Trust Me, You Need a Good Editor
I just finished reading a self-published book on a topic I’m passionate about, by an author whose blog I occasionally read. As I’ve mentioned before, I regularly read indie-pubbed books, and the fact that I work in traditional publishing doesn’t mean I’m biased against them.
It does, however, mean I’m aware of the ways a book could have been better, had the author availed themselves of the best assistance available, whether in design, writing, editing, cover, or even title.
I was excited to read this book—a memoir—and it started out promising. But it quickly devolved into a self-focused, rambling hodgepodge of preaching interspersed with bragging. I did finish the book (luckily it was rather short) but I ended up with strongly negative feelings toward the author. Since this was a memoir, I doubt that’s what the author was going for.
I think the author got some friends to edit the book, maybe even somebody with writing experience. But it’s clear he never consulted a professional book editor, especially not one with expertise in memoir. This is a genre that is notoriously difficult to pull off. The author needed a strong memoir editor, but since he didn’t have one, I can’t recommend the book to anyone.
So, how could an editor have improved the book? Here are my thoughts:
A good editor would have coached the author to find his main theme, and to focus tightly on it, cutting out rabbit trails and eliminating entertaining stories that didn’t fit in this book. The editor could have helped decide which stories should stay and which should go (often difficult for a memoirist, because they’re so close to the material).
An editor would have conveyed that teaching and preaching don’t belong in a memoir. Save that for another book — a how-to or self-help. The memoir is your story and your reflections on your story, but should avoid the self-help vibe.
An editor would have eliminated bragging, and suggested ways to convey moments of success or triumph without sounding arrogant.
An editor would have brought out the importance of a humble tone, of admitting the journey isn’t over and you’re still learning, a sort of “fellow pilgrim” approach. When your story is nothing but triumph and “look what a great thing I did,” real people don’t tend to relate to your message.
An editor would have challenged the author to truly let the reader in. Authenticity and vulnerability are hallmarks of powerful memoirs, and this one has neither. I had the feeling of skimming over the surface, never quite being allowed in.
An editor would have ensured readers didn’t feel like complete losers if they don’t currently share the author’s lifestyle.
An editor would have protected the author’s reputation. The author conveyed a message he may not have intended by including certain observations and behaviors unrelated to the theme of the book, but which made him seem like a womanizer and a bit of a sexist. A savvy editor would have gently inquired if this was really what the author wanted readers to take away.
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With regard to editors, it boils down to the importance of objective, qualified feedback. Businesses spent over $1oo billion on leadership development last year. Why? Because it’s really hard to see yourself clearly and commit to change, and companies want their leaders to learn and grow and be the best they can be. This requires coaching and objective feedback. Authors are no different. A good editor has the courage to give you the feedback your buddies won’t. It’s their job. And they make your writing better as a result.
Have you ever had the experience of working with an editor who improved your work and helped you say exactly what you wanted to say?
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