I’ve Looked Up, I’ve Looked Down. Are You My Editor?*

We have a problem in the book industry. No, I’m not talking about the growth of Amazon. I’m not talking about the myriad folks who claim to be award-winning and best-selling, even when they are not. Nor am I talking about the virtual explosion of self-published crap. (The latter does distress me, however. And don’t say you don’t know what crap I’m talking about.)

No, I’m talking about the proliferation of Unqualified People Who Call Themselves Editors.

A couple years ago, author Mike Duran wrote a thoughtful piece at Novel Rocket called “Are There Too Many ‘Writing Experts?” in which he discussed this interesting hypothesis: By empowering the amateur, we are undermining the authority of the experts.

This principle is at work, I believe, in the writing community. What makes someone a “writing expert”? Are there any real writing “experts” anymore? What qualifies writing advice as good advice? … There is so much writing advice available, much of it contradictory, it’s hard to discern the “experts” from the “amateurs,” who to listen to and who to dismiss. … [Here’s what] I fear: That anyone who has published a book or two, has a website, and an internet connection, can now be considered an “expert.”

It’s exactly what I fear too. Because I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and I’ve heard the stories from my author friends—more than one of whom found out the hard way that someone they’d hired was not as qualified as advertised.

One of them emailed me this, and encouraged me to use it:

Writer Acquaintance: “I think I’m going to try to make a little extra money. I’ve decided to freelance edit.”
Me: “Have you done anything like this before? I mean, do you have experience?”
WA: “Of course. I’ve read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style from cover to cover about a dozen times. And I have six other craft books on order.”
Me (biting my tongue): “Well, I wish you luck then.”

Don’t laugh. This is a problem, not least because Strunk and White, delightful as it can be, is out of date, simplistic, and sometimes just wrong. (And in the American publishing industry, it’s the Chicago Manual of Style we use.)

My friend’s point is that editorial work is not something one does to make a little money on the side, in the way my grandmother used to “take in” ironing. It’s that my friend’s Writer Acquaintance isn’t qualified to do the work.

I’ve written before about how you can recognize a professional editor, but it bears repeating for the reasons Duran has noted: anyone at all can hang out a shingle—er, create a website—and call him- or herself an editor.

This is a conversation I’ve had repeatedly and with increasing frequency with publishing industry veterans (agents, authors, publishers, other editors). It’s become so prevalent that my industry peers are dismayed by it. I hear the talk: Another one? There are too many amateurs setting themselves up as experts—just as Duran remarked two years ago.

Every week I hear a new story, it seems: Did you know So-and-So is editing now? Or I stumble upon the name of (yet another) freelancer. (I don’t go looking for this stuff, honestly, but it seems to find me.) I go to the website and—may I speak frankly here?—sometimes I see things (bad writing, grammatical errors, spelling errors, word misuse, among other things) that make me think I wouldn’t hire that person to edit a sixth-grader’s book report. Sometimes I see that the “editor” doesn’t know the terminology, or hasn’t grokked that there is more than one type of editing. (It’s not one-size-fits-all, this editing thing.) This is a common and understandable mistake among folks who need editors, but shouldn’t be among those who are offering the services.

Most of the time I just sigh and shake my head. I have enough work, and some fine day I will retire and leave this madness behind. But other days it gets on my very last nerve. Like last week, when I heard about an author who edits, and one of the services this person offers is—wait for it—coaching on HOW TO BECOME AN EDITOR. Yes, you, too, can be an editor! Be the first on your block to hang out a shingle! It’s enough, as we say here in the South, to make me lose my religion.

So here’s what I want you to know, and it has nothing to do with my work or how annoyed I am. (And I am.)

There’s a difference between self-editing (you might call it revision)—which you absolutely should do, should practice, and should strive to get better at doing—and the sort of services offered by a professional editor.**

And writing and editing are two completely different skill sets. Just because you’ve published a book or won an award with your as-yet-unpublished book doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skill or experience to edit someone else’s book. Please don’t claim to be something you are not. It hurts our industry, as others have noted. It hurts the quality of books on offer to agents, publishing houses, and unsuspecting readers in the case of self-published works.

If you are an author looking for an editor, hire a professional. Again, I’ve written about what to look for, as has author Chuck Wendig, in considerably more colorful language than me, in an article he calls “Why Writers Must Beware Quackery”:

Beware anybody without a single … meaningful credential. Writers without great success—or any success at all—are totally allowed to talk about writing. We all want to talk about it. Even those without publishing contracts have information and ideas that may be valuable.

That’s not the same thing as letting those people up on a stage to talk to you about How To [Insert Writerly Task Here]. There’s a difference between talking about writing and presenting yourself as an expert on writing, and yet somehow there exists a great many of the latter—self-proclaimed experts who want to tell you all these great industry secrets or all these tried-and-true paths and yet appear to have neither exploited those secrets nor walked any of those paths. (Emphasis mine.)

See? There’s that word again. Expert. If you’re looking for an expert editor, you need someone who thinks about plot and POV and narrative voice all day long. You need someone with publishing industry experience (and having had a book published is not what I mean). Don’t be taken in by an amateur.

* You are not my editor! You are a Snort! (With apologies to P. D. Eastman.)
** Check out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King or James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for the former.


Tweet: There are too many amateurs setting themselves up as experts. It’s a problem.
Tweet: Anyone at all can hang out a website and call him- or herself an editor.
Tweet: Writing and editing are two completely different skill sets.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. My guess…and please correct me if I am wrong…is that a salient hallmark of a professional editor is the ability to preserve and support the writer’s voice.

    I’ve done some editing for friends, and while dealing with style, POV and plot issues isn’t hard (I have a LOT of experience), I have to constantly guard against the implicit suggestion “say this the way I would say it”.

  2. Beth says:

    Oh, how I love thee.

  3. Good, good word, Jamie. Thank you.

  4. I wish I could “like” this a thousand times. Brilliant.