Reading a Writer's First Draft

This may fly in the face of what’s normally said about self-publishing, and even lose the site some credibility.  People often implore writers to hire an editor to go through a book before releasing it.  Of course, this makes sense and every writer should do it.  But one of the major advantages of self-publishing is that it is a more democratic process: everyone can find readership and no one is boxed out of the opportunity.  And given the high cost of hiring an editor, this cuts into one of self-publishing’s major advantages.

For a typical novel, the cost of hiring an editor is going to be at least $400.  In this day and age, writers just might not be able to afford that – especially when you factor in the cost of hiring a cover designer, review copies, website/web design, and other costs.  While – again – hiring an editor should be a prerequisite to releasing a book, this may not be available to every writer.

Of course grammatical errors and poor sentence structure should be fixed before publication, but I want to take a devil’s advocate approach: the idea that self-published books should not be judged in the same way as traditionally published books.  I know this immediately limits the cause of self-publishing as becoming a totally legitimate avenue, but there’s a flip side to this issue.

Currently I’m reading a book that’s a great read.  The writer has a huge amount of promise and I’d like to read anything he writes in the future.  At the same time, the novel has some basic problems.  Some are just a case of formatting: there is no uniform spacing between paragraphs so it can be difficult to ascertain when a new section begins. It also has one of the main problems you see in fiction put out by new writers: point of view changes within a chapter – sometimes within the same paragraph.  This is not a case of experimental artistic license, but just plain sloppiness that would have been averted if an editor had taken a look at the book.

What the book reads like is the early draft of a very good novel by an enormously interesting writer.  It’s imperfect, but if you’re able to look beyond the editorial problems then you’ll see that there’s a good book underneath.

I’m wary of the reviewers who count the number of grammatical mistakes as being the sole barometer of a book’s worth because there’s so much more to a book than stylistic issues.  True: grammatical mistakes often are a clear sign that the book’s not worth reading.  But then there’s an anomaly like the book I’m reading now.  Anyone who set the book down based on grammatical problems or formatting issues would be missing out on a first look at an interesting writer.

In short: self-published books shouldn’t always be held to the same standard as traditionally published books.  I know, I know.  That is totally antithetical to the idea of this site: to legitimize self-publishing.  But the book I’m reading is very entertaining but structurally flawed.  For me, the former overwhelms the latter.  An argument can be made that certain structural problems should sometimes be overlooked.

Readers as Editors

A better argument could be made that this writer should have taken the time to fix these problems before publication.  Paragraph spacing?  Could have been fixed with a couple of clicks.  But with self-publishing, readers in a way take on the role of editors.  Editors try to see the better novel within the pages of a manuscript they’re first given.  Readers can do the same. That’s actually part of the thrill of discovery with self-publishing that is lacking in traditionally published books: finding the diamond in the rough.  In a perfect world, each self-published novel will be polished and perfect before it’s released.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.

It’s my experience as well that writers who write more interesting books also can have more problems with grammar or other similar issues.  If a writer’s ideas are less confined, more exploratory, takes more chances, then the actual text can have issues as well.  Personally, I’d rather read the grammatically-suspect novel of a writer who’s reaching for something that hasn’t been done before than a grammatically-precise but ultimately formulaic book.

With self-published books, you’re very often reading the first draft of a better work.  If the writer was able to get traditionally published, these minor mistakes wouldn’t have been allowed to happen.  Maybe the writer hired a sub-par freelance editor.  Maybe the writer’s just not a natural stylist: a good thinker, but not so great with the nuts and bolts.  Maybe readers are being too hard on writers – looking for problems because the book’s self-published that wouldn’t necessarily occur to them if the book came out on a traditional press.  I’ve written about this issue before.

The moral: perhaps reviewers and readers alike should be looking beyond structural issues.  A missed comma (or many) shouldn’t necessarily overshadow what a writer is trying to achieve.

  • Hm.

    First, I’m worried that you’re misrepresenting what an editor actually does. A professional editor isn’t just seeking out missed commas or making sure your lines are spaced evenly. That sort of thing probably doesn’t impact the reader’s experience much, and I agree that these kinds of mistakes can usually be overlooked in a self-published book. But an editor is looking for other things as well – wrong word choices, sentences that break off in the middle, spots where the author did some rewrites and didn’t apply them all the way through, leaving characters mentioning critical plot developments that they shouldn’t know until a hundred pages later. These sorts of things *do* disrupt the reading experience, and, like it or not, can indeed overshadow what value the book might have.

    Second, this thing about spending money on the cover but not the edit. This is akin to the situation with As Seen On TV products – you’re spending money on design and advertising to make the product look professional, but not delivering a product that’s of professional quality. The reader becomes a customer, who’s only courted and valued until they purchase the book. This is one thing when you’re selling $4 ebook downloads of your memoirs. It’s another thing entirely when you’re asking an anonymous reader to put down $15 for a paperback copy of a novel that turns out to be a “first draft.”

    Third, online readers, friends, and family members don’t do the job of professional editors. They can certainly catch a lot of the typos, but they also can offer a flood of conflicting advice that will weaken the book if the author tries to apply things that are one reader’s personal preference to a book meant for the general public. Internet communities don’t care about your book the way you do, and family and friends are too close to you to be good critics. You’ve read it so many times that you aren’t even seeing the words on the page anymore. And neither you nor other “beta readers” are reading through your book carefully, making sure you don’t give up on a character’s accent halfway through, or never tie up loose ends, or have a dynamic first line that’s totally contradicted by the backstory on the next page.

    Fourth, I hear the argument a lot that a well-edited book can be “boring.” It’s had all the spice and character edited out of it. I don’t know where this idea comes from – if the book is boring, that’s not a relic of using semicolons properly. Saying “appraise” when you meant “apprise” doesn’t give a novel pizazz. A properly edited book should actually be *more* exciting than it was before the edit, because long expository or recap passages will be pruned or removed, persistently repeated words will be removed, etc. I give authors enough credit as artists to know when to say no to something an editor is trying to push. And this is part of the beauty of working with an editor when you’re self-publishing: you don’t have to take their advice on certain issues if you don’t want to!

    I understand that editing costs a lot…you are paying a professional after all. And if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. And sure, maybe people should go a little easier on self-published books, and think of them like handcrafted products rather than polished professional ones. But I don’t think it’s wise to say that writers should let a good book get missed in the market because they have a great book written but it’s still too rough to be considered a final draft.

  • By “editor” I meant overall editing: copyediting as well as content issues – such as point of view shifts or character consistency. This isn’t meant to be a screed against editors. As I say, it’s preferable that a book is well-edited. Every book should be well-edited. But if it isn’t, it’s not necessarily a given that you should stop reading if there are thematic and/or grammatical errors.

    It’s an interesting question – if a writer’s only got $400 to spend on a book: should he put it towards a cover or editorial. On the one hand, far more people are going to see the cover than ever read the book. On the other hand, the book is the book. It’s the most important thing. The trouble is that writers know more people who know how to read than know how to use Photoshop, so they get friends and family to do the editing and hire a pro designer. I suspect that’s what’s happened in the book I’m referring to.

  • I have my own editor and she is one of the best. However editing is not applied to first drafts, but final ones. We have learned not to pay too much attention to the readers we engage. They often have unexpected biases. We have also have learned to avoid anyone who ever taught high school English.
    We take feedback in the spirit is is offered.

    One trick we use is to read every word aloud. It’s a surefire way to find missing words, bad construction, and run-on sentences. Writing is a form of speech. If you can’t say it aloud with perfect comfort then it needs rewriting.

    Finally we always keep in mind the motto of the old Soviet Space Program: “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.”

  • I agree with you on error counting, Henry. How can someone be focused on the story if their mind it so busy looking for an counting errors. However, editing is critical in all its various stages.

    1st drafts are rough drafts. I don’t even start thinking about editing until the 3rd draft. By that time, I have worked out the plot and structural flow of the story, I know who my characters are, and I have a clear idea of my message. Then I edit, and I edit, and I edit. Now, by profession, I am a trained editor, in business writing, but an editor nonetheless. No, this does not make it any easier for me. The create mind and the critical mind don’t often play well together, so if you are going to edit your own work it takes extra diligence and patience.

    When reviewing, I don’t pay too much attention to the odd grammatical faux pas or typo. What I do pay close attention to is Structure: sentence structure, story structure, and character structure and/or voice and development. What am I looking for? I am looking for the author’s Intent. A stumbling, confused, erratic structure, whether it be misplaced clauses, indefinable paragraphing, erratic voice and tone, too much or too little descriptive content, weak characters, and a disjointed plotline all undermine the intent. If I can’t feel the author’s intent then the book is not engaging to me. I am reading because I want to feel something. I can let a lot of things slide if the author’s intent is clear to me. I will mention the issues in a review, but won’t take too much off the overall score because of it.

    I also have an aversion to “style guides.” You know the ones that promote Show don’t Tell and strip your manuscript of all adverbs. Any MFA grad will tell you, shit, any high-school honours English grad will tell you those rules are full of crap. Telling is as important as Showing and Adverbs have their place. It’s all about balance and technique. Every author has to find the balance and every author will develop his or her own technique. This is developed through the editing process, and I think all authors should learn how to edit, whether they pay a professional in the end or not.

    But again, as a reviewer, I am looking for intent — emotional engagement — so if the issues are so bad that I can’t figure out what the intent is, then maybe the manuscript needs more work. Most of the books I have reviewed on Podpeople have had editing issues of some sort or another — my own books probably do as well — but you will notice by the scores and by the reviews that I look quite a bit deeper than surface style. I hold mainstream books to that same standard, as well. If it makes me feel something then it was worth being written and worth being read.

  • And I have a bunch of typos in the above post. It happens … It happens in mainstream books, happens in self-published books. Even the best editors miss some fiddly stuff, but they don’t generally miss the structural stuff, which is the important stuff. In my humble opinion.

  • I’m willing to forgive much when I read (praticularly formatting issues) but basic spelling errors annoy me as do sentences that refuse to make sense. As has been pointed out they occur everywhere, even in traditionally published books, and recently it seems that they aren’t going out of their way to hide these anymore. Mostly, I think if the story is being conveyed, and the errors aren’t so great as to destroy meaning, then what does it matter. Someone will whinge and someone will say whatever and in the end those that were going to enjoy the story probably will. Grammatical accuracy should be something the writer works toward but shouldn’t be the total of their worth. It is but one part of the entire book experience.

    Thanks for sharing your views with us.

  • When I buy a self-published book it often costs me more than one from Random House et al. Why on earth shouldn’t I expect it to be copyedited at least as well? Someone who self-*publishes* takes on this role as part of the publisher’s duty to their customer.