On Editing

I spent last weekend at BayCon, the annual Science Fiction convention in Santa Clara, CA. Though I get on well enough with most people, I’m not terribly social around strangers; consequently, I tend to skirt the edge of conventions, hanging out with the few people I know and only going to those panels that really interest me. So beyond the two panels and the workshop I participated in, I enjoyed two pleasant dinners in the company of friends, checked out the Dealers’ Room and Art Show, and—this will make most SF con-goers think me barking mad—enjoyed the hotel’s lavishly-appointed Fitness Room not once, but twice.

I had the fortune to be on a great panel titled, ‘Editors, Agents and other Endangered Species.’ As the name suggests, the panel was about the bloody revolution in the publishing industry catalyzed by new technology in general and Amazon in particular. The core issue on most of the panelists’ minds was that of plummeting quality and standards in a field where the gatekeepers (Agents, Editors) and filtering systems (Copy Editors, Proofreaders) are swiftly being swept aside in the flood of self-publishing. (See also my April 1st post on this subject).

The one thing everyone on the panel and several audience members all agreed on is that authors, even professionals, must be edited. And as award-nominated Editor Marty Halpern pointed out to the audience, although in some instances a single editor may perform each aspect of the process, editing is by no means a simple, unitary operation, but something that operates (with some overlap) at three distinct levels, viz:

  • Developmental Editing (aka substantive, comprehensive, or structural editing) concerns itself with the overall organization and coherence of the work, from macro structural and story issues such as plot and character arcs, chapter and scene organization, logic and factual accuracy, etc., all the way to paragraph and even line edits. This is traditionally the province of the editor at the publishing house, though many agents like to involve themselves in this process prior to sending the manuscript out in order to give it the best possible chance in the market.
  • Copy Editing is the process by which issues of grammar and syntax, style, usage, etc., get flagged; this mid-level operation can be quite subjective in places and ideally requires give and take on behalf of both the author and their editor at the publishing house. Copy Editors may be in-house or freelance.
  • Proofreading, which once used to be a separate profession and process, is more often today carried out—if at all—by the Copy Editor; this step focuses strictly on the micro level of the text, addressing word usage issues (e.g., which/that, who/whom/ effect/affect), verb tense, grammar, capitalization, typos, punctuation, numeral usage (i.e., forty-five/45) etc.

Reading the above, it should quickly become obvious that the process of editing a manuscript  involves a very substantial amount of work and some very diverse skill sets. A good Developmental Editor, for example, must not only possess a strong understanding of story and the narrative process, but also a peculiarly well-informed and widely-read mind, essential if factual blunders are to be avoided; these people are awesome at trivia games. A Copy Editor, if they are worth their hire, should have a rock-solid grasp of the language and its rules, as well as a writer’s sensitivity to style. And a Proofreader, in addition to being a spelling ace, needs the rare ability and attention to detail to read at a slow, methodical enough pace to screen each individual word and its component letters, which is by no means the way most of us read. (It’s especially important to understand that nobody, nobody, can efficiently proofread their own writing, except perhaps by the brain-melting expedient of working through the text backwards, one word at a time).

And we haven’t even talked about formatting yet, the requirements of which vary substantially for print and digital publication.

To conclude, then, good writing is not enough—not nearly enough. For the self-published author to rise above the sea of Indie ordure out there at Amazon or Smashwords, it’s absolutely vital that their work be in some way edited. The process isn’t prohibitively expensive, but it’s not cheap, either;  a very rough ballpark figure—don’t hold me to it—for a freelance do-it-all Editor would probably start around a cent or 1.5 cents a word, which works out to $800 – $1,200 for an 80k-word novel (expect to pay substantially more in the case of a particularly rough ms., or where a good deal of developmental editing is required). Money well spent? You bet: good editing will literally make or break your book!

If you can afford and do decide to hire an Editor (and it is a tax write-off for an author), my advice would be to first of all do your research and identify at least three possible candidates. Don’t be shy of asking whom they’ve edited, and even of following up with those authors and finding out what their experience with the Editor was; the Editor may well (I would!) ask to see a representative sample of the ms. before quoting you a rate. And do be very, very suspicious of anyone whose rate is more than maybe 25% below the others—you usually get what you pay for in life (or, as we say in England, “you pay nuts, you get monkeys”).

Finally, if you can’t afford a professional Editor, at the very least ask your writing group or other, experienced writer friends to help you with these tasks, and offer to do the same for them. The more effort you put into every stage of the essential editing process, the better your finished work will be, and the likelier to get noticed and receive that all-important word-of-mouth that is, ultimately, what really sells books.

And, yeah, I’d bet money that this very blog post suffers from some issues a good Editor would smooth out.

Like my semi-arbitrary decision to capitalize the word, ‘Editor’.

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