‘But my grammar is excellent,’ protested a man in the audience at a recent conference on self-publishing. ‘And my wife proof-reads my books,’ he went on. ‘So why should I hire an editor?’
OK. Deep breath. Here’s the thing. Editing is about so much more than just grammar and typos.
You can get your spelling and punctuation perfect, but if you haven’t had a structural editor ruthlessly tearing your book apart, or a line editor getting it as tight as it possibly can be, you’ll just be polishing a turd. (Sorry.)
As I say in my video, there are four stages to editing and you should do them in this order, because there’s no point in getting the details right if you then go on to change the entire premise of the book.
Structural editing is what most writers find the hardest, because it involves killing your darlings – you know, those characters you put in just because they reminded you of those people you met on the train that time? – and it involves turning the whole narrative inside-out, twisting and flexing it until it ends up in a completely different order or style. My first novel was a non-fiction book before an astute editor laid eyes on it. With my latest, I was merrily writing the novel from two different perspectives in alternating chapters until my editor – fortunately after only the first ten thousand words – pointed out that I didn’t need the second character’s voice. I literally scrapped every other chapter.
You need a professional editor. This is where to spend your budget – this and cover design. Expect to pay around £5 per thousand words for a good editor, although if you’re using a friend [who is also a professional editor!], you might be able to negotiate mates’ rates. I open my manuscript up to a trusted set of readers sourced from Twitter and Facebook at this point, to build on the suggestions made by my editor. The result is surprisingly non-conflicting. I would never rely on this alone, however. Professional editors exist for a reason. Oh and you absolutely cannot do this part yourself. Sure, you can (and should) re-draft your book a number of times until you’re really happy with it, but it’s not perfect yet – believe me.
Line editing comes next. This is something you can have a first-stab at yourself. Try reading each sentence out loud. Does it make you cringe? Right. Go back and change it until it works. Again, you should get a professional to help – possibly the same one you used before, although fresh eyes always help. Does the dialogue sound right? Is the narrative consistent? Are there words you use far too often? (We all have writers’ tics. Draw up a list for next time!)
Copy editing is about the details: grammar, spelling, consistency, timelines. If your book takes place over a year, or a summer, or even a day, then make sure everything that happens is in the right order, with appropriate references. Don’t talk about cherry blossom in winter, or kids in school uniform in August. Again, it’s best if you can get a fresh pair of eyes on your manuscript, as your editor (and certainly you) will just read what you expect to see on the page.
Proof reading is the final stage and for me, this is where the second set of crowd-sourced reader volunteers comes in. You’d be amazed at how many people want to get their hands on a copy of your book ahead of publication. Some people are ‘big picture’ types, so set them to work on the structural editing, but proof readers need to be irritatingly observant – like the people who go around correcting the grammar on shop signs.
Once your manuscript has been through all four stages, congratulations! You have your final draft. Next time, I’ll be talking about Getting an Awesome Cover Design, which is the next step in getting your book on the shelves.