From February 28, 2013
Dug In: Pros vs. Your BFFs on Editing
Lately, I’ve been concerned with an angle of the digital market that needs discussing: Editors. It concerns me that so few digital-only/digital-first writers are hiring this all-important help before the books go live.
How good that people like author Barbara O’Neal put things in more civil terms than those I might use for this subject.
Look, I’m a professional writer and have been for better than 20 years. I was trained to edit, and I’m pretty clean, clear, concise. And I would never send work out without the fine, clear eye and particular talents of an editor, and a copy editor.
In The Value of Editors at Writer Unboxed, where she’s a regular-contributor colleague of mine, O’Neal has just told us what the problem is. Did you catch it?
Look, I’m a professional writer…
Professional writers like O’Neal know not to go to market with something that hasn’t been handled by professional editors—developmental editors and copy editors.
Many non-professionals, clearly, don’t easily get this.
And I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t ways in which the online world’s ready availability of good advice on not-so-good topics doesn’t contribute to this situation. Isn’t it time we were little less nice and a little more honest? As in, no, you can’t edit yourself. And no, your best whatevers forever can’t do it, either. You need professional help. Badly. We all do.
And yet, there’s no end to the posts offering those good old tips ‘n’ tricks about how to do the impossible.
Here’s an example: 10 Proofreading Tips for Self-Publishers at PBS MediaShift is by Anna Lewis, a well-respected member of the community, co-founder of ValoBox, one of our highly regarded eternal startups. (As a friend was saying recently to me, these outfits never seem to “grow up,” they just keep…starting up. When do we stop calling them startups? When do they become done-started-ups?)
Would you suggest that your friends and family members could do “just as good a job” of removing a gall bladder as a surgeon?
No? And in fairness, I should point out that Lewis doesn’t make such a suggestion, either. Her piece is about proofreading your own material.
But you come across folks frequently these days who believe their lay relatives and best bubbas can analyze their narrative arcs, discern the drawbacks in their characters’ inter-relationships, and impose a stylebook’s standards on their prose.
And why would you believe you could proofread yourself? Not that Lewis’ suggestions aren’t good. They are. Here are a few of her points:
- Try proofreading backward! To spot typographical errors, read your work from the end to the beginning, either word by word, sentence by sentence, or paragraph by paragraph. This disconnects your mind from the content and helps you focus on the text. Particularly useful for checking the cover.
- Proofread a printed version of your work. People read differently on screen and on paper, so print out a copy of your writing for another read.
- Read your work out loud. If you read aloud, your ear might catch errors that your eyes may have missed. Alternatively, you can use text-to-speech software.
@ First time a blog had to explicitly say that I did *not* suggest people get friends or family to remove gall bladders :-)
The first I’ve listed here, reading backward, is one of the best. It’s used by a lot of journalists on news stories. Overall, these aren’t bad points of advice, as far as they go. But Lewis has set them up with only a glancing reference to “short of hiring a professional proofreader.”
And like it or not, the very presence of Lewis’ friendly, upbeat text on the subject—if you’re not a professional who knows better—is going to make you think this exercise in publishing self-medication is okay. It’s not okay. As much as many of us admire her, I’m left wondering why she put together such a piece.
Look at the irony of this point:
Look at your weaknesses. Do you regularly misspell or repeat words? Do you make particular grammar or punctuation errors? If you are aware of these weaknesses, take extra care to search and spot them.
“If you are aware of these weaknesses,” then you’re going to fix them, of course. But you don’t have to read far into someone’s text to discover where they don’t know their own weaknesses. None of us can throw a stone on this point. We all have blind spots. Who hasn’t had the experience of spotting a howler in his or her own work—days after it went out?
Can’t believe I’m on the BBC.
And, back at Writer unboxed, as O’Neal writes:
As the new models emerge, more and more writers are putting up work that is good, but could be so much better with another round of rewriting, a good editor pointing out the weak spots, a copy editor combing through for repetitive words and mixed metaphors and continuity problems. Those services can be expensive–$50 an hour and up—but the resulting work will be so much better it is entirely worth it.
What O’Neal is kind enough not to say is that “more and more writers” are also putting up work that is not good. In fact, a great deal of it is bad. And many of these writers have had nothing like the deadline-whipped chances that professionals have had to learn to get help.
So, that whole bookstore as showroom strategy seems to be going super well…
There’s a telling moment in a videotaped interview from early 2012—The Empowerment of Indie Publishing—with leading self-publishing ebook author David Gaughran (who figures in our Amazon coverage below, too). He’s talking with author and Ether sponsor Joanna Penn (who writes as J.F. Penn).
If you’ll pick up the conversation at a time code of around 19:45, you’ll find that Gaughran really goes to the mat to insist that authors simply must not, under any circumstances, skip the support of professional editors and designers, not even because of the expense:
People say, “I can’t afford a thousand dollars or two-thousand dollars for an editor now, or five-hundred dollars for a cover designer now. So I’m just going to put it out now, see what sales I get. And then maybe I’ll be able to afford it. And it just doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to put out the most professional product you possibly can. And if you can’t afford a professional editor now, then wait. Or barter.…Come up with a creative way of getting the money.
With blame for none but concern for all, isn’t it time we started saying clearly that “editing yourself actually is not an option?
I love arriving at my desk after a half day of meetings to discover a delivery and acceptance check awaiting me. It smells like VICTORY.
Your mother’s avid attempts at goof-spotting bear little resemblance to the practiced skills of a true editor. Your critique group has nothing like the skin in the game that an editor you’re paying will have.
In Never Confuse These Words Again, agent Rachelle Gardner cites some of the most pervasive errors we all see—from lie-vs.-lay (did you know that you don’t “lay low?”) to lead-vs.-led-vs.-lead (and guess what “led” her to write this). Most of these aren’t even difficult. But it’s surprising how many of these mistakes are made by folks who think of themselves as accomplished writers.
The reason your chums and cousins can’t usually save you from Gardner’s list of losers’ gaffes is that these things are spread like viruses—writer to writer.
Writers pass to each other the most wrong-headed ideas of spelling, grammar, and procedural myth (such as, “Sure, it’s fine to edit yourself”) like the commonest of colds. This can be a downside of community. It’s easy to pick up what’s just been done by a colleague and skip the step of checking an authoritative source, for yourself.
So, in fact, we all need to be discerning, asking ourselves who we tend to look to for guidance and whether that source makes the best sense.
There’s a point of pride in your work here. You want its standard to match the highest bar you can find, not the “good enough” run of the market. After all, why go to the world with your work if you haven’t first made sure it’s processed properly?
Once more from O’Neal;
I urge you to consider seeking out the best editors you can find, and when you find one who understands your voice, who can see your flaws and your points of genius clearly, stick with him.
Confession: I love the AT&T ads featuring the very somber dude interviewing little kids, especially the one with the werewolf story.
Click to read this week’s full Writing on the Ether column at JaneFriedman.com.
Porter Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute and has done special readings in the psychology of the arts at the University of Bath, UK. As a journalist, he has worked with three networks of CNN (CNN USA, CNN International, CNN.com) and was on the lead development team for CNN.com Live. He also has worked on The Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, D Magazine, Sarasota Herald-Tribune and other outlets. He writes the weekly (Thursdays) WRITING ON THE ETHER column at JaneFriedman.com and (Mondays) ETHER FOR AUTHORS column at PublishingPerspectives.com. Anderson also is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com and to Digital Book World’s (DigiBookWorld.com) Expert Publishing Blog. He has been posted by the United Nations to Rome (P-5, laissez-passer) for the World Food Programme, and served as Executive Producer to INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. He is based in Tampa and his primary medium is Twitter. Follow him @Porter_Anderson