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What a Difference an Editor Makes

Editing an English language document

Marc Aplin, Fantasy-Faction’s own Overlord, wrote persuasively and eloquently a few months ago about the absolute necessity of editing for self-published authors. “The worst thing I see is when an author truly believes they don’t need an editor, that they can do all the refining of the manuscript themselves. They go right ahead and publish a book without having a professional edit it. I mean, Lynch, Le Guin, Abercrombie, Pratchett, they all had editors because you need an editor.”

I should own up to being a self-published author and to putting out an entire trilogy on the back of my own self-editing and the bedtime-story beta reading of my youngest daughter. But for the current book – number four in the trilogy – I have been working with a very skilled editor and am seeing at first hand the kind of difference an editor can make.

Few authors of any description make enough from writing to give up the day job. The dream of spending the morning tweeting about authorial dilemmas – such as which flavour pop-tart to breakfast on – before settling down to write remains just a dream for the vast majority. For the self-published author the economic realities are even harsher. Good editing services, like quality covers, do not come free or even cheap. That is as it should be, because the investment of time and skill from a good editor is considerable. However, self-publishing involves many compromises in pursuit of the potential for a “profit.” That excess of earnings over expenditure which – however slim – persuades us that our writing is more than a mere hobby and that the public sharing of our work is about more than vanity. This is one driver that leads many self-published authors to attempt to self-edit – at least until the early profits have risen enough to support the (tax deductible) cost of an editor for the next book.

The cost of editing varies. The length of the book is one factor. Then there is the nature of the work required, is it a matter of copy-editing, critique, structural commentary. Editors may also want to tailor their prices to the work involved depending on how “clean” the writing is. How, many grammatical or spelling corrections are needed per 250 word page? My work in progress at 177,000 words is being comprehensively edited for $1000 dollars. That is – from what I have heard – a damn good rate (it certainly feels like it). This 2013 article by Miral Sattar (http://mediashift.org/2013/05/the-real-costs-of-self-publishing-book/ ) on the costs of self-publishing gives more detail about the types and costs of editing but confirms we are talking four figures not three. By comparison covers are a three figure cost (Mine cost $300 each). They may even cost less than $100 if you can tailor a pre-designed cover to suit your book.

Map-GoldWith editing being the most expensive element in self-publishing – more costly even than the laptop on which the book was written – it is not surprising that many self-published writers prefer to rely on their own resources. With hundreds of thousands of words committed to paper (or hard disc) we see ourselves as relatively literate people. Within the huge range of quality in self-published material, every author can find comparisons to reassure them their own work is so much better polished that no editing is needed. We have software that checks spelling and grammar, and Amazon’s kindle direct publishing software even does a helpful pre-publish check to find those misspellings we missed. But much as we think we can spot every typo and grammar glitch the evidence suggests we do not. A second pair of eyes with a degree of grammatical skill makes an indispensable ally.

A good copy-editor will secure that essential pre-requisite of quality – a properly punctuated and grammatically correct draft. But this element is essential in the same way that toned and washboard hard stomach muscles are essential in a boxer. If you have it, then it goes quite unnoticed – smoothing the reader’s path or absorbing unaided the punishing blows of the boxer’s opponent. If you lack it, then disaster strikes – the reader’s immersion is repeatedly thrown or the boxer is crumpled by a body blow he has not enough hands to defend against. Immaculate grammar is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a story’s perfection. Manners may maketh the man, but good spelling alone cannot save a self-published book. So copy-editing is just one part – the most basic – in a potentially rich conversation between author and editor.

At its best author and editor share a coaching relationship in the heat of which the rough shape of the story is honed and tempered to its sharpest edge. The editor is the outsider, the fresh eyes, the critical friend who genuinely has no axe to grind beyond helping the writer make the very best of their story.

Stephen Roxborough, one of Roald Dah’s editors, gives an insight into the author-editor dynamic here http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/58194-gobsmacked.html where he reminisces about his work with Roald on the manuscript of what became “The Witches.” Their discussions covered a breadth of topics from

  • “the shape of the story, the major characters, how the story began, how it ended, and what was missing”

all the way down to detail such as

  • the “critical issue” of whether to use “dogs’ droppings” or “dog droppings.”

(For the record, my own preference would be for something more earthily prosaic but then Dahl and Roxborough were discussing a children’s book!) Even in the days before email, the relationship was a matter more of conversation than correction.

Mark-LawrenceI asked a couple of more contemporary authors to share their experience of editors and editing. What they described is still a to-and-fro discussion – at times a debate. However, each relationship is unique, each author’s needs different. Some writers need only minor adjustments. Mark Lawrence said that “part of what makes a good editor is knowing when to do nothing and when to step in with suggestions for large scale restructure/rewrites.”In Mark’s case very little of the writing was changed and the common theme in editing has been “Smoothing transitions and smoothing structure.” For example, in the original writing “the rotating between different threads in King of Thorns was rather more rapid” but his editor suggested he should “clump them together more so the reader spends longer with any given thread.” I suspect I would have got a similar editorial suggestion on seeing some of the very short scenes I indulged in in my first book – something I set out to self-correct in later books.

The-Emperor's-KnifeMazarkis Williams described the interaction between author and editor as “Mostly wonderful. Sometimes frustrating.” In the Tower and Knife trilogy Mazarkis set out with the challenge of a central character who spent almost the entire first book confined in a single small cell (It’s a great series by the way – you should all read it). The editor was more concerned about the character’s passivity rather than the potential of an innovative approach. I too have been trying something a little different to my previous stories with a central heroine who is an ingénue and a pacifist. That risks hanging the storyline on a character whose passive innocence could irritate the reader rather than intrigue them. However, some sharp editorial suggestions have helped clarify the risks and identify solutions.

Both Mark Lawrence and Mazarkis Williams found times where they did not agree with their editors and did not move so far in a particular direction as their editors had suggested. But the editorial dialogue still forces the author to re-examine their own intentions and defend their decisions. Authors can become immersed in their own story and – for Mark Lawrence – the editor is “a proxy for the average reader” reminding them that “the readers don’t know what’s in the author’s head, just what’s on the page.”

However, editors are perhaps less tolerant of mystery and plot delay than the average reader. Mark observed that “editors like to remind readers what’s going on, who X is, why they’re doing what they’re doing etc.” It is a tendency he himself tries to resist but will “take steps in that direction when prodded.” I have seen an echo of that editorial eagerness for an immediate deeper understanding of the context in which the characters are acting – all in the reasonable demand for hooks and urgency. However, there is an authorial determination to retain some of the mystery and assure the editor “that will (be revealed/becomes important/is key) later.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have so far worked with just one editor and it has already been an incredibly valuable experience, but – every editor, like every author, is different. It is important to find a match that suits both what the author wants and what the editor brings to the relationship. In our case we started with just an edit of a sample – the first 5,000 words or so to see how it would work. That in itself was a useful exercise with general pointers that I could carry forward into the rest of the book.

Mark Lawrence has been doing an occasional series of page one critiques on his blogspot (this is the most recent one here. http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/page-1-critique-balance-by-kareem.html) The critiques are full of sharp observations and useful advice – in many ways an insight into what you could expect from a good editor. The authors involved deserve a great deal of credit for their willingness to submit their embryonic work to such rigorous and public scrutiny, but such critiques emphasise that the author-editor relationship is not without its bruises.

emotionI have known an author lament that the editor’s suggestions were ripping the soul out of the book and I have seen an editor complaining of an author who outright rejected his advice or gave his editorial work the backhanded compliment that the book was now in a fit state to be passed on to another (better?) editor. It is important to separate both emotion and ego from the editing process.

I have read a range of self-published work and what I see most clearly are sparks of creativity – feats of imagination in terms of character or setting or plot – a foundation strong enough to bear the weight of a story but often with imperfections in the execution. And let us be honest, these imperfections are far easier to spot in other people’s work than our own. Our books are like our children and what are glaring flaws to an outsider appear as mere foibles to be indulged from our own prejudiced perspectives. Sometimes it is because we have seen how our story telling has improved over years of unpublished attic novels, but knowing that the work we write now is better than what we once wrote still does not prove it is the best it could be. A commitment on the author’s side to an honest, open and professional dialogue with an editor is the best therapy.

emailingLooking back through the 60+ emails I have exchanged so far with my editor, I have already learned a lot and the most important is to maintain objectivity. It is a delicate balance between not being “resentful of editing suggestions” and at the same time being “able to say, I know what I am doing with my story, so I am not following your suggestion.”

Stephen Roxborough said of his editorial relationship with Roald Dahl, “I was nervous, but I had already discovered that with Roald all I had to do was ask good questions and leave it to him to come up with answers. It was a process he revelled in.” In a similar vein, I’ll treasure this comment I received the other day, “I am a bit envious of your ability to figure out how to fix something, and then go ahead and fix it without missing a beat.

It has been invigorating and incredibly educational to work with someone who has the same passion for the story I am trying to tell and asks those testing questions to help me make it the best it can be. I have learned a great deal.

  • I hunt down wordiness,
  • I eradicate passive constructions,
  • I sharpen conversations (dialogue is apparently a strength in my writing – but the risk of strengths is that we overplay them).
  • I check that the Point of View character in a scene is the one with most at stake
  • I look for the hook, the tension, the conflict in every scene
  • I have improved my own grammar
  • I distil and refine my descriptions of scene and action to ensure they economically but accurately tell the reader what the character is seeing/doing

I’ve learned enough to be a much better self-editor.

However, in my first self-edited draft of this article – with an irony that hovered between exquisite and excruciating – that last line read

I’ve learned enough to be a much self-editor.

Which is one reason – amongst many – why I still won’t rely just on self-editing for the next book.

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4 Comments

  1. Shadowkat says:

    Man, that’s a lot of money. Add that with all the advertising you need to do, giveaways to gain reviews to draw others, and money thrown into attending cons to interact with a potential fanbase…well dang, that’s racking up quick. Oh, and like mentioned, a good cover. Right wrong or indifferent even I often judge by that, because something has to catch my eye enough to pick up a book in the first place.

    Hmmm…well.

    • Overlord says:

      It’s true, for sure. When Self-Publishing, it is you who takes all the risk. When traditionally publishing, the publisher takes the vast majority of the risk (you ‘may’ have to pay for some stuff, like conventions and things).

      So, yes, you need to invest in yourself and that’s why it’s so important to believe in your work and be sure the you are ready to be putting it out there. If it’s not ready and won’t make you a return, my advice would always be keep that money gathering interest in your bank account and use it when you do have the book that deserves that investment 🙂

  2. JC Kang says:

    I used to work as an editor myself, but I still need an editor for my own stuff.

  3. Nicola Alter says:

    Great article! It really is so important to get an editor. Once I was lucky enough to receive two free structural reports on a manuscript I’d written (it’s a long story but essentially it had to do with a connection I had to a Masters in Editing program). I remember being astounded at how helpful those reports were in improving the story, and thinking that in future even though that kind of free opportunity wouldn’t present itself again, I would be very prepared to pay for that kind of considered, expert feedback, especially if going the self-publishing route. From that experience and from reading your article, it seems to me that good editing is one of those things where once you’ve had a taste of it, you don’t want to do without it!

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