How to Pick an Editor and Avoid Bad Reviews

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By Karin Cather

Editor & Ghostwriter

Category: Editing

Published April 13, 2019

You have worked hard on your manuscript and you have made more revisions than you can count. You may have had friends and family read it. You may even be a talented writer who has just written what will be a best seller. Given all of that, it’s hard for you to imagine that your manuscript might have problems—let alone enough to need to pay professional rates for a trained editor.

For you, these problems hide in plain sight because it really is true that authors can’t edit their own work. In fact, when editors switch hats from editor to author, they hire editors too, even when they write treatises and textbooks about editing. It’s also hard to imagine what an editor can do for your work in particular, especially in cases where your spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation may be just about pristine. But editors do much more than fix typos.

Editors are the equivalent of the lighting crew in a movie. Imagine Casablanca during the La Marseillaise scene, one of the best scenes in one of the best movies of all time. The story itself is a masterpiece. Ingrid Bergman’s acting is so sublime that we can see how she feels about Victor Lazlo just by her breathing.  But a hidden strength of the movie is the lighting. As proof, what would have happened if Bergman had been lit from below? What if Yvonne’s tears had been obscured by shadow? What if it were too dark to see Rick Blaine’s nod? It’s a different movie. We might not know enough about cinematography to understand that a poorly lit Casablanca could have been a timeless masterpiece but for a decent lighting crew. Instead, this 77-year-old classic might have been reduced to B-movie status and forgotten.

Editors are the literary lighting crew. Under all that shadow is your work’s best self.

Needing an Editor Isn’t a Reflection on You

It is not a character flaw to miss problems in your own work. If your work requires a lot of editorial involvement, it doesn’t mean that you have been shut out of a secret organization that only a few writers belong to.

Unlike the negative reviewers, we’re on your side. We aren’t going to judge you for bad lighting in your Rick’s Café Américain; you’ve hired us to fix it. You may also pay us to recommend that your Sam play “As Time Goes By” and not “The Way to Eden.” We’re not only here to help fix your writing, we’re here to teach you. Odds are, you make the same kinds of mistakes throughout your writing, so you can learn from our edits how to avoid those issues in the future.

The Readers Respond

To get an idea of what skilled editors can save you from, I have included excerpts of some Amazon reviews. Understand, no professional editor would talk to you the way that these reviewers do. We don’t even think about the problems in your work the way that these reviewers do, but reviewers aren’t editors, they’re your audience, and they’re not paid to help you like we are.

You’ll see that reviewers don’t just talk about commas and typos, but plot holes, continuity errors, and factual errors. They notice bad pacing, unconvincing characters who do unconvincing things for unconvincing reasons, stilted writing, unsatisfactory endings, frustrating cliffhangers, and unnecessary loose ends. I’ve categorized the problems spotted by the reviewers to give you an idea of what to pay attention to in your own writing.

Plot Holes, Pacing, Writing

This reader titled their review “I felt myself getting dumber as I read each page:”

Everybody and everything in this book is idiotic. These “The Right Stuff” inductees forget to do things such as 1) Bring enough oxygen 2) check whether airlocks are open or not 3) Monitor their crewmates engaged in something dangerous (instead choosing to listen to music), 4) Disconnect their ship from things before trying to blast off. 5) Not contaminate their samples, (because being the first to touch Mars dirt with your bare hands and feet is more important!). 6) Protect their equipment (I’m sure those parachutes will be fine blowing around in the Mars wind for a while until we need them) 7) Not get pregnant, kill each other, or commit angst-y suicide while in space. 8) Not start a nuclear war (ok, that last one is a different set of idiot astronauts.)

Plus NASA in this book is apparently run by drunk third-graders. Not only do they pick these four folks for the Mars mission (after a job interview that involved a brisk jog and solving some brain teasers), but they apparently send them with no training, procedures, plan, safety fallbacks, equipment which actually works, or hint of what they should do or when they should do it. Everybody just makes things up as they go along and since NASA isn’t paying attention to humanity’s only manned Mars mission I guess they’re ok with resulting dumpster fire. And they seem fine with sending along some extra heavy equipment at the request of the Pentagon which they can’t be told about. What could possibly go wrong with that, right? It couldn’t possibly be a bomb, right?

As for the rest of the book – the science is sloppy, the plot is full of holes, the main mystery is ignored, the ending is random, and the writing is competently executed yet a bit simplistic in style.

A professional editor would have fixed or flagged all of this for that author. The Martian can get away with having things getting destroyed in a windstorm but that’s because the novel does such an amazing job with the science in the rest of the novel. Perhaps you are saying about yours that it’s just a book and it’s the action that matters, but readers don’t like it when authors insult their intelligence. They’re willing to suspend disbelief, but there has to be something to suspend it from. It’s a matter of judgment whether factual inaccuracies stay or go. But it’s fair that you should know both that a factual inaccuracy exists and the impact on your story of leaving it.

Factual Errors, Plot Holes, Setting Errors, Characterization

Generally speaking, it’s best to make factual errors disappear because they (at the very least) distract readers:

No one in Montana ever, ever refers to a pickup or SUV as a “car”. Most vehicles are always referred to as “rigs” no matter what they are.

Jenna goes from having “manicured nails”, but three pages later “chews what is left of her nails”. 5 pages later, she’s “manicured” again. Really?

The sun is out with green patches showing along the road – and when they arrive at the landfill a few minutes later, there was a blizzard and everything is iced and snow covered. Make up your mind!

If he’s 6’5″ and if she’s so “small”, how does he feel “her hot breath on his cheeks”??

Too much inconsistent, unnecessary, annoying detail, too little research, and too many non-American phrases and words for anyone to believe this was really set in Montana. (See the 1-star review by Deesy . Right on!)

Here is an excerpt of Deesy’s review:

At the end of Chapter Five, Hood tells us that Kane carries a “Zig nine-one-one backup pistol.” There is no such thing. Zig, a Turkish firearms manufacturer, makes a semi-automatic pistol called the “Zig 1911 Pistol,” but it appears to be more suitable for use as a primary weapon, rather than a backup, because it has a five inch barrel and comes chambered in .45 ACP caliber ammunition. We have been told that Kane’s primary weapon is a Glock 22, which is a .40 caliber weapon with a 4½ inch barrel, so why would the backup weapon be even bigger, and more powerful, than the primary weapon? It makes no sense. Another gun inconsistency in the book is the assertion that Deputy Kane is creeping through the snow “straining to listen for another gunshot. He would have a millisecond to react . . .” Umm . . . Nope! Rifle bullets travel faster than the speed of sound. If he was shot, he would never hear the gunshot before the bullet struck him. Another gun inconsistency is that Kane “slid a bullet into the chamber” of his Glock before putting it back into his holster. Why wouldn’t there already have been a cartridge in the chamber? If not, why carry a Glock? Cops have to rack the slides of their handguns before using them only in poorly made TV shows and movies, and in poorly managed law enforcement agencies.

A professional editor would make sure that the police officer’s gun really existed. In related, is the detective actually a detective, an investigator, a special agent, or an inspector? Does the police officer have jurisdiction to act in the locality where the crime takes place? If not, what are they doing there? In Fool Moon, the second Harry Dresden novel, Jim Butcher has the characters address that very issue and explain it for the reader.

Pacing, Characterization

Here’s a review of a thriller:

While there are some decent though fairly standard serial killer things going on here, there’s a whole lot that should have met the delete key. We spend at least a page of narrative on dealing with the food machine and the crummy sandwiches it dispenses. Paragraphs on the coffee machine. More paragraphs on getting up, getting dressed, etc. None of which impacted the story in any way. One other thing—the protagonist is on the dumb side. He’s supposed to be a top detective, yet there were at least two instances where he should have come to the same conclusion about threats to himself and people close to him as this reader did, but he ignored them. That led, of course, to dire consequences that served the purposes of the “plot” but destroyed any credibility the character had as a detective.

A good editor could have flagged the offending scenes for deletion or deleted them—depending on scope of work. Really good writing gets cut all the time because there are more important things going on. What’s more, a good enough editor would point out weaknesses that detract from the believability of your characters. As an author, it may be difficult to recognize these scenes.

Diction, Grammar, Spelling, Dialogue, Usage, Punctuation

Here is what happens when a book isn’t copyedited:

The writing is substandard in a variety of ways. Many sentences are unnecessarily formal—mostly through a refusal to use contractions. This makes the reading awkward and quite bumpy at times, because the author is inconsistent: there’s plenty of perfectly fine informal language throughout so when the formality appears, it seems unnatural, especially in dialog. The author doesn’t seem to know when to use a hyphen. The author doesn’t fully understand the use of commas. I found a few misused words (“shown” for “shone,” for example). It’s not just sloppy writing; it’s also sloppy—or nonexistent—editing. I’m not trying to say that all fiction should be grammatically and stylistically perfect. I am saying, however, that well-written fiction does not and should not have so many distractions. They disrupt the flow of the story, they take the reader out of the story, they destroy any chance of achieving gracefulness or elegance in the story. This author needs to use a competent copyeditor. Stylistically and grammatically, anything that calls attention to itself damages the reader’s experience.

All these distractions are really a shame; I’m sure I would have enjoyed the book much more without them.

How to Pick an Editor

How do you know if your editor knows what they are doing? The first thing you need is an editing sample. Many editors will give a free sample edit, very brief (maybe 250 to 500 words) and a note about what they think your manuscript needs. Look at the before and after. Do you like it? And is the communication professional and respectful? This introduction gives you good information about the editor’s skills. A relatively new editor might be quite talented, so length of time in profession should not disqualify them. If your project is very big, you might also ask to pay for a 5,000-word sample at a relatively lower rate so you can see if you two work well together. There should also be a contract in order to align expectations.

They should have some professional experience, education, or training. Check out their website. What do you think of it? Ask what flavor of English they work in. American English, Canadian English, and British English have different rules, so your editor should know how to edit in your English. Have they engaged in any continuing professional education? What style guides do they work with? Are they members of a professional association?

Does the editor want to establish scope of work in advance? How specific do they want to be? If they agree to work with you, will there be a service agreement? If so, is it clear? Do they respect the genre or not?

To Sum Up

  • You have worked too hard to go without editing. You deserve to pay a professional. If you don’t, be prepared for reviews like these.
  • Look at the editor’s website to check their background—including education, training, editing associations, and specialties.
  • Ask for a brief, free editing sample and a short diagnostic.
  • For bigger projects, ask if you can pay for a 5,000-word sample at a slightly lower rate to see if you will work well together. Some editors will agree.
  • Ask if you can pay in installments. Professional editing is not cheap. I will allow a project to be spread over six months to allow for installment payments and some other editors will, too.
  • Publish your edited manuscript.
  • Enjoy your reviews!

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