Professional Editors: The Smart Writer’s #1 Competitive Advantage

I believe that every author taking indie publishing seriously needs one or more editors. The biggest criticism we face is the so called ‘lack of quality’ issue, which is easily combated by professional editing. With new technology giving everyone the opportunity to become an author, guest writer Matt Gartland examines why having an editor is more important today than ever before.

“I think every writer should have tattooed backwards on his forehead, like ambulance on ambulances, the words ‘everybody needs an editor. – Michael Crichton

Indie authors need a serious competitive advantage to earn respect and win readers’ hearts and minds. Without one, the odds of tilting the indie author playing field in their favor to attract eyeballs, establish credibility and gain loyal readers are impossibly stacked against them.

So what’s a smart indie author to do?

Change the game and improve the odds by teaming up with a professional editor. Why?

Because the role of editor is undergoing a metamorphosis just as the role of author. They’re companions living in the same new book economy ecosystem alive with common causes and ideals. And when you consider a professional indie editor’s complementary skill sets and points of view, the net competitive advantage they offer indie authors is plain to see.

Let’s break down how valuable an editor can be to an indie author.

1. Overcome the amateur stigma.

Indie authors have earned an amateurish reputation. The deluge of underdeveloped books rushed into the marketplace fuels this stereotype. As Seth Godin puts it, “When you make it such that anyone can publish a book, which is where we are now, then anyone will publish a book. Which means that the vast majority of books are going to be junk.”

While true for many, this stereotype need not be true for you. Recruiting a professional editor onto your team is a surefire way to escape this stigma.

But it’s not automatic. You’ll have to work hard. That’s the point.

Collaborating with an editor showcases how serious you take your work. Serious work always yields serious results. You’ll benefit from constructive critiques. You’ll be challenged to write smarter and re-write better. A good editor pushes you on all fronts: your book’s nature and structure as well as your writing style.

Here’s the big secret: being indie and professional aren’t mutually exclusive qualities. You can be both. In fact, given current trends, you need to be both if you’re playing to surpass the competition, earn respect, and win readers’ hearts and minds.

2. Gain confidence in your book and self.

Self-doubt is the deadliest threat to an author’s work and well being. It decays your confidence, which causes chaos within your manuscript and mind. That leads to any number of unfortunate outcomes including lazy books casually published, incoherent messages that don’t stick or spread, or promising books that wither and die on the vine.

Good editors inoculate you from such anarchy.

They leverage honesty to validate and build upon your good ideas. They employ toughness to mercilessly nuke your bad ideas before they metastasize like the cancerous cells that they are. They help anchor your book’s premise and orient its direction, steering you in a controlled fashion toward a more considered, professional horizon.

Mind you, professional editors aren’t woo-woo cheerleaders; first and foremost, they are stalwart sidekicks that see your potential and push you to unleash it. Legendary editor Robert Gottlieb puts it thus: “A good editor responses to the strengths and needs of the writer. Sometimes, if the writer is particularly strong, that’s just offering encouragement.”

3. Protect your blindside.

Blindsides. We all have them and fear them. And for good reason. Left unguarded, blind spots spawn blemishes, gaffes, mistakes and other agents of chaos.

In writing/storytelling terms, we’re talking about open loops that don’t close, unbalanced character development, monotone voice, imprecise language, embarrassing grammar mistakes, awkward transitions, stiff messages, and insufferable detail.

Such blindsides are often invisible to writers as they’re too close to their writing to see them. Worse, they’re prone to apply equal weight to all their writing, believing that every word, phrase, and paragraph is of equal importance.

Good editors serve as strong defenders and reality checks against these insidious forces.

Through skilled line and copy editing, they transform ugly manuscripts fat on modifiers into striking stories fit with decisive language. And through developmental editing, they, as Gottlieb says, “get inside the text and instinctively understand the terms and the vocabulary of the writer, and make changes in those terms and that vocabulary.”

Porter Anderson puts it more bluntly: “People who chafe and complain about good editing are too shortsighted (or too naïve) to understand that what is changed or cut out is never missed by the reader. … As soon as I got hold of that idea – that the missing is not missed – I’d learned to love good editors.”

4. Prosper from competitive intelligence.

A new breed of editor is emerging in the new book economy. Driven to understand innovative technologies, publishing strategies, marketing concepts, and distribution channels, this new editor is more than an editor – he’s an editor/producer hybrid.

This advanced form of editor researches and analyzes self-publishing trends like a detective investigating a case. He talks with accomplished authors, self-published and traditional both, as well as literary agents, book designers, publishing mavens, new media theorists and other thought-leaders in the publishing revolution.

Allying with such an editor provides you with a wealth of industry intelligence that many other indie authors may not have access to. From crowdfunding books to profitable book launch know-how, this knowledge is ultra-advantageous to the indie author seeking to wisely navigate the new book economy.

You should self-identify with this hybrid nature and value its usefulness. As an smart indie author, you wear the hats of writer, marketer, publisher, and more. Teaming up with others that are multi-talented and specialized will only further slant the playing field in your favor.

5. Enjoy shared prosperity.

Gottlieb once said about editing, “My impulse to make things good, and to make good things better, is almost ungovernable. I suppose it’s lucky I found a wholesome outlet for it.”

Great professional editors share this sentiment down to their core. As such, your motivations are their motivations. Your readers are their readers. Your success is their success. Your dream is their dream, namely to produce the best book possible, no exceptions.

This ethos transcends book genre, format, even publishing model. Gottlieb, for one, was an editor with traditional publishers. However, I sense that this spirit is coming alive in new and amazing ways in the throws of the publishing revolution.

Now, independent editors co-creating directly with authors have more reason than ever to share intentions. That yields stronger, closer relationships and fuels greater shared prosperity. Such editors don’t have traditional publishing employers to fall back on or use as excuses. They’re on the front lines with you. That’s a very good thing for you.

What’s your advantage?

Professional editors aren’t the only competitive advantage available to indie authors. But they’re a top choice by many of the most talented and successful, Joanna included. She recently said “If you get a pro editor, and take their advice, your book will improve beyond anything you could imagine.”

Ultimately, you must choose how best to compete in our highly competitive new book economy. For what it’s worth, Seth Godin offers this advice: “Pay for an eidtor editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read.”

About the Author: Matt Gartland is the founder and editor of Winning Edits, an editorial agency helping indie authors win readers’ hearts and minds. For more keen writing, editing and publishing insights, join his free DIY Book Development Dispatch, or follow Matt on Twitter.

Image: Flickr/Jain Basil Aliyas

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  1. T.G. says

    I’m still questioning the figures thrown around, as I think the prices are just too high. Thank you David and Allena for answering questions in the comments.

    @Kirstie: If you’re worried about money, I might suggest some resources first, and after going through them, which I guarantee will help any writer.

    From my personal experience, some of the best money I’ve spent regarding the craft of writing are as follows:

    (easily #1) Jeff Kitchen’s Full Day Seminar 5-DVD set

    #2 Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies

    #3 Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

    #4 Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

    #5 Fiction 101 Lecture Series by Randy Ingermanson

    I wouldn’t spend any money on a professional edit on my story without going through this material first, especially Jeff Kitchen’s material. I found going through this material like having done read/watched the coursework of a world class education in writing.

    • says

      Thanks TG and you’re definitely right in saying that there’s no point paying for an edit until you have done the best you can do. That’s when I get a structural edit which helps with the rewrites and then get the final polish at the end.

      • says

        I definitely agree T.G. and Joanna. Editing is just like any other business investment, one that should be evaluated in terms of ROI. If you’ve matured your book as far as it can go on your own, then a professional edit is a very good option … if you have the means to recapture your investment (hopefully with profit on top of that).

        The same logic applies to book cover design, a book “PR” person (e.g. blog tours), book conversion, etc.

  2. Another Anon says

    Ah, yes, the good old “all you need is an editor” debate. First things first, ANYTHING written that is intended for serious publication MUST be edited. PERIOD. Anyone that thinks anything different is just kidding themselves, or is simply ignorant to the rigors of QUALITY production. Now, with this being said, potential authors must admit to themselves the level of their skill and craft at time of production. (Going to take some flak on these nest two suggestions, but personal experience trumps message board responses!) Perhaps the greatest favor any budding writer could do to improve their writing that is FREE…JOIN A CREATIVE WRITING GROUP THAT IS LEAD BY AN EXPERIENCED WRITER. There you will be pushed to produce as well as thicken your skin to criticism. I’d even go a step further and say that any potential author that is willing to plunk down any serious money on “professional” editing or “coaching” should first plunk down the cash for a couple credit hours at a local college or university and take at least one creative writing course. Trust me, most Indie authors WILL LEARN SOMETHING from doing both these things. These two things are much more practical than most other things being presented to potential Indie publishers these days. Lastly, the writer-editor relationship is just that A RELATIONSHIP. It must be cultivated and built over time on trust. Quality editing beyond first or second pass line editing is pretty hard to get through the mail or over the Internet without TRUST first having been established. Now that “Indie” publishing is starting to mature a bit, looks like most potential authors are finally starting to realize that making a living on writing is a bit harder than once thought. There really is a lot of work that goes into producing a quality novel. Good story is but just one part and only the beginning!

    • says

      Good points Anon. I agree with the thought process here, namely that it requires a strong sense of humility on the part of the writer. An editor cannot save a poorly written book, now matter how skilled she may be. Hence, hiring an editor is not a crutch for bad writing. It’s an option among other investment choices if you wish to take your writing/book to the next level. If you’re fresh into writing, then perhaps a creative writing workshop would be the wisest investment first.

      For the serious, beyond newbie writers looking to stand out, then a professional edit is likely the best competitive advantage because, at that point, the other options are closer to parity.

      I also love your point on trust. That’s essential, though it requires time (like any relationship). Thus, it’s worth nothing that editing is not an “overnight, quick fix” solution. There needs to be time to trust the person and the process, both editor-to-writer and writer-to-editor. The relationship must be a balanced and harmonious one for it to bare the best fruit.

  3. says

    A good editor is a savvy investment for any self-publisher or indie author. But beware – rates and experience vary wildly. Shop around, enquire with editing societies in your state, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about an editor’s experience with various genres and styles of writing.

    • says

      Absolutely agree Rebecca. Writers should be smart and do their due diligence when researching editors. All editors are not created equal and best served for a particular writer in a particular narrative niche.

  4. says

    I’ve had help from my critique partners…who have really helped me understand how to take my writing to a new level. However, I do believe that a professional editor is necessary to take it ‘to the top’! Thanks Matt for your insights:)

  5. Wayne Hannis says

    I agree wholeheartedly about editing. And I am one author that needs an editor. But writing a short story of 10,000 to 20,000 words and paying an editor $.06 a word- well I just can’t afford that. Its not a matter of juggling my finances- I can’t afford. Any suggestion for someone like me?

    • Another Anon says

      Find readers that have no relationship to you, such as a local writing group that does critique. Be open to the fair criticism as well. You might also be surprised to find a local English teacher or two willing to help with the line editing and some basic craft issue such as POV violations and too passive of voice. (A great way to destroy a particular piece and crush your spirit is to find an editor that thinks they’re the writer, that’s the trust and relationship angle needed, it’s a balancing act) Also, librarians can also be a good, critical group to tap into…talk about a profession that is exposed to everything under the sun and makes buying decisions. There are ways to get editing without paying too much, you have to be open and willing though.

      • Wayne Hannis says

        Thank you. There is local writing groups in my town I’ve been thinking of joining. And I’ve been think of advertising at the local college for an English student. So thanks for the suggestion, I will definitely follow through. I really liked this article!!!

  6. says

    Matt, Joanna and others,

    Thanks for the tips, opinions and experiences. Just like there maybe 50 ways to leave your lover, there are 50+ ways to write, market and publish your work. If I may stretch the analogy even a bit tighter, our writing is/are our sweetheart(s) and it is hard to park your ego at the door and accept constructive criticism in the editing process. But as the old saying goes, everybody needs an Editor.

    Happy Writing.
    If you are having trouble starting on your novel, Tom Clancy says to ask yourself, “What if “X” happened?”

  7. says

    This is a great post, Matt, thank you. I hope there aren’t too many indie authors out there who fight the idea of hiring a professional editor. I know that the problem for many of us is that we can’t afford the best. But, we should certainly get the best we can, and all of your points still hold true even if we can only employ a friend or an intern. Every author needs some level of checks and balances before putting her work into the world.

    • says

      Thanks Dana! Glad to have your voice added to this conversation :)

      Especially like and agree with your point about getting the best you can. Editing isn’t an all or nothing choice. Invest in the best option you can that affords the best ROI.


  8. says

    Wow, Joanna and Matt, you’ve really got a hot discussion going!

    Yes, Matt—sad, but true: everyone needs an editor, even an editor.

    What today’s writer buys from an editor that wasn’t even for sale to the writer of the past is time.

    If a writer doesn’t want to spend the money being mentored by a quality editor, they can always put in the decades of practice developing their skills before they expect to get published. I did.

    But if they don’t, then, yes, they will need to pay. Editing does cost a lot of money. It takes a lot of hours. Publishers used to bear that expense, but many of them have now pushed it off on writers, and there’s not a single thing the aspiring writer can do about that. (Self-publishers, of course, have always footed all the bills for their books.)

    And with editing—as with so much in life—you do most certainly get what you pay for.

    Suddenly a whole other side of the publishing tapestry becomes visible, doesn’t it?


    • says

      Beautifully said, Victoria. And thank you for adding your experienced insights into this conversation!

      I recent stumbled across this magnificent article on ( about the incredible value and influence of editors. It accentuates our thoughts very well, I think.

      Thanks again Victoria!


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