Writerly Advice: You Need an Editor


I’ve started reading a self-published book that, at some point, I snagged in e-book form from Amazon. I can’t remember where it came from or what drew me to it, and discovering it on my list of Kindle books was the reason I started to read it to begin with; it was like locating a treasure map I didn’t know was in my possession, and I’m wondering where it might lead.

Though I’m not too far into the book, I am intrigued so far. The author seems informed and proficient in the important technicalities of what’s going on in the plot (concerning computers and astronomy), and the slow burn of the work as it progresses is pulling me along quite well.

But I’m given pause pretty often as I read it, because the book really desperately could use an editor.

Not, so far, from a content point of view, because the author seems to have a good handle on the plotting and pacing of the story, as well as characters and language. I’m enjoying the book even if I’m only 10 percent or so through it.

But even with self-published works, if you’re going to be a professional writer, you need editing. It’s really that simple. The book I’m reading is pretty well teeming with errors. Nothing is so glaring as to make the book unreadable, but they’re the sort of nagging issues that continue to scratch at the back of your perception even as you’re trying to lose yourself in the content — a distant alarm drawing you out of a dream. Missing commas and spliced sentences are the most notable offenses, but there are other occasional issues as well.

The whole thing screams for a good, solid copy edit, and it’s a good reminder to everyone — if you want to write books, even if you publish them yourself, you’re going to need an editor.

In most professional writing, it’s a fact of life that you can’t write in a vacuum and expect to always turn out good work. Writing a piece and then re-reading it for errors on your own is useful, but it’s rarely as effective as you might think. Even being a pretty strong copy editor myself (I did it professionally for newspapers and the web for years), I know better than to think my own read of any given piece of work I’ve written is the definitive one. Sometimes it helps to let time pass, and there are other nifty tricks as well (try reading your whole manuscript backwards, one word at a time, and you’ll be amazed what issues you catch), but you can’t overestimate the value of another set of eyes.

But it’s more than just having someone else read your manuscript. Of course, it’s absolutely essential to get third-party perspectives on your work (even if you then discard them), but from a technical standpoint, you need someone who is actually a qualified copy editor. If you don’t know one, find one. If you can’t find one, hell — pay one. Try Craigslist. Try anything. But make sure your manuscript is as clean as you can get it and as error-free as possible.

Other than just, you know, looking like you know what you’re doing from the standpoint of being a writer, there’s a very good reason for making sure your copy is squeaky before you publish, self- or otherwise: Readers will notice. They absolutely will.

The thing about people who read books regularly is that they read books regularly. They’re good at reading. They know good writing when they see it. More than that, they see more technical flubs than you’d expect. Your audience will see typos, all of them, and it will detract from their experience reading your book. We’re not talking about stylistic decisions to create errors on purpose for effect, we’re talking about errors. By writing a book, you’re inherently writing for an audience of book-reading folks, and those people almost always read much more voraciously than other people. The kinds of people who read books go out of their way seek out books all the time, and they know what good copy should be like.

Sure, your cover is important, and book promotion is important, and getting your stuff in front of people is important, but worrying about that stuff is making sure the paint is nice on the house you built out of warped wood. The real product, the actual writing, should be as technically proficient as it is creative. Get your book edited. Seriously. Invest in it. Call in favors. Contact your high school English teacher. Do whatever you have to do.

Because while a reader might be forgiving of typos in a self-published book, you never know who might not be. Readers who like your story will recommend it, but there’s no reason to give them extra reasons to pan your work. It’s hard enough to get your stuff in front of an audience without forcing them to work harder to enjoy it.

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