A few days ago, I found myself reassuring an author on Twitter. The author had shown someone their final novel draft, which they’d gone through countless times, and the reader found a number of mistakes in just the first ten pages.
This isn’t in the least unusual. And although there’s currently a rash of books and blog posts on how to self-edit, the reality is that you’re not — unless you’re already a seasoned pro, and even then — going to catch the majority of issues with your own work. It’s impossible.
I’m not talking about typos here, or even commonly confused words (discreet for discrete, effect for affect, etc.), missing quotation marks, and the like, all of which will slip past spellcheck and most authors’ revision passes. No, the dangers lie in far more significant errors such as plot holes, continuity glitches, confusing passages of insufficiently-tagged dialogue, impossible actions, viewpoint slips, mangled syntax, and so much more. (More here on what good copyeditors look for and how they go about it.)
The two main reasons self-editing doesn’t really work are that the author is so familiar with their own manuscript they can’t read it slowly enough, and (worse) they understand their own creation so well that they’re not going to see the holes and missing links that will prevent the reader from fully understanding or following it.
Looking back over dozens of manuscripts I’ve copyedited in the last several years, I find the following rough metrics emerging (based on 80,000-100,000-word novels):
|WRITING LEVEL||Mistakes/corrections (average)||Comments, editorial (average)|
Sobering numbers? They should be.
Now, bear in mind that the mistakes/corrections listed in my table above will include a large number (up to 50%?) of quite minor issues, such as punctuation, paragraphing, indents, etc. Still, punctuation errors can change the meaning of a sentence; and although most readers are somewhat forgiving if the story is engaging, if the text has repeated errors, they’ll likely ding the author in a review, or put the book aside for good. With between one and three thousand new books published every day in the US alone (yes, you read that right) and millions of books for sale on Amazon alone, the competition for the reader’s time and money is beyond ferocious. And although good editing/copyediting doesn’t come cheap,** the author who publishes a book without having a professional go over it is taking a big risk.
As for the editorial comments column in the table above, those usually constitute actionable items or issues – plot holes, say, or something not believable, or worse — serious enough to require flagging for the author. Things that need fixing, or at least consideration.
Some authors may also be a little wary of copyeditors, because they see the process as inherently adversarial (“red pencil syndrome”), or because they’re concerned about having their style altered. These aren’t unreasonable concerns: as an author myself, one of my guiding principles is to respect the author’s style and intention and make every effort to hew as close to their original text as possible when making corrections or suggesting changes.
Perfect examples of this are sentence fragments and even comma splices: while most copyeditors will unhesitatingly treat each instance as a transgression, I try to determine if they’re intentional stylistic choices; if there’s no significant grammatical issue, the author gets the benefit of the doubt. And many authors have thanked me for respecting their style choices.
Secondly, I try (if it’s not an obvious case) to give the author an insight into the reasoning behind my strikeouts and, at the risk of seeming overly didactic, to supply any applicable rule behind errors I see repeated, in the hope this may help the author in future.
It’s true that good beta readers, if you’re fortunate to have some, will catch quite a few things. But even the best readers aren’t going to spend twenty minutes recasting an awkward paragraph (it’s very rare to find a manuscript that doesn’t have many), check your facts, scrutinize capitalization use, address incorrect punctuation, monitor for consistency, and so on. It’s unlikely they know their style manuals inside out, or have the broad array of general knowledge a good copyeditor should. Given they’re doing this as a favour to the author, they’re unlikely to give a ms. the close and careful scrutiny and the time a copyeditor will.
Finally, copyediting is not critique. If your betas are writers, there’s also a good chance some of them may have their own ideas of how your story should go, and that’s not always a good thing. Copyediting is a necessary and valuable step in preparing a manuscript for publication, and an investment in both the current work and the author’s career, whether they’re indie publishing or going the traditional route.
*The very cleanest manuscript I ever saw was from a longtime professional who’d written dozens of novels and short stories. In the whole 80k words, I only made thirty corrections and eight comments. One of these, however, was a doozy: at the pinnacle of the climax, the hero gets the chance to draw his pistol, saving the day. Unfortunately, he already had both hands full, a catch for which my client was very grateful indeed.
**Copyediting an average length novel takes anywhere from thirty to forty hours and up, depending on how much work is required. It’s intense, high-focus, and highly skilled work, and a good copyeditor is worth every penny they charge.