one for you, and because those editors had to go through an interview process and likely pass an editing test, you can be reasonably sure they’re adept at what they do. If you’re going the self-publishing or hybrid publishing routes, however, that’s when there’s more uncertainty. Ask writer friends for references, or check out organizations such as the American Copy Editors Society. But make sure you know what type of editing you need first—rates will vary widely depending on the individual editor’s expertise and how much heavy lifting is required.
Only you can decide how much you’re willing to spend for the work that you need done, but there’s one thing you shouldn’t compromise on: Editing is a dialogue, not a dictatorship. Yes, there are indeed some hard-and-fast rules that your editor won’t be able to compromise on—spelling or in-house style, for example (Chicago Manual of Style is also the standard for novels). But a good editor understands that the manuscript belongs first and foremost to you. It’s your name on the cover, and so preserving your voice and vision is important to us. If you feel like your editor is being condescending or impatient or railroading you, it’s probably time to part ways. When it comes to substantive edits (“content editing” is the way I refer to it), most freelance editors will make suggestions on things like pacing, character development, plot holes, etc., but whether and how you choose to address them is up to you.
Also, for what it’s worth…I’ve been editing for four years and still can’t spell “occasionally” right on the first try. Don’t be intimidated by the thought of getting something wrong—it’s never too late to learn something new.