Last time, I wrote about levels of editing and mentioned that it all starts with you, the writer. The primary responsibility for ensuring the quality of your work starts with the editing you do. If you use a traditional publisher, you’ll receive some assistance in this area, hopefully from a true professional. But that editor is not supposed to take a piece of junk and turn it into a great book. He is supposed to take a great book and make it better. Your responsibility is to make sure the editor has to do as little as possible.
As I said, the first step in the process is self-editing. Once you feel that you’ve polished the book until you’ve made it as clean as you can, it moves on to the line editing phase. The line editor looks for conflicting information, inconsistencies that aren’t explained, and anything that will pull the reader out of the story.
Once you are satisfied that this phase is completed, the next level of editing begins: copyediting. This is a very meticulous phase, one that you can’t do on your own. If you’re working with a traditional publisher, they will assign you a copy editor. This person (hopefully) has the training and the experience to read through your book and find the technical flaws that can harm the quality of your book.
The obvious side of copy editing is what you would call a typo: grammar, spelling, and punctuation. A beginning writer might be tempted to fall into a trap here, especially when self-publishing. Most of us believe we are the masters of our trade, at least until experience teaches us otherwise. What we learn, however, is that proper English is very difficult to learn and use. If you’ve ever seen a printed edition of the Chicago Manual Of Style, you know what I mean. The book, a listing of the grammar rules and exceptions associated with the English language, is enormous. And being of a dry nature, it would be difficult to sit down and read it cover to cover, let alone retain everything you read.
For that reason, having someone else do your copyediting is critical. Even the giants of self-publishing, like Joe Konrath, have someone else edit their books for them. You know what you meant to write, so you read your own work differently that someone else would. As a result, you’re much more likely to miss your own mistakes. I would never even consider publishing a novel that hadn’t been edited by someone besides myself.
Another aspect of copyediting is in the fine details of your novel. Perhaps in the first chapter of the book, you mention that some minor character has blue eyes. If you revisit that character twenty chapters later and give her brown eyes, many readers will catch your mistake. That goes for any detail of your characters: the type of cell phone he uses, the kind of armor she wears, every little detail. A copyeditor should be able to find these inconsistencies and offer suggestions for correcting them.
That brings up another point that Rick mentioned in his comments in my last column. A good working relationship with an editor should involve suggestions for changes to your work, not actual changes. If you send your novel off to be edited, and it returns with dozens of changes already completed in the body of the work, there’s a problem. First, that editor doesn’t know if the change was made in a manner that you, the writer, approve of. The final decision on whether or not to make a change should fall to you. Perhaps you disagree with the style of the correction, or maybe the “mistake” is written exactly the way you wanted it. Besides, if the editor is making changes without telling you what was wrong, you won’t learn in the process and will likely continue to make that same mistake.
Once you’ve completed this phase, it’s time for the last level of editing: another time through the book, looking for any conceivable error you can find. This is all of the previous levels of editing rolled up into one, and it’s your last chance to make sure you’ve put out the best product you can. And it doesn’t have to be just you. If you have the resources available, I highly recommend sending this out to a few more people and getting their opinions, as well.
Take your time through these various editing levels. The urge to be finished as soon as possible and see your book out on the shelves can be very strong. It can also lead to disaster. Be thorough, be diligent, and readers will judge your book based upon the quality of the story, not upon the number of errors they find.