Do You NEED an Editor?

So there’s this meme circulating among some editors I know. The gist is that all writers need an editor.

Sure, every writer, and every piece of writing that aspires to be read, could use or would benefit from an editor — from a good editor, or from good editing — but need?

A brochure I created many years ago, before I realized that in my area it was one thing to need editing and quite another to be willing to pay for it.

A brochure I created many years ago, before I realized that in my area it was one thing to need editing and quite another to be willing to pay for it.

That depends. Those who insist that every writer needs an editor are mostly editors. They get paid for editing. They need paying customers at least as much as writers need editors.

All needs are not created equal.

When a water pipe breaks and water starts spraying all over the basement, you need a plumber. If the toilet bowl overflows and a plunger doesn’t fix it, you need a plumber. When a faucet starts leaking into the sink and your do-it-yourself tricks haven’t worked, you need a plumber, especially if you pay for your water. The need isn’t as pressing as when the water in your basement is two inches deep and rising, but it’s there.

You will pay the plumber to come fix your plumbing. You will probably pay extra to have him/her come ASAP, especially if it’s a weekend or a holiday (as it always seems to be when pipes break and toilets overflow). Unless money is flowing into your bank account like the water flowing into your basement, you will probably put off other, less pressing expenses in order to pay the plumber.

Last fall my dentist told me that I needed a tooth crowned. Crowns are expensive — $1,500 was the estimate. Dentistry isn’t covered by my insurance. (Don’t get me started.) It didn’t need to be done tomorrow, said my dentist, but it should be done soon. Then my car needed new rear shocks, to the tune of almost $700. The car got repaired; the dentistry got put off.

My teeth were working fine; my car wasn’t. “Soon” was not “right now.” I ranked my needs, budgeted accordingly, and carried on.

So we come round to editing. Editors are not plumbers, or car mechanics, or dentists. Your basement won’t flood, your car won’t break down, and your teeth won’t fall out if you don’t hire an editor, or if the one you do hire turns out to be inadequate.

Good editing does pay for itself, but rarely in hard currency. Nevertheless, it has to be paid for in real money. Even if you get your book, essay, or story published, the financial returns probably won’t cover what you shelled out.

But that goes double for what you put into your writing, right? More than double: we’re talking exponential here. Add up what you’ve spent on classes, workshops, and how-to books. Don’t forget the time you’ve spent writing your “million words” — the ones conventional wisdom says you have to write to develop your craft. If you were looking primarily for a tangible return on your investment, you probably would have gone into plumbing, or dentistry, or car mechanics, right?

However, if you’re a relative novice whose overriding goal is to get into print as soon as possible, you do need an editor, an excellent editor who can do all the things that good writers learn to do for ourselves. (See “Editing? What’s Editing?” for a brief breakdown of what’s involved in “editing.”) One-on-one editing is time-intensive, so expect to pay well for it.

My strong hunch is that if you’re following this blog, you’re more the do-it-yourself sort. Like me.

My two drums

My two drums

My other strong hunch is that, like me, you sometimes pay for things you don’t need. I’ve spent plenty of money competing with my dog in Rally Obedience — nothing necessary about it, but it was challenging and fun and worth the expense (until I needed a new work chair and my car needed new tires).

I joined a drumming class, loved it, and, after borrowing a drum for several months, have managed to acquire not one but two congas. These things don’t pay me back in money, but they do pay me back.

If you’re serious about your writing, and especially if you self-publish, the time will probably come when the value of good editing will be worth the money you spend on it. Worth it to you.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty you can do to develop your skill as a writer and improve whatever you’re currently working on. Some of these things don’t cost at all, and they all cost a lot less than editing. Join a writers’ group or workshop. Attend a writers’ conference. Find a couple of fellow writers to share work with. Read critically; pay close attention to how the writers you respect do what they do. (Keep in mind that they’ve probably had editorial assistance along the way.) And by all means keep writing.



6 thoughts on “Do You NEED an Editor?

  1. Good post, Susanna! I consider myself a careful writer–at least careful in the end product I put out–but the number of typos and even infelicitous phrases that slip through to what I consider a final draft astound me. I know I need a good editor, not _quite_ as much as emergency dental, but I find it almost as hard to pay for. 🙂 I’ve used amateur editors, who charge less and miss more. You do get what you pay for.


    • It pays to hire a pro. A competent, experienced pro. I really do believe that. But I’ve hung out online with lots of editors over the years, and the ones I’d happily refer writer friends to (and hire myself if I weren’t so cheap) are not the ones who charge the most — or, more accurately, the ones who brag about how much they charge and seem to think that this is ipso facto proof of their competence. I ought to blog about how to find a good editor, but the truth is I don’t know. I do tend to gravitate to editors who are also writers, or who at least demonstrate empathy with writers.


  2. Interesting! My gastroenterologist once advised me not to go with the doctors who have the biggest ads in the Yellow Pages. Maybe the same applies for copy editors. 🙂 As soon as (if ever) I can afford the pros, that’s the way I’ll go!


    • I think it applies to a lot of things. If you ask around on Martha’s Vineyard, you can find “the best” of just about anything. These are usually not the restaurants, plumbers, piano tuners, etc., with the most visible ads. I’m a big believer in “word of mouth,” but at the same time I know you have to be plugged into the right networks to make it work. Which usually means that you have to put the time in before you need whatever it is you’re looking for.


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