This is the fifth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.
Most aspiring but unpublished writers I have met believe that editing is something the publisher does. This is a misconception. Publishers employ editors and publishers can do (usually for a fee) some more in-depth editing if necessary, but the bulk of a book’s editing is up to the author. The bottom line in today’s competitive market is: a poorly edited book doesn’t get accepted by an agent or commercial publisher, while if you’re self-publishing, a poorly edited book is simply a disgrace and embarrassment.
In short, every author should expect and plan to take responsibility for editing their book. This can take two forms: you can do it yourself or you can hire a professional to do it for you. I personally find that a combination of these two forms of editing works best.
Because an author – particularly after two or three re-writes – knows exactly what he/she intends to say, it is virtually impossible to see even glaring errors. I can’t say how many times I have turned over a manuscript I think is “perfect” to a reader, only to have them find screaming mistakes on the first page. As soon as these are pointed out to me, I ask myself “how could I miss that?” The mistake, once pointed out, jumps out at me snarling and howling like a vicious dog, but there it is: I had read and re-read and read again that very page and never seen the error -- until someone else pointed it out to me. For this reason I have learned to send my manuscripts to a professional, freelance editor as soon as I feel it is finished in form and structure. This is also a good opportunity to get a little distance and perspective on the project so that when I look at it again, I too have a “fresh” eye.
When the editor returns the manuscript after a first round of cleaning up typos, spelling and grammar, I go through the manuscript again. The objective this time is not to change content but to polish style. This is not about whether the characters are doing and saying the things they need to do to move the story forward, reveal their true nature or convey the themes, but about whether phraseology is awkward or anachronistic, words are used too repetitively, sentence structure is clear and effective and the like. I find this kind of editing can only be done in small doses. It is better to look at the manuscript only one scene at a time and really take time to edit. Efforts to rush this stage usually backfire. When I take time with each scene, however, I am usually amazed by how much the language itself can be tightened and fine-tuned to produce a clearer, crisper image that allows the characters to stand out against a more vivid backdrop while keeping action and suspense alive.
Once I have finished going through each and every scene looking for ways to make the writing more effective, I send the whole manuscript back to the professional editor again. This is both to eliminate the typos, spelling and punctuation errors that have crept into the manuscript as a result of the latest re-write and also to give the editor the opportunity to look at everything again or give a new editor the opportunity to comb the manuscript for errors.
Only now is the manuscript ready for a publisher.