Why I Think Most Editing Doesn’t Matter (#19)
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 »