First-time authors sometimes make a grave mistake when seeking an editor for their first book.
In the three years I’ve worked full-time as a freelance editor, it’s happened to me more times than I can remember. But it wasn’t until this year that I understood what the problem was and why I was secretly getting frustrated with some of these books.
Editor Shawn Coyne, who has 25 years of experience, expresses the problem succinctly and memorably: “A lot of people just want to dump their goo on an editor and have the editor form that into something for them.”
When weary writers submit their premature manuscripts to editors too soon, both parties will inevitably become frustrated.
For the most part, I don’t believe first-time authors do this knowingly. They just don’t know any better. They’ve written what they believe is a workable first draft, and because they want to do the process right, they begin looking for an editor.
But a first draft should never be sent to an editor (unless you’re working with — and willing to pay — a developmental editor to help you create a workable draft).
Why premature manuscript submissions happen
Authors who submit undercooked books are subconsciously motivated by the twin specters that haunt every writer, every day: fear and resistance.
They may fear they don’t have what it takes to be “a serious writer,” so they send their “goo” to an editor in the hopes that the editor can affirm their work and make it monumentally better.
Unwittingly, these authors place the burden of failure (or success) onto their editors’ shoulders.
Or, maybe the writer has been working on their book for three months, or a year, or many years, and they’re so tired of looking at the thing that they send it off because they just want to be done with the process. In Steven Pressfield’s parlance from The War of Art, that’s Resistance.
In fact, Pressfield writes, “Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”
How much does a first-time author’s first book mean to them? The world.
So how much Resistance can they expect? Planet-sized.
When you’re up against a foe like that, I don’t blame authors who’d rather have the editor fight that battle.
But that’s not our job. As the writer, this is your fight.
When should I hire an editor?
The question that arises then is: When is the right time to hire an editor?
Consider these questions, and be brutally honest with yourself in answering them:
- Have I done as much as I can to make my manuscript the best I can?
- Am I looking for an editor because I’m tired of looking at my manuscript?
- Have I conducted any self-editing?
- Has any experienced writer read my work-in-progress or early drafts? (Tip: find a local writers group or critique group.)
- Do I need to learn more about the craft of writing before proceeding with further work on my book?
- Do I have the nagging feeling that something undefinable isn’t quite working in my manuscript?
- Do I understand the cost, both in time and money, of hiring a professional editor, and have I budgeted for both?
- Do I know the difference between developmental editing and copyediting? And if I’m tired of working on my book but want to get it done, do I have the budget to hire a developmental editor to help me cross the finish line?
- If you’re self-publishing: Am I rushing the process simply to crank out another book?
- Am I sending my book to an editor because I’m afraid I don’t have what it takes to be a writer? In other words, am I hoping that a professional editor can shape my goo into the masterpiece I have in my mind?
The real question
I hear the fear that sits within every writer’s heart when a first-time author and client asks me that one question I dread: What do you think of my book?
What they’re actually asking is: Is it any good?
If an editor answers that question — they often won’t unless they’ve been hired for a manuscript critique — they’re likely going to be bluntly honest. Why?
If they’re experienced and good at what they do, they’ve read a ton of books. They know the industry. They know what’s considered publishable. And they will stack that knowledge against your book, and your book may not come out looking so well.
Every writer suffers from doubt that their book will be good or even acceptable.
When John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden—a phenomenal book—he recorded this in his journal, which was later published in Journal of a Novel: “I know it is the best book I have ever done. I don’t know whether it is good enough.”
To me, that’s one of the more astounding admissions of self-doubt from a writer who had experienced both critical and commercial success. In other words, even Steinbeck feared that the “goo” of his manuscript wasn’t ready.
Steinbeck needed at least six years to write East of Eden based on notes he’d taken about the Salinas Valley for most of his life. Arguably, he needed his lifetime to write what he considered his masterpiece. He wrote, “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”
Toward the end of that years-long journey, as he dove headlong into finishing East of Eden, Steinbeck wrote letters to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, which were posthumously published in Journal of a Novel in 1968.
When considering whether or not your book is ready for an editor, think about Steinbeck’s challenge to himself: “You can’t train for something all your life and then have it fall short because you are hurrying to get it finished.”
Writer, this is your fight. If it’s your first, prepare for 15 rounds.
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