Thursday, July 5, 2018

Is Editing a Dying Art?

Like the English language, the landscape of professional editing is an ever-changing kaleidoscope. We've come a long way from the days of the legendary Maxwell Perkins, the Charles Scribner editor who first discovered and published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. Perkins had running battles with the poetic but entirely undisciplined Wolfe, but ultimately convinced the author to let him cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, a seminal novel that would have been indecipherable (not to mention unpublishable) in its original form.

Back then book editors were gatekeepers and kingmakers. They were both despised and revered. Today, opinions tend to run more to the "despised" side of the equation. I doubt many of us, no matter how excellent our work, feel much revered. Like so many jobs in the Arts, our profession has fallen a long way.

Other than acquisition editors who buy books for publication, most publishing houses have eliminated the majority of their full time editing jobs. There are few in-house developmental editors, copy editors, line editors or proofreaders working for major publishers now. The work is subbed out to freelancers.

Freelance editing rates have fallen precipitously. We're lucky to earn a thousand dollars for a complex developmental edit for a major publisher that would once have commanded two to eight times that amount. I often find myself working for far less than minimum wage because while our payment is fixed, the number of hours required to do an excellent job is not.

The self-publishing revolution hurt as well. Many self-published authors do not believe their manuscripts require editing. They had their Great Aunt Thelma, who taught English during the Depression and is legally blind, look over their book and she declared it was fine, and that's good enough for them.

I hear stories like this all the time. Authors relay them with a self-satisfied air as if they were schooling me on the all-too-obvious fact (at least to them) that there is no actual need for my existence. In so speaking, they betray an almost complete misunderstanding of what an editor actually does.

Yes, we'll find your typos and grammatical errors and fix them and yes, perhaps Aunt Thelma could do the same. But professional editors do so much more. We help authors look deep into the heart of their work and coax out the best possible version of their story. We repair the disconnects, iron out the inconsistencies, help them inject emotion into their writing, and counsel them to make sure every single paragraph in the manuscript is moving the story along.

In answer to the question posed in the title, is editing a dying art? Yes, in many ways I believe it is. But there will always be stubborn editors like me and many others, willing to fight to defend the highest and best use of our beautiful and incredibly expressive language to tell great stories. And if I have to be one of those jousting eternally with that particular windmill…well, I can think of worse fates.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

Image of dripping red pen by Mr Clementi, via Flickr


  1. I'm lucky to have a handful of repeat clients who truly appreciate that what I do is the equivalent of a jeweler cutting, polishing, and setting the raw gemstone (produced by the author under tremendous pressure, of course). But, you're right, the extra hours invested to ensure that the end-product is perfect means I often work for less than minimum wage.

  2. Editors can add so much, even to technical writing. Unfortunately, some so-called editors seem to think their job begins and ends with those pesky typos and misplaced grammar.

    I'm not a writer but worked with three editors--two brilliant, one not.

  3. Pat, you nailed it! Editors are not dictators. What we want is a collaborative relationship with our writers, one with the goal of creating a great book. We're a team, not adversaries. Now, as for our dwindling numbers becoming dinosaurs, relics, and fossils, I'll take that any day to the alternative of poorly written books filled with grammatical errors, inconsistencies, lapses in flow, poor character development, and that's just the beginning. But about our pay--yes, it often ends up below minimum wage. However, the positive PAYOFF is the end result: a well-written, cohesive, powerful story that begs to be read. Thank you for speaking out in all our behalf, Pat. I'm in the wings cheering your on--and editing stories. :-)

  4. My editor is incredible and taught me more with my first book than I had learned during years of workshops, classes, and books on writing. She made me realize how lucky I was to have a publisher (Five Star/Cengage) who still did extensive editing for their novels. We writers simply are not good enough at finding the holes and errors in our stories. We need that editor!

    1. I agree, Patricia. I learned so much from the editor who edited my first Five Star/Cengage book. I learned a lot about writing and editing. In fact, I learned about editing by working with and for some great magazine publishers way back in the dark ages. LOL

  5. As a self-published author right from the beginning, I knew I needed help. I found an editor online who had been a ghost-writer for some famous books. His wife was also an editor. I remember his first email to me. I'm paraphrasing. "I'm on page 49. The story is fantastic. The writing needs work." He and his wife were great. They edited three of my books, and I learned a lot. The only problem was something I didn't know until much later. He edited non fiction and had no idea about POV. I learned that when I met other authors when I joined Sisters in Crime. One of those women is an editor and edits my books to this day. When I started, I really didn't know much about the technique of writing. I'm still learning, but a good editor is the difference between an amateur work and a professional one.

  6. This is such a timely article, Patricia. Too many people rely on Aunt Thelma to proof their ms, and maybe Aunt Thelma needs glasses by now. I am simply blown away by the number of books that are submitted to me for possible review that are laced with typos, etc, not to mention clunky craft - POV switches, run-on sentences, telling then showing, or not showing at all. I was lucky however, with my last client. He sent me a book that was a huge mess, but had a gem hidden under that mess. I didn't really want to clean up the mess for my standard rate, so I told him so, as well as the reasons why, and quoted a much higher fee. He agreed to pay it. So I did make a bit over minimum wage on that one. :-)

  7. Keep fighting the good fight. As I find major blunders in traditional media, it has never been more glaringly obvious we need our editors back.

  8. Elle, I have a few repeat clients as well, people whose writing I truly enjoy. Working with them doesn't feel like work; it feels more like the true collaboration that is the ideal all writers should strive to find with their editors.

    It's not about writing or rewriting someone's work; it's never about that...and I emphasize that because I know many beginning writers fear editing is a process that will tear the heart out of their stories. Great editing is about helping writers end up with the best possible version of their manuscripts, and optimizing their chances of getting a contract for publication.

  9. Patricia, Five Star is a great publishing house. :-)

  10. Linda, you're so right. I find many new writers fear they will lose control of their stories if they turn them over to an editor. Good developmental editors will never take a story in a direction contrary to what the author intended. I will make suggestions, some in boldface type, but authors are under no obligation to agree with those suggestions.

  11. Please keep jousting. The writing world needs people like you!

  12. Thank you, Liza. All the contributors to Blood Red Pencil are champion 'jousters," and I feel honored to be part of this tremendously helpful community of writers and editors.


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