Everyone who takes their writing seriously needs an editor, no matter how good their writing. Why? Because as a writer, you are simply too close to your work to see the flaws in it (and every first draft has flaws – that’s why it’s called a first draft and not just a draft). The lack of space is why so many technical experts struggle when writing for lay audiences – their understanding of the topic is so ingrained that they can’t put themselves in the readers’ shoes and approach the topic from a different perspective.
Sherry-Anne Jacobs (who also publishes as Anna Jacobs and Shannah Jay) suggests in her book Plotting and Editing (1998, p41) that the first thing to do after completing your first draft is to take a substantial break and write something else. Later in the book she quotes a number of other authors, many of whom make similar comments about getting some distance from your work. This is great advice, but it’s not always possible to step far enough back to view your work dispassionately.
Being the writer and the subject matter expert, you will see what you expect to see when you review your work and understand your writing as the way it is in your head, which isn’t necessarily the same as what comes out on the page. Having someone else review it for you can point out where you’ve skipped over an important explanation, or have changed tenses across two paragraphs, or put in three pages of beautiful flowery prose that are completely at odds with the tone of the rest of your action blockbuster book.
But why not have a friend or a family member read it? An editor specialises in finding flaws and proposing solutions. An editor provides a reader perspective coupled with a professional approach – they are focused on improving the work and not the personal relationship. As such, an editor’s criticism should always be constructive and focused on the work and its purpose and never about the writer (more on this in a later blog post). A friend or family member may well be helpful for some things, just as Uncle Maurie may be helpful for fixing a leaking toilet. But when it comes to burst pipes, well, the amateur isn’t who you call – you need a professional. Editing works on the same principle.