Daniel D. Beck

Five reasons you need an editor

I once received an email from a respected company about a security problem relating to their service. I wrote out a long take down of the message, critiquing it line by line, highlighting each of its flaws. It was a serious problem communicated without serious care. But I never posted the critique because it was plain that the author wrote and sent the message earnestly, albeit incompetently.

It’s unfair to go after a single draft, since a bad draft is a routine byproduct of the writing process. As long as bad drafts are a byproduct of the process and not the product itself, they are unworthy of your attention. When a bad draft is unleashed on unsuspecting audience, it’s not bad writing, but bad process. It represents the failure to involve a competent editor prior to publication.

There are plenty of reasons and excuses for not having an editor as a part of the process, like costs and deadlines and many others I’m sure you’re capable of conjuring up. But there are good reasons to engage the services of an editor. Today I’d like to remind you of five:

1. Your brain will overlook errors1.

It’s easy to pretend that one can fully self-edit. Though there are tricks to improving the quality of writing without an editor’s attention, they’re no substitute for the real thing. When you read your work, you will understand each part and how it contributes to the whole. Only the perspective of other readers can demonstrate whether your understanding can be recreated by others. An editor’s eyes will see what yours do not.

2. Everyone’s a critic.

Few if any readers will check your math or technical details, but many are quick to call out errors in spelling, grammar, and usage. In a special case of Parkinson’s law of triviality, readers will gravitate toward small, easily recognized mistakes and tell you all about them. This lowers the esteem of the author and the work in the eyes of the audience. A good editor can protect an author from an avoidable loss of credibility.

3. Your writing’s worse than you think.

When you think you can get by without an editor, you’ve overestimated your writing ability. The relationship between confidence and writing skill are inversely related. Because basic writing skills are widely taught (see: everyone’s a critic), there’s a common assumption that writing is easy, or at least easily mastered. Editorial input normalizes perceptions to reality. An honest editor can replace overconfidence about your writing with real confidence.

4. Good ideas get lost in bad execution.

Deficient writing does not imply deficient thought. Expressing ideas in words is distinct from coming up with the ideas in the first place. Writing left unedited can hide considerable thought behind it. A competent editor can help you express yourself fully and prevent you from burying your own lead.

5. Errors are costly.

Deciding how much to trust and rely on a person or business hinges, at least in part, on the things they say. An error in advertising copy or an important security message can easily change perceptions. Personally, I’ve skipped buying a service on the basis of problematic prose.2 An editor can prevent errors that lose sales or customer esteem.

Having an editor around can be the difference between successful and failed communications. Editors find all kinds of errors, not just spelling and grammatical mistakes. An editor can ask important questions about the meaning, intent, and effect of your writing that you cannot. In the extreme case, an editor can spare you embarrassment and distress. During a hurricane, some companies produced copywriting widely regarded as insensitive. Had someone played the part of editor and asked how such messages would be received, they may never have seen light of day. So the next time you, or your blog, or your business is about to publish something without the benefit of the editorial process, you may want to consider whether you can afford it.

  1. Editor’s Note: This sentence initially read, “You brain will overlook errors,” which is a perfect illustration of this point. 

  2. EN: As a high-school senior, Daniel conspicuously decided not to apply to a particular university after receiving an error-ridden mailer—a portent of great future pedantry.