Why Every Writer Needs an Editor: My Conversation with Award-Winning Editor Emily Clark

Emily ClarkThis post is an interview I did with Emily Clark, an award-winning editor in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s a bit longer than what I usually run – but if you read to the end, I promise you’ll be glad you did!

If you’re a writer, you know that every writer needs an editor. 

Maybe you’ve wondered why you need an editor. What can an editor do to make your book shine? How does an editor help you do your best work when you publish your book? And why is a good editor worth every penny you pay her?

I asked Emily Clark – an experienced, friendly, and talented editor – all this and more. Her advice will be gold to you if you’ll read it and apply it.

1) How did you get into editing? 

First and foremost I’m a writer, but when I started writing, I wasn’t a very good one. I would send my stories to a close friend who was a talented editor, and she wouldn’t be kind. After she’d read maybe four of my stories, she told me she could no longer edit my work because the spelling and grammar errors were driving her crazy. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was mortified. Still, I wasn’t willing to give up.

I wrote down every correction my friend had made and committed them to memory. Sadly, those were the easy things. But I kept sending my work out to different people and begging them to give me their honest opinions. For a long time it continued to be painful, but after about a year I improved, and it wasn’t so bad anymore.

I got my degree in Mass Communication with a minor in English, and that certainly helped. It also helped that one of my favorite teachers was an excellent editor. He had worked in journalism and editing for most of his professional life, up until he started teaching, and was a master of editing. I took all of his classes and, in return, he became something of a mentor and a good friend.

His good humor and attitude advanced me along my editing journey far quicker than anything else up to that point.

The moment I finally realized I was good at editing was about seven years ago. I met a professional editor with a publishing house in Utah, and we decided to exchange our manuscripts. Be beta readers for one another, if you will. After I edited her book for her, she sent me back an email praising me for how well I’d done and thanking me for my hard work. That was the first time anyone had told me I was good at it.

From there it spiraled. I was able to start taking on clients, with her referral, and I’ve never looked back. I love helping people in all stages of the writing process and am thrilled when a person’s skill improves because I helped them. I’m glad that I didn’t let criticism stop me from gaining an incredibly valuable skill that, more than anything else, has helped me to become a better writer.

2) What do editors look for when they edit?

It depends on what kind of edit we’re doing: line editing, copyediting, or proofreading.

When line editing we delve deep into the writing structure. We look at prose, for repetitiveness, word choice, voice, style and technique, transitions, we look for plot holes, we make sure it doesn’t drag, and check for overall readability. In other words, we make sure your story makes sense, stays true to voice and character, flows nicely, and is fun to read.

In a copyedit we’re more focused on technical stuff. We’ll delve deep for spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and make sure that your story remains consistent. For example, we’ll ensure that a character that is Spanish doesn’t suddenly become Italian. This includes the way they speak, look and act, all at the most basic level.

A proofread is the last edit that happens with your book before you either self-publish or start querying agents. In the proofread, we only look for surface mistakes, like spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

3) How can writers help editors before they submit their work?

Put your work through beta readers and critique partners. I can’t stress how crucial this is. Anyone who wants to be a professional writer must get themselves in a critique group.

For those of you who don’t know the difference between the two, it’s simple. A beta reader is a person who agrees to read your work and give you feedback on overall plot and structure. Email them your book with a small list of things to look for, like confusing parts, plot holes, character likeability/believability, and slow parts. I also ask them to leave comments theorizing what they think is happening or of the characters as they go.

A critique partner does the same but in exchange for you critiquing their work. In my critique groups, we email chunks of our stories, edit and return them, and then we meet on a set schedule to discuss the edits we received. Good critique partners will check for spelling and grammar as well. (Of course, not everyone will have the same editing knowledge, but if they see something they know is wrong, they should mark it for you.) These groups are there to help you get the cleanest work possible before you either self-publish or start submitting to agents. If they aren’t doing their part, you need a new group. And don’t feel bad if you need to drop a group. It’s not personal. It’s business.

On your own, there are a few things you can do to be a leg above the rest. First of all, if you don’t have the Hemingway app or Grammarly, I recommend getting them asap. I believe both have a free version, but if you decide to buy the more in-depth versions, they are worth the price, especially for the value they offer.

Hemingway app is a great tool to let you know how easy your work is to read. It highlights long and confusing sentences, indicates what grade level your readers would need to be at to understand your writing (hint: the lower the grade level, the better in almost all regards), highlights adverbs, and words that could be simpler. It also highlights incidents of passive voice, but, be warned, it doesn’t always get it right.

Grammarly checks for spelling, grammar, sentence fragments, punctuation, unclear antecedents, incomplete comparisons, and oh so much more.

After you’ve sent your work to your beta readers, your critique partners, through the Hemingway app and Grammarly, read your book one more time to yourself and one more time aloud. You wouldn’t believe the things you will catch that had gone previously unnoticed.

After I’d received my first manuscript request from an agent, I followed all of the instructions listed above except for the last. I sent my manuscript thinking, surely, after all of that, it had to be perfect. The next day, out of curiosity, I opened the attachment I’d sent only to discover that half of my very first sentence was missing. At this point, I was pretty sure my writing career was over.

The truth is when you have so many people looking at your book and making suggestions, some of which you’ll take, things happen to your pages. Duh, right? Sentences get moved around or deleted, you add things, and if you don’t read through it, you’re likely to miss a spot where you made a change and things, inevitably, went wonky.

Thankfully, I was able to fix the problem and resend my manuscript with an apology, and it was fine, but I wish I’d read it to myself and out loud to someone else before I’d sent it. Lesson learned. Let my mistake prevent you from doing the same thing. Because I’ll tell you this much, that is not a fun mistake to make.

4) What should writers do when they make a pitch? 

If you are pitching your manuscript to an agent, let’s say at a writer’s convention, (which if you’re not already attending, start immediately,) you need to have your comparison pitch ready, your elevator pitch, and your paragraph synopsis.

I’ll use my manuscript that I am currently pitching called The Preferred, as an example.

Comparison Pitch:  A comparison pitch is this meets that. E.g. It’s like Jason Bourne with a teenage girl meets Hush Hush but instead of angels, there are demons.

I cheated a little with my comparison because I used a very famous character, Jason Bourne. For the most part, however, you want to stick to books and characters that aren’t out of this world popular. Hush Hush is a New York Times Best Seller, but it’s not on the same level as Jason Bourne and is safe to use.

Elevator Pitch: An elevator pitch is your one to two sentence synopsis of your book. It needs to be quick and catchy. E.g.: Ava possesses extraordinary skills in combat, languages, and an uncanny ability to get out of dangerous situations, but she can’t remember why. When demons and assassins from her past try to kill her, she must use these skills to protect her loved ones.

Paragraph Synopsis: We want to add on to what we’ve already explained, try not to be too repetitive, and this is also a good time to introduce another character, if and only if they’re vital to the plot. E.g.: After receiving a mysterious letter at school telling Ava to find a man she doesn’t remember, strange and unexplainable things start happening. She sees a serpent in her school’s pool, is attacked by an assassin with eyes that glow, and meets an omniscient being who tries to persuade her to leave her family. When those she most cares about get caught in the cross-hairs, Ava is determined to figure out who she is and what she can do to protect them. Meanwhile, a half-human half-demon boy named Mal, with a penchant for flattery and getting his way, arrives at school and wreaks havoc. The last thing he expects is to make friends with Ava, the girl he’s there to kill.

The whole point of a pitch is to tease them a little, so they keep asking for more. Each one of these will add on to what you’ve already said. Memorize them and practice them over and over until saying them becomes second nature. That way when you meet an agent, you’ll be prepared to wow.

On the other end of this, don’t keep going with each part unless the agent specifically asks you to continue. The last thing you want to do is alienate them.

The great thing about this technique is that it also works perfectly in query letters. As a matter of fact, I took most of my example here right out of my query letter. (And I will boast that agents love my query.)

5) What are some common mistakes writers make?

Being repetitive is a big one. It can get irritating to read a book when a character thinks something in their head and then says it aloud to another character seconds later, or thinks it again in the next paragraph. We get the picture. Really. Stop it. No seriously, we heard it. Enough already. Would you stop?

Another way of being repetitive is giving your characters your vernacular instead of their own. If you’re not careful, all your characters will sound the same. For example, I read a series of books from an author, who shall remain nameless, with this problem. Each of her books has a different female protagonist, but every one of them says, “Oh my gosh,” “gah,” and “holy cow,” and other similar phrases all the time. After a while, all her main characters sounded like the same person to me. No bueno, peeps.

I often see writers tell us what their character is about to see, hear, touch, taste, feel, think, know, etc., before they do. Not only is it not necessary, but it’s also a sign of immature writing and a red flag to agents and editors.

Don’t do this: I saw the bird dip into a nose dive.

Do this: The bird dipped into a nose dive.

Don’t do this: I think he’s cute.

Do this: He’s cute.

Using unnecessary words, like: very, really, even, just, thing(s), that, and adverbs. These are also a red flag for agents and editors if they get used a lot. So tread lightly. Without them, your copy will be cleaner and tighter. Always good things.

Lack of contractions. People use contractions in real life. All the time. No, really. So much so, that it sounds weird to us when people don’t use them. As a matter of fact, in real life, when people avoid contractions it’s typically a sign that they’re hiding something or lying. Not the message you want to send.

Most of the time when authors omit contractions, it’s because they want to give their character an air of sophistication, or they’re writing a historical novel and want them to sound more proper. New writers do this a lot, and I get why, but if you use this technique use it sparingly. Think of it like salt on a main dish, a sprinkle here or there is great, but the whole bottle is inedible. If your character is using a sentence with three possible contractions, do two out of the three as contractions.

Do not overwhelm us with a lack of contractions and replace them with what you would think will sound right, it is too confusing and clunky. Thank you.

And always check for frequently misspelled or misused words. Example: their, they’re, and there, it’s and its, effect and affect, adverse and averse, to, two and too, etc.

There are lots of these kinds of words, and while it can feel like a pain to go through and check them all, it’s worth it in the end.

6) What is the best reason to hire an editor instead of editing your own work?

Oh boy, this one’s a quickie! Pure and simple, it’s near impossible to catch all of one’s own mistakes. Why? Because we know what our work is supposed to say, so our eyes skim right over errors. Of course, there are things you can do to help yourself catch mistakes, like changing the font, printing your story, reading it out loud to someone, etc., but I guarantee you will never catch all your mistakes.

Now, to be fair, even editors at the top six publishing houses will miss things. I can’t count how many New York Times Best Selling books I’ve read with spelling and grammar mistakes in them, (too many, too many,) but an editor will have a better shot of catching your errors than you will. Why? Because they haven’t written your manuscript and rewritten it a zillion times, they’re not emotionally attached to it, and they don’t have it memorized. Their eyes won’t skim over the same things that yours will.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have an editor go over your manuscript before you self-publish or start querying agents. It’s essential. Do yourself, and the hours you’ve spent slaving over your work, the favor of making this investment.

Assuming you have one shot at getting someone to read your manuscript, wouldn’t you want to put your best foot forward?

7) How can writers self-edit their work?

I’ve already gone over this pretty much, but I’ll give you a quick breakdown of what I do with my work.

  1. Write an outline.
  2. Write first third of the book.
  3. Re-read first third of book looking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  4. Write second third of the book.
  5. Re-read second third for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  6. Write last third of the book.
  7. Re-read last third of the book for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.
  8. Read book with Grammarly turned on and make corrections.
  9. Read book with Hemingway.
  10. Print out book to read. Make corrections in a bright ink. Look for character and plot inconsistencies.
  11. Fix errors from #10.
  12. Send to critique partners.
  13. Go through critique partner’s reviews. Make any corrections they’ve caught in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Take notes on plot and character.
  14. Apply changes to plot and characters, and rewrite.
  15. Repeat steps 8-11.
  16. Send to beta readers.
  17. If my beta readers are having any major issues with it, I send it back to my critique partners and repeat steps 13-15. If not, I move on.
  18. Read through by myself.
  19. Read out loud to someone. (My sister is my victim, mostly.)
  20. Make any necessary changes.
  21. Send to an editor.

8) And one just for fun – when editors write, do they hire other editors to look over their work?

Yes! If they’re smart, they do. The only reason not to hire an editor is if you’re lucky enough to have editors in your critique groups or know an amazing editor who will do it for free. I have three editors that I critique with, and it’s been such a blessing for me.

9) What do editors wish writers knew?

Honestly, my biggest complaint and the number one thing I’ve heard from other editors is that we wish writers would send us the best possible version of their manuscript they are capable of providing. Of course, we understand that everyone is at different levels, but sending us your first draft without having anyone else look at it, is such a waste of our time and your money. The more mistakes a manuscript has, the more we’ll charge and the longer it will take, is what I’m saying.

So, join critique groups, get beta readers, invest in tools that will help you, like Grammarly and Hemingway app, go to writer’s conference, take classes, listen to writing podcasts, and be proactive. If you want to be a writer, you have to treat it like it’s a profession. Show yourself, and us, and agents you’re serious by going above and beyond.

10) What do you do to relax after a long day of editing?

I read a lot. Haha! Go figure. I love to garden and have a yard that would put The Secret Garden to shame. No joke. While I’m gardening, I like to listen to books on tape and listen to podcasts. My two favorite podcasts right now are Writing Excuses and Modern Combat and Survival. I started listening to the latter for help writing my post-apocalyptic story, and now I’m hooked¦ and a little paranoid. It’s fabulous.

I don’t watch a lot of television anymore, not since my favorite show of all time, The Mentalist, ended, (there are no words to describe the amazingness of this show.) When I do watch, I enjoy Poldark, BBC’s Sherlock (they better have another season, or else), and The Big Bang Theory (because, you know, Sheldon.) I also like to walk my dog, Flynn (as in Errol), and play with my cat Weasley (he’s a ginger).

Connect With Emily

I have a website going up at the end of the month with more advice on editing, plus many more tips on how to become a successful, and profitable writer. If you’re interested, you can find me on social media where I will announce the opening of my website.  Here are the links:

Thank you so much for inviting me! Great questions.


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9 Comments

  1. andreacadelli

    This is fantastic, Frank, and the information was so informative that I it didn’t feel like it was unusually long! I will be revisiting this one again. Thanks for sharing such great advice around the editing process – very timely!

  2. jathan

    3) How can writers help editors before they submit their work?

    Shawn Coyne, author of Story Grid and 25 year veteran editor, has great advice on this. Shawn tells writers to make sure their story has already been run through the ringer and is in really good shape before showing it to an editor. If not, it will die a quick death.

    Shawn authored The Story Grid to help writers do just this. Shawn and Tim Grahl have a fantastic Story Grid podcast. All of Shawn’s work can be found at http://www.storygrid.com as well.

    Great interview. Thanks Frank and Emily.

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