Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Should you hire a book doctor?

Today one of my Twitter pals asked if it's worthwhile for an unpublished writer to have her manuscript professionally edited before sending it to a literary agent. At the risk of offending those who make money editing manuscripts for unpublished writers, I must say that paying a "book doctor" to edit a manuscript in the hope that she will transform it into a salable novel is a colossal waste of both money and time.

Self-editing is a huge part of writing well. A writer who has not yet learned how to ruthlessly edit her own work simply isn't ready for publication. Even major tweaking by a paid professional won't turn the lackluster manuscript of such a writer into anything that would interest an agent or a publishing house.

Publishers are used to looking past grammatical and punctuation errors and even awkward scenes dropped here and there. They know all that stuff can be cleaned up because they do it every day. They're always impressed by a "clean" manuscript, but what they're really looking for is a gripping story told by a talented and skillful writer. That being the case, paying a book doctor to make your story more tempting to agents and publishers makes about as much sense as painting a pig's toenails so it will fetch a higher price at the livestock auction.

A published writer is someone who has learned how to edit her own work. She knows how to tell a good story clearly and concisely. She puts words together in such a way that her sentences sing, her paragraphs dance, and her scenes and chapters begin and end gracefully. Some of that ability came from raw talent; the rest she developed through hard work and by paying close attention to the technique of published authors she admires.

Have you ever eaten at a restaurant where the paint was peeling off the walls and the table was sticky but the food was fabulous? If so, you probably went back again and again for the great food. Contrast that with the experience of dining in a scrupulously clean establishment with cloth napkins and sparkling glasses--and ordinary, unimaginative food. Do you go back to those places? Not if you can help it, you don't.

Publishers know how to take a great story told in an engaging way and turn it into a good book. They're not afraid to buy manuscripts that are a little bit awkward, a little bit messy--as long as those manuscripts sing and dance and fascinate.

The bottom line? Depending on your current level of writing skill and how teachable you are, paying a reputable freelance editor might help you learn some valuable lessons about grammar, word usage, and basic story structure. What it will not do is take a story that's not quite ready for publication and turn it into something wonderful.

You will have to do that all by yourself.


Janine said...

Thanks for sharing you opinion on self-editing. I totally agree that self-editing is one of the crucial skills a writer must have.

I spend way more time editing than I do writing the first draft :-)

Brenda, do you ever use tools to help you self-edit? (For example, something like the AutoCrit Editing Wizard)

Brenda Coulter said...

No, I've never used anything like that. I write in Microsoft Word, but have turned off all of the editing tools except for the spell check.

Sierra Donovan said...

Brenda, I also worry about book doctors who try to help a writer fix a plot in anticipation of what will "sell." One editor's meat is another editor's poison, etc.

But seriously. NO country music?!!!!

Brenda Coulter said...

But seriously. NO country music?!!!!

You heard me correctly. Hate the stuff!

But here's a funny story: The hero of my last book was a huge fan of George Strait, and several songs are mentioned in the text. (Yes, it just about killed me to do that research!) My Texan brother-in-law had challenged me to work the song title "Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her" into a romance novel.

So I did.

And now I really hate country music!


Carla Gade said...

I think your opinion is right on. Self-editing is a skill much needed by writers. You always have some great insights, Brenda!

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks, Carla.

Any minute now, somebody is going to come along and tell us how some amazingly talented book doctor was her key to publication. I've heard that kind of "evidence" before. But we can't know whether the publisher who bought the edited manuscript would have bought it "in the raw."

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks.

I just tried it on - to work with a pr/editor.

It's other writers who warned me away.


Janny said...

As someone who's helped several authors along the way to publication--as someone who likes making books better and making a little money doing so--quite frankly, I'm appalled at this post.

Yes, self-editing is important. Yes, no book doctor can make a lackluster story sing...necessarily. But no respectable book doctor takes on a hopeless project; those of us who do this kind of thing for and with authors do it because we want to teach, not because we promise the moon. A good author knows that going in; a good editorial-services agreement spells that out; and a good book doctor/editorial consultant can teach an author A LOT about how to make things "sing" herself...while we clean up those pesky grammar and punctuation mistakes, usage glitches, and scene-sequence reversals.

No, we can't promise a book will be snapped up by an editor or an agent...but neither can anyone else in the business. What we CAN do is help get a book that's basically pretty good into better, more readable, more saleable shape. The rest, true, is up to the author. But in this age of publishers who don't edit, proofreaders who rely on computer spell-check (with disastrous results in many cases), and the like, an editor may be willing to "overlook" errors or weird stuff that they "know they can clean up"--but how likely are they to make doubly sure all those things are fixed? We've seen the unfortunate answer too many times on the shelves. A book doctor, however, can help get that extra polish put on, so we don't have to rely on an overworked editor or a harassed proofreader to do it...and take the chances that follow.

If we're willing to sit in workshops at conferences (that cost money!) and take notes on how to do this from multi-published authors (who in reality can only tell us what works for THEM)...if we're willing to invest time (and sometimes money!) in critique groups--some of which don't teach us much of anything but the members' pet peeves (!)...then why would it be such anathema to so many writers to hire a professional to help you learn the process, hands on, as you go?

I don't rewrite people's books for them. I teach them what works, what doesn't, how to get their sentence structures to work well, how to infuse their special spark in a story...and most of them are pretty darn grateful for that help. I know--I don't have to guess, I KNOW--that I've helped authors learn more in a shorter period of time by the professional work I do for them than they could learn in years of those expensive conferences, trying to reinvent their own wheels and teaching themselves things that are so much better learned with some personal guidance. Is cutting down the amount of guesswork and frustration it may take to try to gut these things out on your own not a good investment of time and money?

Many people would say "Sure, it is." You wouldn't. That's your opinion, and one that others share. But that doesn't make the entire industry a waste of time and money, and to say so in such blunt terms is as misleading as to promise an author that a "book doctor" is all that stands between her and best-sellerdom. There's a happy medium here, and I for one would have appreciated seeing it.


Brenda Coulter said...

Hi, Janny. I guess I did state my opinion rather bluntly, but that's not out of line on a personal blog. There is no onus on me to moderate my opinions or to avoid expressing them because they might stir some readers to disagree.

That said, any reader who thinks I'm an idiot is always free to say so here in the comments--as long as they do it politely and without using profanity.

Jessica said...

Interesting post. While I agree that no one can make a story awesome but the writer, the other stuff confuses me.
I'm actually reading on agent blogs/websites that writers should do everything they can to make their manuscript polished, inlcluding hiring freelance editors. Plus, they're saying that editors and houses want the manuscript as clean as possible. So this has been an interesting post for me.
I didn't want to hire an editor though, so your opinion kind of makes me feel better. :-)

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Wow, I wasn't expecting that. I'm going to have to let this have some time to digest to decide if I agree or not. Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to spot problems, don't you think?

BookMD said...


Yes, good writers must learn to edit their own work. But your position makes me wonder how much you really know about the way publishing works.

Everybody should have a second set of eyes review their manuscript before it goes to an agent for consideration. I am routinely called by agents to fix up an author's material before it is submitted to publishers. The last thing an editor wants on her desk is a promising manuscript that still needs work.

"Colossal waste of time and money" doesn't make sense if you invest a few thousand dollars working with an expert and then score an advance of $200,000.

Would you do your own brain surgery? Argue your own case in court? Go out to dinner and cook your own food? Professional editors are there to help you. They are not the enemy.

Michael LaRocca said...

It depends on what you mean by "book doctor." If you want someone who can take the output of (let's be honest) an aspiring author's laziness and do all the hard work, that person doesn't exist.

There are no new ideas. Truly, it's all been done before. What makes your book stand out is how well you do it, how much thought and effort and style and pure joy you pour into your manuscript. You will not get that from a book doctor.

However, when an author has polished up a manuscript to the best of his or her ability, put it aside for weeks or months and repeated the processes, lather rinse repeat, eventually getting another pair of eyes to look it over is useful. Vital, even.

I am a multi-published author and, you guessed it, an editor. I'm not the best self-editor I know, but I'm in the top 3%. I wouldn't send something to a publisher without an editor it over first.

Now I happen to be lucky. The best editor I know is my wife, but that's not why I married her. :-) Most of y'all probably have to hire somebody. It doesn't have to be me.

Anonymous said...

Self editing is an important skill. So is the ability to listen to and implement and editor's suggestions. It's a skill that you will have to employ if you are published. As an editor at a large publishing house, the last author in the world whom I would want to work with is one who thinks she has "self edited" and thus cannot benefit from additional editing.

A good editor will draw out the strengths of your manuscript and note the parts that are not working. No, an editor cannot make a bad book great. But he or she can certainly make a good book excellent.

For what it's worth, I have edited several NYT bestselling novels. I have worked on many books written by talented writers who have done extensive self-editing--and I have always had revision suggestions beyond that. And in these times, when the publishing industry is struggling, an author's debut book must be incredibly strong to get noticed and bought.