Editing is one of the first hurdles you’ll encounter as an independent writer. Your fan club is your enemy. Encouraging friends who think it’s “wonderful you actually wrote a book” are not unbiased editors. A good editor will put your work under a microscope, analyze it to death and probably make you feel at times like any talent you think you have is imaginary. Good editors do encourage and offer praise for what works, but they’re relentless at tearing your writing apart and making you put it back together the right way. Editing is a grueling, time-consuming process and it’s a task that must be entrusted to someone who will give you “tough love.” We’re all too close to our own work to see the flaws and missing pieces, especially when the writing is fresh.
Poor editing is the number one complaint heard from critics of the independent publishing industry. Though the standards of mainstream publishing houses are overrated, I’ve read many indy books where spotty spelling and lack of polished prose present barriers to enjoyable reading. Moreover, our own well-crafted books get lumped into the “indy” category with this trash. Unedited authors sully the publishing waters for the rest of us.
I have discussed the idea of editing with other writers and heard the reply, “I don’t need an editor; I’m an excellent speller.” An editor is not a proofreader. Though the best of us require proofreaders, a story editor is someone who can comment on the work objectively. Is the story believable? Are there unexpected temporal jumps or unexplained threads in the narrative? Are the article’s assertions properly supported? As with affairs of the heart, it’s easy to understand the problems of others and difficult to acknowledge what we’re too close to see—and if you think writing isn’t an affair of the heart, you haven’t started your book yet. Get that third-party perspective.
If you do seek a professional editor, look beyond their credentials and experience. Make sure you work with someone who is genuinely excited about the potential of your writing and your work. Your editor is more than just a contractor; they’re a collaborator. Part of their work is to protect a book they love from the person who created it. It’s a custody battle; part negotiation and part conflict.
In fact, one common complaint of traditionally-published authors is that after their manuscripts were accepted, the publisher’s house editor went through and thoroughly, unilaterally sterilized the writing. Remember, publishers are investors who reserve the right to modify the properties they purchase to make them conform to a house style or to their vision of what is salable. If you want creative control, consider self-publishing. If you sell the house you built, the new owner can paint it any color they like.
A great editor is valuable beyond measure but if you don’t know someone qualified to be your editor and can’t afford a professional ($10-$30/page), there are a few options.
When you feel your manuscript is at an advanced stage of completion, put it away for (at least) a few months before reading it again. Work on something else in the meantime so your writing skills continue to grow. When you finally come back to your earlier work, you’ll have fresh perspective. Of all artists, writers are among the most self-critical. With some chronological distance, you’ll be surprised at how much insight you’ll gain. I recently pulled out some material I wrote in 1998. Parts of it were embarrassing though I was pleased to discover a few gems in there, too. Let your work sleep and return to it later with greater objectivity. You’ll see things you weren’t ready to see when you first wrote them.
A new option, empowered by tools like Google Docs and ThinkFree is to use a collaborative editing process. When I finished the draft of my memoir, I contacted ten people who agreed to review and edit one chapter each week; some are University writing instructors; some know the settings and characters; others are just smart people who enjoy reading; one is a client working on his own memoir. I don’t overwhelm them by sending large quantities of material. I receive a variety of comments from a broad spectrum of perspectives, all focused on a particular segment of the work. My editors log into ThinkFree to post their comments and suggest their changes, and they also get to see what their fellow collaborators have to say. In exchange, I offer to help edit their material or assist with their publishing endeavors. The process is only as good as the people you choose to involve (remember, your fan club is your enemy) but it’s free and in the best of cases, has advantages over traditional editing.
As excited as you may be about pushing your work out into the stream, don’t publish your rough draft. Publishing too quickly is a common mistake, especially if you’re envisioning what it will feel like to hold your first printed book in your hand.
In the original manuscript for my first novel, I wrote a chapter that didn’t advance the plot sufficiently to warrant inclusion in the final book; I cut it from the final version. When I did so, I forgot to graft the very first sentence of that chapter onto the end of the preceding chapter. That one single, particular sentence turned out to be critical to understanding several of the story’s important subplots. I caught the error shortly after releasing the book and then reprinted it. I had to contact a few dozen people so I could replace their books with the corrected version. It was expensive but I didn’t want incorrect copies of my work being passed on to other readers. Regrettably, there are still two or three “bad” copies of the book out there I haven’t caught up with yet and a box of 25 books in my closet I need to find a bonfire for.
The moral of the story is take your time and do the job right the first time.
Whether you’re writing a memoir or a law school reference, publishing a book creates a permanent record of your standards of excellence and taste. Why not produce a pressure-tested product that has already withstood the scrutiny of a professional critic whose standards are much higher than those of the average reader? As with your typesetting and cover design, the best route to success is to engage a professional but if costs are prohibitive, don’t skip important steps. Find alternatives that produce the best possible result.