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Writing: Do Novice Authors Really Need an Editor?

Image of man at typewriter surrounded by manuscripts

Warning: editor at work

Having your book professionally edited is one of the most recommended, yet least understood, most ambiguous, and cost-prohibitive, steps in publishing your book. If you’re new to self-publishing, how should you choose an editor? How much should indie authors pay? Do you even need an editor?

Derek Murphy, drawing on his experience as the founder of editing service PaperPerfect, offers expert advice from the editor’s viewpoint, some of which may surprise you.

While some non-fiction books can be improved through tightened word-choices, sentence structure and organization, along with some more general comments on how to focus the main aims, conclusions and themes of the book, fiction requires much more attention. The majority of novels I’ve edited were simply not very good. I could drastically improve the writing, flag repetition, comment on character motivation, plot and pacing, and other issues, but in four years as an editor, I learned that fixing the writing won’t improve the story.

And the story is all that matters.

Polishing and improving the writing of a book won’t make it a better book.  Most authors don’t want to hear that the main plot points just aren’t interesting. My role as an editor shifted into on-call writing coach, but I still couldn’t fix the major problems.

A bad book can be turned into a beautifully written bad book. But a good story, even if the writing is not great, will still be more successful.

Common Editing Issues

Here are some of the key issues we came up against:

  • The editor might make recommendations the author was reluctant to make. Rewriting can be much harder than initial writing, and the whole project can stall leaving the author depressed through a sudden awareness of the flaws and holes and problems in his story.
  • An editor might suggest substantial changes from a branding or marketing perspective, such as “using this title and subtitle would connect with a much larger pool of readers.” Some authors who have been working on a project for a long time, especially if it’s their first book, found it difficult to switch gears and make big changes to the theme.
  • Some authors felt that the editor “didn’t get them” or their story. Even though they recognized that the editor’s points were valid, and might actually render the book more commercially viable, they preferred to stick with their gut and their initial vision.
  • We charged by the word count, offering just one kind of service (a very heavy, comprehensive line-edit), because most authors don’t really want to go through several rounds of editing, for both scheduling and budget reasons. That often meant they needed to rewrite substantially, and when they finished, they often needed another round of editing.

There were no easy solutions for any of these problems. On the one hand, a really good editor is a better writer than you, the author (or they should be). That doesn’t mean they can tell your exact story, but they should know enough about literature to flag issues, suggest alterations, and improve your book as much as possible.

On the other hand, it could be difficult for the author to see “how much” or “how improved” the book was. There’s a disconnect between the quality of the editing and the price, since you can’t recognize the immediate benefits or compare editors easily. Does higher price mean better quality? Sometimes, but not as much as you might believe.

What Kind of Editing Do YOU Need? 

While most professional, career authors may be able to finish a book and need just one round of editing to catch errors, almost all first-timers would benefit from a more expensive package. But editing is mostly  a waste of money, if it isn’t being done in stages, identifying the biggest problems first and rewriting (the forest) before really concentrating on the small stuff – line-by-line editing, rewriting and fixing (the trees). Who has the money or the time for that?

More importantly, the first book is often where writers realize they’ve written something nobody wants to read. It may be OK, but they didn’t focus on writing for a wide audience. (For example, a very good Western will sell only half as much as a very good Paranormal Romance – not because of quality but simply due to the size of genre affectionados.)

Spending thousands of dollars to fix up a book that will never earn back the investment, while it may be a critical learning experience and significantly elevate your writing skills, is likely to hurt your enthusiasm for publishing. For many authors I don’t believe the cost can be justified – the story matters more than anything else.

Affordable Alternatives to Editing

If the story is good enough, even poor writing and a handful of typos won’t discourage fans from leaving positive reviews. Typos are easy to fix – just put a note at the beginning of the book encouraging readers to contact you if they find any, rather than posting a negative review. It’s fine to publish something with a few typos in it (less than 10 or so, not tragically poor grammar and spelling throughout.) After the first few weeks you’ll have heard about most of the issues, and you can upload a fixed version of your ebook easily (something you should do before you start working on the print version).

If the story has more significant problems, like the readers hate your characters or found it boring or unbelievable – they’ll probably let you know in the reviews as well. Learning to improve your writing through critical feedback like this can be much cheaper than paying a lot for an editor, although it may make it difficult to rebrand/republish the book later after you’ve rewritten it.

You can also join a writing group or swap critiques with other authors, but keep in mind that other novice authors probably suffer from the same amateur writing habits that you have. Those truly talented at improving writing are probably doing it for a living.

In any case, know that there are choices and options available to you, and think carefully about whether your money wouldn’t be better spent on advertising or book design, rather than editing. And if you do pay for editing, make sure you find a service that will give you critical feedback on the story and allow you time to rewrite, before they begin honing down on the little details.

Twitter bird outlineHelp other authors to make informed choices about editing by sharing this article with our suggested tweet:

“Authors – not sure whether you need an editor? Prepare to be surprised by @Creativindie: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/who-needs-editors/ via @IndieAuthorALLi”

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88 Responses to Writing: Do Novice Authors Really Need an Editor?

  1. reputation management bay area July 27, 2016 at 2:51 pm #

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  2. Sarah June 4, 2016 at 11:30 pm #

    I don’t have any issue with editing per say, though some bigger picture editing I found I could easily do myself–editing toward the theme. I don’t really get how one should necessarily even edit away from a theme.

    Sure some themes have less market appeal. But given the current most selling theme revolves around a certain paranormal romance–frankly who gives a crap! The editor who edited that work was a hack.

    Also five star shmy star. I bet Napoleon would have gave a two star to Marquis De Sade’s work.

  3. Graham Downs April 21, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    Personally, I think a well-written (as in, perfectly copy-edited), but not very good story, is more palatable than an excellent story with terrible writing, full of grammar errors, typos, incorrect words, missing punctuation, etc.

    Those types of errors RUIN my immersion in a story.

    I review every book I read, and I can guarantee you that I’ve never given a five-star review to a book that I’ve found even one such error in… if the story’s good, and the errors aren’t too many, it’s gotten a FOUR-star review from me, yes, but never more.

    Having said that, I’ve never given a five-star review to a story that didn’t fully immerse me, even if I never spotted a single error. Both have to be perfect, to go into that coveted list of “Books that Graham Downs gave five stars to”. 😉

  4. Cato Alexerratus February 24, 2016 at 2:56 am #

    If you’re not an editor or experienced writer, it is hard to know what editing work your writing requires. And if you’re self-publishing, it’s very unlikely you want to pay for the extensive editing that your masterpiece would require to be ‘perfect’.

    That’s why I apply the 80/20 rule when I edit. After consultation to understand my client’s goals, I scale the editing project to suit his budget, level of commitment to the project, and desired area of focus.

    Even if we can’t have it all, we should still demand the most bang for our buck, and editing is no exception.

  5. Alexandria February 18, 2016 at 3:20 am #

    I am so very glad that I came across this article. I have done a lot of research and recently decided to go the self-publishing route with my first book (which will be the first in a series). After watching a few videos from other self-published authors and “Googling” what I needed to know, I found that it would be a little over $1000 to have my book edited. I really want that experience but with that high of a price tag I was convinced that I would have to put my book on the back burner(I’m just not making money like that).

    Everyone pushes editors so hard – especially for your first book – I just knew it was going to be an uphill battle before I even got to the hard stuff (marketing and whatnot). I’m not sure if everyone else understands what is to have ambitions and feel like you have to grit your teeth and take stuff as it is and put your ambitions away to work a part time/seasonal/nine-to-five and barely make it then need over $1000 to get anywhere with your book. It’s beyond disheartening.

    I’m just saying all of that to say thank you for this article and I would rather someone let me know that my story isn’t going anywhere than taking my money and helping me “pretty it up”. Writing has always been something I’ve done and loved. I appreciate this article so very much and I have to say thank you again. No matter what anyone else says, you, sir, have told the truth and there is no reason to apologize for that. The truth doesn’t make everyone happy but it can be very beneficial for some.

    • Cato Alexerratus February 24, 2016 at 3:33 am #

      Alexandria,

      I feel for you, but like with all things, I think there are workarounds in editing, too.

      For instance, in your case (you want real editing on a budget) I would look at a combination of a chapter or two and your book’s outline, character summaries, plot, etc., to do a fraction of the editing (for a corresponding fee) but with notes to guide you in the process of identifying similar issues so that you could do most of the editing ‘leg work’ yourself. After a few rounds of reviewing your sample edits, I could complete a proof which should now require minimal editing. For an average length novel, this should come to around $500, though that depends on how much work is needed.

      It would be more hours for you, but it is likely that doing the work yourself and going through the review process more frequently with guidance would result in your own skill enhancement, saving you time and money down the road, which I think should be the goal for both writers and editors during the editing process.

      Just remember, editors get into this kind of work through varied means — there’s no one clearly defined path — so they should be receptive to working with you to find a solution. Your editor should be analytical, not inflexible.

      Cato
      Alexerratus@gmail.com

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  7. Anayo Oleru November 27, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    Thanks so much, your words are really inspiring…

  8. James Louw October 1, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    I am a social entrepreneur in the non-profit sector and would like to write and publish a book of my 25 years of impacting my community in Mitchell Plain, Cape Town.
    I have read many books and have no experience. I would like to tell my success story to my community, city and country and to the world.
    How do I start with zero base capital and with limited resources?

    Awaiting your response

    James Louw

    • Derek Murphy November 26, 2015 at 3:42 am #

      First, write it down.
      Second, interview a lot of community leaders, small business owners and celebrities in your field/area/city or country. Put their stories in the book. Make it a community project.
      Edit the stories around themes and ideas, by chapter.

      Add in your meaningful narrative (what’s the point of this book? How will it improve people’s lives/what will they learn from it?)

      Get a great cover designed and formatting (and possibly editing – there are plenty of comments about that above). Build a big email list with a giveaway; use it to launch the book at free and get 100+ reviews; then set the book to 99cents and do another campaign to hit #1 in your category. Get all the people you interviewed to share the book too. Then price at 2.99 and hope it keeps selling.

      • Mary July 8, 2016 at 2:27 am #

        This sounds like a really good way to approach it. I have finished a novel and am working on book two. I had to go through buying a computer and transferring it. My books are in the fantasy genre. I have been editing and re-editing it so I can get it ready for an ebook. What do you think of amazon’s CreateaSpace?

  9. Leena September 8, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    I have just written my first novel which I intend to publish as an e-book.

    I loved the suggestions my editor gave me, even though it meant restructuring my story (bringing characters “in” sooner than I had, changing the chain of events etc). As a result the story does flow a lot better. A good editor is a treasure… Also I am in no hurry to publish until the story has been made the best it can be.

    Going through the second round of edits now, and having a good, professional cover designed. After that the pre-pub campaign and then it is time to make the book live, market it and hope for the best.

    • Derek Murphy November 26, 2015 at 3:38 am #

      That’s great – I would start the marketing early. And control the situation as much as you can. These are the basic ‘launch plans’ I posted on Facebook recently, in case they help!

      Plan One
      1. Start reviewing books in your genre and put those reviews on high traffic sites, and your own book.
      2. Start writing about topics that attract your target readers. Do big, evergreen posts that are interesting enough to share.
      3. Partner with authors in your genre (start promoting their books. Interview them. Find ways to help them out. Become the hub. Help 100 other authors to get them to link to your site. Do group giveaways.
      4. Contests are amazing for traffic, followers and more email subscribers.
      5. Learn enough about design to make your own covers. Use Canva or Wordswag to make simple, nice looking covers on your own.
      6. Look at the bestsellers in your genre, and copy everything they do – including adding an ‘about the author section on Amazon’ (that’s another chance for keyword placement you’re not even using…)
      7. See if you can get those negative reviews off your books’ homepage (you would need a lot of friends/followers to upvote one of the other positive reviews. Some authors will say this is dishonest; but negative reviews always get the most “helpful” votes and show up on the front page of Amazon, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect the majority of readers’ reactions (out of 187 reviews, only 5% of them are one star. Is having them show up “the truth” about the book? I think they’re probably scaring away normal readers who would take a chance.
      Plan Two
      1. Use giveaways to build a big email list of readers of my genre. 2. Connect with 25 other indie authors with very similar books and do a big group promotion/ giveaway.
      3. Get some of those authors to give me an editorial review, maybe 5 or 10. 4. Use the big list I made with giveaways; ask them to download my book for free and review it.
      4. Publish the book on the same day as another bestselling book in my genre (mainstream) gets published.
      5. Find ways to encourage people to buy my books with other bestselling books in my genre (for “also boughts”).
      6. Serialize or split the book up so that I can give the first part free and charge for the other books/parts in the series.
      7. Offer big launch rewards, ie if they buy 10 copies of your book they earn some great prize.
      8. Post some of the content on your blog. Contact 50 popular blogs in your niche/genre and pitch them a guest post.
      9. Make an awesome piece of evergreen content that appeals to your target readers, email all those blogs again and ask them to share it (a really easy way to do this: talk about other people, then tell them about it…. for example “the 25 best YA fiction book review websites in the world” or “my top 15 favorite financial planning books of all time”. Say nice things about lots of people, link to them, tell them about it, hope they share and link back.
      10. This should have come earlier, but make sure your Amazon page is perfect: keywords in title and description. Amazing book cover. “About the Author” set up with picture, bio, and keywords. 5+ editorial reviews. 20+ regular reviews. Set it up and send traffic. If people aren’t buying, there’s a problem.

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  11. Professional Editing June 18, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this really very great post, I really appreciate it.

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  12. Georgia Carter Mathers April 8, 2015 at 11:57 am #

    I’m sorry Derek, but some of the comments in this article written for the newbie author will cost them rather than save them money. If it will cost too much to edit a book because it is badly written, then perhaps you should be advising against publishing that book at all. My response to your article: http://www.darklovestories.com/self-publishing.html

    • Derek Murphy November 26, 2015 at 3:36 am #

      Thanks for writing that article, I appreciate your comments. I’ll try to explain my point more clearly, but it’s fine if we disagree.

      Firstly, I’m not saying indie authors should publish crap that’s full of typos, spelling errors and grammar issues. Books should be clean. If authors can’t fix these mistakes themselves, they need to find friends who can, or pay someone.

      When I publish books, out of 80,000 words I may still have ten typos. That’s a lot, but like I said, my beta readers will find them. And if you have one or two, I don’t think it’s a problem (I’ve had dozens of authors tell me, even after they paid for editing, there were a few mistakes that didn’t get caught).

      It’s hard for some writers and authors to SEE these mistakes, if they’re making them, so perhaps the reason you say telling authors they don’t need an editor is terrible advice is that some authors will hear it, then publish a really messy book, which will kill sales. If you publish a book full of errors, nobody will get into the story. So you’re right. It has to be clean.

      BUT – when people say stuff like “every author needs an editor” what I hear is “nobody should be allowed to publish unless they have an extra $2000 to spare on a hobby that may not earn any money.”

      I think that’s dangerous, elitist thinking. I’ve also noticed that the people who talk that way, routinely publish very clean, very well written books that don’t make any money.

      Also, although it’s true that authors would learn a LOT paying for a professional editor to give them feedback on their work, I doubt they truly appreciate what they’re paying for. There are much cheaper and easier ways to improve your writing – like studying story architecture and plotting. They could buy 10 amazing books for $100 that would teach them more than an in-depth edit. Plus, after getting an edit, they may have learned a lot, but may still not have a marketable book. Is it still a great lesson? Sure – for full-time, career authors who have money to throw around, getting an expensive edit on an early book is amazing (but again, I don’t think that means we should require it of every would-be author).

      If authors hire editors JUST to become better writers, I’d say fine. But I suspect the majority of writers consider editors to be a business expense: it’s part of the cost of producing a professional book. They feel justified spending that much because they think/hope they will earn the money back when the book sales.

      Most people are telling authors not to worry about the money; that writing and publishing books is not about the money, it’s about personal satisfaction. That kind of advice encourages authors to spend more than they make, and doesn’t entirely resolve the frustration that’s bound to occur when authors find that nobody will buy their books.

      That exact frustration is the MAIN thing I address in everything I do. It’s not enough to help authors achieve their dream and finish their professional, well-designed book (unless it’s for a business, and they can make money from services or other related aspects of their career). I want to make sure the people who hire me earn more than they spend; and I want to make it easier for writers to publish their books and find readers early, cheaply, and without frustration.

      Because, and this is true, there are a whole bunch of crappy, self-published books with a handful of typos and spelling errors that are making over $10K a month on Amazon. I usually highlight 5 to 10 mistakes in them – but it isn’t hurting their sales.

      Get your book as clean as you can, hire an editor if you can afford it (if not, get friends and betareaders to help), then put it out there. Reinvest everything you earn on the book for the first year (better editing, better cover design, better authors website, etc).

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  14. MK November 4, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    Where I can understand why you’d make a case for this, I have to strongly disagree. As an independent author, I wouldn’t dream of publishing a book without having it professionally edited and then proofread. That’s even after the beta-reading. Why shouldn’t an editor point out the flaws? A great editor won’t edit a poorly written book, even if the story is great. They’ll evaluate and give the author an honest breakdown of what needs to be fixed. Why is this wrong? Quality in publishing should be key, and not just the story itself.

    To ask readers to let the author know if there are typos rather than leaving a negative review . . . I’m flabbergasted that an author would even do this. Why should a reader pay for a book and then do the work the author should have done to begin with? I know many authors do this, but it’s not fair to readers.

    I’ve started plenty of books with great story lines, only to stop reading because the typos and poor editing were too much of a distraction. I either return the book or never buy another book from that author. If an author is going to ask someone to buy their book, it should be the best book the author can publish. If that means waiting until they can afford to do it the right way, then wait. If a writer wants to publish just for the sake of publishing, start a blog and give the story away, but don’t charge readers and expect them to do the work.

    There’s a reason why author royalties are lower with a traditional publisher. It’s not easy or cheap to put out a high-quality book. If a writer is serious about their career, they should be willing to make the investment. The best marketing an author can have is to put out another great book. There are plenty of ways to market a book for free. Besides, why would an author want to spend so much time and money marketing a book that isn’t the best it can be?

    Anyway, this is just an opinion. For the sake of readers everywhere, I hope newbie (and even some established) independent authors think twice before sidestepping an editor.

    • Lichen Craig June 27, 2016 at 1:12 am #

      I’m a professional editor AND writer, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I am astounded at people who just don’t understand how a good editor can help their book. Like you, I have to assume they want that book out there, regardless of quality, and they aren’t concerned about a long-term reputation or career in writing. Because a lot of them are putting un-edited or badly-edited stuff out there. That being said, I would beware of any “editor” who offers line editing without explaining that structural (“content”) editing is just as important, and recommending someone who is qualified to do that. There are editors who do both and CAN do both efficiently because they have the training and background. New authors need to beware of “editors” who hang out a sign and have business degrees. Look for someone with formal training/education in literature and in writing.

  15. Melissa L. Gill September 11, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

    I really liked your article. I think many new authors don’t understand the function or the layers of editing and this post helped to illustrate them. I often feel that some self-published authors feel that hitting spell and grammar check on their word processor serves the same function, and that often leaves their stories with meandering plots, flat, overblown, or inconsistent characters, disjointed and distracting point-of-view changes, etc. On the other hand, there is a lot of great self-published stuff out there.

    I hired an editor at huge expense once to review 10 pages of my manuscript. She came back with some good suggestions, which were immediately contradicted by the next professional to review it. If I wanted to re-write and ask for her assessment of the new material, I would have to pay a discounted rate, which I could not afford. It was a wholly unhelpful experience. I’ve learned more from attending seminars, reading books, working with beta readers, and critique groups.

    On the other hand, I’m a perfectionist, so when it comes to the fine line-by-line work, just before publication, I employ a close friend and professional editor. Even though I have seen typos in almost every book I’ve read, traditionally published or self, I want to mitigate them in my own work as much as possible.

    • Ted Cumberr April 4, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

      The thing is, not everyone with a story to tell, has the money to invest in an editor. Obviously you did or borrowed to do it. There are possibly many great writers out there with talent who have thrown their book in a drawer, because of limited finances. To say you definitely have to have an editor, sound like the talk of an editing company that will take your money and most times not promote the book. Same with inventions, do the work yourself if you can. Companies like InventHelp advertised by by George Foreman will take 15 grand off you and give you not what you were expecting. It’s the same with Publishing companies. Have other people read your book and give feedback. Not everyone is a complete idiot who is not an editor. Believe me, they will tell you your mistakes and if the book is good.

  16. Tahlia Newland June 28, 2014 at 7:00 am #

    I agree that editing must be done in stages, but not that one should consider whether one needs an editor or not. Every book needs an editor, especially first time authors.They should forget about whether they get their money back or not and consider it a.learning experience, like a writing course designed especially for them.

    Once you’re an experienced author who has learned from working with an editor, then you can probably get away with just a copy edit/proof, but to think you can do without an editor is the cause of the publication of so many poor quality books.

    What you should be considering is not whether you need one or not, but how to find the right editor for you at the right price. i suggest you find someone who does a ms appraisal and sample edit, then you can see how they think, evaluate their work and have some idea of what they’re like to work with before you sign up for a big package.

    • Ted Cumberr April 4, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

      And I have mistakes in my comments, so what?

  17. Warren Shuman June 24, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

    Hello Derek: You have covered the field well, so where can I jump in with a comment? I have been writing professionally for most of my varied careers. I am currently adapting my screenplays into e-novels. I Rewrite, and change, and cut, and shift scenes, and maul the characters, and the story, even unto a single word, until I feel that I cannot improve it, This is when I seek the comments of professional readers. I write to engage the reader in the first 10 pages… and the last 10 pages.

    Thanks for a great Post.

    Warren.

  18. Georgia Rose June 22, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

    Thanks for the great post Derek. Very useful to read through all these comments as well and see all the differing views. I’ve only just published my first book and certainly needed the help of an editor. I knew there were things wrong with it but in my ignorance, and by being too close to it didn’t know what. The relief of finding an excellent editor who did a structural edit for me was immense. The rewriting no problem after that as I found it so encouraging. Having a copy edit done then gave me the confidence to publish it at all.

    With my second book I’ve used beta readers who I’m hoping have picked up the big issues which might mean a lighter touch from my editor this time which should keep down the cost. Fingers crossed 🙂

    • MK November 4, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      Nicely said, Georgia. Beta readers can really cut down the cost of editing, but you’re so wise not to stop using an editor.

  19. JJ Toner June 20, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    I’m less than happy with the thrust of this article. Editing is essential for every book, imo. I’ve just finished reading John le Carre’s latest book. I imagine that he probably publishes without the help of an editor at this stage in his illustrious career – but it showed in this book. I’m no expert but I could have pointed out about 10 pages that he could have deleted.

    How can you talk about a “bad” book and a “good” book without elucidation? What on earth do you mean by these terms? Likewise, what in your estimation constitutes a “good” story? I realise that explanations of these terms would probably triple the length of your article, but without some idea what you mean the amateur novelist will be none the wiser after reading your article (imo).

    JJ Toner

  20. David James June 20, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Nice image, Karl, about re-arranging the deckchairs on a sinking Titanic! There are of course many different kinds of editing, ending with line-editing – re-arranging the deckchairs, a humble but very important task, which if neglected upsets the good reader. What upsets him or her even more, though, is, primarily, redundancy and cliche, the hallmark of most debutant writers, and secondarily lack of originality of vision. You can’t hire an editor who can correct that second fatal flaw and you won’t find many literary consultants or editors who dare tell an author about it.

  21. Alison Morton June 20, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    Well, I’m staying traditional and keeping an editor. Actually, make that a critique partner, a structural editor, beta readers and a copy editor. And I will have self-edited my ms to within one centimetre of its life before it goes near the last two.

    I was a professional translator for over 20 years (still a Member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists) and ran my own company, translating, editing and proofing a few million words by the time I sold my business. I was reckoned to be quite good at editing, but I know enough to know that I need a team to work with me.

    Anything else is for the birds.

    • JJ Toner July 5, 2014 at 11:00 am #

      Very well said, Alison. I have a professional editor who does everything for my work, from structural through copy editing. I would like to have beta readers on the job, too, but haven’t found any that I trust (a) to know what’s what and (b) to be honest (apart from my wife, of course). JJ

    • MK November 4, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

      Very nicely put! It’s refreshing to know that professional authors still understand the value and necessity of an editor (or even a team). My books go through beta-reading, developmental edits, copy edits, proofreading, and that’s after I self-edit. Bravo to you.

  22. Karl June 20, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    Wow, how refreshing this article is. Usually all one sees in indie-authoring blogs is feel-good cheerleading about how “necessary” professional editing is. It’s sad to think how many hopeful would-be authors have been duped by that cheerleading into spending huge amounts — that they often can’t afford — on a professional editor who will tastefully rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic of their book.

    As you say, an inexperienced author who hires a professional editor is really hiring a personal writing coach, and that’s a darned expensive way to learn how to write. Beginning writers (who aren’t fabulously wealthy) shouldn’t be thinking about hiring an editor; they should be thinking about reasonable and cost-effective ways they can learn how to write.

    • Sanna April 15, 2016 at 3:36 am #

      Yeah, I totally agree. If you’re a student, or still living at home, it wouldn’t be sound advice to use your car loan savings on editing a single novel. I’m not even sure if I want to be an author. I just wanted to write one story, fulfill a fantasy. I’m not great with other general subjects, but I seem to have a nack for everything artistic but don’t seem to have enough passion to pursue one specific thing. One song. One charcoal sketch. One clay art. One poem. I’m with that about everything.

      Given the transient nature of my interest in writing as a whole, I’d rather learn editing techniques. I’m hard on myself, and usually rake carnage through my novel. A while ago I read an internet articles on editing basics, and I immediately saw need for adjustments throughout my work.

      Some people aren’t that good at writing. And they’ll probably suck at editing too. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve checked out a book and said, I can write much better than this dull crap!!! Some of us have unacknowledged talent–the ability to edit our own books.

  23. Emily O June 20, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    This is a refreshing read. I paid for an editor because I read that was what you should do, but not a lot of editing was done (maybe not required? who knows?) and my husband helped me far more than the person I paid. I’m working on my second book now and I probably won’t pay for an editor this time. I have in mind a few beta readers and again my husband!

  24. Antara Man June 20, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    Very practical advice and I liked the most this line: “A bad book can be turned into a beautifully written bad book. But a good story, even if the writing is not great, will still be more successful.”.
    I am editing with the help of my mother who is a German teacher and with my grandmother suggestions. The first three edits were the most difficult. When the text is not that rough, becomes easier. Now I read for myself and I have really an eye, because I instantly notice stylistic flows, the small ones you mentioned. However, in the autumn I will hire a translator for an English translation then I’ll have to hire an editor. What do you think Derek, how many editors will I need once my fiction novel is translated? I am aiming at a native American translator, living in my country from decades. If she agrees, would it be sufficient?

  25. Geraldine Somerset June 20, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    Hi there

    I so enjoyed your post.

    No I’m not a writer, author or anything in this industry but I do read a lot and I manage the ALLi data/database. I come across a lot of books not properly or well edited. In my (very) humble view its makes for difficult reading. You loose the thread by having to go back and re-read the sentence so it makes sense.

    In my book… Yip hire a professional

  26. John G. Hartness June 20, 2014 at 3:50 am #

    While I certainly agree that no amount of editing will fix a bad book, and no amount of editing will add voice to the writer who has yet to discover voice, that is not what the starry-eyed new novelist will take away from this, and that is where you do a huge disservice to your audience, many of whom will not have written Stephen King’s million terrible words, or invested in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to become a proficient writer.

    All they will take from this is “typos don’t matter, and editing is too expensive.” Med school is expensive, too, and I really would prefer that my neurologist pony up the cash to learn his craft. While you don’t learn how to write from being edited, in a lot of ways you do. Critique from someone who will not spare your feelings is invaluable, and makes writers better, no matter the stage of their career.

    It’s not that your arguments are without merit. I have self-published unedited or barely edited short stories, and coasted on style and voice. I’ve also spent a very long time developing a style and voice that allows me some leeway and creative use of grammar, and an audience that is pretty forgiving of such things. But most writers cannot get away with that. Especially writers that can’t write anyway. Frankly, writers of terrible books should hire editors just to save us from them. I’ve been a hired-gun editor and told authors their books simply weren’t good enough to publish before.

    I was also quickly a fired-gun editor, but that’s beside the point. The point is, that you (I hope) in your professional expertise have a deep understanding of the subtlety of the issue. But the internet isn’t about subtlety any more than broadcast news is fair and balanced reporting. It’s about sound bites, and the sound bites that people are going to come away with are “you don’t need editors, and your can get your readers to do it for you.”

    Unless you truly believe those sound bites, in which case please crawl in a deep hole and pull the hole in after yourself, so as to save the rest of us from the poor deluded saps who may listen to your terrible advice.

    • Netta June 25, 2014 at 12:10 am #

      Cosign.

    • JJ Toner July 5, 2014 at 11:06 am #

      Agreed. 100%. And congratulations, John, on having the courage to tell writers that their work was not good enough for publication. You are one of a rare breed, my friend. JJ

    • Sarah August 18, 2015 at 7:59 am #

      It might be nice if you could give us “new writers” a little bit of credit. We are not so stupid that we are unable to understand the meaning of this article. Obviously, the author is informing us new, inexperienced writers that paying a ton of money for an editor is useless if the content is no good. He then offers less expensive alternatives to help us figure out if our story is good enough or not.

      What I have taken from this article is that doing my own editing and having others read my work before I spend thousands of dollars on an editor is they way I should go. If I get positive feedback on the work I have done and feel confident that I will make more on the book than it costs for editing, then I should hire a professional. In no way shape or form did I get the impression that “typos don’t matter, and editing is too expensive.”

      I, personally, appreciate this article giving me hope (as a low-income, widowed, mother of three) that there is a possibility for me to get my book out there without the initial risk of losing thousands of dollars that I need to feed my children.

      That is not to say I don’t need a professional editor, of course, I do! At least this article offers ideas instead of just telling us to give up on the dream since we can’t afford it.

      Thank you, Derek Murphy for this article, it is greatly appreciated!

  27. Derek Murphy (@Creativindie) June 19, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

    Did anybody else catch the typo in the article?
    “We chargd by the word count…” 🙂

    • JJ Toner June 20, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

      What about this typo:

      Who has the money or time or the time for that?

      JJ

      • Debbie Young June 20, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

        Blame the editor for the typos, JJ – they’re probably my fault!! Will correct them now…

  28. M.M. Justus June 19, 2014 at 10:52 pm #

    This is the first article on developmental editing that actually makes sense to me. Thanks.

  29. clare weiner June 19, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    Although I think the story is the important thing, I feel that editing is really important. It should be aimed at telling the story in a tighter way, surely? The fault is often found in the ‘floppy middle’ or in waffly descriptions: tightening up, throwing out waffle, is a great help, and when do we writers need to learn that? On the first time novel perhaps?

    Even with edits, I now read my first (published 2010) novel and wish I could re-access it and edit more!

    And it didn’t cost the earth once I saw what I had to do.

    • Derek Murphy (@Creativindie) June 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback Claire, I agree the article is lacking… some sections on pricing got cut because it was too long: I’ve reposted them on my site. http://www.creativindie.com/do-you-really-need-a-book-editor-and-how-much-should-you-pay/

      For very specific self-editing tips, you can read this article:
      http://www.creativindie.com/how-to-really-self-edit-your-novel-after-nanowrimo-8-rookie-mistakes-to-avoid/

    • Derek Murphy (@Creativindie) June 21, 2014 at 5:24 am #

      I understand your feedback. If editing were free of course I would say, every author should get their book edited. Every author should feel supported. I understand why you feel the need to boost authors’ confidence, and why you don’t want to judge a book and tell the author it won’t be successful. Yes I am judgmental: I don’t believe all indie books will be successful – in fact I think most of them will fail. I think most of them are pretty bad. I would much rather review a book and tell an indie author “I can edit this for you but the market isn’t big enough and the story isn’t good enough – you can find someone else to take your money, but as your friend I would consider focusing your money and energy towards a project that will be successful.” I don’t feel it’s my job to encourage indie authors. I don’t feel it’s my job to help them feel good about themselves and believe in their book and keep trying without giving up. There are enough people doing that already, which is why many indie authors have an inflated sense of their book’s potential. I understand I can sound like a jerk, because I focus on the bottom line. That’s a risk I take. It pisses some people off. It saves other people a ton of money and helps their books become bestsellers. I tell authors how to publish books that will make money, and I help them do it; sometimes that includes telling them a book isn’t worth editing. For me, if you spend more on editing than you will ever earn back in book sales – that’s an “unreasonable sum.” If money is no problem, go for it, take a risk, gamble on your dream. If money is tight, I don’t think spending a lot of money is necessary for indie authors.

      • Debbie Young June 21, 2014 at 10:11 am #

        It’s been fascinating to follow the comments that followed Derek’s guest post here. I expected it to elicit lots of comment and emotion. I must admit I was at first startled by his suggestion that some indie authors should not bother with editors, but I accept his logic and admire his candour for stating his views so clearly.

        IMHO, any good service provider to indie authors will, as Derek suggests, be honest and say if a manuscript offered to them by an aspiring indie author is likely to be a downright failure, and I now plenty of others who share that stance, even if they’re not so public about it. And there are still far too many sharks – AuthorHouse, I hope your ears are burning – that blithely take huge sums of money from authors whose books do not stand about as much chance of success as an ice-cube’s chance in a furnace.

        Whatever route you take, it will always be best to polish your ms as best you can before going to any kind of editor, after self-editing (we’ve got Jessica Bell’s post coming up on that this week, drawing on her experience of her new book “Polish Your Fiction”) and beta reading (which I’ve just written about on my author blog, as I’ve just benefited enormously from that process with my latest self-published book, a collection of flash fiction called “Quick Change” – here are links to two posts about my beta readers: http://authordebbieyoung.com/2014/06/04/beta-readers-make-books-better/ and http://authordebbieyoung.com/2014/06/06/how-to-find-beta-readers/.) These will help you pick up all kinds of errors, from typos to plot glitches, without resorting to leaving it to reviewers, as Derek suggests at one point (no need to do that – although if a reviewer is kind enough to take the trouble to help you improve your book by telling you about a typo, for goodness sake, be grateful and thank them! They may not be so kind another time if you are affronted or ignore them.)

        Paid editing is not your only option.

        • Derek Murphy November 26, 2015 at 2:44 am #

          I also encourage some authors to DIY their cover design, which most professionals will say is bad advice. But a lot of would-be authors have no budget, and spending money on services expecting financial gain is very often a losing strategy (since the vast majority of authors don’t make any money from their books).

          And I don’t like telling writers that, if you want to publish, you absolutely HAVE TO spend thousands of dollars doing so. You shouldn’t have to pay to be a writer. If you have the money, and are writing something for a specific audience, and you know who they are and how to get in touch with them, by all means invest in your book! But if you’re 17 and wrote a Nanowrimo novel, make a free cover with Canva.com or Wordswag, get some friends to proofread it, and publish it!

          • Sanna April 15, 2016 at 3:40 am #

            You spoke to my heart. I’m a student living at home. This is probably my first and last novel. I have a nack for it, but probably not interested in becoming a writer. In fact, I don’t even care if I don’t sell. I’m writing it for personal fulfillment.

  30. Jamie June 19, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    Ok, I understand the sentiment behind this and that there are instances where a novel requires extensive work and this may be difficult for an author to accept. I also understand that an editor’s time is valuable and editing is time consuming. That said, as an editor and author I find this one of the most useless and irritating articles on editing that I have ever read. To say that a story which you don’t think is very good, could be improved with guidance on word usage, sentence structure, and plot holes, but you choose not to offer that help is pointless. How are authors ever going to improve or understand what an editor expects of them if they are not given some guidance when necessary? How can you see potential in an author and their story, even if it is not as great as other stories, and not try to bring that potential out. Yes, at times it makes you a writing coach, but it also makes the next session of editing with that author and their new book easier. Authors, though very needy and overbearingly reluctant to make changes are not stupid and they are capable of learning how to make their stories better. To only take the time to work on stories you think are either easier to edit or a better story, leaves out all future books that some of these authors will produce if given the guidance and chance.
    Yes, editing can be costly, but it does not have to cost an author an unreasonable sum. Also, all editing, should be done in stages, it is less overwhelming for the editor and the author. If the author is shown how content changes help the story and how initial changes improved the structure, it is easier for them to accept and make changes. One of the only ways that this happens is if the editor encourages the author, and does not simply point out all of the flaws and areas that are lacking.
    The idea that the readers should ‘edit’ a book completely ignores a reader’s purpose. Readers are there to read and enjoy the book not serve as an editing base for authors. Having a book published that is full of errors is irritating to readers and will prompt them to leave horrible reviews for the book. These reviews do not help the sales of books and are very discouraging to authors. Also, no reader is going to send suggestions to an author in a way that is constructive for the book or the author. Many readers will also never pick up another book by that author if they have had to suffer through no editing or are asked to do that work for the author.
    I understand why you wrote this article and it was in many ways directed at editors who have experienced many different and irritating interactions with authors. However for an author to read this it basically tells them that editors are stuck up, don’t want to put the time in to helping make a book better and would rather you just not try. I am not sure about you all, but that is not the type of editor I am. I would rather take the time and encourage authors, all authors to celebrate and be as successful at their craft as they can be. Even if that means that I have to coach them some.

    • ace August 30, 2014 at 6:46 am #

      “To say that a story which you don’t think is very good, could be improved with guidance on word usage, sentence structure, and plot holes, but you choose not to offer that help is pointless.”
      – Quite the contrary, he said that the STORY *can’t* be improved through copy-editing. So, basically if the story’s a turd, he feels it’s unethical (and unfair to the writer) to take money to “pretty it up” word-wise to hide its fundamental turdiness.

    • Derek Murphy November 26, 2015 at 2:41 am #

      I know I’m really late responding to this but I wanted to anyway; I appreciate and completely understand your comments. And you should encourage authors and help them make their story better, even if it isn’t commercially viable. And I understand there’s a lot of hubris in deciding what is or isn’t ‘worth’ publishing.

      But – after working with about a thousand authors, and knowing something about the publishing industry, I can also very easily look up a topic or genre on Amazon, find out what’s selling, and compare a book to see whether it’s marketable.

      Publishers and agents do this all the time. They refuse to publish books that won’t sell. They have to, because they aren’t in the business of working for free or spending their own money on failed projects. If authors want to spend their own money on failed projects, that’s their business.

      As a professional in the publishing industry, I decided I didn’t want to take money for a project I didn’t believe could earn money back. That’s why I stopped editing; that’s why I stopped doing book cover design (mostly), and that’s why I try to teach authors to start writing more profitable books by focusing on story and architecture.

      Because in 90% of cases, you can predict with remarkable accuracy how readers will respond to a certain story, and which books are going to fail even if you do everything right.

      Authors need editors to help them turn their OK book into a Pretty Good book, but they can still lose money on it, and it kills a little piece of my soul every time I spend a month of my time improving a book I don’t think many people will actually read or enjoy. That isn’t to say editing isn’t valuable, or editors aren’t amazing, but in general, the majority of the self-publishing industry tells authors to “just keep writing!” and “pay for the best services like editing and cover design!” – and authors routinely spend several thousand publishing their book, expecting windfall riches that never come.

      I think they get enough positive encouragement and support already; I think what they really need is somebody telling them why their books are failing and how they can write better ones that earn money. There are soooo many failed and frustrated authors out there. Getting a good editor is not the solution to that problem. Writing a better story that readers love is the solution (and if authors do that, they should absolutely pay for a great editor – but maybe after they’ve given it to beta readers who love it).

      • Sanna April 15, 2016 at 3:42 am #

        AGain Amen.

  31. Peter Prasad June 19, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    Smart advice. And I learned the hard way. 261 typos in my first book, which I pulled back to fix.
    For a month I wore egg on my face. That’s not where I want to put eggs. Thanks!

    • Derek Murphy (@Creativindie) June 19, 2014 at 11:14 pm #

      Definitely agree. Editing can be amazing and awesome… but it’s such a big expense, there’s no way advice like “Every author MUST get their book edited” can be right for everybody.

  32. Samantha Warren June 19, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

    Non-editor chiming in here:

    I always felt guilty for not hiring a content editor when I first began. How could I? I was living on $800 a month and not making ends meet as it was. How do you pay $1000 plus to an editor? Eventually, I succumbed and hired one (there’s a whole big story there, but I’ll save you the headache). $700 later, they basically told me to make it into a novella and cut out most of it, without really offering much else. At the same time the editor was reading it, I had sent it to several beta readers (that wasn’t the initial plan, but again, headache). I found that the feedback I received from the beta readers was much more useful in fixing the problems with the story and my writing in general.

    There are two morals to my super long post. First, good beta readers are awesome. Second, when someone tells you you HAVE to do something a certain way, remember that what works for them may not work for you and no two people share the same journey.

  33. Averill Buchanan June 19, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    Great article, Derek! I’m a professional editor too and have encountered many of the issues you identify.

    I would add a word of caution about using reader feedback AFTER you’ve published as a substitute for proofreading: you might be able to repair the typos, but you can’t fix a damaged reputation so easily.

    • Derek Murphy (@Creativindie) June 19, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

      I understand what you’re saying, but often you can build a fanbase faster by being human and personal. If you show yourself as a flawed, regular human being struggling to be a writer, readers may connect with you even more than if you had a flawless, professional manuscript. Letting them help out gets them invested in supporting you; you make friends, not just fans. (I do it this way not just to catch the mistakes, but as a marketing trick to build my platform).

      • Karen Berner June 20, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

        As a professional writer, editor, and author for almost thirty years, I am horrified by this suggestion. We are supposed to provide our readers with the best possible piece of work we can deliver. Period. We are asking them to spend their hard-earned money on our product. How can you possibly think it is okay to let them “help” you find typos, rather than employing a professional editor? I would never buy another book from someone who had multiple grammar mistakes. It makes you look like an idiot, not “human” as you say. We are writers, the ones who are supposed to know the language. It’s part of our job!

        • Kay Camden June 25, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

          I’m with Karen 100%.

        • ace August 30, 2014 at 6:30 am #

          I couldn’t agree more!! As a reader I’m buying your product, and am expecting it to be professionally made (or else why are you charging money for it?). I would fire ANY professional who proved to be incompetent because they were “still just learning” and expected me to not only finance, but also assist, in their attempt to do a job. By the same token I would want my money back for you book and would certainly not buy one again! Then again, when it comes to books, I am interested in talented artists and storytellers, not hucksters with “platforms” and marketing gimmicks. Any stench of life-coach/motivational speaker lingo and I run. There are far too many indie writers who are just cranking out “product” to sell as if it were Amway.

          • ace August 30, 2014 at 6:31 am #

            (my reply was to Karen)

  34. Pauline Baird Jones June 19, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

    My “process” is beta reader/s first, then content editor, then copy edit/s. I was once asked to beta read for a new author. Said I’ll read two chapters. Author sent three. I sent a page of impressions and quickly realized author didn’t know concepts and terms. Suggested some books and joining a writer’s group. Probably two years later author contacted me again and said, I had no idea how much help you gave me at the time. When I was a new author I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

    And ditto, this is a great post. I’ve seen authors spend the money not even knowing if an editor was the right one for them. My worst editor ever was with a traditional publisher. But I have learned from the bad and good ones. 🙂

  35. Larry Edwards June 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    As an editor, I pretty much agree with what Derek says. Typically I offer authors a critique of the manuscript, looking at the “forest,” and I point out writing issues in a general sense, with a few examples but no actual line editing. After the authors finish a rewrite, then I will do the full edit (the “trees). That makes it more affordable.

  36. Amy Butcher June 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    I love this post! I’m a copyeditor and am all for flawless copy, but all editors know that flawless copy is not really what engages an audience. When do people really talk about a book in terms of its typos? Could you imagine the water-cooler chit chat about Fifty Shades of Grey? “Yeah, but that dangling modifier on page 2, oh, that really turned me off the book.” Most likely not.

    I think it’s probably easier for people to worry about the mechanics of grammar than to focus on what’s important: the message of the story and how to properly and effectively structure that message.

    I also think self-published authors need to see more of these articles about the purpose of editing. And I definitely agree with the fact that not every writer needs an editor. Editing is important, but not a panacea.

    Could we not try to educate authors more about the extremely fun and rewarding side of structural and developmental editing? Perhaps reframe the process not as “looking for flaws” but as “making something better”?

    • Larry Edwards June 19, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

      Amy, good thoughts.

    • AlanHK June 24, 2014 at 4:52 am #

      Flawless copy doesn’t engage an audience, but flawed copy disengages them. When you get pulled up every couple of pages by a typo or incomprehensible sentence fragment, you quickly lose your immersion in the story and any enjoyment you were feeling evaporates. And you’re going to mention these flaws up-front if you ever discuss the book.

      • DZK September 2, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

        Alan: I totally agree. I have read some books that I like, but am pulled out of the story because of a missing work or an awkward sentence. It becomes work to get back into the story. If it happens enough, I can lose interest. Reading is my escape. I don’t want to the distraction of missing words or incomplete analogies. An amazing story may rise above these issues, but it needs to be pretty darn amazing and most stories don’t rise to that level.

        • nissin January 4, 2016 at 6:37 am #

          “I don’t want to the distraction of missing words or incomplete analogies.”

  37. Dianne Greenlay June 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    Derek, I loved this post. Totally agree with your points. I especially liked your suggestion to “just put a note at the beginning of the book encouraging readers to contact you if they find any, rather than posting a negative review.” That is a GREAT solution for the most common problem for us all.

  38. Rasana Atreya June 19, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

    You make good points. I’ve been thinking about this very thing all day today. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very open to constructive feedback. But I also have my stable of beta-readers – all six of them writers. I also have other people proof my book and give me feedback. So do I really need an editor, I wonder?

    • Genevieve Graham June 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

      Why not send a few pages to editors and ask them to edit a sample for free? You’d get a better idea then.

    • Craig October 21, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

      I have created an indie publishing company that has a model that I think will overcome this problem. We have a submission system in which the author submits their work (for a fee), and then they either get accepted for publication with 70% royalties, or they get comments on how to improve the manuscript. They can then make revisions and resubmit the manuscript for another round of comments or acceptance. this can be done up to three times for one submission fee. Our promise to the author of no form rejections is one we can keep with this model. In this way we hope to improve the quality of the work and make the final product great. http://www.cawingcrowpress.com

  39. Dan Holloway June 19, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    So many fabulous points in this.

    “A bad book can be turned into a beautifully written bad book. But a good story, even if the writing is not great, will still be more successful.”

    YES, YES, the full Meg Ryan YESSSSSSSSSS!

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