Why You Need An Editor

As an editor, I’ve heard a lot of reasons why people don’t need editing. Some even sound totally plausible. Typically, my automatic response is, “Send in a thousand words for editing, and we’ll see.” I’ve signed a lot of clients that way. There are, however, underlying issues at work that make authors hesitant to send in their project - chiefly, either a belief that their work doesn’t need editing, or a fear that their manuscript will be stolen. I'll say this unequivocally: any reasons that exist to bypass editing are faulty. An author needs an editor. Below is a common list of common justifications for not hiring an editor, and my responses to them.


I Self-Edit

One of my early blog posts was about How To Self-Edit. Contrary to popular belief, editors LOVE it when you self-edit. It allows the editor to move past obvious errors and move onto the more important aspects of editing a manuscript, but it is not a reason to deny yourself professional help.

Self-Editing Is Painful

It’s one thing to go over your manuscript looking for glaring errors, but doing a serious edit on your own manuscript is an incredibly painful experience. I know. I did it on my first novel. Somehow, I managed to write every day for six months - but when it came time to edit it, I fell into a bout of depression. It was the most painful experience I ever had writing. Save yourself the agony.

It's Hard To See Your Work For What It Is

Have you ever carefully scoured a school paper looking for errors, only to discover later that you omitted or misspelled obvious words? If you’re like most people, you probably have. When we read our own writing, we often read them the way we meant to write them, NOT the way we wrote them.

I'm Afraid Of Sharing My Work With Someone Else

If you have no aspirations in the realm of book sales, this is a perfectly valid excuse - but if you want to become a bestselling author, this excuse is just silly. The people who buy your book will read it, so why not have it as error-free as possible before they do?

I Could Have My Work Stolen

I know of an author who had a screenplay stolen. She wound up submitting it to dozens of producers, agents and directors, and one of them took the script, re-wrote it, and turned it into a movie. Later, the author wound up recognizing her script at her local movie theatre. She sued the studio, provided proof that they had access to her copyrighted script, and showed that there were too many similarities to allow for simple coincidence. She won, and wound up forcing the studio to pay her royalties, got a highly coveted writing credit and, in the vast publicity from the court case, wound up gathering enough of a following to get several more of her screenplays turned into movies… I’m not saying this is how it ends up for everyone - but there are two morals to this story. Firstly, having a screenplay stolen isn’t always the death blow writers often believe it is. Secondly, the fear of having your work stolen is a perfectly rational fear - but it is far more likely, if your manuscript is poorly edited, that nothing will ever happen to it in the first place.

I Feel Like I'm Giving Up Control

Maybe you are. That really depends on the editor. Whenever possible, try to find an editor who doesn’t ask for any kind of credit whatsoever. Also be sure to find someone who doesn’t make changes directly to your manuscript (this can feel very intrusive, and it makes it hard to see the original way it was written). Having an editor that places their changes in red allows you to easily choose which suggestions you want to follow, and which ones you don’t.

Most importantly, look for an editor who keeps their line of communication open. Too many of the editing services I see online are a one shot deal: you send in your work, and you get it back edited. In my opinion, the field of editing is far too personal for that kind of cold capitalistic approach. A good editor will always be happy to talk with you about the reasoning behind any change they make. Whoever you choose, and whatever their methods, always remember that you have the final say. Ultimately, you are not obligated to change a single word of your manuscript.


Writing Challenge

Send the first 1000 words of your novel in for editing. If I don’t find anything wrong, I will personally transfer you $100. I am one hundred percent serious.

Common Dialogue Mistakes

There are a lot of common dialogue mistakes that are easy to make if you’re not specifically trying to avoid them. The following are the vast majority of them.


Too Much Repetition

“Where did you put that suitcase?”

“What suitcase?”

“The one you had with you earlier.”

“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that suitcase again.”


Repetition can sometimes be a problem in description, but it’s all the more noticeable in dialogue.


Overly Formal Speech

“Where were you last night, John?”

“My phone died. Anyway, I’d love to tell you, but I don’t think you would believe it!”

“I’m sure I would. Please tell me. I want to know.”

“Okay then. I went to see Susan last night.”

“Why? You know nothing good will ever come of seeing her.”


If you take note of the above dialogue, you can probably guess the context fairly well. These are young people, friends, both men, possibly college students… but all of this information is in WHAT is being said, and not HOW it is being said. The dialogue feels false. When people write novels without picturing how their characters would actually speak, we are often left with extremely formal dialogue that serves only to progress the plot. Let’s see how two college students might actually talk.


“Jesus, where’d you go last night? I tried calling you like ten times!”

“Sorry. My phone died.”

“You look like shit.”

“I feel like shit… I saw Susan.”

“Oh… Well I guess that explains that.”


Characters That Repeat Catchphrases

When it comes to dialogue, you should have a pretty broad definition of what a “catchphrase” actually is. It doesn’t always have to be a common expression. Anything that shows a character’s way of thinking can be a catch phrase, and sometimes, they can be extremely small.

If on page 12, John says, “It’s not a big deal,” nobody else can say that for the rest of the book! If he says, “It’s like I told you before,” when explaining something, nobody else should be allowed to say that either. If it’s too much work making sure that catchphrases don’t overlap, you could always try not having them! Seriously. Nobody will miss them anyway!

While it’s true that almost everybody at some point in their lives uses these expressions, that’s not an excuse for your characters to use them. Remember, characters are not people. This brings us to our next point.


Mimicking Real Conversations

In writing classes, you are taught to go out and listen to people talk – to record their conversations on busses and in coffee houses, to transcribe and to study them… While it’s useful to know how people sound in real conversations, it’s important that you don’t mimic them too closely. Here is something that could very well be an actual conversation.


“Hey. How are you feeling?”

“Better. I still have a bit of a cough but my lungs feel clearer now – and I actually slept a bit last night, so that’s good.”

“Yeah, that’s great… Did you see that game last night?”

“No, I didn’t catch it. Was it good?”

“It was pretty solid. I mean X can’t throw worth anything, but the rest of the team carried him.”

“What was the score?”

“24 to 21, XYZ TEAM.”

Et cetera… et cetera…

This conversation could go on for twenty pages before anybody actually said anything worth hearing. You simply don’t have that kind of time. Certain mannerisms can be mimicked, but the flow of the conversation, and the importance of each individual line of dialogue has to be intensified in order for a story to work – and don’t listen to anybody who tells you differently!


Allowing Characters To Tell Us Their Emotions

The most common way that authors try to get out emotion in dialogue is by having a character comment on another character’s emotion: “Why do you look so sad?”/”Don’t raise your voice at me. I had nothing to do with it!” This kind of pandering to the reader (the audience) isn’t needed. If your dialogue contains enough emotion, it will come out. If a character says, “If you take one step out of that door we’re finished!”, it can be assumed that the character is angry. You don’t even need “she yelled” at the end of it to make it work (and in fact, it might be better without it.)

There are exceptions. Sometimes characters have a heart-to-heart, and they might be able to say their emotions to each other in a powerful way that moves your readers. Even here, I would recommend never using this for singular emotions. “I just feel angry at everyone,” should be avoided because, if you’ve done your job, we should already see this when John goes to the supermarket or Marie goes to work. It should read more like, “All my life I’ve gone around trying to feel as little as possible, but when I’m with you I don’t care about caution anymore. We’re meant to be together. I know you feel it too.”


Writing “Said” Or “Replied” Too Much

When a conversation begins, it is helpful to know who said it. Also, if the conversation contains more than two people, sometimes, for the sake of clarity, you might find yourself writing “he said”, “she said” or “John said” quite a few times. That’s okay. It’s better to be clear than to remove an extra one or two of these pointers (also known as dialogue tags or dialogue attributions). What is not considered okay by the publishing world, is having full conversations filled with unnecessary pointers.


Speak softly,” he said. “They might hear you.”

“Who?” John asked.

“Who do you think? The Briarlings!” He paused to scratch at his throat before continuing: “They lurk wherever things worth hearing are being whispered.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to speak louder then?” John asked, confused but still whispering.

“If you speak too loudly, even worse things may hear,” he said.


The above dialogue is delightfully confusing and humorous… It is also fairly clunky. If you’re honest with yourself, there is only one place that really needs a pointer at all. If, however, you think the strange man scratching at his throat is worth including, then do it as an add-on to the traditional “he said”.

 “Speak softly,” he said. “They might hear you.”


“Who do you think? The Briarlings! They lurk wherever things worth hearing are being whispered.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to speak louder then?”

The strange man stared at John as if he were a fool.

“If you speak too loudly, even worse things may hear.”


Flippant Dialect Use

If one of your characters speaks with a Cockney accent, keep in mind that you don’t have to write down every single word variation. That can be extremely distracting! This might seem like surprising advice given that certain writers (such as Steinbeck) have made their careers by writing out incredibly accurate dialects in easy to read ways; simply put, however, most modern readers don’t have the patience for dialects. It’s more important that your character uses common Cockney phrases such as “Pop the boot” when asking someone to open the trunk of a car. This is because, having that character say, “Excuse me. Could you open the trunk?” is dishonest. So, as a rule, if he says “’Ello!” write “Hello!”, but if he says “’Ease bleedin’ buggas”, write “These Bleeding Buggers.”

If you are adamant about writing in a dialect, be careful to read a book that contains a character who speaks with your chosen accent. I would also recommend that you either use the dialect in a short story, or with a minor character in a long story. 300+ pages in a code that needs to be deciphered will put off a publisher quicker than you can say, “This is going to cost quite a lot of money to edit.”


Expositional Conversations

“Since the dawn of time, earth’s creatures have lived in relative harmony. That is until mankind came along, expanding like a virus through the land, using its tools in ways no creature had ever before seen.”

“But you said yourself that we’re no different than animals.”

“I did say that, but I was referring to our physiology and our position in the chain of evolution, not to our interconnectedness with nature. You see little Billy, we alone of all creatures consider ourselves outside of the rest of nature… and that, ultimately, will be our downfall.”


In the above dialogue, little Billy isn’t a character. He has no life, no personality, and he fundamentally lacks the thing that makes all characters great: relatability. Never use your characters as a device to get out the information that you want. If you can’t use their unique personalities to say something, it doesn’t belong in your story.



Never Say Goodbye

This is something I learned from writing screenplays. Characters in movies NEVER begin conversations with “Hello.”/”Hey, how’s it going?”/”Good. How about with you?” In Hollywood, when a character answers the phone, they immediately begin speaking – and it’s always important! Conversations begin and end with, “We have the money.”/”Good. Be at the warehouse in ten minutes.” It should be (essentially) the same way in a novel.


Mix It Up

One of the most famous lines of improvisational dialogue in the world comes from none other than Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. When Han Solo is being lowered down to be frozen in carbonite, and Princess Leia says “I love you,” for the first time, Harrison Ford was supposed to respond with “I love you.” Ford didn’t like that. He knew his character was cocky, and would be glad that Leia finally admitted that she loved him, so instead he said “I know.” Millions of viewers around the world consider that line to be one of the most iconic in all of Star Wars.

What can you do to go against expectation in your dialogue?


Writing Prompt

Write an 800-1500 word conversation between two characters in a setting of your choosing. Make the characters polar opposites from one another: a nun and a hooker, an old woman and a young boy, a civil rights activist and a member of the KKK, a supermodel and a balding 400lbs man et cetera… Pay attention to how each character might speak. Do a little research if necessary. Make sure that each character is important in the conversation, and that the conversation is anything but predictable!

On Seeking Originality

It's important that your work be original. Even if you're a fantastic writer, you don't want to be in a situation where the entirety of your success depends on your flowing sentences and your ability to evoke emotion – you want as many things in your favor as possible. The fact is, most people when they go to write, write the kinds of stories they know. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you want to write about a incessantly-brooding detective or a couple that breaks up over a misunderstanding only to resolve their differences at the end, you need to make sure there is enough originality in other areas. Why? I've had new authors ask me several times before, "If my story makes people feel good, why do I need originality?" It might be best to answer that question with another question: "If I'm shopping for a novel, why would I choose a familiar story written by a new author over one written by an established author?" I wouldn't. To that end, here are some ways to make your writing, your plot and your characters as original as possible.


Avoid Clichés

Every cliché is a missed opportunity. If you're describing the skin of an angel as "white as snow", you're missing an opportunity to show off your talent by giving an original description. Think of Clichés like microwave meals – it’s fine to have one every now and again, but too many in a row isn't healthy for you. Let's say you're writing a comedic farce, and you're describing a character that has never seen the light of day. Which is better, "He was white as snow," or "He was as white as an albino's armpit?" By choosing the second description I have maximized the humor of what might already be a funny section, and I have created something original... Dibs.


Avoid Traditional Plot Devices

A lot of things fall under this category, so I'll give a couple examples.

Having a lead character who is fully good and hardworking who simply falls upon bad times.

There's a lot of things wrong with this: it promotes the victim mentality, it's inhuman (everybody makes mistakes at times), and it's expected. It also leads to a very obvious polar shift: the victim takes control of his life, their life circumstances change for the better, and also the unfortunate phenomenon where, as your character becomes happier with herself, the circumstances in her life changes (thus proving that all our problems ultimately have to do with our own self love). Remember, honesty is an absolutely vital ingredient in any great fiction. Give your characters depth and your story will have depth also.


Completely Wrapping Up Everything

One of the reasons to avoid side-stories (as I was talking about in my last post) is to save the readers the excruciating pain of having everything wrapped up at the same time! When it comes to endings, many authors feel like they need to touch on every single loose end in their entire novel. A classic example of this comes at the end of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance series. The last thirty pages of Inheritance, the final book, are filled with expositional dialogue explaining certain important tidbits, and ridiculous events that put a pretty bow on everything. Throughout some of the last pages in the entire series, a side-character who had previously sworn revenge on Eragon's brother for the deaths he'd caused by leading a village to victory against a horde of evil, tracks the party down and decides that his revenge is best served by giving his brother a scar on his hand instead of killing him... By the time I got to this section of the book, I barely remembered who this character was! Did Paolini really think that this tidbit was important enough to be placed in the final pages of the novel? Probably not. It's my belief that he felt people would judge his writing if he left any stone unturned. Hollywood has programmed this into us. It's not uncommon in movies to have two or three main characters that all get what they want in the end, satisfy their desires and live happily ever after. My advice is this: wrap up everything you can without forcing it on the story. If it seems unrealistic that all three of your main characters get what they want, maybe only one does. So, what if you realize at the end of your saga that three books ago a minor character had sworn to get revenge? If there is no way to bring it back without it taking focus away from the main message of your novel, just let it go. Sometimes when people go on crazy adventures, people swear to kill them. It happens.


Avoid Stereotypes

Planning on writing about a corrupt politician? Unless there’s something else far more original in your story, I recommend you don’t. Stereotypes are the equivalent of character clichés. Using them is the equivalent of inserting a paint-by-numbers picture into a great work of art, and they are even worse than clichéd description because they will not go unnoticed by the average reader. Here are some stereotypes I recommend you generally avoid:

The whore with the heart of gold.

The hardened war veteran with a soft gooey center.

The cut-out 50s housewife of your main character.

The completely average person destined to become a hero.

The damsel in distress, incapable of even trying to save herself.

People who are given a superpower and cry, “But I just want to be normal!”

The villain who lives only to cause destruction.

The doomed-to-die, random, last-second addition to a cast of main characters.

People who are close friends with famous people. (Or who meet famous people when travelling to the past… Just because you’re travelling to the 50’s doesn’t mean you’ll bump into Elvis.)

People who sit around in foreign countries speaking English.


Ignore The Lie That There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

Isn’t it odd how nobody who has ever written a great story has ever said this? I hear this expression all the time from family members who have never written anything, and on websites written by people who teach writing instead of writing themselves. You know who doesn’t believe this? Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Orson Scott Card, Kazua Ishiguro. Don’t be fooled. If you delve deep enough, you can say that every story is the same. After all, every story has characters who stand up against conflict… but these arguments are irrelevant. It’s like trying to say that humanity is no different than algae because we both have DNA. The building blocks of a good story might be the same, but that doesn’t make the story itself any less unique. Allow me to create an idea, on the spot that has originality. Let’s see…

Concluding a twenty year lease of his soul to the devil, a man regains his humanity only to find himself on death row for a series of murders he barely remembers.

So what are the chromosomes, or rather, the building blocks of this story? A pact with the devil is certainly one of them – and by itself it isn’t particularly original. The second is the amnesia trope – again, not particularly original. The third is the need of the man to discover his situation – see any detective story ever written… Yet, combined in this way, we are left with something that is at least fairly original. Let’s say that instead of a man, I make the character a woman. Then, instead of a pact with the devil I make it a pact with the US Government to use her body in any way they saw fit in exchange for fifty million in cash. Instead of death row, which doesn’t leave much room for character interactions, I make it a level four security prison… This is starting to sound quite original to me! What if, I factor in an entitlement personality? Instead of having her be incredibly remorseful for her part in the deaths of these people (as is tradition), I make her angry that she isn’t living on an island in the Bahamas. She simply doesn’t care about the deaths of these people… This leaves tons of opportunities for character growth!

Remember, the lives of most people have the same building blocks, and yet our lives are often quite different. Some of us are law abiding citizens, while others are rapscallions of the highest order. Some of us are dating married women or men, while others join convents or swear off love to become monks. Saying there is nothing new under the sun is an excuse to be proud of lazy or aggressively mediocre works of fiction. Whatever anyone says, always seek originality. Otherwise, what are you bringing into the world with your words?


Writing Prompt

Write a 500-1000 word short story. Make the topic as original as possible, and make sure the piece is devoid of a cliché of any kind! When it's ready, click the contact tab and send it my way!