Why Writers Need an Editor

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Many writers say getting a novel’s first draft down on the page is the easy part. It’s the rewriting and editing afterward that presents the biggest challenge, especially for beginning writers. Even after rewriting and editing it several, you may feel there’s something lacking in your manuscript. Most editors agree it’s at this point that writers may need to hire a professional editor.

Recently I attended a webinar called “Maybe It’s Not Your Plot” presented by author and book coach Susan DeFreitas. She says the problem with most manuscripts isn’t about what happens (the plot) but about WHY it happens, which is tied to character arc. She explains the role of character arc best on her blog.

DeFreitas outlines the six steps of a character arc, which I have shared below:

  • The protagonist has an internal issue to overcome, a mistaken belief about their world that will be challenged as the story unfolds.
  • Connected to this internal issue is the protagonist’s backstory, which explains how the misbelief originated.
  • There are conflicts and challenges that push the protagonist to view their misbelief in a different light.
  • The protagonist resists making necessary behavioral changes that fit the new belief. They want to go back to the way things were when the story began.
  • Change occurs incrementally to show how the protagonist fights against themselves.
  • The moment of truth occurs around the climax. The protagonist must face a hard truth, discover what’s been missing or didn’t understand.

Character arc is what drives the story and provides the emotional quotient that readers want to experience. But it’s also where most writers struggle with their story. This is when they tend to reach out to professional editors for advice on how to move forward.

According to DeFreitas, writers might need to hire an editor because:

  • The story is overwritten. There are too many words. A well-crafted novel should contain roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. Romance novels require less than that while some science fiction or fantasy novels can run more than 100,000. Generally speaking, if your novel is too long, you’ll need to cut word count and scenes. Since you might be reluctant to do the cutting yourself, an editor can help you sort through the extra copy to determine what to keep and what to discard.

  • You have a million drafts. Perhaps after working a story multiple times, it still has not jelled the way you imagined. Or you have so many drafts that the story no longer resembles the one you started out writing.

  • You’ve gotten lost in world building. This is especially true for speculative fiction and sci-fi novels where alternate world is key to the story. You can get so caught up in the details of this other world that you lose sight of the plot and character development.

  • You have no clear idea how to end the story. You may have started off strong with your writing but by the middle of the story, you have no idea how to get to the end. I’ve found it helpful to write the ending before I begin writing the beginning so I know how the story will proceed. An editor can provide tips on how to visualize the ending of your story.

  • You can’t figure out how to revise your manuscript. This is especially true for pantsers who write their story organically with no initial planning. Once the scenes from inside your head are written, you may realize that the story heads off in different directions. You feel stuck on how to fix things. An editor can help you scale back your ideas and formulate a revision plan moving forward.

  • You received lukewarm response from beta readers. The good news is you’ve completed your manuscript. The not-so-good news is that your beta readers gave it a lukewarm reception. They politely offered feedback, which you gladly accepted. But you want more than that from them. You want them to feel enthusiastic for your work. A lukewarm response is a warning sign that something is off about your manuscript.

  • You’re not getting responses from publishers or agents. If you’ve reached this step, congratulations. You’re much further along than most aspiring novelists. Only problem is editors and agents aren’t responding to your novel at all. That should tell you that they either have not gotten around to reading it yet, or that it wasn’t worth their time to respond to you. You want to create excitement for your manuscript, and when a book editor or agent is excited about your novel, they’re more likely to get behind it.

 Editing your own manuscript is never easy. But working with a professional book editor can give you a better understanding of the revision process.

Rewriting a Novel Isn’t Easy. Here’s Why.

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I began writing a novel in earnest last February and finished it by Memorial Day (end of May in the U.S.). It was satisfying to finally type the words “the end.”

But writing the first draft was the easy part. It’s the rewriting that was harder than I expected.

I let the manuscript cool off for several weeks before I decided to tackle the revision. That first week, I stared at the manuscript, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I had no idea how to go about editing and rewriting a project that size. I quickly got bogged down by the process, but I never got discouraged. I was determined to finish this manuscript, if only to prove that I could finish it.  

I reworked some chapters that seemed salvageable and chopped away at a few others. I set it aside again. Now I am making my way through a second revision. But as I gradually proceed, I feel I’m taking one step forward and two steps back again.

That brings me to the main point of my post today. Writing the first draft was easy. Rewriting it was where the hard work began.

Since starting the rewriting process – twice now – I’ve learned quite a bit about myself as a writer. I’m happy to share those lessons with you.

Lesson 1: Rewriting a novel is much harder than writing the first draft.

When writing the first draft, I can let my imagination fly. I may sketch out the first few chapters ahead of time, but I allow the ideas for characters, scenes and dialogue to take over. So what if I write 120,000 words for an 85,000-word story? That’s where the editing and rewriting can make a difference.

But rewriting is hard work. You can become emotionally connected to your work, and to cut so much of it can be excruciating. But it’s also necessary. As I reread the material, some scenes didn’t make sense, others were out of sequence. You may find that some characters lack depth and others aren’t needed at all. It takes time to rethink the plot and make sure it follows proper novel structure. It can take up to five rewrites – sometimes more – before the novel is truly complete.

Lesson 2: Instead of “killing your darlings,” save them for another story.

One of the toughest things to do when editing your own work is cutting material that you’ve created. It’s a painful experience. You can be so proud of the work you’ve done, only to be forced to “kill your darlings,” because they know no longer fit the story. It takes great courage to recognize that a scene or character isn’t working.

But here’s a thought. Rather than “kill off” those offending pieces of prose, send them away for adoption. Keep a file of unused material that you’ve killed off. Those sections may not work for your current novel-in-progress, but perhaps they can be adapted to fit another manuscript later.

Lesson 3: Have a clear vision of the novel’s ending.

When I began my current work, I wasn’t sure how the story would end with my protagonists besides a happily ever after. The conclusion should tie up all the loose ends. I found once I drafted my story’s ending, it was easier to handle the rewriting because I knew where the story was headed. For some writers, it might be helpful to draft the final chapters first before starting the novel’s beginning. You can also revise the ending if needed, but at least you have a direction for your story.

Lesson 4: Find the best place to jump into the story.

While it helps to have a clear vision of the novel’s ending before you begin writing (and rewriting), you might experience the beginning differently. It may come across as vague, unfocused and meandering. Perhaps there’s no conflict facing the protagonist. Or the main character has no personality.

I usually have to write and rewrite multiple versions of the first few chapters to find the right scene to jump into the story. Sometimes you start the story in the wrong place. But it’s important to determine that inciting incident that moves the story forward, or you won’t be able to engage readers’ interest.

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Lesson 5: When the going gets tough, take a break.

There will be times during the revision process when you might feel stuck, unsure what to do with the rewrite. Should that character get cut? How do I go about changing this scene? When stuck like that, I’d often step away for a few days to tackle household chores or do some other writing. When I came back to it, I could usually figure out what to do next. Rewriting can be overwhelming, and sometimes you need to give yourself a break to see the way forward.

Lesson 6: Keep your material organized.

When I began writing my novel, I didn’t realize how much organization was required. Keep copious notes, and don’t lose them. When I started writing, I had notes in different places. I’m still trying to figure out a system that works for me.

Organization is necessary to keep track of multiple versions of a scene or chapter. It’s also helpful when figuring out the proper sequence of events within the story. To make sure each scene is set up in proper sequence, I list each chapter along with a brief summary. Then I review the chapters to make sure they made sense in the order I had them. I can usually tell at a glance if I need to add another scene or rearrange the ones I’ve already written.  

Lesson 7: Be patient with your progress.

I’m not the most patient person in the world. Writing (or more accurately, rewriting) is hard work and it usually takes longer than you think it will. Rewriting is a painstakingly slow process. It comes in fits and starts, and you may never be satisfied with your progress or with the words on the page. Be patient with yourself during the rewrite. A little bit of work every day can help you move closer to your finished manuscript.  

What about you? Are you rewriting a novel? What lessons have you learned from the rewriting process?

Want to Improve Your Writing? Read It Aloud

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“I believe the eye and ear are different listeners. So as writers, we need to please both.”
Jane Yolen, author of sci-fi/fantasy novels

Reviewing and proofing your writing is a normal part of your routine. But if you want to take your writing to a whole new level, try reading it out loud.

Experts say reading your manuscript out loud can help you notice mistakes in your writing that you wouldn’t normally catch by simply reading it silently and seeing the words in your head. Reading out loud can also streamline your editing process because you’ll notice the mistakes faster. That said, it doesn’t guarantee that it will catch every mistake, but it will alert you to a lot of them.

“Read a passage aloud and you’ll get an immediate sense of how it ‘should’ feel; the way the words fit together and work as a whole,” writes Robert Wood, editor at Standout Books. “The same way you can hear a missed beat or a wrong chord in music, you understand when your phrasing is awkward or unwieldy.”

If you haven’t made out-loud reading part of your review process yet, here are a few tips for making it work and what you should listen for.

1. Notice the passages where you stumble over the language. If you struggle to read sentences that are complex or contain several difficult-to-pronounce words, your readers will struggle too. Make a note in the manuscript to simplify the language for your readers.

2. Notice if sentences are overly long and wordy. They can be more noticeable when you read them out loud. Also notice if sentences are poorly constructed and confusing. Will readers understand what you are attempting to say? Is there a better way to express what you want to say? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you’ll need to rewrite those sections for clarity and conciseness.

3. Notice the pacing and rhythm of the language. Do you need to slow down the pacing, or pick it up? Do you get bogged down in too many unnecessary details that slow down the pace of the story? Reading out loud will make you more aware of the natural rhythm of the words.

4. Notice if there are misspelled words, grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes. For example, are there too many commas in your sentences? Or are they added in the wrong places, which can change the meaning of the sentence?

5. Pay attention to the tone of your manuscript. Is the tone appropriate for your piece? Is it appropriate for your audience? For example, is the tone too formal for a room full of parents at a PTA meeting, or is it too casual for the company’s board of directors?

6. Pay attention to the sequence of ideas or story scenes. When you or someone else reads your work out loud, listen to the order of ideas. Do they move seamlessly from one to the next? Ditto for short stories and novels. Note if scenes develop in a logical sequence. Also listen for transitions between ideas and paragraphs. Reading out loud can reveal gaps in story lines and thought processes.

7. Notice any repetitions. Did you explain one idea on page three, then again on page five? That’s a sign that you need to condense your content, and rewrite for better clarity.

8. Listen for filler material. Publishing expert Jane Friedman says many writers tend to add filler copy in their manuscripts. These sections and sentences don’t add any meaningful information to the reader. If you notice filler copy, get out the scissors and begin cutting. Make sure every sentence you write, or every section or scene, provides meaning and value to the overall piece.

If you have trouble recognizing these elements as you read your work out loud, it might be helpful to have someone else read it out loud to you. According to the University of North Carolina Writing Center, when someone else reads your manuscript out loud, you receive information in a different way. Most people have more experience listening to and speaking English than they do reading and editing it, the center explains. If your reading partner stumbles over the words or gets lost, those may be places where you need to revise to make your meaning clearer for your readers.

The UNC Writing Center offers the following strategies for reading and reviewing your written work out loud.

* Print out a copy to read. When you read from a printed page, you’ll be able to make notes on the page and mark the places that need revision.

* Read only what you see on the page. If necessary, use a finger to point to each word you see as you say it out loud. The brain has a tendency to “smooth over” mistakes on the page by filling in missing words or making corrections.

* Read out loud at a moderate pace. If you read too fast, you may gloss over words and phrases that need fixing. Slowing down your pace will help you notice errors more easily.

* Read one section or paragraph at a time. Covering up most of the manuscript as you read out loud will help you stay focused on only the material in front of you so you don’t race ahead.

No matter what type of writing you do – nonfiction, memoir, or fiction – learning to read your work out loud can help you catch errors you might otherwise miss. That can make you a better writer in the long run.