Friday, February 12, 2010

Editing: One Commandment, Seven Tips

If you are going to do any major cash outlays on your book, my suggestion—as I’ve stated before—is that that bulk of your money go into two key areas: your book cover and editing. Today, I'll give you my take on book editing.

First, I can’t even begin to tell you how important editing is, particularly for indie published titles. You may attract a reader with a fancy cover, but you establish an audience by putting out well-written, well-edited, and entertaining stories. Period. If you fail on the latter, I don’t care how fancy your next cover is, people are not going to want to lay out cash for your book. It’s that simple. Your reputation and career in writing is based on what lies between the cover.
With that in mind, one commandment about editing that every indie author should heed.
Thou shalt NEVER be the sole editor for thine own book.

Serving as your own editor, in my opinion, is like representing yourself in court—not very smart. If you don’t know the law, how can you apply that law to defend yourself? By the same token, most of us don’t know grammar rules at a professional level. We can get by, but you have to do better than “get by” when you publish a book for public consumption.

For my day job, I work as an editor for a military organization. And what I can tell you is that, as an editor, with something of a trained eye, ICONSTANTLY miss mistakes in my own work. I’ll read through something I’ve written a few weeks prior and I can’t believe the mistakes I make. Why is it so difficult to edit your own work? Even the best writers have a tendency to read what they MEANT to write instead of what’s actually on the paper. At a minimum, you need a second set of eyes to read over your work. If you’re lucky, that person will also know basic English grammar. But the more eyes on your work, the better for your book.

With that said, when you ask someone to edit your book, what are you REALLY asking them to do? Most of us don’t really categorize editing, we have an idea that you just fix what’s wrong. But knowing the levels editing will help you determine what you can afford if you do eventually hire an editor.

In my experience, there are essentially four types of editing.

1. Proofreading. When you ask someone to proofread, you are really asking for the most basic editorial service. Proofreading really involves fixing the mechanics, such as missing or improperly used punctuation, wrong typefaces and font sizes, mist italicizations, capitalizations, transposed letters, etc. etc. The proofreader won’t change any words, they won’t delete anything you’ve written, they won’t rewrite. Just the basics.

2. Copyediting. In addition to proofreading, copy editing involves ensuring consistent word usage throughout the book, suggesting word changes, fixing language usage errors, etc.

3. Substantive or Heavy Editing. This is the maximum level of editing service that you can get. Everything’s pretty much on the table. They look at everything from grammar to structure, plot, and style. (This service can cost several thousand dollars for an adult-length novel.)

4. Manuscript Review or Editorial Review. This level of editing involves no changes to your manuscript whatsoever in terms of copyediting or proofreading. With this level of service, the editor reviews your entire manuscript and provides you with suggestions on plot, structure, pacing and flow, dialogue, etc. They may say “You use too many semicolons” or “check your comma usage” but they don’t make changes for you. They will answer questions like, such as Does the book have its intended effect (i.e., if it’s supposed to be funny, does it make the reader laugh?) Is the book commercially viable? They will usually provide you with written report that summarizes their findings and you’re left to incorporate those changes on your own.

In addition to the multiple levels of editing, there are also multiple types of editors. For example, I’m an editor in the technical sense. A professional editor too. BUT apart from writing my own novels, I do not have any experience in the acquisition, editing, and sale of books for a major publishing house that will be sold to readers nationally/internationally through major retailers. That subtle distinction sets apart editors from EDITORS. If you hire somebody, make sure you know who you are hiring and what level of service you’re paying for.

With that said, I have a few recommendations for self-editing and what to ask for when you hire an editor.

1. When editing your own work, two things you can do to help yourself find mistakes are read your work out loud and read the chapters and pages out of order. When you read out loud you tend to read exactly what’s on the page. Reading aloud also helps you identify issues with rhythm and awkward sentences.

2. When I edited my novel, I used a software called Autocrit. It is one of the single most valuable tools I used in self-editing. After processing each chapter through this software, my book was noticeably improved and got A LOT more attention from literary agents. You cut and paste blocks of text into the program and it helps you identify such issues as overuse of adverbs and clichés, poorly-worded sentences, and many many many other items that you would not likely see on your own. It does not provide alternatives, however, so the hard work is up to you. I HIGHLY recommend this tool. It’s available by a yearly subscription and the cost is cheap compared to the benefit you receive.

3. If you cannot afford to pay for copyediting or proofreading, my suggestion I highly recommend getting a manuscript review from a former acquisitions editor of a major publishing house. Costs vary ($500 and up). Some will allow you to set up a payment plan. I did a lot of my own editing in addition to a friend who is a teacher who helped me proofread for the small fee of an acknowledgement. Then I could afford to spend all my editing dollars on getting a manuscript review. The key is getting someone who will tell you what you need to hear and not necessarily what you want to hear. I hired such a person. She kept it very real with me and gave me very good advice about how to proceed with my career and issues that I needed to keep in mind. If you need a recommendation, please let me know. I have three that I regularly recommend because I’ve had some interaction with them or they were recommended to me by others.

4. When hiring an editor, unless the recommendation is coming from someone you know and trust, ALWAYS CHECK REFERENCES. Good editors will have testimonials available on their website.

5. Critique groups, some which are free to participate in, offer great opportunities to get your work reviewed and most reviewers tend to do some proofreading as well. I’ve heard that has a great critique group. My personal favorite is The reviewers on that site are really amazing and generous with their time and effort. The site is set up like but unlike Authonomy, you have to give as much as you get. You’re required to review in order to earn points to post your own work chapter by chapter. In this way, they really encourage maximum participation. The cost is $50 a year, but the invaluable feedback I got from reviewers and the friends I made were far worth the price.

6. Buy at least ONE style manual! There are three that I highly recommend for writers: 1. The Chicago Manual of Style. 2. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (often referred to at the Writer's bible.) 3. A Writer's Reference by Diane Hacker. Those are my three favorite/best reference tools and I own them all. There are MANY others that I'm sure are used that others will recommend. These are the ones that I've found most useful. Strunk and White is very cheap and can be read in a couple of hours. It's amazing all the mistakes that you will pick up in your own writing by just reading that just one time.

7. If you’re in a major bind, on rare occasions, I do proofreading/copyediting for authors who are tight on cash and need a trained eye. My fee is SUPER cheap because I don’t do really do it for the money. I do it to help out broke authors like myself. I only accept a small number of projects (because I’m focused on my own writing) and they have to be pretty straightforward. Contact me at karla (at) klbradywrites (dot) com for more information on that.

Whew! That's about it. What are your big editing challenges?

Keep it real--and keep it real cheap!


  1. Very instructive article here, Karla.

    So true that when we're editing, we see what we meant to write and not what is actually there. Knowing all that goes into editing, I now understaned why I keep going, even when my eyes are yelling at me to give up.

    My challenges are to ensure that I follow through on plot points that I start out with. Chapter one, I'll have something hinting at a storm and then out of the blue, I'll remember that I have to actualy make something happen to fit in with that particular plot point. It takes a lot of attention to detail to get the story fitting together seamlessly. I work hard on this aspect of my work, because it's where tiny details can slip through the cracks.

    Again, great article.

  2. Hey, thanks for a great article. I love AutoCrit, too.