If you trawl through the reviews of sundry author-published works on venues like Amazon or review sites such as Good Reads, one of the most common complaints relates to the quality of editing. Unfortunately, your primary school teachers were right: people will judge you on the basis of your writing and typos, spelling errors, poor grammar and confused writing will make a reader think you are either careless or ill-educated or both.
So, what to do? Books that go through professional publishing get professionally edited. For many authors, after shopping a manuscript around to a few trusted ‘first readers’, the next line of editing is their agent. The agent may (or may not depending on the author-agent relationship) suggest edits and changes, and if the book sells to a publisher, then the book’s in-house editor will typically make editorial suggestions as well. At this most basic level, the final editing stage is copy-editing, where fact, clarity and detail are checked by obsessive compulsive people whose obsessive compulsive habits are invaluable to publishers. One thing you might not be aware of is that authors and copy-editors tend not to have a personal relationship, and copy-editors are often not very worried about authorial feelings. Thus, the first real evisceration that many authors encounter is their copy-editing, well before publication, well before review.
If you are going it alone, you’ll want to start by taking a leaf from the book of traditional published authors, most of whom, naturally enough, try to get their work as perfect as possible before handing it over to an editor. I used to run into an attitude among would-be writers (less so these days, maybe?) that getting the intricate wordage right was someone else’s job. “But isn’t there an editor for that?” would be the reply to my noting that the spelling and grammar needed fixing. The clearest response is: consider if you have two manuscripts on your desk. One is a little bit better than the other, but it is riddled with spelling and grammar errors and will take time and money to fix. The other isn’t quite as good in terms of story and characters, but it is written perfectly. It’ll require very little time to get it ready for publication… which one do you pick? Most sane people realise that publishers are businesses and they will opt for the book that won’t cost as much to put out into the wild, even if it isn’t quite as good. It’s a rare editor who is willing to take on a mess of a book because there is a gem hidden under all that rough exterior.
To this end, here’s some basic advice for editing your own work and thinking about paying someone to edit it.
Start off with as many first-readers as you can get. Workshopping is fine, but actually, what you want are trustworthy people who are readers more than, or as much as, they are writers. Most authors have a few first-readers, some, like Patrick Rothfuss have confessed to have about 60 first-readers look at a draft before it is shown to an agent, and then another different 60 readers look at the draft afterwards. How Patrick is able to find 120 trustworthy persons who will sign non-disclosure agreements and stick to them is anyone’s guess… but there you go.
Workshop if workshopping suits you. It doesn’t suit everyone, and a bad workshop group can actually be worse than no workshopping. Workshops that are either entirely negative or entirely positive are not especially useful, although the latter can of course still be good as a social outlet as long as you know that’s what you are getting into.
Do multiple edits. Some authors just do a single pass, but if you are getting serious here you should be doing enough editing passes that you will be pretty sick of the book by the end of it. Some authors edit while they write (I think Charles Stross offhand is an example), and some wait and do a massive edit at the end. Either approach can work, but be careful about endless editing and no writing. If you are doing multiple passes, consider focusing on a different thing each time. Here are a few things that people sometimes focus on…
- First pass: A basic catch-all read to catch the really obvious typos and errors. Also, this can be your first opportunity to try and read the book as a reader rather than a writer. Often this requires putting the book aside for a few weeks before starting the editing process.
- Dialogue pass: is the dialogue of the characters distinct, individual in style and clearly attributable to the character?
- Description pass: Are the descriptions well written? Do they all contribute? Can some be shortened or removed?
- Word overuse pass: Are there words you tend to overuse? I know I have a tendency to overuse the past perfect tense and I have a few favourite words like ‘shadow’ and ‘quietude’ which I need to be careful about. It can be useful to write a list of your overused words and keep it at your elbow for a pass where you specifically look for these words and think about whether they might be switched or changed.
- Syllable pass: Are longer words used where shorter synonyms exist? English in its Anglo-Saxon form is punchier and more visceral than when Latinisms are brought into play. You need to think carefully about context of course, an educated doctor might view a tract of intestine as ‘duodenum’ rather than ‘guts’, and because exposition in tight third person Point of View is usually expressed through the exposition as well: word choice needs to fit with the character doing the viewing. However, all that said, shorter words make for a quicker and punchier read.
- Read on paper: Print the book out, change the font size up, maybe to 14, and change the font to something you didn’t type it up in. Reading on paper uses a different part of the brain to reading on screen. It’s odd, but you will see things you will not otherwise catch.
- Read on device: If you are planning to publish to a device like an iPad or a Kindle, then you really ought to use software like Calibre to convert your draft file to an epud or azw file and read it on your own device before uploading it to a store. If you don’t own such devices, why are you trying to sell a book in a market you don’t enjoy making use of yourself?
- Read aloud: Reading the book aloud in a private place where you can do all the funny voices of characters is a good way to catch places where you might have not said what you meant to say in the first place. Some homonyms can generate embarrassing prose… reading aloud is one of the only ways to catch this.
- Read backwards: I admit I’ve done this for short stories and have never had a go at doing this with a whole novel. It is an interesting experience. You don’t read every word backwards, rather you start at the end, read the last sentence, then read the second to last sentence and third to last sentence and so on. By reading the book backwards you are no longer priming yourself to expect to see something on the page – you are much more likely to see what is actually there instead of what you expect to be there.
That is my basic editing your own work advice. The final thing you should think about is whether you want to pay someone to edit your work. If you go this route, you ideally want to find someone who works in your genre and who has done freelance work for traditional publishers. You also need to talk to the person upfront very carefully about what you are expecting. If you only want a grammar and spelling edit, then say so. If you want an edit that includes some notes on story, character, theme etc, then you’ll need to discuss that. If you have no idea where to find such a person, it’s best to start with writing organisations like Writers Victoria, who have a manuscript assessment service, or try attending some conventions themed to your genre. A romance, crime or science fiction convention is a great place to ask around and discover if there might be freelance editors about who would be willing to accept your hard-earned cash. Don’t be afraid to ask what books the editor has previously edited too. A professional with nothing to hide will happily tell you which books they have edited and which authors. Someone who is running something more of a scam service is less likely to be able to give you and hard names or titles.
This final point is important too: do expect to pay for editing, and keep in mind that an editor is doing the job to pay the bills, not for the thrills of reading (potentially) poorly written manuscripts. Much like cover artwork, you should not expect an editor to provide feedback on your book in exchange for ‘exposure’. Editors and artists need to eat too.