On Editing

(Warning: I’m sick, therefore this will be long-winded.)

I have been reading a really good technical book.

Those of you who read technical books know what a rarity this is. So many technical books are impenetrable, for one reason or another: they explain too little, they explain too much, they are poorly (or completely un-) indexed. Sometimes they are written with so much jargon you need a translator just to get through the first paragraph.

The book I’m reading is a real pleasure. It’s well-organized and well-indexed, meaning I can easily skip over the things I know without losing the deeper concepts in the book. The examples given are clear and clearly explained. Concepts are presented in a logical order, allowing me to absorb and build on what I’m learning, without feeling like I’m grasping for little twigs while being tossed on an incomprehensible ocean. In short: It’s a good book.

But.

In more places than I can count, there are basic editing errors. They’re not glaring, or overly distracting – they are things like misplaced commas, or missing prepositions – but I tend to be a bit of a pedant on this stuff. And as expensive as technical books are (I have both a print and an electronic version of this one) I don’t know that it’s unrealistic to expect that someone, somewhere in the publishing food chain should have caught these errors before the thing went to press.

My plan, should I actually ever finish a novel, is to self-publish. This is not due to any particular animosity toward the publishing field. I’m aware that the marketing engines available to the larger publishing houses are unparalleled, and if you are looking to publish a best-seller – or, alternatively, something with a very specific niche – it makes sense to become part of the machine. But I’m not writing to become rich and famous; I’m writing because I must, and because sometimes I like my stories and I want to share them.

Also, being a geek, I’ve discovered it’s pretty easy to format your own ebook. I’ve got a template in InDesign all set up; I can take a Pages document from my iPad and turn it into an ePub file in about three minutes. I am not sure I can express how cool it is to see my words – even my lousy, rough-draft, unedited words – looking like a For-Real Book on my iPad.

So: Given that I don’t expect a huge audience under the best of circumstances, and I’m certainly not in this to make any money, self-publishing electronically seems the obvious choice.

But truth be told? I will need a professional editor.

I’ve read a lot of self-published fiction (some free, much of it purchased – there is actually quite a lot available from both Amazon and iBooks, and it’s generally reasonably priced). Although I am sure there are exceptions, I have yet to run across a single self-published book that wasn’t in need of a good, brutal editor. There is little I find more frustrating than reading a book that is one or two revisions away from being brilliant. When I’m reading a well-written, well-edited book (I’m currently in the middle of this one, which is flat-out gorgeous, and I want to be him when I grow up), I forget that I’m reading at all. I forget the words were created by (for example) a little balding guy at a keyboard. I am immersed in the universe of the story.

In an almost-perfect book, I’ll start falling into the story…and then I’ll get yanked out by a bit of sloppy prose, or a piece of dialogue that doesn’t fit, or an awkward sentence. Or, yes, flat-out incorrect grammar.

Mainstream published works aren’t free of these problems, of course. I see it quite often, and although I have no hard numbers, it seems to occur more in books that have been delayed. My guess is that somewhere, behind the scenes, somebody was rushing, and that last editing pass was either abbreviated or completely eliminated.

But my point is this: in many self-published works, the editing pass does not happen at all.

I should qualify that. I suspect most self-published authors use family and friends, at the very least, as editors. For example, if I asked my husband, I’m sure he’d happily take a crack at editing my book. And then he’d have to deal with me for three days while I sobbed into my pillow. (On second thought, I take that back. I’m certain he’d smile, and say “What, have I become stupid? I’m not going near that thing.”) Writing is an awfully emotional thing for many of us, and criticism can seem like someone’s picking on our favorite child. Family and friends are generally kind, ineffective editors – and even if they are not, they are unlikely to be completely truthful.

It’s become clear to me, though, that brutal, honest editing is part of what separates someone’s summer writing project (however interesting) from the New York Times bestseller list. And before I subject my favorite child to the cold, outside world – yes, I am going to subject her to a brutal, honest editor. I may never hit the bestseller list, but I want to be proud of what I publish, even years from now when I (theoretically) will have acquired some objectivity.

This is not to say that I won’t use my family and friends for a little motivation and ego-boosting. But I want to make clear to them – and to myself – what I expect to get from their participation. I don’t want to put them in the position of having to pick on my child. I don’t want lies; but if they can point out what’s good, it’ll be nice to have that to fall back on when I hand it off to a stranger who I will be paying to tell me what’s bad.

I truly believe a good editor will help me publish a better book. And if I have to cry into my pillow for three days, my paid stranger never, ever has to know.

(I would like to say that all editing errors in this post were deliberately inserted for ironic effect, but I would be lying.)

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