On Editing

I’ve spent the day reading a self-published sci-fi potboiler–first in a trilogy–that I bought in the Amazon Kindle store after reading the entire sample. The grammatical and writing errors in the sample were few enough for me to go ahead and spend $3.99. As the book progressed, however, I became increasingly distracted by mounting disregard for my investment in time.

This writer has little use for commas, except for what I suppose is garnish. And he fails at every opportunity to trim superfluous words: “The boots she wore on her feet” is a mild example. Crashing several sentences together is routine. So is leaving vestiges of edits: “Getting to get there involved . . . ”

I’m no paragon. Forty books on, a degree in journalism, line editor of a hundred or so books, publisher, advertising copywriter . . . I’ve lived the writer’s life. But I screw up. I get impatient. I am burdened with attention deficit disorder. I know I’m prone to screwing up. I know I’ve read so much dreck over the years that I’m no longer certain what even looks right. I know there are words I’m never going to learn to spell correctly or rules of  grammar I’m never going to get right. That’s why I read and reread everything I write. That’s why I pay good money to copyeditors and proofreaders. I figure I owe it to readers who plunk down their hard-earned disposable income for my books.

I’m not asking authors to write at the level copyeditors edit. There is something wrong with people who know as much about rules as copyeditors know, who are as literal-minded as copyeditors tend to be. I’m not suggesting that anyone become bosom buddies with a copyeditor. I am asking that fellow writers and especially fellow independent publishers display a little care, show signs of respect for a reader’s time and sensibility.

As I age, as the full impact of the sheer joy and beauty of good language, especially good writing, comes home, I savor time with a good story well written. I spent a good deal of my career working at bringing good stories forth from bad or indifferent or just plain linguistically challenged writers. I stopped doing that because, for awhile, I spasmed and couldn’t read at all, there was no much crap in my head from my day job.

I don’t mind spending $3.99 on an amateur sci-fi yarn. I can overlook a lot in behalf of a good story, or even just a decent escape. This is a good story, but its sheer sloppiness disregards and disrespects me and my stake in spending most of a Sunday grappling with its avalanche of shortcomings. I have to put it down now, because the penny finally dropped: I’m sufficiently engaged to battle through to the end of one book, but there’s no way I’m going to read this hick’s next two volumes. When a sloppy presentation overwhelms a decent enough story, it’s time to fold.

Good books well written (or well edited) sell good books. Bad books badly written put us all in jeopardy.

I would like very much to have a place on SPR to post contact info and reviews about reliable editors, proofreaders, cover and interior designers, and other types of people who will ensure the creation of good books from concept to final execution.

  • Eric —

    Well, the novel *is* science fiction, and had you finished the story, it is quite possible that you may have learned that the character to which you refer also wears boots on her other appendages!

    Seriously, though, it is sad that self-published authors continue to avoid necessary (and I say, mandatory) costs such as editing/proofing — and thus reinforce the perception of self-publishing: books that only one’s family would ever purchase. If you want to see this author change, then I suggest you post a review of the Kindle version of this book on Amazon.com. You could simply copy and paste a lot of what you’ve written above. This will inevitably impact the author’s sales, and hopefully he/she will reconsider the need for editing.

    And, less I forget, a well-written essay, which I will link to on my monthly “Links & Things” blog post.

    Marty Halpern
    More Red Ink

  • Cellophane

    Both self- and big-pubbers are prone to the occasional typo.

    What I HAVE found is that I spot them more easily when reading on my Kindle. I use a largish font (old eyes), so that typos that might disappear on your 8×11″ page will suddenly leap to the forefront on the smaller screen.

    I would like to be informed on typos, since we self-pubbers can actually FIX THE PROBLEMS! Which is something that the majors not only fail to do, but don’t think worth their time.

  • I find that I tolerate errors better in ebooks than hardcopy. A lot of those errors arise from the normal course of scanning and OCRing: 99 percent accuracy relative to a 70,000-word text is 700 errors that are as difficult for the eye to catch as for the OCR software to interpret. And then there are the scanned hard hyphens, which I’ve chased through about twenty scanned books and still haven’t obliterated. So I actually try to be tolerant when reading ebooks–allow my standard perimeter (peripheral) guard to stand easy. But there are limits. It’s difficult enough to suspend reality for a good book, impossible for a book that insists upon spuming distracting detritus every other sentence.

    The Amazon review is a great place to get even and display hard-earned hostility, but the larger problem is, um, larger. Today, I looked at books that are recommended by Amazon on the page on which I found the subject of my essay. (This eerily backs up Henry’s latest essay.) The three with the best promo copy each had numerous reviews (upwards of fifty each) with rankings aggregating in the high 4 stars. Each also had more than the average number of 1-star reviews. And, no surprise, all of the 1-star reviews were rants on sloppy to nonexistent editing. So there’s the tell to which “caveat emptor” refers.

    Lining up an excess of friends to tout your bad book is, to put it mildly, a sucker punch. You cannot tell friends to =not= write reviews–four of mind did on their own in behalf of my one and only novel–but it takes an excess of chutzpah to line up fifty undeservedly good reviews. Or am I giving that old exemplar, the average reader, too much credit?

  • Eric,

    If you’re into investing a bit of time….

    See if any of the 4-star reviews are listed by full names or handles. If full names, check to see if they have any ebooks on Amazon.com, and then finally check to see if your illustrious author above has left a 4-star review for their book.

    Quid pro quo isn’t unheard of in the book world.

    – marty

    • My favorite real story about self-promotion, literally:

      There’s a novelist named Bill Butterworth (William E. Butterworth) who also writes as W.E.B. Griffin. At some point, a glowing blurb from Butterworth began to appear on every Griffin book, and vice versa.

  • This doesn’t sound as if it was the occasional typo. We owe it to ourselves as professionals and to the readers who plunk down their hard-earned money to produce the best books we can, and ensure that they are edited, even at cost. I pulled my book from pre-publication with CreateSpace because I found two typos in the proof. It’s not just because I’m obsessive, but I want it to be the best possible work. I also want readers so engrossed in it that misspellings and missing words don’t jar their enjoyment of the story. If you care about your work, you invest as much time revising and editing as you do writing the story.

    • Lisa, I agree to a point. Yes, of course, we need to fix any error we find. And we need to be on the lookout for errors. During the editorial process or subsequent natural opportunities to fix things. Nevertheless, as a person who has been involved in the publication of several hundred books, I have to share my observation that errors are endemic to a process that (a) involves several hundred thousand keystrokes per project combined with (b) humans. Beyond a certain point, error patrol is a fetish.

  • Eric,

    I agree with you completely. Of course, as an editor, I probably notice errors more than the average reader, and, as you said in an earlier comment, there is no such thing as a perfect book. However, doing the best job possible of self-editing, then hiring a professional editor or at least having another writer proofread is essential. A few typos can be excused—rampant awkward construction, incorrect grammar, and spelling and punctuation errors spoil the reading experience.

  • We believe self-published books fall into three editorial categories: (1) done well by a professional who knows what they’re doing – yeah! (2) not done at all due to ignorance, cost or misplaced self-belief (3) author pays for what they believe is top-notch editorial services and it is anything but, and unfortunately since many authors are not expert on grammar and punctuation (sadly) they have absolutely no idea the edit they paid for was pretty much worthless. So, agree with Lillie – one must take the time to seek out a reputable, experienced editor, and not just accept the one the publishing service company offers.


    • When I started out, editors attempted to coerce me by saying, “Well, it’s your name that’ll be on the cover.” To scare me, right? Once I knew I had the skill set nailed, I answered back, “My name, yes. I take responsibility if I’m wrong. Do it my way.” But I never miss an opportunity to allow an editor to make me look smarter than I am.

      If you’re a number-3 on Mel’s list, and you blindly take the advice of whatever editor is assigned by a publishing service, it’s on you, whichever way it goes. And that’s another reason to (a) avoid publishing services and (b) for us to develop, here on SPR, a list of reliable resources someone here is willing to vouch for.

      When I was publishing full time, I had a number of reliable editors I matched to the job at hand by way of their editorial personalities and sensibilities and the type of job that needed to be done. Not every good editor matches up with every writer or every job any given writer might produce.

      Bottom line, bet or fold, it’s ultimately on the author to take full responsibility for what goes in the book with his/her name on the title page.

      • You made two important points in this comment: 1) Not every good editor is a good editor for every book. One of my clients told me she was amazed at how excited I am about her book. I explained that I take on a project only if I think I can do a good job with that specific manuscript and if I really like what I read in the sample and synopsis the author submits. Every author deserves an editor who is enthusiastic about the work as well as qualified to edit it. And the author should be equally happy with the editor’s work. That’s why I do a sample edit—we both can decide whether we’re a good match. 2) Regardless of who else edits the book, the author is ultimately responsible for everything in the book.

  • brentrobison

    Eric, thank you — this is the most important message for self-publishers right now. Even the need for “great writing” is secondary to the need for editing because writing quality is so subjective. The level of professionalism you’re asking for should be the bottom line — absolutely expected. So that’s the unfortunate side to tossing out the gatekeepers. I hope some progress can be made by education on sites like this, so fewer future self-pubbers make fools of themselves.

    You may know of the “other” self-publishing review, on which editor Jane Smith pulls no punches in critiquing self-pubbed books and counting the errors: http://theselfpublishingreview.blogspot.com/. My book will show up there soon, so I hope she’s kind :-). But I’m an obsessive editor by profession anyway, so I know the text is near 100% clean (further fine-tooth-combing has found two typos in the year since publication… bummer).

    I appreciate your voice of experience. Thanks again!

  • With the rise of eboks and the ease of creating them, we’re bound to get a lot of sloppiness out there and as a self-publishing author and consultant, I think there is a point where it is unacceptable. I think Marty, Eric, Lisa and many other’s who’ve commented touch on some really important things.

    1. Post reviews of authors–particularly self-published. I’m new to this site and am inspired by it’s mission and direction as I see we are moving toward a level of accountability for this growing industry. If it is in fact to grow and be reputable, authors need to take their own work a heck of a lot more seriously and that includes doing their homework, and my second point;

    2. Investing their time, money and energy in to producing complete works. If you’re a self-publisher and are going to be charging folks for your work–however nominal–you should be investing in it yourself. You may have a great story or concept for a book, but you can’t think that simply writing it down, slapping a image on top and paginating it makes it something you should be selling to folks. Even on a shoestring budget, there are ways to get your work reviewed, even asking for $1.00 for a download and being upfront that it is UNCORRECTED and proceeds will be used to perfect the book itself. This is the internet–let’s get creative!

    3. Even the big guys in publishing produce works with a typo here or there and that’s just the name of the game. But in order for indie-publishing to grow (i’m trying out a new terms for self-publishing) as a legitimate sector of this industry, authors need to be held and hold themselves accountable for what they release.

    The day when would be-social-publishers (self-publishers) submit to a third party group that establishes standards and creates awareness for these kind of works is soon to come and that will create even more incentive for authors to go through their work with a red pen and I can’t wait–it’s so exciting!

  • I posted a review of a self-published book on this site a while back, in which I was forced to point out the sloppy editing because it really took over the whole book. Just like what you’re describing in this post – you want to read the book and get into it and forgive the minor transgressions, but it’s so bad that even with good intentions you can’t do it.

    In a blog post responding to (I think) my review, the author took a very defensive tone, basically saying that since he couldn’t afford a good editor, he was absolved of the responsibility to sell an edited book.

    Which got me to thinking…well, that’s how it is with all products, eh? Some company develops a product and is unwilling or unable to invest in good quality materials. And sometimes the company just folds, and sometimes it lands an as-seen-on-TV deal and everybody buys a Slap Chop even though you could cut more onions by hitting them with the side of the damn thing.

    But still…as a consumer there’s always that wish that companies cared enough about their market to invest in quality. And for an author to say “I did what I could, and too bad if the bad editing means people who actually took a chance on my book feel like they got trash”…well, that’s sad, really.

    • Erin, I agree. It is a waste when someone damages their author brand, because of careless mistakes with an otherwise easy fix. Even if you can’t afford a professional editor, there’s Grammarly or other software to help. Another writer can read your work, or maybe you can join a critique group. As self-published authors, we have enough hurdles, enough people in and out of the industry prejudging our work without adding a sloppy edit that completes their misperceptions.