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  • Writer's pictureKate Armstrong

5 Myths About Editing

Person with a tan sweater typing on a laptop with a cup of coffee nearby and the title "5 Myths About Editing" overlaid onto the photo.

Many posts on this blog share the same theme: the mystery of editing. What type of editing do I need? What does each type of editing entail? What is my editor doing with my manuscript? Because editing can seem mysterious, there are also a number of myths and misunderstandings about it that prevent authors from seeking the services they need.

This post aims to dispel some of the most common myths.

Myth 1: Editors look for what you’ve done “wrong.”

Dispelling this myth is a two-part process.

First, this myth suggests an adversarial relationship between authors and editors that doesn’t (or shouldn’t!) exist. Editing is a partnership. I have amazing clients. I’m in awe of their efforts and abilities, and I want to help make their projects as successful as possible.

Second, while it’s true that proofreaders look for errors (because their job is to find typos so that you don’t suffer the embarrassment of publishing them), most editors are looking to finesse a story, not apply hard-and-fast rules to it. Doing that requires that we think critically about an author’s words, sentences, and flow and that we offer honest feedback. A lot of that feedback is positive! When it’s not, the constructive criticism we offer is meant to clear away anything that’s obscuring their amazing story. Providing feedback never requires an editor to bludgeon an author’s work while armed with The Chicago Manual of Style!

Myth 2: If you know how to self-edit and have Grammarly or ProWritingAid, you don’t need an editor.

This myth seems to be growing more common (in part because of the misconception that editors are meanies whose only goal is to highlight your flaws). And to a great extent, I get it. Good editing can be pricey, and if you’re hiring a freelancer, you’re paying out of pocket without any guarantee that you’ll refill your pockets with the proceeds from your book sales. Furthermore, there are some successful authors who do their own editing (I know one of them, and she writes fantastic books).

That said, whether you’re querying agents for traditional publishing or making a go of it self-publishing, you have a lot of competition. Furthermore, the hard reality is that it’s extremely difficult to see the weaknesses in our own writing. Not just spelling and grammar mistakes, but repetitive sentence structures, redundant word choice, wordiness, and even bigger issues with the meat of the story itself. Even editors hire editors (this blog post, for example, will be handed off to someone else to edit before I post it).

It’s also true that we don’t know what we don’t know. Good freelance editors are trained to look and listen for common weaknesses, as well as to see the scenes that can be made to sing with a bit of polishing. We’re also trained to offer recommendations for how an author can address those weaknesses and enhance their strengths. Weak writing may land your manuscript in an agent’s slush pile. It could also be the reason readers leave negative reviews or DNF your book. On the flip side of that, strong, compelling writing can keep readers coming back for more and singing your praises to all their friends.

Myth 3: You must accept your editor’s suggestions.

(Forgive me. I’m about to quote a Peloton instructor as if he’s the Dalai Lama.)

One of my favorite cycling instructors has a mantra that applies to editing as well as cycling classes: “I make suggestions; you make decisions.” If you’ve vetted your editor and agreed to pay them, hopefully you trust that their recommendations will be helpful most of the time. That said, if they make a suggestion you don’t like, you can reject it with the click of a button.

Not sure if you’re happy with a recommended edit? Let your editor know! Again, editing is a collaboration. Check in with your editor and ask them to explain their recommendation (if they haven’t already done so in the comments on your manuscript). After they explain, you may come around to seeing their point of view. Or maybe not. Either way, you’ve gotten some insight into the editing process that you can apply to future projects.

Myth 4: Editors know every grammar rule and always follow them.

Most editors share a love of the written word and an instinct for when a word, phrase, or sentence requires a second look. Many of us can also cite a host of grammar rules that most people forgot after they passed sixth grade English. That doesn’t, however, mean that editors have an encyclopedic knowledge of The Chicago Manual of Style. Instead, we know when to ask questions, when to check rules, and where to find answers to obscure grammatical queries. (And, chances are, we have a copy of the CMOS that’s dog eared and well-loved.)

Here's the more important part. When it comes to fiction, the rules don’t necessarily apply. Your manuscript is its own style guide and consistency matters more than adherence to Chicago. Your editor will know enough about genre conventions, writing authentic dialogue, pacing, rhythm, and flow to know when it makes sense to break the rules to serve the story. Romance manuscripts, for example, often use sentence fragments for emphasis. Thrillers may ignore commas in order to make the pacing quick and breathless. The best editors know when to follow rules and when to break them.

Myth 5: All editors are the same.

Like all the other myths on this list, there are layers to why this statement is false.

First, different freelancers offer different services. Developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, proofreading, story coaching, time management coaching, revision coaching, manuscript reviews, etc.

Most editors offer some, but rarely all, of these services. It’s important to know which services you need and whether the editor you’re eyeballing offers them. Their website, proposal, and contract should explain the services you’ll get if you work with them.

Second—and this goes back to the idea that editing is a partnership—every editor has a unique personality and communication style. Given that you’re going to share your baby with them and work together closely for a period of weeks or months, finding an editor who’s a good “fit” for you is just as important as confirming that the services they offer are the services you need. You can do that by talking to other authors, reviewing the editor’s website, messaging with them on email, asking for a sample edit, and scheduling a brief introduction on Zoom or Google Meet.

So, what did I miss? Are there are other beliefs about editing and editors that have made you wonder, Is that true?

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