Professional editing is essential, but you must be the first editor on your book.
I’m a writer and an editor. I’ve been both for a long time. And despite my training in copy editing and years of experience, I still need an editor.
We all need an editor. The big question for indie authors: What kind of editing do you really need?There are multiple types of editors. Self-published authors are most likely going to deal with one or more of these:
Developmental/story editor: This editor reads your book for the big picture. She looks for plot holes, characterization issues, clarity, continuity, tone, and whether you’ve fully exploited the themes of your book. She may make suggestions regarding structure, chapters you can cut, and more. She may also include line edits and light copy editing.
Copy editor: A copy editor corrects grammar and spelling. She looks for factual errors, including geographical goofs or anachronisms, such as a song that didn’t come out until a decade after your characters go to the prom. She will catch inconsistencies and continuity errors, such as when a character’s name changes halfway through. She pays attention to style, which is another way of saying she will make your book conform to standards, like those detailed in The Chicago Manual of Style. (Though the beauty of indie publishing is that you can set your own style on certain terms, as long as you’re consistent – like how you handle blond vs. blonde or whether you prefer the Oxford comma.) She may make wording suggestions or point out sentences that could use a rewrite for clarity or tone (line editing). She may also find plot holes and point out bigger issues. I tend to do the latter as well as the former, so my copy edits have a touch of developmental editing, but your mileage may vary.
Proofreader: The proofreader reads your book after all the other editing is done. There shouldn’t be many errors for him to find. A proofreader might find a missing word or quotation mark or the occasional typo.
Do you really need all of these editors? Do you need any of them? Maybe you’re thinking, hey, my mom is a big reader and got top grades in English in high school and loves reading my books. She’ll catch those errant apostrophes, right?
Alas, unless your mom is a trained copy editor, her loving ministrations are unlikely to be good enough. And you might not be ready for copy editing anyway. Writing is a process, and so is editing. You shouldn’t hire an editor until you have done everything you can to make your book as good as it can be.
In other words, you are the first editor on your book.
The editing before the editing
You shouldn’t ship your book to an editor as soon as you’ve typed “The End” unless you have a lot of time and money to spend. While it’s great to get professional feedback, you’ll get the most out of an edit if your manuscript is refined before you send it off. As a writer, I know what it’s like to be sick of a book, to have lived with it for so long that you’re ready to hand it over and walk away. But making your book great is YOUR job. You’ve spent the time to write it; don’t rush revisions.
Start by getting feedback from fellow writers, if you can. Often, a critique partner or critique group can take the place of a developmental editor. Whether you exchange work by email or sit around a friend’s living room, drinking wine and reading your latest chapters to one another, you can get invaluable input into your story’s strengths and weaknesses.
When I’m done writing a book, I give it a first read to make sure it has all the basics. Usually I feel pretty good after that read. I’m like, hey, I’ve written a book! And it doesn’t suck! By the second read, I’m grimacing and slashing my way through it. Its faults become manifest. And there are multiple reads after that, or as most writers call them, revisions.
I’ve heard a couple of famous writers say they never revise. I congratulate them on their superhero powers. But I believe that just as everyone can benefit from an editor, everyone can benefit from a revision. And then a beta reader, if you have one, can help you pinpoint some of those story and tone issues that you didn’t catch in revisions, before you ever send your work to a copy editor.
Preparing for the copy edit
Many editors will edit a free sample to make sure both of you know what to expect and to gauge whether you’ll work well together and if the manuscript is ready for a copy edit. I’ve occasionally turned away copy editing clients when I thought a copy edit would be a waste of their time – at least, a waste right now. It didn’t mean the book was bad. It just meant it wasn’t ready.
After you finish your first draft, a revision, a critique process or a developmental edit is in order. A copy edit should be considered the very last step before publication (or second to last, if you have a proofreader). You should consider your book darn near perfect when you hand it over.
One reason you shouldn’t just hand over a rough draft is that copy editors are not going to fix big plot holes and sloppy characterizations. They don’t do wholesale rewrites. That’s not their job. Another is that they’ll do their job a lot better if you give them as clean a manuscript as you can. Even though a good copy editor will go through a manuscript two or three times, she will occasionally miss things. A copy editor will miss more things if you give her a really messy manuscript.
If grammar isn’t your strong point, you can address some of the technical stuff with software, such as Grammarly or ProWritingAid. There’s a good comparison of these kinds of helpers here.
Be prepared to deliver a manuscript to your editor electronically in a commonly used format. Word is an industry standard and is my preference, especially because I’m on a Mac, and Word can go back and forth with PCs. Not many editors want paper these days, because electronic editing is so efficient for the editor and the author. A readable font (for instance, the dull but practical Times New Roman in 12-point type, double-spaced) is also necessary. No cursive or sans-serif fonts, please. Paragraphs indented using the paragraph formatting tool instead of tabs are helpful, too, in anticipation of later formatting. Insert page breaks or section breaks at the end of chapters instead of hitting the return key a dozen times.
If you’ve never hired a copy editor, ask for references or get recommendations from fellow writers. Ask if the editor will edit the aforementioned sample, usually a few pages from the start of your book. And then be prepared to reserve that editor’s time. Allow at least a week or two for editing, though some may work faster.
The most popular editors are busy and scheduled out months in advance. And that means that you need to give yourself deadlines and stick to them. Being indie these days also means being professional and planning ahead. Do you have your writing projects mapped out for the year? Then you should also know when your manuscript will enter each phase of editing.
After the copy editYou also have to allow time to review the copy editor’s changes. A good copy editor respects your voice and your opinion and gives you a chance to answer questions and make changes as you see fit. For instance, I make edits using Word’s Track Changes so the author can see exactly what I’ve done and accept or reject the edits. The writer can see my comments and make decisions about my suggestions. Don’t expect to get your book back from the copy editor and hit “publish” on your e-book the same day.
Finally, after your (careful) post-copy-edit edits, a proofreader is always helpful, even if it’s just a grammar-savvy friend who can catch a missing word or bad punctuation. If you know you’re one of those writers who’s oblivious to grammar, then make sure you have an editor or proofreader backstop your post-edit changes.
It’s always good for the author to read the book one last time. To make your last pass as fresh as possible, read it on a different computer, in a printout or on your e-reader. It’s amazing how a change in format helps you see glitches you missed before.
Do you need a copy editor? Yes, you do. I read constantly – indie books and traditionally published books in a variety of genres. Even “trad” books usually contain a few errors. Readers may forgive a few errors, but when there are mistakes on every page, readers may leave bad reviews and never pick up your books again.
Errors in early drafts are to be expected. Even brilliant writers make errors. Even grammar wizards make errors. Thus savvy editors are friends to us all.
“Indie” doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. It means you are your own publisher, and a publisher needs good design, editing and marketing. A professional indie author will publish edited books.
There can be a happy ending to your story – a cleanly edited book you can be proud of. But you have to make the investment of time and effort before and after your editor reviews your masterpiece to make it happen.
Chris Kridler is a writer and editor who specialized in copy editing in journalism school and went on to have a career in newspapers. Now she writes books and works with other authors, when she’s not shooting photos and chasing storms. Learn more at SharpEditor.com.
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