(Note: This is the first of a three-blog series on editing. In this blog, we focus on the importance of self-editing — and finding an outside editor — before sending off your book manuscript, short story or article)
The digital publishing revolution and the continued decline of publishing houses (in their willingness to take on new authors as well as their overall influence) have created a boom in self-publishing. Now, you can write a manuscript as quickly as your fingers can move on a keyboard, either format it as an e-book or send it off to a self-publishing service provider, and within days or weeks (or even hours!), have yourself a book on the market. At that point, your marketing and promotional abilities will determine to a large extent how the book sells.
All of that is well and good, but what about quality control? How well do you tell the story or convey the chief points in your book? How important is it to you for your readers to receive an informative, enriching or entertaining experience that is delivered with your very best, most polished writing? What priority do you give to making your narrative as sharp, fluid and error-free as possible?
Whether or not you choose to self-publish or take your best shot at traditional publishing house channels, your ability to build loyal readers beyond family, friends and colleagues will ultimately come down to the quality of your writing and ability to present your story or subject. If a reader buys your book, but can’t get past the first few pages due to loose storytelling, shoddy grammar or punctuation, underdeveloped characters, inaccurate facts or lack of compelling, page-turning writing, then you will have trouble finding an audience. After all, for all the advertising and marketing you might do through traditional means and social media, the power of reaching wider audiences still has an old ally: word-of-mouth. As one literary agent told me years ago, “Make it perfect. Then polish it one more time. Remember that readers are setting aside everything else in their lives to read your book. If they like it, they’ll tell their friends.”
This is where editing comes in. We’d like to think that the authors of all great novels, memoirs and topical non-fiction books laid down the final polish of their seamless narratives themselves. We’d like to believe that we can write every chapter, paragraph or sentence so perfectly that our readers will resonate and experience the words as deeply and passionately as we did when the thoughts and feelings flowed from our minds and hearts onto the page. We’d like to assure ourselves that, after writing and revising our manuscripts a couple of times — or a dozen times — we still maintain enough perspective to make a final, objective pass over our work to find those last irritating awkward sentences or misspellings.
For more than 95% of all writers, bestsellers and newcomers alike, this scenario strikes them as grandiose fiction. Nearly every writer I’ve met in my three decades in this business — myself included — turns to outside help when polishing the final drafts of manuscripts. I’ve been fortunate enough to edit 130 of those manuscripts, in all genres — the vast majority of which were published. Others hire editors to take them through all phases of the editing and revising process. Those authors who land book deals turn over their manuscripts to the publishing houses, which assign an editor specifically for that book. After that editor is finished, another editor polishes the manuscript, then the proofreader takes over. In 2009, when I was ghostwriting The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Risk Management for Annetta Cortez, we worked with four different editors at Alpha Books.
So, if your manuscript is going to land in the hands of editors you don’t know, why not send them the very best work you can possibly produce? Why not learn and master the finer points of self-editing? Why not also hire an editor you can get to know and trust with your words and your voice? If you can self-edit well, then you will polish your manuscript to such a fine shine that every sentence and word vibrates with the larger spirit and plot of what you are conveying. If you then find a good final-draft editor, he or she will work from within your writing voice, fixing paragraphs or sentences with words and phrasings you would use, sharpening your voice and the cohesiveness of your story along the way. If you choose to have an editor work with you from the beginning, you will eliminate weeks or months of the agony that results when you learn, 200 pages down the line, that your story or narrative lost its structure, focus and direction.
In the next two blogs, we will talk about the basic and fine points of self-editing, as well as what an outside editor should do for you. Meantime, as you work to finish the book you know the world can’t wait to read, and prepare to hit the “send” button to your agent, publisher or e-book formatter, do yourself a favor: slow down, take a deep breath, and read the manuscript over one more time. Aloud. Then make all the fixes to the glitches that your speaking voice catches.
Learn to love editing and polishing as much as you love writing. When you do, the reading world will be far more likely to embrace your work.
Next: Why Self-Editing Is Your Second Most Important Skill (and maybe the most important)
(Word Journeys serves writers through manuscript evaluation, editing, ghostwriting, platform building, and development of book proposals and materials for literary agents and publishers. Since 2000, we have edited more than 130 books and e-books in all genres. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 917-826-7880 if your manuscript is ready for publish-level editing.)