Let’s say you’ve just finished writing your novel. It is, obviously!, a masterpiece. The characters are so real you know what they order at Starbucks. The plot is so tense, if you think of it after 5 p.m., you won’t sleep all night. Your entire high-concept vibe is taut as a piano string.
What do you do? You start sending out query letters to agents. Or you spend a couple of hours online choosing one of those publishing scenarios where you don’t spend too big a chunk of your retirement savings, and you get a package that puts a reasonable cover on your opus, assigns an ISBN number and the other tedious details one needs to publish a novel, and, a few hours later, your book is live on Amazon.
Yea! Rapture will follow shortly, right?
Except for one problem.
You didn’t hire a professional editor.
In fact, you didn’t even buy your sister a red pen and beg her to be a beta reader.
Next thing you know - if you’re lucky - someone buys your novel, downloading it to their Kindle. Then the miracle happens. They are so motivated by the experience that they post a review on the ’Zon.
But what does it say?
“I might’ve liked this book, but I couldn’t get past the thousand copy edit mistakes, the homophone substitutions, the misspellings, the head-hopping point-of-view shifts within a single scene, the missing quotes, the reversed apostrophes in contractions that begin with apostrophes (like the ’Zon), the forgotten periods and commas, the periods included before dialog tags, the repeated words, the missing words, the surfeit of adverbs, the business-letter formatting with spaces between the paragraphs and no paragraph indents, the non-serif font, the excessive use of exclamation points and words SPELLED OUT IN ALL UPPERCASE LETTERS, the massive passages of exposition, the run-on sentences, the innumerable cliches... The problems were so numerous that I barely noticed the story, and I decided to give this a two-star review. But when I came to the worst, most unforgivable mistake of all - the confusion between the pronoun its and the contraction it’s - I realized that no matter how grand the author’s vision, this pile of verbiage deserved only one star. Sorry to be harsh, but the editing on this book sucked. Maybe next time the author will hire a professional editor.”
Ouch. DOUBLE OUCH. OH-MY-GOD OUCHHHHHHH!!!!!
Did I exaggerate to make a point?
Of course. But only a little. If you cruise Amazon’s offerings in your genre and click on one-star reviews, it won’t take long to find large numbers of reviews very much like this. Imagine if it happens to your book. This is death by a thousand copy edit mistakes. This is public humiliation. This will make you wish your artistic goal in life had been to knit hotpads for cooking.
And it is all unnecessary. Those might have been five-star reviews if only you’d slowed down.
Why did you do it? Why were you so eager to see your magnificent words in print that you skipped the last, most important step before publication?
You probably thought, I read it through eight times, I rewrote it four times. I believed it was clean.
Unfortunately, writers don’t see what they wrote, they only see what they think they wrote.
You need an editor or three.
Just to be sure you didn’t skim past that sentence, I’ll restate it with excessive caps. YOU NEED PROFESSIONAL EDITORS.
We all write for story. If instead you focus on your copy while you write, you will produce dead prose. Limp prose. If you focus on story, as you should, you will get a much better story but you will also produce prose filled with a thousand mistakes. We all do. But if you don’t hire a pro to clean it up, your future reviewers will not only diss your work, they’ll flame you in print. Which will kill your sales. Which will kill your career. Which will haunt you forever with questions about what coulda, shoulda been...
That’s why you need an editor.
How to find a good editor?
Same as with all the other stuff you learned in writing your masterpiece.
Research. Google “Fiction Editor” and all manner of similar phrases. Ask other published authors which editors they recommend. Then check references. See what they’ve edited. Don’t just fall for some fancy “Book Doctor” jargon. When you’ve found a few solid editors, ask them to edit ten pages that you know have a wide range of the common mistakes listed above. (Yes, there may be a fee for this.)
Expect to pay well for editing. Standard rates vary by editing type. Copy editing (finding the pesky little problems) is different than content and story-flow editing, which is different from general fiction prose problems like dialog structure and point-of-view head-hopping. Prices will depend on what you’re asking for. But as a general starting point, many editors charge a dollar per page for the basics on a manuscript that is already very clean. If your work is gushing with problems, you’ll pay much more.
Many writers sign up for Amazon’s editing services, which can be good, although their comprehensive package at $1800 is more than you need to pay.
You might be thinking, I’m a starving artist and I can’t afford to pay any money for editing.
If so, trade editing services with other writers in your writing group. Choose those writers who are not your good friends. You need harsh critique. No one is doing you any favor if they’re afraid to tell you the truth. You each agree in advance to do a careful, thorough edit and critique of the other’s writing. When done, rewrite again, then repeat the process with another writer. Then repeat it again.
I have four editors. Mistakes still get through. No editor finds every problem. But your goal is to find most of your mistakes and make it so readers concentrate on your story and not on your mistakes. The four and five-star reviews will follow…
Anyone can write a book. But don't forget that last, most important step. Don't skip hiring an editor! Smart, careful writers know that they need editors to clean up their mess. Those writers are the ones who succeed.
P.S. I didn’t hire an editor for this post, so it no doubt has mistakes!