5 Ways an Editor is Like a Dentist

by | Aug 6, 2014

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Many of us look on a trip to the dentist with a mixture of guilt and dread: we know we need it, but it’s going to hurt. The sight of the needles, the sound of the drill and the thought of the final bill are enough to induce hyperventilation. Sadly, we’ve observed that some writers perceive editors the same way.

Don’t editors also probe and poke a little too deeply and strike a nerve when you least expect it? And don’t they tell you to rein in your head-hopping POV and avoid adverbs, just as a dentist will caution you about the perils of red wine and too much candy?

Don’t get us wrong, dentists provide essential and worthwhile services, and so do editors. They’re necessary, but they aren’t always pleasant. Just for fun, here are a few more ways an editor is like a dentist, along with some tips for getting the most out of an editing experience.

  1. When needed, a dentist will refer you to a specialist. There are specialties in editing, too. Do you need your teeth straightened? Then you should see an orthodontist. But if your manuscript needs straightening? Ah—there’s an editorial equivalent: a structural editor. For cleaning and polishing? A dental hygienist…or a copyeditor and proofreader. Need a new set of teeth entirely? See a denturist…or perhaps you need a ghostwriter. The list goes on.

    Ideally, when you choose an editor for a project, you’ll want someone who is familiar with your genre and with the kind of editing your book needs. Each kind of editing requires a special skill set. Most editors develop specialty subject areas and genres, and many will have an educational background that matches your requirements. The key is to conduct a thorough search for someone who has the experience and knowledge you’re looking for.

    Tip: Look for an editor who has experience with the kind of book you’re writing and the kind of editing you need. Consult editors’ profiles at professional editing organizations for this information:

    You can also ask authors whose books you admire to share the names of their editors. Improve your chances of getting the best editor for your book by selecting authors who write books in the same genre.

  2. Dental work can be expensive, and so can editing. And for both, you can get a quote up front about exactly what work needs to be done and how much it will cost. Sometimes, though, in performing a service, a dentist will discover an underlying problem that will add to the total bill. That can be true for editing, too.

    Tip: To prevent any surprises, ask your editor to tell you right away if she uncovers something in your manuscript that could cost you time or money later. The problem, once identified, might be something you can address on your own or with your editor’s help, early in the editing process.

  3. Dentists perform extractions, and so do editors. In both cases, it can be painful, but it needn’t be. A good dentist will only extract a tooth when it’s absolutely necessary. She’ll offer and administer anesthetic and pain medication, and the result will be a healthier mouth. An editor may suggest that you cut out areas of text that are not working for the project as a whole. As painful as this may be, paring down almost always improves a book.*

    For example, if there are many instances of telling instead of showing in your story—something that will most definitely cause readers to zone out—wouldn’t you want to know about it? It doesn’t feel great when an editor points this out, and getting that news will likely require some rewrites on your part. Dealing with the problem now may prevent you from wondering why your book isn’t selling later. Keep in mind, too, that a good editor will deliver news in a respectful and constructive way, with steps you can take to fix the problem.

    Tip: Be brave: ask your editor what’s not working in your story. The answer might mean more work for you, but it could also mean a better book. Remember, an editor reads with the reader in mind, but he also wants to help you to write your best book.

    *You should probably not count on your editor for pain medication, although she might buy you a nice bottle of red when your manuscript is published. Don’t tell your dentist.

  4. In dentistry and in editing, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Having regular check-ups and following your dentist’s advice about brushing and flossing can save you discomfort and money later on. You can say the same thing about editing. Here’s what an editor can do for you if you check in early—even before you begin your first draft. An editor can:
    • help you structure your novel or nonfiction book, preventing hours of rewrites later
    • suggest other ways of presenting information that will be more accessible to the reader (nonfiction)
    • help you create a sample chapter (template) that you can pattern the rest of your chapters after
    • highlight quirks in your writing (we all have quirks), which, once identified, are easy enough for you to fix on your own
    • suggest resources that will help you improve your writing

    Tip: If you’re not sure what kind of editing you need, ask for a mini-manuscript evaluation. An editor can do an assessment of 50 pages of your writing that will tell you what you can do to improve your book, without the expense of a complete edit.

  5. Dentists have an abundance of tools at their disposal, and so do editors. If you walked into a dentist’s office and saw these tools (see the picture on the left) in your dentist’s toolkit, you’d probably turn and run. To stay current, dentists regularly invest in the best equipment and tools, and they also invest the time needed to learn to use them effectively.Editors, too, invest time and money in tools and training. An editor’s toolkit, while just as varied as a dentist’s, is hopefully much less threatening. It’s possible to edit a manuscript without tools, but editing tools can make all the difference, as they help editors complete editing projects more quickly, accurately, and efficiently.

    Tip: Writers can learn to use some of the tools that editors use. Some tools, like writing and editing macros, are free, and involve a willingness to try something new and a small amount of time (see this 20-minute macro course for a an effective tool that won’t take too much time to learn). Others will require some study and will cost money. All the editing tools automate tasks and can help you to improve the quality of your book.

Finally, there’s one important way an editor is not like a dentist: Your dentist will never encourage you to work collaboratively with him. He will never say, “Hey, why don’t I freeze your mouth, then I’ll give you the pliers and you can pull out that pesky tooth yourself. I’ll be right here if you need help.”

But an editor might. Hiring an editor doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. At least, at Beyond Paper, we don’t think so. We think editing can be a collaborative process between the author and editor.

Sure, you can hire an editor to fix your writing for you—which is traditionally what authors have done—but this option often costs more than a self-publishing author is willing or able to pay. When presented with the potential costs, self-publishing authors opt out of editing entirely, not realizing that there is another workable and affordable option.

Consider approaching editing in a new way: participate in the editing process by asking your editor to point out what needs to be fixed, and then do some of the fixing yourself with your editor’s guidance, if you like. If you’re willing to do some of the heavy lifting, this approach to editing can save you money on editing costs, and you’ll also gain valuable insights into your writing that you can apply to your next book.

Tip: Editors often know a great deal about how to make writing better, so don’t be afraid to tap into that knowledge and, in the process, acquire some of it yourself.

We’re fairly sure that we don’t need to convince you of the value of going to the dentist. Similarly, if money weren’t an object, we think more self-publishing authors would apprise themselves of editing services. You’re probably aware that bestselling books have often gone through some kind of an editorial process in order to create the best possible reading experience for the reader, and you’d probably like to provide your readers with the same kind of experience. If you’ve suspected that working with an editor may be more pain than you’re capable of enduring, suggest a collaborative approach to editing. And don’t forget to floss.


Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. dentist in paducah ky

    Thanks for the cool read Corina & Carla! Never really thought about the similarity’s. Being a dentist myself I really have to agree :)

  2. Charlene Wexler

    The information made me think, but I resented the comparison to a dentist.
    In today’s day we shouldn’t get such a bad rap. Read my book, Murder In Skid Row. A dentist is the main Character.

  3. Carla Douglas

    Hi Amber Lea,

    Thanks for reading, and thanks, too, for your kind comments! We couldn’t resist the comparison, and this post was, indeed, fun to write. I’m glad you enjoyed it. (We also couldn’t resist the urge to include a couple of teaching points …).



  4. Amber Lea Starfire

    I’m reading this a week late — I love the comparison of editors to dentists. The humor made this post a fun read. And in the process, you’ve provided your readers with great information and resources. Thank you.

  5. jaye

    Interesting post, even though I don’t agree that dentists can be evenly remotely like an editor.
    I was an editor long before I wrote anything, and loved doing it. Something very rewarding about editing well, I find.
    But now I have to edit my own work and I wasn’t looking forward to it at all, even wondered if it would work!
    After a lengthy rest period, I find I am looking at just another WIP and getting on with editing like a house on fire.
    But the proof of the pudding….

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Jaye.

      Thanks for your comments. As you probably guessed, the bit about an editor being like a dentist was largely tongue in cheek. Except that for some people, going to the dentist and consulting an editor can induce a state of anxiety and dread. The comparison wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously. :)

      I’m interested in your comment about editing your own work. We all do it, even though we’re advised not to, and as you’ve pointed out, it’s important to let the manuscript rest for a while. Some say at the very least it should be a week; others recommend from two weeks to a few months.

      How long did you leave your manuscript before returning to it as an editor? Glad to hear this practice is effective.



  6. Carla Douglas


    I’m glad the link I suggested was what you were looking for.

    It sounds as though you’re more aware of your writing as a result of being edited — that’s good! And it’s a goal of many editors, too, to encourage their clients to write for the intended audience. And you’re also dabbling in the CMS! That’s impressive! I like their Q&A page, too — you can learn a lot from others’ questions.

    As for additional practical advice, Corina’s book, Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast https://amzn.to/X6YYph is a great little resource for self-publishing authors — indeed, any author. It takes you through the process, and it includes a section on proofreading, which you’re coming up to.

    Hope this helps!


  7. Andrew

    Carla, thank you for reference to your earlier post. This is exactly what I had in mind.

    As to the other point that you have raised, this is very true that I have learned quite a lot in the process. Coming from scientific style of writing, my editor prodded me to become more personal. Another approach that I picked up was how to weave in either direct quotes or paraphrase the statements made by historical figures that play part of the narrative. It sounds obvious but it does require some practice and awareness.

    More recently, I discovered CMS 16. Of course, I have not mastereed “all secrets” of style and grammar gurus, but found Q&A at the site quite interesting (e.g., what needs capitalization in English titles versus foreign titles of the books referenced in the notes). It makes copyeditor’s comments more understandable.

    I am awaiting proof editing in the next few weeks. If you have any practical advice beyond what you’ve listed in a prior blog posting, it will be appreciated.

  8. Carla Douglas

    Hi Andrew, and thanks for commenting.

    Back in April, we posted an article here, at The Book Designer site, about what authors can expect in each of the four levels of editing, just in case you missed it.:) https://bit.ly/1lQpmvC

    The stages are very different from each other, aren’t they? I like the way you describe the work of the substantive editor as “heavy lifting”. It takes a certain amount of toughness on the author’s part to work through this sometimes difficult process while keeping the end goal — a better book — in mind.

    It’s great to hear that you’ve had very positive experiences with your editors, and that you consider editors as authors’ “friends” — but not cheerleaders!

    And while you didn’t say this outright, I suspect this might be true: you probably learned a great deal through the process of working with an editor for your first book, and you can apply that knowledge as you work on your second. In other words, the editing process for subsequent books becomes easier and very likely less costly. Has that been your experience?

    Thanks again for weighing in here, and best of luck with your book!


  9. Andrew

    Thanks for informative post. Consider going a bit deeper into what any self-published author should expect at different stages of editing. If you sprinkle with few examples, it will help the readers.

    I am finishing my second book and found experience of working with editors very rewarding. The editor who has done heavy lifting (substantive editing) was really helpful and we worked as a team. She pointed out to me number of places where additional narrative was needed or chronology was to be adhered to (historical non-fiction). After each chapter, there were questions from her. I must admit that my weekends were ruined and at times I felt irritated but looking back it was a great example of “tough love.” On both occasions final product was much improved. All authors will give themselves a big favor of not saving on the services of the editor. It is much more the style or grammar corrections (we are all biased as it comes to our own writing construct).

    Working with two copyeditors (different from substantive editing) for two books, I found a bit different experience. One was fairly decisive and the last that I am working now on the second book gives me too many choices. In fact, finding good copyeditor and proofer was a bit more challenging (more differences in quality of sample review and wider price range).

    In any case, I consider editors “friends” of the authors, not the enthusiasts of our work but really needed to bridge individual’s creativity with wider readership. Careful selection, staying involved, and thinking about the feedback are the key to rewarding experience.

  10. Carla Douglas

    Hi Yvonne,

    Thanks for your comment — glad you enjoyed this post!

    And congratulations on your novel! Now begins the editing phase in the process, one that so many writers look on with trepidation.

    You still have the opportunity to ask as many questions as you want. Really, most editors are happy to discuss and explain along the way. You are, after all, the author of the work! So ask for clarification at any point in the process — what you learn you can apply to your next books.

    Good luck! Wishing you a rewarding editing experience,


  11. Yvonne Payne

    Thanks, I enjoyed this and it is well timed for me. My first novel is now with an editor engaged for my by the publishing company I’m working with. I now realise that perhaps I should have asked more questions… I’m looking forward to learning the feedback. X

  12. R. E. Hunter

    It’s painful and leaves you feeling numb.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist 8^).

    • Carla Douglas

      Ha! I think you get the spirit of this post. We could have gone on and on with a list of similarities. This was a fun post to write — thanks for your comment,


    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      You’re welcome, Laurie. This post was fun to write.

      Next time: Five Ways an Editor is Like a Zombie. Or Vampire.

      Okay, maybe not.

  13. Pamela

    Being an editor, and a writer, I appreciated this article – it was well written AND well-edited! I think working on words is more difficult than working on teeth – more personal, and the extractions sometimes cause great pain with no anesthesia allowed…

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thanks for your kind words, Pamela.

      As an editor who writes, I realize that it’s important that my writing goes through the editing process, whenever possible. You can probably relate. Editors need editors, too!

      And you’re right: working on words is more personal. Sometimes, you lose the genetic lottery and you inherit teeth with deep pits and a thin enamel. Nothing personal.

      Writing is another story. I believe that learning to write well is something that everyone can do with practice and feedback. But you don’t know what you don’t know. Learning to write well means you need to be open to hearing about what you can do to improve. The feedback you get can sometimes sting a little (who wants to hear that you have more work to do?), but that kind of goes with the territory.

  14. Lexi Revellian

    A bad dentist can wreck your teeth, just like a bad editor can wreck your novel.

    Tip: don’t go to a dentist or an editor unless you need to, and be very careful when choosing either.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Yikes, Lexi.

      It sounds like you may have had a bad experience.

      The job of a professional editor is to help you make your novel the best it can be. This article will provide you with a little test that can help you determine what an editor should and shouldn’t do.

  15. Michael N. Marcus

    Also: I know a dentist who gives a 10% discount for cash payments and an editor who likes to work “off the books.”

    However, my dentist gives me toothpaste, tooth brush and floss samples after each treatment but my editors have never given me freebies after finishing a book.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Perhaps you haven’t worked with the right editors. ;-)

      Good point, though. We could have added an extra section to our article. A good number of my editing colleagues offer discounts for students. Some will offer a discount if you pay up front. (My dentist has never offered me a discount—I should ask).

      Many editors offer freebies in the way of

      • sample edits
      • Skype sessions
      • self-publishing support (at Beyond Paper, our authors get a self-publishing book that I’ve written)
      • tutorials (we often have to show authors how to use features in Word to accomplish editing tasks—so authors come out of the experience knowing their software better)

      Okay… now you have me thinking I should find another dentist!



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