Michael Huber of the Millionth Monkey editing service wrote the following column for Red Room, the website of novelist Sherry Parnell.
Everyone Needs an Editor
By Michael Huber
I have written thousands of articles for publication, and I have edited tens of thousands. Yet, before I subjected you to this short piece, I asked another experienced editor to review it — twice. Why? Because, as author and journalist Timothy Foote once said, Everyone needs an editor.
You can offer an agent or publisher a manuscript that is a masterwork in terms of characterization, plot, structure, setting, point of view, and theme. But if it is marred by errors in grammar, usage, punctuation, spelling, diction, and syntax, it is headed straight for the slush pile at best. The “mechanical” errors send a clear message to the agent or publisher: This is an amateur.
“Mechanical” problems cost you credibility before agents and publishers even look at the heart and soul of your work. And they’re not going to make the effort once they encounter a raft of grammar, punctuation, and spelling problems. “This thing’s a mess,” they will say as they cast your manuscript aside and turn to the next one in the towering stack.
Labeling concerns such as grammar and punctuation “mechanical” is, in fact, misleading (and generally an exercise in rationalization). These are the tools of the writer’s trade. For a writer to say, “I’m a good writer; I just don’t know all that grammar stuff” is as absurd as a carpenter proclaiming, “I’m a good carpenter; I just don’t know all that hammering and sawing stuff.” Writers put together words and groups of words. That’s what we do. If we don’t know how to put words together correctly, can we really call ourselves writers?
But here’s the rub. Even if you are a grammarmeister, you won’t see your own errors. You can read your piece a thousand times, and if “harrass” looked OK to you on the first pass, it’s still going to look OK on the thousandth pass. If you believed the semicolon should go inside the quotation mark this morning, you’re not going have a semicolon epiphany this afternoon.
You can’t depend on SpellCheck. (It’s true. Its true. So there. So they’re. So their.) And you can’t depend on a friend, relative, or significant other to tell you the brutal truth. (“Oh, my, Son, that’s quite an ugly baby you’ve got there!”)
A good editor, of course, does much more than just correct your grammar, usage, punctuation, spelling, diction, and syntax. A good editor has a good ear, and will improve the flow and organization of your piece. A good editor will work on your word choice — homing (not honing, though he or she does that too) in on the word that is not merely right but is just right. A good editor will spot inconsistencies in tense, point of view, and voice. And, perhaps most important, a good editor is not wedded to that sentence that you worked so long and hard on; the editor will cut what needs to be cut.
On that note, let me leave you with a quotation from the educator Jim Collins: “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.”
Michael Huber began his career as a writer and editor in 1977. He is the founder and proprietor of the Millionth Monkey editing service (www.millionthmonkey.net). Millionth Monkey provides professional editing services for authors (fiction and nonfiction), scholars, publishers, students, ESL writers, businesses, web developers, self-publishers, nonprofits, attorneys, and anyone else who appreciates that when the stakes are high, the prose must be clear, clean, and crisp. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.