Writer Artisan — Editing


As promised, here’s the first part to my series of posts regarding self/indie publishing.  There are more than a few how-to guides out there.  This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive step by step.  My intention is to relate some of my experience and provide some resources to those traveling the same path.

You may have read my post on why I decided to handle the production of The Changed myself, or you could’ve breezed past that long-winded crap.  Either way, here you are.  You, like me, have decided to take your fate into your own hands.  Where do you start?

Most writers that I’ve met will immediately start obsessing over getting reviews lined up and creating cover art.  STOP:


Before you get to that stage of the publishing process, it’s best to first consider the core of your product.  No, not marketing.  Your manuscript.

Major publishers have been following a production model that’s worked for them for years.  While the indie publishing process deviates in some ways, in others it should work more or less the same.  One thing the industry has been doing very well is editing books before they’re published.

I’m going to get a little preachy for a moment.  Bear with me.



The biggest problem that I see with most self/indie published books — IMHO — is that the authors are in too big of a hurry to put their work out, and they don’t give the editing process the time and attention it needs.  I understand that in today’s ebook market, fixing a typo can be as easy as uploading a corrected file.  Some people see that as a license to let errors get away from them.  I’m telling you not to do this.

For generations, publishers printed books exclusively on paper.  Weird, I know.  The deal is that you can’t take back an error once the ink hits the page.  I believe that same level of diligence is needed, even in today’s increasingly digital market.  The first and most important reason is that typos and errors take people out of the story.  It makes them stop, dead in their tracks, and wonder about the words.  This is death to a narrative flow, and chokes the life from the reader’s experience.  If that isn’t enough of a reason, consider that even if you can upload a new, corrected version of your novel text to KDP or Smashwords, there’s no guarantee your readers will actually get that corrected file.  Depending on when the server updates, how they downloaded the file, when and if their device looks for updated versions of the document, they may not see that corrected text for days, weeks, or ever.  Most people only read a book once.  That’s your only chance to make a good impression.


Which brings us to editing.

In the traditional model, a manuscript is developed — more or less — using the steps below.  These steps are actually cyclic, and can be repeated as many times as needed to get a story into the best shape it can be.

  1. Write the damn story
  2. Revise the draft
  3. Developmental edit
  4. Revise the draft again (and again)
  5. Copy edit/proof read
  6. Finished manuscript

Most writers are creative at heart, and hate the tedium that comes with editing and proofing.  When no one is holding us accountable, there’s a tendency to skip over steps or to not complete them as thoroughly.  Even when we are trying to be good, it’s very, very difficult to properly edit your own work.  There are tools, texts, tips and tricks, but at the end of the day if you’re the one who wrote the story, you’re probably not the best person to edit it.

So, what do you mean by editing, then?

This is Writing 101 for many authors, but for people new to the game this is a perfectly valid question.  When I started out I wasn’t clear on the concept, either.  I thought that editors were people who went through your draft and found grammatical mistakes and typos.  They do that, yes, but they also do a lot more.  To understand what you should get out of editing, first understand that there are different types of editing.

Copy editing/proofreading.  This is what most people think of when they think of editing.  The editor will review your work, line by line, and make corrections for grammar, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, etc.

Developmental editing.  This category of editing approaches the story from a more holistic view.  The editor will review your prose and point out more technique-driven flaws like over-writing, POV slips, poor characterization, or badly written dialogue.  The editor will also look at the structure of your story and make suggestions in regard to the plot, pace, and internal consistency of your story.

While different editors may offer an array of more specialized services, including things like critiques, these are the two broad categories of editorial services that an author may need.

Do I really need to hire an editor?

*Sigh*  Yes.


Look, it’s expensive.  But, if you’re committed to putting out a quality novel, you can’t get around it.  At the very least you’re going to need copy editing before you publish your book.  Full stop.  End of story.  Get a professional editor to proof your work.

Depending on your proficiency as a writer, you may not need developmental services.  If you’ve got a handle on the elements of craft, and you’ve worked with your critique partners to whip your story into shape, then that level of editing may be overkill.  A good editor can recommend a level of editing based on sample pages from your manuscript.

What about self-editing?

Okay, you’re trying to get out of paying for a copy-edit.  Don’t lie to me, you are.  Here’s the thing.  You can self-edit.  You can even be good at it.  I would highly recommend that any writer who cares about their craft learn all about editing, and apply those lessons at every opportunity.  But the cold truth is that with very few exceptions, a writer isn’t capable of catching all the mistakes in their own work.  You know how your story should read, which is dangerous, because when your tired little eyes scan the sentences for the billionth time, typos, missing words, bad punctuation, and common errors are all going to sail right by you.  For the reader who’s just picked up your book for the first time…  Not so much.

But my critique partners looked it over…

Yes they did.  And they probably caught a bunch of stuff.  I’m going to wager they didn’t get it all, though.  In most cases, your critique partners are not professional editors.  And even if they are, you probably aren’t paying them, which is going to decrease their attentiveness.  Remember that every typo will throw a reader out of the story.  You may have caught 99 mistakes, but it only takes a few to make it through and cost you readers.

The hard truth is that getting a manuscript ready to publish is an effort that will require multiple sets of eyes, including that of a professional editor.  Even the best editors aren’t going to catch every single mistake in a manuscript.  Where you and your critique partners and beta-readers are really going to come through is in catching those errors that got past your professional help.

Wait.  You’re saying that even though I’m paying an editor, there isn’t any guarantee that they’ll give me an error-free manuscript?

Yep.  Look, man.  You can either view this fact as evidence that since editors aren’t perfect you don’t need one, or further proof that good editing is damn hard and you’ll need all the help you can get.  You know where my vote is.

As an exercise, the next time you read a novel put out by a major publishing house, highlight any typos you find.  Chances are you’ll find up to three.  That’s a small number, sure.  Small enough for most people to forget about after they’ve finished the book.  But remember that as an indie-author you’ll be under greater scrutiny by readers who’ve been subjected to poorly edited books in the past.  Do the right thing for your readers.  If a book put out by a major publisher is allowed a few mistakes, then you should shoot for a zero-tolerance policy.  Don’t just match the quality of the big guys — try to do better than them.

Fine.  Where are the editors, then?  How can I find one, and who can you trust?

The first place you can start looking is the Editorial Freelance Association.  This is an association of — you guessed it — freelance editors who offer their services to authors.  In today’s market, many of them are used to working with authors who plan on indie-publishing their work.  There are some great resources on the EFA’s site.  They publish what the average going rates for services are, as well guidelines an author should use when selecting an editor.

Buyer beware:  Do your homework on any editor you plan to work with.  Make sure they’ve worked with manuscripts in your genre.  Check out the testimony from previous clients.  If they’re new to the game, look at their credentials and education.  You’d be surprised how many people read a couple books on editing and then believe they’re qualified to enter the market.

Another resource are companies which specialize in providing editorial services.  There are some shifty operations out there, so make sure that your dealing with a name that’s been around for a while.  Writer’s Digest and Kirkus are among companies who have recently entered this aspect of the author services game.  With the big publishers tightening their belts, many qualified editors who were looking for work now take assignments from these companies.  One of the advantages of working with a company like this is that you’ll have a large support structure.  People to contact should you have questions, or recourse in case you have a dispute.

Buyer beware:  First and foremost, research any company you plan on working with.  If their rates are too good to be true, or their claims just a little too outlandish (return manuscripts in less than a week, etc) consider that a red flag.  Aside from that, my biggest single issue with paying a company is that you have no idea who your editor will be.  This person may or may not have the experience or skills necessary to edit your work — you won’t know until the edited copy comes back.  The relationship between author and editor is important.

When looking for an editor, most freelancers will offer a sample edit for free, just so you can get a feel for how they like to do things.  This usually consists of you sending them a few pages of your manuscript, which the editor will work their magic on and return to you.  I recommend that you always do this when working with a new editor.  It’s going to show you most of what you need to know about their style and efficiency.  This is critical to knowing if you and the editor will make a good team.  Consider this like taking a car for a test drive.

You’re really dead set on this, aren’t you?

Oh, yeah.  The reason why I’m so opinionated on this topic is that I’ve been there, man.  Let me tell you a little story.

When I first decided to indie-pub The Red, I had no idea what I was doing.  At all.  The publishing tools hadn’t been available long, and many of us where feeling our way around blindly.  Authors who had experience working with big publishers seemed to do the best in this new landscape, because they already knew the publishing process and had the right connections to get the services they needed — such as editing.

Before I published the manuscript I knew I needed editing.  I did some research and found out how much it would cost.  I’m not rich by any means, and several years ago the situation was much tighter than it is now.  This led me to believe that despite the advice I received from people who had been in the game much longer than I had, I would just edit the book myself.  I reasoned that if I was really careful, I could catch all the errors.  I would be the exception to the rule, I’d be the author who could do it all.


Yeah.  So, that didn’t work out too well.  My draft was still riddled with errors that my beta-readers found.  Apparently, I was not the skilled self-editor I believed myself to be.

You’d think that would have set me on the straight and narrow.  It totally didn’t.  After I realized that I’d need an editor, I did what every budget-conscious person in need of an expensive service would do:  I looked for the Homie Hookup.

You know what I’m talking about.  Find that friend of a friend who’s in the industry and see if they’ll do it cheap.  I found an acquaintance who had experience editing.  For newspapers.  At the time, I didn’t stop to think about how vastly different editing for journalism is than editing for fiction.  Even if I had, I’m sure the cheap rate he offered me would have blinded me.  He was eager to branch out into a new area, and I wanted the cheap service.  Win-win.  Kinda.

After paying for his services, I received back a version of my manuscript that was virtually unusable.  Sentences had been abbreviated and concatenated, and the narrative read as though it was coming off a clipped newsreel from the 1940s.


This just in… Your manuscript blows. Now more than ever!

Not to mention that there were still more typos than I felt were reasonable.  But we had a good faith agreement, so I paid the man his money.

It took months to get the copy back into decent shape.  The effort was far more of an energy investment than I should’ve had to make.  Even after all of that, readers still found typos in the final version of the draft that went to print.  Let me tell you something, folks.  Getting unsolicited, positive responses from readers is the best thing in the world.  Hands down.  But, when you see a comment about finding typos in the copy, it’s a kick in the teeth.  I’d even go so far as to say that if you can see that sort of criticism about your work and not get a terrible feeling, then I have to wonder how much you actually care about the quality of what you’re putting out.

Like a high-school teacher once said to me, “If you just did things right in the first place, you’d already be done and it would’ve been half as much trouble.”

Just do it right.  Get an editor.  A good one.  Pay them for their time and effort.  After you get your copy back, give it to some trusted associates and proof it with them before you go to print.  Your readers will be better off for it, and that’s what it’s all about.


…right the first time.

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