I’ve been writing full-time now for nearly two years and I’m loving it. I especially love those moments of pure creation when new characters, situations and even worlds spring into life.
However, there is always a bit of grit in every pearl, and the grit for me is editing and especially the dastardly and eel-like typo. I published my first book four and a half years ago and I’m just realising how steep the slope of the editing learning curve actually is. This has been recently highlighted by the fact that I’ve once again re-edited my first four books and guess what? I found them littered by tortured English and infested with typos. I have come to terms with the fact that these books will still have some instances of tortured English and typos but, hopefully, a lot less than there was before. So what’s the problem?
Most writers don’t know anything about editing when they start writing
Years ago, if you got a publisher, then you didn’t need to worry about this. The publisher would copy edit and proof-read your work and produce a sparkling and (more or less) error-free book. Indeed, some authors were well-known for their inability to spell but, with good editors doing the heavy lifting, this was never a problem. Those days are more or less gone.
Nowadays, even authors who have publishing contracts, don’t always get fully supported the way they used to. For us self-published authors we have no choice. Unless we’re lucky enough to have an incredibly large bank balance, we have to be our own copy editors and proof-readers. As I describe below this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, a lot of work. In my opinion, while there’s a lot out there that you can read up on the subject, you can only really learn by doing.
However, I’m convinced that there’s no one right way to edit, just the way that’s right for you. The real trick is finding that way.
A simple way to edit
At first, I was a fan of getting the story down first and then worrying about editing it later. Of course, all I was doing was postponing the tough part which would then have to be done in one gigantic lump. Halfway through this massive edit, I’d be dribbling, banging my head off the wall and more than ready to give up. Then I read a bit of advice by the great Ernest Hemingway and it totally changed the way I worked. He said that –
‘The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along.’
It was the ‘rewrite what you did the day before’ bit that stuck in my head. Now, before I write a word, I go back over the last bit of writing I did and correct all the tortured English and typos. This is editing in slices so thin that you hardly notice it. There is another big advantage to doing this. You find that you can segue into your new piece of writing much more easily as you’ve now got your mind into the groove of your story.
If I find that I’m losing my bearing in the story, I will often go back several chapters and read, re-editing as I go. There are also times when I dry up and absolutely nothing comes to mind when I try to write. You just have to accept that this will happen from time to time. I spend this time usefully by going back to the beginning of the book and doing a complete re-edit. Quite often, by the time I get to the end, some new ideas have sidled into my head and I’m able to carry on writing.
This process won’t catch everything but I’d guess that, by the time I’ve finished a book, I’m 70-80% there with the editing and that isn’t to be sniffed at.
You will never be able to see the woods for those dratted trees getting in the way
Never, ever, ever publish a book that’s only been read by you. If you’re anything like me there will be certain strangled sentences and typos that you will be totally blind to. I have often re-edited a section six or seven times and then, when someone else reads it, they pick out the most blatant errors. Errors so ‘in your face’ that I am amazed that I could have missed them. Yet I did and it’s something that we must accept. The lesson is to get some readers.
As an author you write and think in your own bubble. You need someone else who can read your book with honesty and burst your bubble if and when required. I’m lucky that my main reader is my wife. I’m even more lucky as she does not hesitate to tell me if she finds something untoward. I have four readers in all and, while most of them are looking mainly at the characters and plot, I also have one who picks up on most of my typos. All four of my readers are not backward at coming forward if necessary. Honest readers like these are worth their weight in gold.
Even after all that, the chances are that you’ll still have a fair few strangulated sentences and typos in your book. So what can you do?
Perfection is the enemy of good
When do you stop editing? My answer is when you’ve totally had enough. There comes a time when you know that you’ve done as much as you can. Publish and be damned. Or not actually.
My first book had mountains of typos and strangulated sentences when I first published it yet most of my readers were generous enough to forgive me. I got quite a lot of four and five star reviews which, looking back, I marvel at. So, don’t let the fact that you think that there are typos in your book stop you. Do your best to identify and remove them but, once you’ve done that, publish your book. However, don’t let good be the enemy of better. You can always go back when you’ve improved your skills and re-edit your book. I’ve now done that twice for my earlier books.
What if I can pay someone to edit my book?
Well, lucky you. However, even if you can hire professional editors, there is a major downside to this. The meaning of words can be delicately shaded and I’ve heard of some authors who have gotten their books back and found that their copy editors had basically gotten the wrong end of the stick about what they wanted to say. If you farm out the editing and proof-reading then you run the risk of losing control of your book. The great thing about learning to edit yourself is you know exactly what you want your book to say and you can ensure that the editing process doesn’t interfere with that.
Modern word processing programmes are also getting very good at spotting typos and even grammatical errors so don’t ignore them. However, please note that they are not right all the time so don’t just follow them blindly.
If you’re patient and persistent then you will find your way and eventually you will become more comfortable when it comes to editing issues. You will probably never produce a book that is 100% error-free so don’t beat yourself up over it. Get it as good as you can and then publish. Don’t forget to go back and re-edit though as your skills develop. You must always try to give your readers the best experience you can.
Typos will always be with us but beware, some typos can be more important than others.
(Thanks to cogdogblog for the Grand Opening image)