Writer, whatever you do, get a real editor

I’m reading a book about a topic that really interests me, but it’s a tough read because the book is so poorly edited.

There are punctuation errors, particularly missing or unncessary commas, on every page. There are word use issues (weary instead of wary, for instance). There are things like “l” instead if “i” in the name Diana (which appears on almost every page).

The author wrote that someone fought in World War II, and after he returned home, he began working at a company “in 1941, the year [the company] opened.” It’s hard to know what the problem is there. Is the year a typo? Does the author not know when World War II ended? Maybe the guy he’s writing about wasn’t in the war at all? Maybe it’s a poorly constructed sentence, so it’s not saying what he meant it to say.

A tortoiseshell cat lying on a rug in the sun,with the edge of whiteboard with writing nearby

There’s really no good art to go with a post like this, but everyone loves a good cat, so this is Penny lying next to my book outline whiteboard. She’s very helpful when I’m writing!

A good editor would catch that and ask about it.

I don’t mean to pick on this one author. His is just the latest in a series of horrifically edited books I’ve read lately.

I know I’ve said it before, but the retired English teacher next door or your brother-in-law who’s “good with spelling” may come cheap, but they are not editors. A good editor will know publishing style, as well as recognize point of view issues, too much exposition, weak characters, bad dialogue, clauses that don’t match the subject, and all the zillons of other things that can drag down a book.

I’m not going to go into a long list of every single thing that needs to be looked at when a book is edited, but any book, no matter how awesome a writer you are, will have some of those things.

At author talks, when people ask about getting books edited, I get a lot of pushback when I say every single person who wants their book to land somewhere besides their mother’s bedside table needs an editor. It seems like a lot of people who write want to be told it’s OK to not pay for an editor. I’m not going to do that. [By the way, I haven’t edited books in years and don’t plan to, so this isn’t a sales pitch.]

I don’t care if you’re submitting to agents or self-publishing. Pay for a good editor. If you don’t have the money, save it up or find it.

The most frequent excuses I hear for not getting an editor are:

  1. With texting and email, readers are a lot more tolerant about bad puncutation, usage, etc.
  2. Even books published by big publishers are poorly edited, so it doesn’t matter if mine is.
  3. It’s too expensive.
  4. I’m an editor, so I don’t need one.
  5. Not everyone’s an English major who obsesses about every little comma. Get off my back.

My answer is that those “reasons” don’t matter. A reader may not realize they’re slogging through an unedited minefield, but their understanding and enjoyment of your book will still suffer.

If you care about your work and want other people to care too, present it in the best way possible. Get an editor.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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12 Responses to Writer, whatever you do, get a real editor

  1. John Clark says:

    I heartily agree, but the hunt for a good editor is also a challenge. I’d cheerfully pay if I could have access to a good one.

    • Maureen Milliken says:

      Yes, particularly with the demise of the newspaper industry and other things, and everyone trying to go freelance. I suggest the Editorial Freelancer’s Association site, which has a job board, or used to at least, where you can find editors who at least have some credibility.

  2. Anne B Cass says:

    Oh, yes. And yes again. It is a challenge to be one of those English majors who cares about grammar and all those other issues you address, because mostly I can’t help myself when I see a typo. Do you suppose we were English majors because we like that stuff, or we like that stuff because we were English majors? Chicken…egg…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Your father was a good editor…

  4. Anonymous says:

    Tough love here, Maureen. And good advice. Thank you.


    • Maureen Milliken says:

      Well, as I like to say, it’s not T-Ball, where everyone gets a trophy just for showing up. People have to understand that if they want their manuscript to become a book that’s going to do something, they need to care more than anyone else is going to, and act accordingly.

  5. so true! I just wrote a children’s picture book. A good critique partner told me to get a good children’s book editor that specialized in rhyming. Thankfully, she recommended a good one. I was amazed how much better my book is now!

  6. kaitcarson says:

    So true! And may I add, make sure it’s one who is familiar and comfortable in your genre.

  7. Louisette Castonguay says:

    I recently heard from a publishing expert that even with “pro editors, there can be as many as 8 to 10 missed errors in regular published stuff. AND, just ike that, the book I was reading, a regularly published book from a well known company spouted two errors within two chapters. It can get worse, ir you don’t at least have a second set of yes on the MS, but I have found taht reading aloud catches lots of different kinds of errors.

  8. Andy Sagan says:

    I don’t write but I do pick up on these mistakes now and then. A unique mistake I recently came upon was when vocals were wrongly ascribed to McCartney instead of Lennon. C’mon!

  9. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Good advice, as always.

  10. Jane Nelson says:

    Hear, hear! I’m not an editor, but way too many books these days contain errors that should have been correcting. And noticing them pulls me out of whatever I’m reading.

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