I was skimming through a bunch of blog posts recently, and came across one that said an unnamed “famous” writer had mastered his craft and no longer needed editorial help. I’ve since lost track of where I read it, but the sentence stood out to me, making me want to yell various things at my computer screen. When the feeling didn’t go away, I figured I’d write about it instead.
Ask a dozen writers how to write, and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers. But among the plotters and pantsers, the morning writers and the middle-of-the-night ones, one consistent piece of advice almost always crops up: learn your craft.
The thing is, though, that learning one’s craft is not a finite thing. The more we write, the more we improve. True of most things in life that we work at, no? There’s a reason why you’ll find professional development conferences or courses available to people already working in just about every field, including writing. At the conference I coordinate, it’s very common to find multi-bestselling authors sitting alongside beginners at workshops, both of them equally eager to learn, even if what they take away from the sessions is completely different because of what each of them already knows going in. There is no such thing as total mastery. Mastery, yes. Perfection? No. There is always more to learn, just as there is in any other job. As writers, we all have our personal blind spots. We can learn to catch a lot of them in our own edits, sure, but we’re too close to our own work to ever see it as clearly as fresh eyes can. Even the very best writers among us rely on good editors for that.
The stronger we get as writers, the more the nature of the editorial help we need changes, but it doesn’t disappear. Look at the acknoweldgments page of books written by the most successful authors you know, and you’ll often find first readers and editors thanked by name for making the book better. That’s not an accident. We should never get so enamoured of our own words on the page that we think we no longer need an editor. The truth is that if you become a bestselling author with a name that sells books, what you need is not no editorial help, but rather a strong editor, one who’s willing to speak up, even if you’re famous and successful, to ensure the book that goes out with your name on it shows your mastery of craft to best advantage. This is equally true in traditional and self-publishing.
Author Diana Gabaldon is often quoted for her three rules of writing. She says, “Read. Write. Don’t stop.” That’s it. Don’t stop.
And for the love of good books, don’t ever stop believing you need an editor.