Why You Need an Editor: A Demonstration


Self-publishers need to get their books professionally copyedited. Ideally they should have their books structurally edited, copyedited and proofread, but when you have a large number of people not listening to you about something, you have to start with baby steps. So let’s just say – for now – that self-publishers have to get their books copyedited, at least, before they release them out into the world.

That includes you.

Yes, you.

No, really – it does include YOU.

In fact, there are only two acceptable excuses for not getting your book professionally copyedited (i.e. paying someone to do it) before you self-publish. They are:

  1. You being a professional editor
  2. Your book having no words in it.

Do NOT make the naive mistake of confusing copyediting with looking for typos. If you believe that, then you probably need a copyeditor more than most. Every single day – it seems – I meet a writer about to self-publish, in the process of self-publishing or who has already self-published who disagrees with me on this issue. They don’t need an editor, they claim. Or they can’t afford to hire one.

Well, you do need one, and if you can’t afford to make your book the best it can be (or even just readable, depending on your grasp of grammar, punctuation, etc.), then don’t self-publish it. I’ve done everything I can to convince self-publishers otherwise – explaining how it’ll lead to humiliation, bad reviews, loss of sales, nuclear annihilation of your career, etc. etc. – but still, many don’t listen.

So I keep trying, and my latest attempt is this:

This is a (silent) video showing you how much copyediting had to be done to Backpacked. By the time my editor got a hold of it, I had rewritten it twice and, hey, I have a fairly good grasp of the English language. In other words, my book was in relatively good shape. And yet, as you’ll see in the video, there were plenty of corrections.

Please, self-publishing boys and girls. GET AN EDITOR. I have two I highly recommend if you need their contact information. But do it. If you don’t, it may be the most costly mistake – financially and professionally – you’ll ever make.

(Dum dum DUUUUMMMM.)

(That was scary dramatic music, if that wasn’t clear.)

Backpacked is out soon. Find out more about the book here.

53 thoughts on “Why You Need an Editor: A Demonstration

  1. Andy Wishart. says:

    Sounds good, dude.
    Now awaiting delivery of your book of advice ordered last fri. Comments later.

  2. merryfarmer says:

    Amen! I’m right there with you on that. And I get extremely tetchy when people think self-publishing or indie pub is a quick and easy process, just write a book and stick it up for sale. *shudders in horror*

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Tina says:

    Great article. Speaking as a copyeditor, I’d say most copyeditors would also say the first one isn’t an acceptable excuse either – they know that the author is too close to their work to look at it objectively, and would be more, rather than less, likely to get someone else to copyedit.

    And if any author is still doubtful about the wisdom of paying for copyediting, read some reviews – readers DO take notice of errors and poor structure and if these cost you stars, they also cost you readers!

    • Joni says:

      I’m a newspaper editor and couldn’t agree more. I relish good copyediting of my work as well for the reasons you’ve given.

  4. Clare says:

    Brilliant post – and love the video. The only thing I disagree with is the first excuse for not having your book copyedited (even I can’t argue with the second!). I think that even if you are a professional editor you should get someone else to work on your book if you can. I think it’s difficult to distance yourself from your work as an author.
    So thank you so much for this piece – let’s hope it convinces a few more of the disbelievers!

  5. catherineryanhoward says:

    Well Clare and Tina, don’t tell anyone, but I don’t think excuse #1 is acceptable either! 🙂 I really don’t think you can correct your own work; you just get language blindness (that’s my own term!) and I know in my experience my brain fills in missing words, etc. as I’m reading so even if I knew what I was doing, I’d still have mistakes in the finished ms.

    Thanks everyone for your comments! I think what self-publishers – and I include myself in that, of course – really need to understand is what copyediting IS. They need to see a book that has been copyedited and how different it is to the original version. They need to understand that it is not typo fixing or a human doing spell check. My first book had two small errors in it (I got it copyedited but not proofread; my fault not my editor’s) and although my reviews are only 5% scathing, the worst ones of course mentioned the typos. Since that was a fact, potential readers couldn’t be blamed for believing everything else in the bad review was true too. That cost me sales, presumably. A proofread would’ve been cheaper. That’s why I am making 110% sure the two books I’m releasing soon are as perfect as they can be – I’ll be blogging more about how I’m doing that soon.

    In the meantime, HIRE AN EDITOR! x

    UPDATE: I have had to correct this comment twice. SEE???!!!!!

  6. diane says:

    You’re so right, Catherine. I’ve read a few self-published books, and they could all have benefited from a proofread. I think people think being a good writer makes them a good proofreader/editor, but there’s a reason people do this stuff for a living. You need that outside perspective. I especially love it when you say:

    “In fact, there are only two acceptable excuses for not getting your book professionally copyedited (i.e. paying someone to do it) before you self-publish. They are:

    1. You being a professional editor
    2. Your book having no words in it.”

    Hee. Though as we’ve all now agreed in the comments, 1 isn’t an acceptable excuse, either. So only people producing picture books have an excuse, basically.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      LOL! Exactly. I just know from my own experience that before you see text you’ve written copyedited, you think it’s a much smaller job (and less important) than it is.

      I think I’m going to post some screen shots in a future post showing a section of my book with Sarah’s (my editor) mark ups on it, so people can really see. I’ve always said you can’t correct mistakes you don’t know are there, and only a professional copyeditor is going to know all the intricacies of the English language.

      If self-publishers want to be career writers as well, they have to get it done. I know that, you know that, but how do we get the rest of them to know that? 🙂

      • diane says:

        Well, you can keep spreading the word about it for one — I’m sure some people are frantically Googling editors as we speak 🙂

        And yes, do show a pic with text all marked up! When I contributed a chapter to a book last year, I couldn’t believe all the little pernickety stuff that got picked up. But it was only right.

      • Sharon Babcock says:

        This was extremely helpful. Thank you. I am looking for someone to hire for design/ marketing/distribution for a self-published book. Can you or anyone else recommend?

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          Well, they’re all totally different things!

          For design, I highly recommend Andrew Brown of Design for Writers (designforwriters.com). I use him myself, recommend him to everybody and so as a result all the self-publishers I know have his covers on their books. He’s really, really good and very reasonable. The only thing is he’s quite busy so I’m make sure to contact him in plenty of time.

          Re: marketing, I would never recommend anybody because I think the most effective way to sell self-published books is to sell them yourself. Marketing, etc. just doesn’t have the same impact if it comes from someone other than author, in my opinion. So I’d spend $30 on a few self-publishing books that tell you how, or read blog posts for free (there’s millions of them about selling and marketing books online).

          Re: distribution—don’t know anything about that, sorry. I don’t sell my books in bookstores so I’ve never needed to worry about that.

        • Jamie Clarke Chavez says:

          If you’re looking for design/marketing/distribution it sounds to me like you’re looking for a traditional book deal. Because that’s what publishers do. 🙂

    • Tina says:

      Actually, I’m not sure the second one is either – I can remember several instances of pictures being either the wrong way up or flipped left to right, or being the wrong picture entirely!

  7. Eliza Green says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. it’s what I did for my own novel (yet to be published). But i don’t think editors should edit their own work. Same principle applies, author too close to own writing to be impartial.

  8. laurenwaters says:

    I completely agree. I used both an editor and a copy editor for my soon-to-be published novel and I can’t tell anyone enough how important this step is. Worth every penny!

  9. Sailor says:

    Many of your comments come from copy-editors, so let me add one from a writer. I make my living writing, and much of my work is self-published. I was not a natural or particularly good writer, but luckily I had friends who were better and willing to act as copy-editors. It is not just that editors improved my work, over time, the work they did did taught me to write. I owe them a great debt!

  10. Julie Day says:

    I agree, and that is why I now have one whom I will use for all my stories I wish to turn into ebooks. She is a well-known and highly respected editor in the trade, and nice with it as I have met her before.

  11. Lauren @ Pure Text says:

    WOW! As a copyeditor, I’m in love with this post. If those self-publishing won’t listen to editors, maybe they’ll listen to you, a fellow writer.

    Editor for hire! *Raises hand* 🙂

  12. Jim Thomsen says:

    I agree with everyone who said #1 isn’t a valid excuse. We all need fresh sets of eyes on our copy. Self-editing takes you only so far. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you need a SECOND set of fresh eyes when you hit the proofreading stage. Some author clients have asked to be copy-edit, then proofread after they’ve done a revision based on my suggestions. As much as I’d love the extra money, I always say no because someone new to the work, of equal skill, will always do a better job of proofing than I could.

    By the way, I’m a copy editor with a strong client list loaded with success stories (self-publishers who have either landed agents and traditional publishing deals, or done so well on their own that they turned down trad-pub deals). Hit me up if you’d like to know more.

    Jim Thomsen

  13. gpn says:

    I’m not a copy editor, but:

    Shouldn’t it be, “1. Your being a professional editor”?

    (The possessive precedes gerunds. That is a gerund, isn’t it?)

  14. LM says:

    It does depend on the subject. If you have written an academic book (or article), and the proofreader knows nothing about the subject, the comments and corrections can be stupid. Even professional organizations frequently don’t have good proofreaders. It’s too bad there is not somewhere we could find all those underemployed/unemployed PhDs who want to do work related to what they studied– lots of folks I know would pay to have indexers and proofreaders.

  15. schmublisher says:

    Great blog – I couldn’t agree more! I’ve just set up a business working with self-publishers who want professional copyediting. Thankfully not all authors think they can just run it through a spellchecker!

    I have to say though, I’m an editor myself but I wouldn’t dream of publishing anything that hadn’t been copyedited (or at least proofread) by another editor. Noone can spot all their own mistakes!

  16. Andrea Connell says:

    As a professional editor myself, I would always have my own work edited by someone else. A fresh pair of eyes is necessary for EVERYONE.

  17. jjtoner says:

    Hi Catherine. I get confused by all the buzzwords. What is a structural edit and what exactly is a copyedit? And how do they differ? My own editor (Lucille Redmond) takes an open-ended hands-on no-holds-barred hyphenated approach to editing my books. She reads the draft first, then decides what sort od edit it needs.

    • Jamie Clarke Chavez says:

      Catherine, do you mind if I jump in? As an editor (and this isn’t a plug for me) I see these questions a lot and have answered them in more than one blog.

      What you’re referred to as a structural edit is also called a substantive edit, a developmental edit, a macro edit, or content editing. This is big picture stuff: plot, characterization, pacing, structure, and so on. The editor reads the manuscript (usually more than once) then writes up a set of editorial notes for the author, who acts upon them as revisions to the manuscript.

      A copyedit is done AFTER all the revisions have been made in response to the developmental edit. You also see this called line editing. In some publishing houses, this is two separate processes: 1) a line edit to make the writing more beautiful, more elegant, including word tweaks and sentence improvement, and 2) a copyedit which covers all the grammar, punctuation, and anything else to make the manuscript consistent with U.S. publishing standards (or with local publishing standards). This is where the Chicago Manual of Style and other style guides comes into play (U.S. publishing houses use the CMS almost exclusively, unless it’s a specialty publisher, like one who publishes scientific texts, for example).

      A proof is done after both these processes are complete and AFTER the pages are typeset. (Because errors can be introduced as a result of the typesetting.) For example, layout programs like InDesign often don’t break words where the dictionary would have one break them, and when text is justified, one ends up with many word breaks. Proofers also check for widows and orphans, chapter and section breaks, general consistency in how the text is handled, and so on. A proof is also the last line of defense for copyediting issues, but you don’t really want to be making a lot of word changes after the book’s been typeset.

      Hope this helps?

  18. kizzylee says:

    brilliant, once again i find myself learning from you, thank you very much for sharing this only one thing; i could not find the copy editor people you would recommend? i would very much appreciate this information as i am definitely the poorest author you ever came across so if i am to pay someone then i would really like to know my money was going on some one worth the money, thank you again,

  19. Gregory Brandt says:

    I feel a few writers can objectively judge their own work if they have professional training.You only need the patience to go over it about twelve times. -Devil’s Advocate

  20. folkloreandgothictales says:

    Lets us just say Catherine has pinned the penner. From my actual experience in self publishing, I could not agree more. My first novel, I entrusted to my publisher (to edit) who also was an educated proffessor of English and Spanish. But six months after publication, friends begin to point out all the mistakes and errors in my book. My 2nd novel, was edited by 4 people and was cleaner, but had marginal errors. My 3rd book was supposedly edited by 5 people, two of which were college grads with editorial degrees. But neither could agree on proper use of tense and or word usage, which caused some confusiion for myself, because where grammer has never been my strongest point where the creative process is, it seemed to me that the rules I had learned had some how changed? That is why my 3rd is off the market for the time. My best writing and having paid well this time for a great profesional editor. Yet one problem still lies within self publishing even when you have a great editor. With e-books and print on demand there is also the detail of embedded font. Even when having fonts propperly embedded, there is a risk of dropped paragraghs, sentence structure and punctuation. When you receive a review print copy, read every page and look for these drops. Then have someone else read over it. I was missing a complete paragraph that needed to be put back in, and it was there in my pdf. And former deletions had mysteriously shown up in print. Then you should have a quality novel you can be proud of. Last word of advice, check your editors credentials. Many people believe they are profesionals, or want to say they are and take your money. See what they have edited. Thanks Catherine for the well worded and to the point no-nonsense info for the hard-headed authors out there. I was one of them.

  21. rondaswolley says:

    As a professional copy editor I am glad to see an author promoting the use of support personnel. Lately, I read a book and wonder how it made it past the proofreaders, let alone the copy editor, and it saddens me that quality in the publishing industry has declined.

    Looking at reviews of self-published books on Amazon and seeing things like “great story, but couldn’t get past the punctuation to enjoy it” hurts me no end, even if I haven’t even bought the book. Mostly because that means I won’t buy the book.

    Sure, hiring a structural editor, copy editor, proofreader, or any combination of the three can cost you in up front expenses (that are deductible, by the way), but they can help generate more income and higher book sales in the long run – or, maybe more importantly, save you from fighting against a negative reputation.

    Loved the video – that was stellar! I have handled worse, but that was a great way to make your point.

    Ummmm – there should be a comma after ‘i.e.’ and after copyedited in the first line. 🙂 I wasn’t really looking for mistakes, those just smacked me in the forehead.

    And as many have said, I agree that being an editor is not a good reason for not having your work edited. A writer, no matter how good they are, will not see the little things (and sometimes the big things) that they are missing in their own editing because they are:
    1. too familiar with the material so they overlook errors,
    2. too invested in the material so they don’t question content, or
    3. too much ____________ (fill in the blank with your own issues, because everyone has their own unique set of writing oopsies) that interferes with successful editing.

    The scary music was extremely frightening, especially after you pointed it out.

  22. Doobie says:

    Dear Catherine, apologizing if you provided the information above, but I have been looking for good editor, so as you mention: “I have two I highly recommend if you need their contact information. ” – thank you.

    Oh, and I have been sharing your articles with every relevant group I am. Very resourceful information! Keep on, please.

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