Don’t Scrimp on an Editor

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?


Leslie 2015final-featuredFOURTEEN coverThis 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.


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 book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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9 thoughts on “Don’t Scrimp on an Editor

  1. ShamelessHack

    Ms. Nack is absolutely right, and her experience is a teaching one: hiring a good editor (and often more than one!) should be the largest and most important part of writing, publishing and marketing your book.

    If you think your book is worthy of publication and may be sellable, your first stop should be finding a good Developmental Editor. He or she will pull your work to pieces and hopefully give you broad guidelines in terms of characters, dialogue, setting and plot that you will initially hate and resent. But then it will occur to you that if your Dev editor is a pro, he or she has seen it all before and may actually know a bit more than you do.

    You should absorb your Developmental Editor’s guidelines to the edge of your personal comfort and spend some time (weeks, months?) making changes. Hmm. At some point in the process it’ll dawn on you that now your book really IS better–a solid read. More of a piece. Great. You’re done.

    No. You’re not. Time to get a good Copyeditor. Your story is in place with all the loose ends tied up, but now it needs to be put into good English. What? Of course, its perfect. Great English.

    No. It’s not. A good Copyeditor will find dozens (but usually hundreds) of tiny little errors in grammar, punctuation, word placement, dangling thises and thats, spelling (I don’t care if you use SpellCheck in your Word program–it can be a trap…), etc, etc.

    So now you’ve gone through editor #2 and made all the technical corrections (and sent the damn thing back again for a proof read!). Time to publish?

    Yes and no. I go a final step by sending my books to a screenwriter friend in LA who gives them a quicky read and tells me if he sensed they could qualify as movie or TV material or not. (Yes, he gets paid for honesty, too…) If he gives me a green light, then its all systems go.

    You can skip that last step, but please, please get at least a good developmental editor. It’s money well spent–almost a flat-out necessity. And nothing beats the advice of a pro to learn about yourself and the way you are writing.

  2. kinagirl

    Hi – I am very proud to have completed my memoire.
    I am 100 percent on board with needing an editor.
    I am chatting with a developmental editor who seems to have all the answers and will take my book though a thorough editing process.
    Her price is $15 a page and she says its industry stand.
    Pls advise because after reading the above article
    I am confused….

    1. ShamelessHack


      Editors charge all kinds of things. As long as you’re comfortable with her and she understands what you’re trying to say and the way you’re trying to say it, then go with it. I’ve employed and spoken to editors who charge less than $15/p and one or two who charge more. $15 sounds a bit steep, but often you get what you pay for. And its the personal connection and easy flow of communication that counts in the end.

      But shop around. Finding the right Developmental Editor is the single most important item on your checklist.

  3. jezebellydancer

    Every new writer needs to read this. I am so frustrated with authors who think they don’t need an editor. Or who contact me _after_ they have self-published a book and gotten horrible reviews because of grammar and typos and plot holes you could drive a truck through. And then they balk at my very reasonable fees. Writers need to know that there is a cost of doing business even in the field of writing.

  4. LooseBolt

    Yeah but… I am 69 years old. By the time I find an agent, if, he finds a publisher that will take me on, I may be dead. Then what? I am on my third edit, with my trusty Auto Crit, and some audio software. I realize I must promote the novel myself. In addition, while it is a big hurdle, it’s not the end of my fledgling writing career.
    I searched for editors, with good credentials in my genre or there-bouts, and with authors…their clients, same. The price when it came down to it was between .03 and .04 cents a word. I started out , with 109,000 words, and have cut almost ten thousand off that. I will probably end with between ninety-five and ninety-eight thousand words. Ouch. Then there is the crucial book cover. Another ouch. What to do? Give up? Never…

    1. ShamelessHack


      One of the nicest experiences left to a person as they enter into the autumn of their lives is the soothing attention and literary ministrations of a young, supple developmental editor carefully disecting every word that you’ve put on paper…

      Treat yourself!


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