“When you’ve lived too long in the monkey house, it’s hard to smell the poop.”
That’s what a classmate in my first college literature class told me when I tried to thank her profusely for pointing out all the holes in a paper I’d written, and giving me the recommendations I needed to bring it from a C+ to an A. And those words have stuck with me ever since.
As writers, we’re always living in the monkey house.
After months, or even years of work, you’ve finally finished your novel. And this isn’t your first draft — you’ve read and reread and unwritten and rewritten. The cutting room floor is knee-deep in scraps. You’re ready to start shopping your masterpiece to literary agents — or upload it to CreateSpace and Kindle Direct.
Before you hit submit, you must find an editor. Here’s why:
An Editor Will Spot the Holes You Missed
You are the ultimate expert on your novel. You could navigate your fictional world blindfolded and recite the plot in your sleep. You know the characters better than you know your own friends and family.
But when it comes to editing, this deep intimacy with your work actually puts you at a disadvantage.
We’re wired to correct problems and fill in holes. When there’s missing or confusing information, our brains automatically complete the picture for us using context clues, historical patterns, and existing knowledge.
Have you noticed how much more difficult it is to spot typos, missing words, or sentence fragments in your own writing? That’s because your brain knows what you meant to say, and fills it in for you if you’re not careful.
Editors are crucial for catching those kinds of mistakes, and the same principle applies to the content of your manuscript: because you know everything there is to know about your novel, your brain is primed to fill in any plot holes, missing character motivations, and inconsistencies.
An editor, someone who is new to your novel’s world, will be able to point out the spots where your character’s actions don’t make sense or where the plot seems to jump suddenly from one event to the next. These confusing moments don't stand out to you because your brain has quick access to everything it needs to fill those holes.
A Second Chance at a First Impression
Nothing kills an author’s credibility with a literary agent or publishing house (or, in the case of self-publishing, an audience) like a sloppy manuscript.
Agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts every week. And, having been in charge of thinning out the slush pile, myself, I can tell you that it becomes clear very quickly when a manuscript hasn’t been edited. If the first few pages are riddled with typos or confusing content, the whole thing gets tossed in the “no thank you” pile, regardless of the story. The parallel in the self-publishing world is bad publicity (primarily in the form of derisive Amazon comments) and low sales.
Hand that messy manuscript to an editor, however, and she helps you fix it so your readers can immerse themselves in your story without any questions or distractions.
Feedback Drives Growth
It’s not an easy prospect. You’ve poured your heart and soul in to your novel and the idea of giving it to somebody with the intention that they point out what’s wrong with it is, of course, scary.
But here’s the secret: your editor is on your side.
No editor or critique partner worth her salt is out to find the problems in your writing. Instead, her goal is to help you identify your strengths and capitalize on them throughout the novel.
When it comes down to it, whether you seek out a professional editor or a writing group, finding that extra set of critical eyes for your work is the best way to improve as a writer, and to make sure you put your best work out there for the world to see.