I recently did an interview with Erik Marshall at the Writing, Education, and Technology podcast. When he first emailed me, he said, “I am particularly interested in your view on editing, which, if I read it correctly from the book, goes against the grain of common advice.”
You can listen to the interview here:
To be honest, it’s mostly about Write Better, Faster, which is my first book in the Growth Hacking For Storytellers series. But toward the end, the interview touches on the topic that spurred my upcoming book, Nail Your Outline.
After the interview, Erik mentioned in a couple posts that he found my controversial views on editing very interesting, which took me by surprise (in a good way).
I was surprised because it’s hard to believe that my views on editing could be considered controversial at all. I spend a lot of time in my head, turning over the ideas I have about various topics—evaluating them, analyzing them, and coming to my own conclusions. By the time I speak them out loud or write them down, I am pretty sure I’m right. My conclusions feel obvious—but of course, they are not obvious to others! (As Derek Sivers is famous for saying, “Obvious to you. Amazing to others.“)
So, I’ll take Derek’s advice and share my ordinary thoughts on the topic of editing.
To me, editing is backwards in the author world. Traditional publishing houses accept finished manuscripts only. Authors seek feedback on their books when the books are written already. The indie community puts hiring a good proof editor (along with a solid book cover and launch plan) ahead of craft and writing a story that will actually sell.
By the time the manuscript is done, the only editing an author is really willing to implement is mostly cosmetic. This is much more true in the indie world than in the traditional world, because the traditional world can pull your contract if you don’t.
It is not totally the author’s fault he doesn’t want to make massive edits on his book, because hey, he just spent an entire year writing it. He’s going to break something if he has to look at his book ever again.
So, because editors know that they will not get rehired if they say, “this needs to be scrapped and you need to start over,” they offer cosmetic advice instead. They fix grammar and punctuation. They offer small suggestions on descriptions, character introductions, plot points. They couch all the advice with, “you’re the author, you know best.”
I also don’t blame them for doing this, either! A few years ago, I edited several novels. I said the same exact things to authors. It was too hard to tell them the underlying story structure was unstable, so I tried to ground my feedback in the reality of what they would actually fix.
The problem is that none of the stylistic crap that editors fix make a difference in sales if the underlying story is broken—if the “story architecture” side of the author’s craft is poor.
In terms of craft, the authors who sell well in ebook are great storytellers with well-crafted stories. They aren’t the writers who can spin a beautiful, poetic line of description. They aren’t the writers who can come up with incredible worlds or daring characters. Yes, all of those factors are important and necessary, but it’s the way a story is set up that makes the biggest difference.
Long-time readers know that I think in terms of growth hacking—what is the small tweak I can make that will 10x my results?
I truly believe that it’s possible to drastically improve your results in almost every category that’s important for writers, but if you’re looking for the place to start with craft—start with story architecture. Get your book right at the high level concept and tell a good story.
Once you’ve gotten that down (5-10 books later, IMO), start improving your craft at the detail level. At the line-editing level, at the prose level.
(And by “start,” I don’t mean “ignore this until you have 10 books.” I mean start focusing in the sense that you dedicate entire months or projects to, say, improving your dialog. Or writing better descriptions. But before then, do well enough at those things that your book still sells.)
If you hand your book over to an editor after you’ve finished writing it, the only changes you’ll be willing to make will be at that detailed craft level. If your high level craft is poor or even mediocre, you’ll see mixed sales results.
So what is the solution (and opportunity)? I believe that most writers should get their book edited before they write the first draft. At the outline level. That way, they can move the pieces around and swap them out if needed before they spend hours and hours writing up beautiful scenes that will just get cut or rewritten later.
If you’re interested in learning more about this, get on my email list, because I’ll be sending out more on my new book, Nail Your Outline, shortly!
I’m not 100% sure what I said in the podcast with Erik, because I tend to talk first, think second. So I want to clarify my thoughts on this. It’s not that I don’t believe in editors. I believe greatly in editors. But I do believe that editors come into the writing process at the wrong time. Have you considered bringing your editor in earlier—after you’ve created the outline?
Nail Your Outline Sessions
I’ve been using my Unified Theory of Storytelling on a few of the outlines I’m working on, including a few from Sterling and Stone—and it’s seriously kicking ass in terms of developing the story! I realized that although I’m putting out my book in the next few months or so, there are probably writers who will also benefit from getting some hands on attention and fresh eyes on their outlines—before they move to draft! If you’re interested in a Nail Your Outline Session with Amy Teegan and I (both of us will go over your content with you), you can check out the details here »
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I strongly disagree with you, and my suspicion is you feel this way because you’ve never worked with an experienced, talented editor. Even the greats – such as Murakami, DeLillo, et al – RELY on their editors to show them where their manuscripts fail, where they can do better, where they should do better.
Just because most editors are reluctant to point out shortcomings in an author’s manuscript doesn’t mean we all work this way.
Work with a seasoned veteran editor once, and you’ll change your outlook. A true editor will rip a manuscript apart, even if that means the author has to go back and rewrite entire swaths of copy.
A true editor isn’t a copy editor. A true editor gets down in the weeds with you and shows you where your structure falls apart or where your narrative patterns and themes fail. Where your characters feel and sound wooden. Where your voice falls silent.
Work with an ACTUAL editor one time, and you’ll completely change your opinion. I promise you this. In fact, I’d bet my twenty-year career – from working for Esquire to editing tomes of ancient Chinese poetry to helping some of today’s top-selling indie authors – on it.
Hi Jason, thanks for the comment.
I think you’re missing the point of the post entirely. Most editing doesn’t matter because the editor isn’t involved early enough, especially for newbie authors. That doesn’t disagree with what you’re saying, as far as I can tell.
For what it’s worth, I’ve actually worked with a number of experienced, talented editors who have greatly shaped my craft. So if you’re betting your career on it, I’m pretty confused? I don’t understand the assumption there, and think it’s really weird that just because I don’t agree with you, I must not have worked with an “ACTUAL” editor. Attack the ideas, not the person. Presume nothing.
I think the problem with this post is that it lumps all editors into one category, and that simply isn’t the case. There are three distinct kinds of editors. Developmental editors, line editors, copy editors.
The kind of editor you’re talking about is a copy editor. (the one who just touches on the cosmetics) And that is their job, to catch language errors and grammar, punctuations, ect. They aren’t being paid for big picture items or structural insights. They are being paid for copy edits. The good ones will go beyond the pure language and show the author how to improve their craft, or point out big plot/logic holes–but for the most part they are only hired for copy and line edits.
The kind of editor your talking about who looks at the overall structure of the story along with characterization, pacing, tension and all the things that go into good story telling–are developmental or Content editors. And they do tell you what they see, regardless of whether that means a total rip apart and start over. (which I’ve had to do with a couple of books) The problem is that most Indie’s can’t afford to pay for both Content and copy edits. My developmental editor costs about $1000-1500 for 120,000 words. But she also does a line edit on the book.
FWIW- doing a content edit or developmental edit on an outline, for me, would be totally useless. My outline never ends up matching the book. My scenes build off each other, each scene or character reaction spawns something new (and better) than was in the outline. By mid way through, the book has taken on a life of it’s own and the outline is useless. For me it works best to get the developmental editor or content editors view after the second draft–when the story and characters are set and I’ve cleaned up all them mistakes from the first draft. That way the editor can see the story in it’s actual cohesive shape without all the distractions of the first draft.
If I did the content edit on the outline, I’d just be throwing my money away.
I don’t think anything I’m saying disagrees with what you’re saying. I’m saying that too many indies bring authors in at the line editor or copy editor stage. Most need to bring an author in at the developmental or content stage.
People outline differently and for me a developmental editor on my outline is extremely useful. That’s the stage where I want to catch my mistakes. So, while I don’t think it’s for everyone (and a lot of great authors like yourself have an intuitive knowledge of story architecture and are able to easily adjust mid-draft), a newbie author is going to be pretty lost on story architecture. Having someone to mentor them at the beginning of the book process could be very helpful, even if they eventually end up being primarily pantsers when writing.
For plotters, developmental editing on the outline makes a ton of sense. It depends on what kind of author you are. But for a newbie author it will probably save a ton of pain down the line to get feedback on an outline before the story is written… or at least teach a ton about story architecture.
Yeah, it all comes down to your process. I have a bunch of friends who lose complete interest in continuing the story if they outline it. To them the joy of discovering the story as it unfolds on the page is what drives their writing. Once they have the story outlined though, to them the story has been told and they are so bored with the story when they try to write it they end up dumping it.
But getting back to your post- I think I misunderstood what you said. It sounded like you were saying the only editing that mattered was structural editing, which makes it sound like copy editing is of no importance. In my opinion they are equally important.
Ahh, I got what you’re saying. So, we may disagree more than I thought then. I’m somewhere in between the two beliefs you stated. I would not say that *only* structural editing matters, not at all. But for a new author, I don’t believe that structural editing and line editing are equal, either. If you have to choose one to prioritize improvement on, it should be structural, IMO. That doesn’t mean ignore line editing, but in terms of sales, solid structural editing with a few typos will sell better than mediocre story with zero typos. We actually see this happen all the time and can all think of books with tons of typos or wooden prose, but a great underlying story. I cannot think of one book that’s the reverse, but still topping the charts. Even something like 50 Shades of Grey falls into the former category (and while I don’t personally like the story there, for that particular audience it’s a great story with some terrible prose).
Regarding plotters and pantsers, I believe there’s a natural evolution. All writers start as pantsers. Pantsing in storytelling is a natural human mode. Then, many writers learn story structure and give outlining a shot in some form (whether it’s a formal outline or a spreadsheet or notes or whatever—they more directly plan what they are going to do). Finally, story structure becomes intuitive to the writer, and the outline matters much less. A writer creates his or her own system for writing and can feel through the story, even without knowing the plan ahead of time.
That, IMO, is why someone like Dean Wesley Smith can sit down and write a story with no plan and have it turn out okay. Years of experience has made him a plantser of sorts. But it seems like terrible advice for a newer author who hasn’t developed that storytelling intuition.
re: Plotting vs. Pantsing. This is absolutely untrue. I started out heavily outlining. A LOT of writers, particularly of novel-length work, start out outlining because it’s simply too “scary” to try to write a novel without an outline. But the more experienced a writer becomes, the thinner the outlines get, until most of us have no outlines at all. I speak as someone who has published over 20 novels and has made a six figure income for the last several years writing. I no longer use outlines at all. My work is much stronger for it. Many many professional long term writers (much longer than me… decades) will tell you that most writers get away from outlines once they make the transition to “long term professional”. After about 10 published titles under their belt for most. This isn’t to say that outlining is “wrong” per se. Everybody’s got a different process, and that’s okay. But outlining seems to be the rule for newer writers and the exception for long term pros. I know that’s how it’s worked for me as well as many other professional selling writers that I’m aware of.
Yeah, we’re definitely going to have to disagree. IMHO- the two types of editing are both necessary to craft a book that will sell well. The language is what conveys the structure. You can have the best structure possible, but if the language doesn’t convey it, in the vast majority of cases the book will still fail. For every 50 shades, there are probably thousands of books where the authors have solid structure, but are barely selling, or not selling at all because people lose interest before they even finish the sample. Lord knows I’ve read enough samples where a good line/copy edit would have made a world of difference. It doesn’t matter how solid the structure is, if the author can’t show it to the reader, or if the author can’t make the reader care about their characters.
The way I look at it, content editing provides the basic frame work of a house- but it’s the copy and line editing that provides the walls, the roof, the carpet. It’s the copy/line editing that makes the structure accessible to the reader, just as it’s the walls and roof that makes a house liveable.
As for all readers starting off as pantzers–in my experience its actually been the opposite. Of course I’m going by various crit partners or beta readers through the years, so the sample isn’t huge, but in my experience most of the writers I’ve known started off outlining. I was a plotter from the beginning and used to do a strong outline–not that I ever stuck to it. By my third or fourth book I realized the outline was a waste of time and useless in the end. Now, I’m somewhere in the middle…half pantzer/half plotter. Most of the authors I know started out plotting, quite a few of them have gone completely the other direction now and are total panzers, and some like me have moved into more of a middle ground, and a few have remained heavy plotters/outliners. The real interesting ones are the authors with processes that switch back and forth depending on the series or books they are working on. I have one friend who plots out each book in one series with heavy outlines and the other series she completely pantzes.
Here’s what I would ask anyone though:
a) Gun to head, if you had to choose only one, structural or line/copy/proof editing, which has the greatest effect on sales?
b) Which one do most newbie authors choose?
a) There are examples of books that have great story and terrible line editing that still do well in sales. There are no examples of the reverse. Gun to head, I pick structure. Of course line/copy/proof is still important, which is why I say in the original article to “bring your editor into your process earlier.” Not “get rid of your editor,” not “don’t do line editing,” but “get your editor in early for a developmental edit.” I would never advise someone to do only one if they could afford both (in terms of time and resources).
b) Few newbie authors get a developmental editor. Most get a copyeditor only, if anything at all. This is likely going to end in mixed sales results.