As authors prepare to publish their books, they are faced with the question of whether or not to pay a professional editor to help polish their manuscript. Since an author has not received any money for the time they’ve spent writing, and there are no guarantees that their book will be financially successful, it can seem like a good business decision to edit the manuscript yourself or ask a friend or family member to do it. And while it can be hard to fork over the dough in those circumstances, it is almost always worth it. It doesn’t take very many bad reviews at Amazon about grammar mistakes and typos to get readers to pass on a book they might have found interesting. And while you and your friends will have the best intentions as you sit down to edit, it is much harder for you to provide a professional-level edit than you might think. Here are some reasons why:
1) You are too close to your book: The human brain has a way of filling in the gaps when it sees an error so that we can keep on reading. If a word has a minor misspelling or there is a missing “the” before a noun, your brain will say, “Oh, I know what you meant” and move on without raising any red flags. While this is true of editors’ brains, too (we’re human, too; I swear), the problem is compounded when you’re already familiar with the work. You already know what you meant to say, so it’s even easier for your brain to jump right over those errors.
The same is true for errors of a higher order. Your description of the spaceship makes perfect sense to you because you know all of the details you didn’t supply to readers. You’ve been thinking about this spaceship for months and know everything about it, so it will be very difficult for you to know whether your description will make sense to someone coming at it cold.
2) You are not objective: A good edit requires an objective eye, and let’s face it, we are not always the best judges of how well we’ve accomplished something. All you have to do is watch an American Idol audition to realize that we sometimes think we’re better at something than we actually are. Some of this comes back to an author being too close to the work. Sure the plot seems seamless to you—you know exactly what’s supposed to happen. But someone reading it for the first time won’t have all that background information and might find things to be more confusing than you intended. Also, none of us knows what we don’t know. Especially if you’re new to writing, there may be all sorts of things related to the organization of your book or the craft of writing that you’re still learning. It will be hard for you to pick out problems that you aren’t even aware exist! Lastly, you’ve probably spent months, maybe even years, writing your book, so you have a lot invested in it being ready to publish. It can be hard under those circumstances to admit that there is still work to be done. An editor won’t have that problem.
3) Your friends and family don’t have the training: So, now you understand why you can’t edit your own book, but you may still be thinking that a friend or family member could do the job. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. While a friend could certainly read the book and give broad feedback such as, “I really liked it!” or “I found the book a little confusing,” they don’t have the training to take it farther than that. They won’t be able to say, “Here are some ways to fix the confusion.” When it comes to the more nitty-gritty work of a copy edit, they probably don’t have the grammar and punctuation knowledge that an editor does. I don’t know many non-editors who will curl up by the fire with a good grammar book. Professional editors are constantly polishing their skills and learning new things to apply to your edit. They also have numerous software programs that help them find inconsistencies in your work. Your average Joe probably isn’t going to pay $100 for the latest version of PerfectIt so he can catch those hyphen inconsistencies in your book.
4) Your friends and family won’t want to hurt your feelings: Even if a friend or family member didn’t have the limitations mentioned above, it would still be harder for them to provide you with all the feedback you need for one reason: they like you and want you to keep liking them. While a professional editor will always provide feedback in a friendly and supportive way, an edit still frequently involves telling an author that there is still work to do. That work may be minor (simple grammar or punctuation errors) or it may be major (a complete reorganization of the book), but either way, an editor must feel free to say, “You’re not there yet.” A friend will want to support you. They will want you to feel good about what you’ve accomplished. They will want to still be friends with you once the edit is done, so they may hold back on the criticism. Even if you’ve specifically told them to give it to you straight, they may find that really hard to do. An editor is more invested in helping you put out the best book you can than in being your BFF. We’ll be nice, but we’ll be honest.
Editing is a skill that requires training and knowledge, and it takes a good bit of time, so it won’t be inexpensive. But if your goal is to be a serious writer with a real chance of being successful, it is a worthwhile investment in yourself and in your book.