Editors are engaged in a task which never ends. No work is ever complete, no manuscript ever reaches perfection. I know this, because when I review my own work, there is always something I need to change.
Certainly every writer should seek different perspectives on his/her work. Everyone is subject to their own brain orientation, which determines whether one see the trees or the forests. I see forests, and I badly need help from those who see trees.
Most writers have a close associate, a spouse or partner who is willing to do an initial read-through of a newly completed work. This is usually a person who knows the writer intimately, knows his/her foibles and habits, and is able to withstand the hostile vibrations that can emanate from an author while being critiqued.
Next is the outer circle of close friends, siblings, or associates who are willing to read the work and edit according to their strengths: line editing by the detail oriented, comments on plot coherence by the analytic, questions about characters from the socio-emotional.
A fortunate author will have found a writers group that meets regularly and whose members will take on the task of critiquing one another’s work. In the ideal situation these colleagues will pass along written comments for the author to take away.
An author with all these proofs in place is positioned to end up with a fairly well-edited manuscript, depending upon the thoroughness and expertise at each level.
So do you really need to pay a professional editor?
Let’s look at some positives.
Assuming you have found an editor and not a predator (anyone can hang out a shingle, so check carefully), there are a number of potential benefits. There is the confidence you feel with a professional stamp of approval (if you make the recommended revisions). There is the benefit you gain from the experience of someone who is current with the market and can guide you accordingly. Sometimes a professional editor might even have connections in the publishing world and be willing to connect you. There is the fact that the professional editor has a reputation to maintain, meaning you can usually expect them to do a pretty darn good job.
Now let’s look at some downsides.
The obvious negative here is cost. Beyond that, it is critical to find an editor who can keep your voice while editing your work. Sometimes it is advantageous to hire an editor who is not a writer. The tendency to overwrite one’s own style onto another authors work is strong in editors.
To digress for a moment, consider that reader (and writer) style preferences have changed dramatically over the years. Long sentences connected by ‘ands’ and commas would never survive most editors today. Yet often the appeal of a work is as much the lyrical flow of the narrative as it is the content. T.C. Boyle loves ands which he uses to great effect to connect the thoughts of his characters into a stream of consciousness, one spark igniting the next until an electric current forms and lights the bulb, and isn’t this the way we want to learn about our character? Or consider Hemingway, who often paints his backdrop using hundred-word-long sentences hung together with commas, which constitute a myriad of impressions gathered almost simultaneously, which, after all, is the way we view scenes in real life.
I have often wondered how some editors I’ve known would react to the work of a Boyle or Hemingway today?
Editing has other perils. Too often well intended erasers can trim a lyric work down to ugly biting stubby sentences.
And even the best editors will miss something. I have read very few books where there weren’t typos, misspellings, or the wrong usage of a word.
As always, the ultimate responsibility rests with the author. The key is to recognize your voice and then do your best to preserve it.