Don’t Scrimp on an Editor

After writing my memoir for over four years, I was finished, right? Wrong. I didn't realize I needed help whipping my manuscript into shape. Using a professional editor helped me do just that.
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After writing my memoir for over four years – and that means producing 6-to-10 pages every other week for my read and critique group – I figured I was finished. Whew! Good job! So glad that’s done. I’ve written a book!

I celebrated with chocolate cake and ice cream and danced around my kitchen in front of my husband. We laughed and he congratulated me. You see, I had started writing my story in the middle of our daughter’s 8th grade year, and now she was completing her senior year. She was going to graduate high school and I was going to publish my book. It was done, right?


This guest post is by Leslie Johansen Nack. Johansen Nack graduated UCLA with a BA in English literature. She's the author of Fourteen: A Daughter's Memoir of Adventure, Sailing, and Survival. She is a member of the National Association of Memoir Writers and San Diego Writers Ink. She lives in San Diego and has two children with her husband of twenty-five years.

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I had written 465 pages and found a place to stop that was logical, although the story itself wasn’t done and I planned on writing Book 2. But somewhere deep inside I knew I couldn’t publish a book that big. Could I?

Most books, my writing coach told me are best if they’re under 250 pages, and even better if they’re under 200 pages. What? Are people in that much of a hurry, they can’t read a “normal” sized book anymore? What’s happening with the world? Are our attention spans diminishing into sound bites so small that my story would never get published? How was I ever going to cut a minimum of 200 pages of my beloved life story?

My husband had just finished reading Donna Tart’s Goldfinch which is 771 pages. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of all Things still sits on my desk with its heft of 512 pages. But the granddaddy of them all, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of Rings is a staggering 1,137 pages (I had to google that one). So why couldn’t my little book about sailing to the South Pacific with my two sisters and Captain Bligh father, finding myself and becoming a woman in an adverse environment be 465 pages? (What I really should have been thinking if I had some humility at that moment was: how dare I compare myself to those great writers? Right? And normally my self-esteem regarding my writing is gutter low and I would have thought that, but for some reason I got possessive of my words and writing and story and felt indignant.)

[What's the difference between Who vs. Whom? Find out here.]

I was tired. I wanted to be done with my book and what nobody told me (and I’m glad they didn’t) was that I was just at the beginning of the next journey in my life: publishing. Writing is one thing, publishing is quite another.

As I began to wake up early in the morning, my mind racing ahead of my body, thinking about how to tackle this size thing, I wondered what I’d need to cut. I mentally went through the pages I’d written and was sure – for certain - none of the stories in my book could ever be cut. They were just too important! I had written it in chronological order on the advice of an experienced writer who said that most stories are satisfying when told chronologically, without too many flashbacks and interruptions in time, especially when it comes to memoir. Each and every story was a peg in the building and none of them could be removed – none of them!

At lunch with my writing mentor she said, “so whom have you hired to edit?”

“What? I need an editor?”

She nodded.

“Can’t you do that?” I asked her.

“Nope. I’m not an editor. That’s a whole specialized field with people who are talented in shaping story.”

She recommended three editors and I looked at all of their websites. I finally decided on one just based on a gut reaction. She agreed to look at my manuscript – all 465 pages of – for the price of $2 per page. Gulp. I had not yet spent that much money on my book. After a few weeks, I got a page of recommendations back from her and found that I agreed with most everything she said. It was obvious she loved my story, understood it even as I had tried to write the nuance of it, and she was excited to work with me in sculpting it. Her price was $1,500 to edit it. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. But to my surprise my husband didn’t bat and eye and said, “Write her the check,” which he would say again and again as I marched down the road to publication.

I don’t know if my story of writing and editing is unique. I feel like I live in a bubble in some ways, living in suburbia with my family, and commuting to the writing community I had bonded with an hours commute away. What I do know is that Jennifer Silva Redmond “got” me and my book. And it turned out that without my even trying, I had picked the editor who lived on a sailboat herself in San Diego harbor, and had done extensive sailing to Mexico. (When you’re walking on the right path, doors open.)

I am in love with my book today. It’s coming out in October and I couldn’t be more proud of it. In case you’re wondering, the page count is 349 pages (but wait, let me tell you that I have 42 pictures in there, many of which take an entire page!) and it’s well worth the time to read it. There’s only one flashback chapter – 3 – and the rest remains chronological. What I ended up cutting were the early years of my life, before we bought and moved aboard the boat. A memoir by its very nature is a study of a small portion of one’s life – not the entire thing. I chose to focus on ages 12-14 years old, hence the name of my book Fourteen (which my husband came up with). And then my publisher added the subtitle: A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing and Survival.

[9 Practical Tricks for Writing Your First Novel]

At first I was devastated in having to cut the early years. There were so many important events that had shaped who I became and I was so sad to cut them. It was like cutting off my finger. I actually cried. But I came to see the wisdom of it, and found myself with a wealth of stories to blog about on my brand new website. (When you’re walking on the right path, doors open.)

So here’s the lesson I want to share from my limited experience on writing a book: pay the editor! Get a good one! They are well worth it. Don’t scrimp! The other bit of advice I can offer unsolicited here (ha ha) is to start saving for your publicity campaign now. You could write the next Wild, or the next Eat, Pray, Love, but if nobody knows about it, nobody will read it. Save, save, save! (When you’re walking on the right path, doors open.) Best of luck to all of you!

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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