Self Editing vs Pro Editing

by John Robert Marlow

Here’s is a question that keeps coming up:

You’re a professional editor—won’t teaching writers to edit themselves put you out of business?

And my rather lengthy answer:

No more than, say, an aikido master is going to put himself out of business by writing about his art. You can read about basic principles, even advanced techniques, and practice them on your own. You’re definitely better off having that knowledge and that bit of experience under your belt. It can get you through some tough moments. It might even make you the best fighter on your block.

But it’s not the same as having the master train or fight beside you.

Publishing and film are among the most competitive industries in the world. When you approach an agent or publisher, you’re no longer competing on a local or even regional level; you’re stepping into a global arena and going head-to-head with writers from all over the world.

Most of these writers are bad to average. Some are terrible. But some are very, very good. And if you step into the ring with one (or several) of them—unprepared—chances are, you’re going to get clobbered.

Now, talent is talent, and the people in these industries know how to spot it. So they might say, “Man that kid looked good, in the two seconds before he hit the mat.” But they’re also very pressed for time, because everyone and his brother is vying for their attention. So it becomes a matter of, “How much potential does this guy have, and how much time am I going to have to invest to bring that out and start making money?”

Unless you look like the second coming of JK Rowling or Terry Rossio, the smartest thing for an agent or publisher to do is go for the writers whose work is already “there,” or nearly so. Less work, more money. That’s just the way it is. The kid who looked good for two seconds will be back next year—and if not, someone else will take his place.

Editing yourself is like training yourself for a fight. The more you do it, the better you’ll become. If you already had a good deal of natural talent to begin with, it might very well make the difference between winning and losing—between someone saying “This guy is a good bet, I’ll sign him” and “Too much work, not good enough.”

It depends on who else is competing that day—who you’re up against. That’s something you have no way of knowing. What you do know is this: the better you are, the less it matters who you’re up against. And the best way to get better is to train with someone who’s been down this road before—and emerged victorious.

Like an aikido master, the seasoned editor knows the terrain. He’s practiced every move a thousand times. He’s already made his mistakes, and learned from them—as well as those of others. He can see your strengths and weaknesses in an instant, and tailor a training program to your specific needs.

The master knows what happens in the heat of battle: how, where, when and why things go wrong—and how to make them right. His experience lends perspective—the ability to see things as they really are, and not as he wishes they would be.

If a new challenge comes up, he draws on years of experience to formulate a plan. Perhaps most importantly of all, he’s witnessed a thousand literary deaths—and can prevent you from walking into the same fatal situations.

For most writers, the difference between self editing and professional editing can be summed up like this:

When you edit yourself, you’re applying principles you’ve read about to a work with which you are emotionally involved. It may be the first book you’ve ever edited; if not, it’s likely one of the first few. Regardless of how good the writing is, your editing experience is limited, and your perspective is biased.

Your work will be better after the edit than before—but you will miss things, for the same reason we as writers tend to miss our own typos: we know how the sentence is supposed to read, so that’s the way we read it, regardless of what’s actually on the page.

By the same token, we know what’s going on in our own story—the explanations behind events, the motivations behind character actions, how things link up in the end. Because of this, we tend to read the work as we know it should read, and not as it actually does read. Things that make perfect sense to us, may make no sense at all to someone not already intimately familiar with the story and where it’s going.

Friends and family can help with this but, again, there are problems. Depending on how often you’ve discussed the story with them, they may know it almost as well as you do. They’re biased: it’s their job to be your friend, not your editor; because they know and like you already, they may not want to risk hurting your feelings by pointing out mistakes or deficiencies. Even if they will risk that, their editing experience is likely limited or nonexistent. They’ll miss things—and many of the things they do catch, they won’t know how to fix.

The professional editor is experienced, unbiased, and has probably seen and fixed problems like yours a hundred times in the past year alone. He has a wide repertoire of solutions from which to choose. He’s completely unfamiliar with your work, and so able to give it a fresh read based only on what’s actually on the page. He knows the requirements and, often, the preferences of buyers. He will tell you, not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.

The professional editor might wind up your friend, and he might not. Either way—like the aikido master—it’s his job to keep you alive and guide you toward victory: to make your work better, and you a better writer.

Author John Robert Marlow is available for professional editing, development, and consultation. If you’d like help taking your work to the next level, contact John here.



copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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