Why Beginning Writers Need an Editor By Rickey E. Pittman

Why Beginning Writers Need an Editor By Rickey E. Pittman

One of the most satisfying moments in a new writer’s life occurs when a book-length manuscript is finished. This is usually followed by a moment of tension, perhaps bordering on horror, as the writer ponders about how to get it published.

The process of publication begins with submission. However, before submitting the manuscript, a writer must be sure he or she has a clean, edited manuscript to submit. This is true even if it is self-published, or if publication is with a smaller POD press. This is going to require an editor.

As in newspapers, the role of editing in publishing is diminishing. This means that more of the responsibility rest on the writer. Yes, you could edit your manuscript yourself, assuming you are strong in the grammatical and other skills a good editor possesses. Some (a very few) experienced writers are able to do this quite well. However, keep these points in mind:

1. Every writer has blind spots to his or her own writing. You see, you know the story so well that your eye will play tricks on you while you read and you WILL miss what others will see. This is why you need readers and editors.

2. Editing is much harder work than many writers realize. This is why Ernest Hemingway said that the area most writers break down in is in editing their work. Editing is probably harder than creating the book in some ways. It is slow, brutal, time-consuming work. Imagine how long it takes to read your book out loud slowly, making notes as it is read, looking up spellings, definitions, grammatical rules, and synonyms (for diction improvement) and you will get an idea of what an editor does. Editing is much more than running a spell check.

3. Using an editor (as well as readers, but the subject of readers is another article) is an investment in the quality of your writing. A good editor does more than find and correct errors. A good editor is a teacher, a coach for your writing. He or she will steer you to books and other aids to improve your writing. You will learn much more than you intended to and as a result you will make fewer mistakes in future writing.

What kind of editor does a new writer need? A new writer needs an affordable editor. You need to shop around. The editing process will cost you, but it shouldn’t be thousands of dollars. Some editors charge by the project, some by the page, and some by the hour. Don’t expect to get a decent editor for less than twenty-five dollars an hour. As I suggested earlier, read your book slowly out loud and you’ll get a rough idea of how many hours are involved in the editing of it.

The new writer needs an editor who understands something about the creative process and the publishing business. The editor should also be tuned in to the needs, personality, and skills of the writer so that costs and method of editing can be taken into account. An editor can’t afford to give away time, so compensation is appropriate. Some writers’ books require more time than others. In addition, some writers are more skilled than others and may be able to get by with only one reading and edit. Beginning writers usually need two: The first will likely have much homework and the second will get the manuscript ready for submission to the publisher or ready for the POD template. A good editor will give you copious notes with suggestions and questions, and there will be many marked problem passages for you to change. I do not believe an editor should write the book for you, nor should the editor take excessive liberties in changing your voice, diction, meaning, or form. For example, I’ve known of editors who were such grammatical and syntactical purists that they changed (without permission or consultation with the author) idioms, Southern phrases, etc. This not only weakened the author’s voice, it revealed how out of touch the editor was with the author and the author’s audience. I believe the author should have final say on what is in the manuscript.

Remember that your book is a work of art that you want to be around a long, long time. Take the time and pay the expense necessary to insure its success. Find yourself a good editor through referrals from other writers, from teachers, or from others you know and respect.


Most writers now use Microsoft Word. Here is my advice to writers in the preparation of their manuscript before and after they have their work edited.

1. Turn off all automated tasks. This is a demon that has hurt more than one of my clients.

2. Before you send a template manuscript in to a POD publisher, print it, read it and have others read it, looking for typos. Assume there are more mistakes to find. Then do it all again.

3. Do a search on every error. Assume you made the same mistake more than once. As Suzuki says, “Once it’s a mistake; twice, it’s a habit.”

4. Do not use Microsoft Word’s voice dictation feature.

5. If you take your corrected manuscript and place it in a template, you’ll need a second edit to search for mistakes.

6. If you cut and paste, realize that often words are left out or even changed.

7. Don’t use the “change all” feature with spell check. If you do, be very careful and selective. Don’t trust all of the grammatical changes the “grammar check” suggests either.

Rickey E. Pittman, Grand Prize Winner of the 1998 Ernest Hemingway Short Story Competition, is originally from Dallas, Texas. The author and freelance editor earned a BA in New Testament Greek and an MA in English from Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. After moving to Monroe, Louisiana, Pittman was added to the Louisiana Roster of Artists in 1998. Working closely with regional art councils, he was commissioned to write historical plays for Franklin (1997) Madison (1998) and Webster (2007) parishes. In addition to his freelance journalism, editing, and nonfiction writing, he has published short stories, poetry, and a novel, Red River Fever. Pittman loves the South and sees himself as a Southern writer. He has a short story collection, Stories of the Confederate South and a children’s book, Jim Limber Davis: A Black Orphan in the Confederate White House, both published by Pelican Publishing. Another children’s book, The Scottish ABC book, will be published by Pelican sometime in 2008.

Pittman is an active member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Camp Thomas McGuire, West Monroe, Louisiana; a Civil War re-enactor; and a public speaker on issues and topics related to writing and to the War Between the States. Pittman is also a guitarist/singer, traveling and performing original and period music relating to the Civil War and the Scots-Irish. Pittman is a certified Secondary Gifted English teacher and currently teaches freshman composition at Louisiana Delta Community College and the University of Louisiana at Monroe.