Editing your work the right way

From Rick:

There is no such thing as the perfect editor or the perfect way to edit your work. I freely admit that I do slip up despite my best efforts and intentions. Even good editors can slip up. This highlights the difficulty (but not the impossibility) of editing your own work. You simply have to be more careful.

In bygone days, traditional publishers had their own internal editors who did the job that indie publishers have to do and maybe pay for on their own. The reason I said “bygone days” is that it’s my understanding that many or most publishers now hire outside freelance editors. I’m not saying this is an inherently bad practice, but it makes one wonder how much quality control exists when those editors are not under the direct control of the publishing house. I’ve noticed, and friends have confirmed it, that we’re finding many more errors in traditionally published books today than in the past.

Traditional publishers also usually had more than one editor editing any given book, or at least a different person proofreading the final manuscript because one pair of eyes will almost never catch everything. When you are the sole editor of your own work, glossing over errors is even more likely.

My customers rely on me to make their work perfect. I wish I could guarantee that. The only way to catch every error is with multiple sets of competent eyes or multiple passes through the manuscript. Doing that is slow and painstaking work, and it’s why many editors charge high prices—and some errors still slip by.

You can’t be assured that paying high prices will ensure better editing. I could easily charge twice what I charge (and still undercut many editing services), but charging more wouldn’t make me a better editor. The only way, in my mind, that I could justify higher costs is to make more than one pass through the work, with time in between passes to give a fresher perspective.

I find that I can edit somewhere between 2000–4000 words per hour, depending on how messy the work is. I charge by the word count, not by the hour. That’s really not fair to me, but since editing is a side job I do partly for enjoyment, I can justify not charging by the hour. Given an 80,000-word novel, it can take me a minimum of 20–40 hours to do a one-pass edit. And before I begin the main editing, I do an initial cleanup of the manuscript, which takes 1-2 additional hours.

One reason (but not the only one) traditional publishers take so long to publish a book is that they do put their books through multiple stages of editing. Of course, there are many other publishing steps involved that take time.

After I’d edited a few manuscripts, I discovered that I was missing more things than I should have. Therefore, I adopted a modified editing process. I edit one small section (one or a few chapters), then a day or two later, I go back through that section to look for things I might have missed. I always find multiple things to correct or change in the second pass. This process pretty much doubles my editing time. After I finish the manuscript and the authors have looked over my changes and made any of their own, I review the changes.

Then I perform a final pass using a grammar checker other than MS Word. Currently I use WordPerfect because its checker is different enough that it finds the things that slipped by previously. It also locates mismatched quotation marks (the only checker I’m aware of that does).

I should also point out that I do NOT rewrite. I’ll make minor corrections and certain types of changes with the author’s prior permission to do so, but if something needs revision outside an obviously misused word or phrase, I contact the author.

Given that indie authors rarely have the resources to pay multiple editors or to pay for one editor to go through their book multiple times, what can you do to put out quality work without bankrupting yourself? Or if you can afford an inexpensive editor, it’s to your advantage to do as much work as you can to ensure the best result. This is where it pays to know grammar and good writing practices.

You won’t find many editors capable of doing a good job on the cheap, and I admit that I way undercharge for my work. But I take pride in what I do and in helping authors who don’t have the resources to pay thousands of dollars to put out a book that might or might not garner enough sales to ultimately pay for the editing costs.

If an editor is not in your budget, what can you do?

(1) Learn how to write well.

(2) Learn effective punctuation!

(3) Use a read-aloud program (the one in recent versions of MS Word is decent) and LISTEN. While this won’t help with punctuation most of the time, it will help you identify awkward writing as well as missing words and may help you catch certain other errors.

(4) Find a good critique group, or a knowledgeable critique partner and more than one good beta reader.

Editing is a skill you can learn, but it relies on you knowing grammar, spelling, punctuation, and correct word usage, or you won’t get very far on your own. As an editor, I have to be on the alert for the unexpected. I’ll see a writer use “omit” when “admit” was meant. I’ll see a word like “fuselage” used then the writer meant “fusillade.” And I’ll encounter a word I’m unfamiliar with and at first may assume the author knew what he was doing when in fact he intended an entirely different word, one I am familiar with.

A word of caution here: In the earlier days of MS Word, its spelling dictionary was somewhat restricted. It omitted rare words that could be possible misspellings of common words. I found one case where the writer meant to type “archaeology” but instead typed “archelogy” (with one “o” missing). Older versions of MS Word would have complained, but the newer version seems to incorporate a more expanded dictionary. Indeed, “archelogy” is “the science of first principles.” It’s a legitimate word, but it’s not a word most writers would likely use. Hence, the writer’s typo was not caught as a misspelling.

I’ve commented previously on the problems with various writing checker programs. While they may make your writing cleaner, one thing they can’t do is spot story problems or anomalies. That’s why you need outside readers, even if you do plan to employ an outside editor. You can’t rush good writing unless you’ve been doing it for so many years that you’re a pro at it. But I can guarantee that some of those bestselling authors have people behind them to spot story issues they miss. Even though I am an editor, I have to spend more time looking over my own work than I do the work of others.

Good writing can’t be rushed. If you rush or shortcut it, you’ll end up paying for it by having to correct mistakes and republish, and that’s not a desirable outcome.

—Rick

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