The Editing Myth

editingPeriodically a new blog post or article surfaces that complains bitterly about the proliferation of indie authors, the inundation of the unwashed that is swamping Amazon and muddying the waters for the traditionally-published. This almost always boils down to two major points: (1) just ANYbody can self-publish (which obviously is very true but sounds suspiciously like sour grapes to me) and (2) indie books sometimes (maybe more than sometimes) need more editing than they get. Very often these posts bleat about the fact that if authors wait and work to be picked up by a traditional house, they will have the benefit of thoughtful, detailed, professional editing and will, therefore, produce better books.

I beg to differ.

My first book was published in 1984 by a New York house. The book was complete when they optioned it and they never suggested so much as a comma to me. The fact that they accepted the manuscript verbatim and had zero editorial suggestions seemed like a silent nod of approval, and on good days I could believe that if I wanted. On bad days, I might just believe they deemed the book “good enough” and were not interested in spending time polishing it. When I got a letter from them saying I needed to add 70 pages to get to the proper page count, there was no hint of what the content should be. Story line, plot points or character development all seemed to be of no concern whatsoever. I duly added the pages, resubmitted them, and the book went to publication without any other changes. Even my few typos went in exactly as my fingers mangled them.

A far cry from the cozy dinner-and-coffee tete-a-tetes we see between authors and their editors in the movies.

Meanwhile, I’d finished my second book and asked if they’d like to see it. Yes, indeedy; send it on in. I did, and as before, they never uttered a word of editorial wisdom, just accepted the book as written. Oh, except for the fact that for this one I needed to cut 50 pages. The dreaded page count reared its ugly head again. No other suggestions of what areas might be cut, just get the page count down.

By the time my third book was optioned in 2000, the entire publishing landscape had changed. The big New York houses were concentrating all their efforts on sure blockbusters, and so small presses were springing up everywhere to take up the slack. It was a novel and heartening experience to work with an editor of a small press. No, we didn’t sit down and have coffee as we pored over my book, but we did e-mail just about daily about everything from chapter headers to fonts to white space. Although, again, he did not offer a single suggestion about editing, the collaborative experience was about 1000% better than what I’d experienced before.

My next two books were also picked up by small presses. One was published with no changes to the text, no editing whatsoever. With the second one, to my great surprise, my editor actually made some suggestions—three if I recall. She suggested alternate text in two locations, both of which I declined to change, and then flagged some confusion over a name that I had not realized I had used twice in different circumstances. I quickly amended that and the book was good to go. It was nice (1) knowing she actually read the book and was thinking of ways to polish it and (2) having that give-and-take relationship where we could discuss the problem areas and agree on resolutions.

Still no coffee, though.

Now I have moved into the realm of self-publishing, which means I supply my own coffee and my own editing advice. I do, of course, rely heavily on friends (both readerly and writerly) and family to read and give feedback, but on the whole this is not much different than what I’ve done all along. I was going to say that the editing process when I was traditionally-published is exactly the same as the one now when I self-publish, but that’s not entirely true.

As an indie writer, I now get more editing input than I ever did when I was traditionally-published.

Back in the 80s when I was dealing with the New York house, this was the day of query letters via snail-mail and lugging 20-pound double-spaced manuscripts to the post office with a hand truck. I wrote in isolation, could count my willing beta-readers on one hand and exchanged terse letters with my publisher once or twice a year.

Fast-forward to now.

With social media forums like Goodreads, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, I belong to numerous writing communities filled with extremely friendly and helpful writers and readers who are happy to beta-read. On my last book I had no fewer than about 10 or 12 beta-readers, and each gave me very thoughtful and very different feedback. As always, I carefully consider the notes and suggestions, take it all in and feel how it fits (or not) into the story, and use what is appropriate. In this day of instant communication and global communities, I actually feel as if I have a veritable smorgasbord of editorial assistants available to me—way more than I ever had with traditional publishers.

And what’s really great is that my “editorial staff” never makes comments about what’s trending now or about what’s worked in the past. It never warns that my book doesn’t fit nicely into a prescribed genre or that marketing might be difficult. My editorial staff critiques the book as informed readers and professional writers do, noting what works to propel the story along or what hinders that forward progress. My staff concentrates not on what’s currently selling but on how my story can reach its potential and be the best book it can be.

As you can see, I’ve got the best support team in the world.

I wonder what the nay-sayers would say to that?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

41 thoughts on “The Editing Myth”

  1. Yup. Same experience here, back in the late 90s. Not only was the manuscript published as is – somehow, the publisher (a mid sized press) managed to ADD IN more errors. Interesting.

    One well known author I know finished a book last year, read it over once to clean up any glaring errors, and then sent it off. It was published with a couple dozen words changed from his FIRST DRAFT.

    But yeah, those trad pub books get tons more editing, Right. 😉

    1. Kevin, I had to laugh at your anecdotes. It’s one thing when I got no editorial mentoring at all, another thing completely when the editorial staff ADDS errors (or adds back in the ones edited out). Obviously “trad-pubbed” does not mean editorial polish across the board. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    2. I had the same experience, Kevin. I honestly think my previous publisher ADDED editing errors – one of the main reasons I terminated my contracts and started to self-publish.

  2. As a life-long writer and career English teacher, I rely first on my own editing. Allowing time to pass between edits and utilizing different formats (hard-copy, e-book format, etc.) allow me to see my manuscript as a reader, rather than an author. However, beta-readers provide me with insights not only regarding clean copy but also regarding story development. I remember one short story, “Who Listened to Dragons,” was read by a high school student who was a fantasy fan. He told me to beef up one fight scene, which was good advice. Melissa, if you are getting a dozen or so beta-readers, I’m sure you are receiving so good and varied suggestions.

    1. Tom, I agree whole-heartedly. I do my own editing, even after hearing over and over that it can’t be done. Unlike Hemingway, when I’m done with my first draft, I am 95% done. My beta-readers point up things that I might miss, but when I get back different small items from each, I know the story has no large flaws. I consider all feedback and each reader helps me tighten up the story to be the best it can be.

  3. I think I’m going to be a bit of a naysayer, Melissa, but I’m curious to hear what other authors who have been traditionally published say and how common your experience is. I’ll start out by saying that I think you’re doing it right. Many other indie authors do than the anti-indie crowd would ever admit. And many don’t. I don’t think we disagree on this, but I wonder if your trad publishing experience is representative. It’s was obviously true of your publisher for your books, but I have my doubts it is of most publishers. I’m going to ramble a bunch before explaining why I feel that way. This comment will end up post length, I’m sure 🙂

    Editing is a broad function, so I’m going to define my terminology quickly and say the editing process as I understand it and usually talk about it is divided into three phases, with some overlap possible between them all. I’ve seen different terms and slightly different divisions discussed elsewhere, but this will do for discussion. First, you’ve got content editing that looks at the big picture, story arc, are there story threads that add nothing, and things like that, focused on overall structure and blocks that are scene sized and bigger. Next is copy or line editing, that looks at grammar, might fix how a sentence is worded, etc with the focus on paragraphs and smaller. Last is proofreading, which is shaking out any typos. (Technically, I think the proofing function as I see it traditionally would be part of copy editing with what was called proofing focusing on making sure errors weren’t introduced during typesetting, but in today’s world and the process authors I’m familiar with use, my definition fits.)

    My feeling has always been that content editing, the big picture editing, often comes down to opinion with no clear answer that one way is better than another.A book has to have some serious issues to have obviously not had this done and I suspect that a book with serious problems wouldn’t make it past an agent and get picked up by a publisher, so I’d easily believe some (or many or even most) traditional publishers don’t do this.

    But the things that happen in the more detailed phases are often clear cut. A word is either spelled right or it isn’t. A sentence is complete or it isn’t (missing a word or whatever) or has grammar errors that can’t be justified (for example, bad grammar in dialogue might be okay, because the character isn’t well spoken). These kind of errors I notice when I’m reading. Errors do creep through and I’ve certainly seen some in trad published books through the years, but never more than a handful in any one book. I’ve read plenty of manuscripts after an author was ready to pass them on to others (so presumably the same kind of state as what you would have sent to your publisher) and they virtually always have more than a handful of errors. I have to believe the publishers for the books I’ve read were doing some editing and proofing.

    Kind of on the same subject … The January before last I read a small (non-scientific sample) of traditionally published books from the Big 5-ish and kept track of the errors I found as I was reading. Some of them had serious problems that would appear to be editing/proofing issues in the ebook version, that I’m sure were problems with their conversion process (hyphenated words that were artifacts from the printed edition, special characters that were not translated correctly, and such), but they all had very few errors that were the kind you’d expect to have been caught during copy editing and proofing. (I compared them to what I’d found in the Indie books I’re reviewed over the previous year and found a decent percentage of indie books – 70% – were to the same standard.

    On a positive note, you did say that you did actually get editing from a smaller press. I’m never sure what to consider Amazon’s publishing imprints, they aren’t Big 6, but they’re also not small press, but where ever they fit in the overall scheme of things, I do know they do a through editing job on the books they publish. I’ve seen the editing notes on at least one book they published, so know it is happening.

    1. Al, I think in the old days, either line editors or proofreaders were also expected to do fact-checking — another task that seems to be getting short shrift from publishing houses today.

    2. Al, I put this out there strictly as my experience, since I can’t speak for all publishers or all authors, and I certainly would not be surprised if others had a better experience than I did. But simply from the standpoint of numbers (5 books, 4 publishers), I have to conclude that editing by publishers is mistakenly overrated. What I love about my own process is being right in the middle of it, working with my beta-readers one-on-one to tighten up the story. Works for me!

      1. I am an indie author, and my copyeditor does all of the above for me. She checks facts, tells me when I should add more about certain characters or improve story arcs, checks the grammar, and proofreads all at once. I just got my last book back and she went into military errors, language errors, continuity errors, personality changes in a secondary character, making sections shorter or longer to improve flow, as well as copyrights, grammar errors, use of British English, and proofreading errors down to the odd comma. I can’t say how important it is to me to have an amazing copyeditor.

        I have two or three other readers (varies with each book depending on their time), who also give me advice about fight scenes, things that don’t make sense, etc., and then I have my mom proofread it after the second edits to make sure we didn’t miss any typos on the way out the door. Comments I’ve gotten about my books from readers include that they are well-written and well-edited.

        I hate to disagree at all with this article, because I want to stand up for indie authors. But I am also one of those people who reads the free books from up and coming indie authors on amazon, and I can tell you I’ve read some pretty bad stuff. Poor grammar, poor storylines, poor characterization, you name it and you’ll find it. But I guess it works in favor of everyone who cares about quality, because after those stories, I’m pretty happy to get back to my favorite authors who I know put out great stuff and don’t really care what I have to pay for them.

        I think the bottom line is that indie writers are just like people in the general population. Some are perfectionists who see their work as representative of themselves and their reputation, who do all of the due diligence and put out some outstanding quality. Others don’t really care about that and just want to put something out – maybe to make money, or just to see their name in lights.

        There is someone I know who actually paid for a vanity press and then didn’t use the editing service. That individual said they didn’t care if a comma was out of place or they forgot a period somewhere. I tried to explain the benefits of using an editor, and what different types of editors do, but all I got for my trouble was a blank look.

  4. I can only speak from the self-published side of this fence but I do think this post goes a long way to busting the myth that anything self-published has to be riddled with errors and is probably trash, (as the trad publishers and nay-sayers would have us believe).

    The one thong that has not been mentioned is that many of us pay qualified freelance editors to do the copy-editing and proof-reading. Many of these used to work for the trad houses.

    And, as you say, beta readers do a fine job of content-editing. I’d be curious to see how those that we know were edited compare to the trad published books for spelling and grammar. (as in not including those books that have not been through that process).

    As for the rules for length I can only say that forcing a story to fit an artificial, predetermined word count can only weaken it. But that’s just my opinion.

    1. Yvonne, I was surprised at how paramount the page count was to my first publisher. It seemed to trump almost everything else. Another nice thing about self-publishing: we publish the book when the story is ready and damn the page count.

  5. I have certainly heard some horror stories from fellow writers about bad experiences in regard to additional errors turning up. However my one and only personal experience with a traditional publisher was my first book, published by a small press in the UK in 2007, and I must say that the editing process, although negotiated entirely by email correspondence, was quite adequately covered; I did have it edited before I sent it to the publishers and there was relatively little to do but enough so that I knew they had paid my book some attention. My dissatisfaction with the publisher came later, concerning another matter entirely, which is likely to be the subject of one of my forthcoming posts.

    Excellent post, Melissa.

    1. Thanks, T.D. It is nice to know some authors have had good experiences, even if with only part of the process. As with anything, there will be a wide range of publishers and processes, from the do-nothing to the do-everything. And, as you point up, we authors should have our books in tip-top shape before they ever get to a publisher so there is minimal editing to be done.

  6. I love these war stories. I may have to make copies of this post and hand them out at World Fantasy Convention later this year. 😀 “Add 70 pages” and “cut 50 pages” — hoo boy.

    My editor at the small press that published my first novel said she loved working with my stuff because it was so clean. And yes, my beta reader and my editor give me more content-type input.

    Great post, Melissa.

  7. Melissa, this post sheds light on the professional way many indies approach their work. The book I am completing right now is taking way longer to edit than I planned, but will be worth it in the end. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Lois, you’re absolutely right. As I said, when I began to write this post, I initially thought my editing process was exactly the same whether I trad-pubbed or self-pubbed, but as I was writing I realized that was not the case. Going indie and availing myself of all the great communities and helpful talents out there goes way beyond the narrow experience of traditional publishing, at least IMHO.

  8. Ack, the dreaded page count! Thank you for your post, Melissa. I published one book with a small press, after it had gone through a critique group and beta reading. The attention to editing was impressive. I worked closely with a developmental editor (and we would have met for coffee if she didn’t live in Canada), a copyeditor, and a proofreader.

    I feel so proud of my fellow indie authors for gathering professionals to do the job that sometimes publishers do not do – or do too strenuously. Although I do look to and treasure beta readers for their input, every one is looking at the project through a different lens and can’t be expected to catch everything. That’s why I’ll be a little bit of a naysayer here, because I hire an editor and think that most authors can benefit from employing a fresh set of eyes. I’d say that even if I weren’t an editor. But that’s an argument for another post.

    1. Laurie, glad you had such a good experience. Having gone through that so thoroughly, I’m guessing it helped down the road with both your writing and editing. Yes, we absolutely need fresh eyes to look at our work and I make it a point to enlist beta-readers who range from “simply” (and I say that with the utmost respect) readers to those with writing and editorial minds so I get a mix of responses. What surprises me is the variation in the feedback I get; in my latest, I’ve had no 2 readers point up the same issue, which is a good thing. And as always, I consider each suggestion seriously and feel how it fits (or not) into the story.

  9. Great post. I personally found being with an experienced critique group and polishing as we wrote worked wonders. By the time our books were completed we had done almost all the editing and could publish very quickly. An important aspect was giving each member copies to read, and to keep the group small and manageable. That way a lot of our pages were read each week and we got to “The end” very soon.

  10. Ester, sounds like a great group. I agree having a small cadre of readers is a good idea; an author could get lost amid 20 or 40 readers, all with different suggestions. We have to remember that we can’t please everyone, and we must remain true to the story and the characters.

  11. I just left a small press publishing company that I was with for two years. The editing I received from them was horrible and I am now having to pay to get all of my books re-edited. I learned my lesson the hard way. If you do choose a publisher – trad. or small press – make sure to do your homework. SOME books signed with this company got better editing than others, depending on the author who wrote it.

    1. Nicole, obviously all publishers are not created equal; sorry you had that experience. You’re absolutely correct about doing your homework. Just because a publisher is traditional does not mean they are the best; just because they are small or indie does not mean they are the worst. We’ll find every degree of competence or not across the board. Research is invaluable.

  12. “And what’s really great is that my “editorial staff” never makes comments about what’s trending now or about what’s worked in the past. It never warns that my book doesn’t fit nicely into a prescribed genre or that marketing might be difficult….”

    This. So much this. The editors I work with on my indie books are concerned with the BOOK, not the market. If you worry about market first, you’ve got it backwards. And what do you know? By concentrating on making the BOOK the best it can be, the marketing takes care of itself.

    1. Margaret, I agree 100%. Too often publishers are looking back at what worked before, not looking ahead to the next new thing. Why should we attempt to latch onto the coattails of whatever’s trending now when we can spearhead the next trend?

  13. When my novels were published Random House and other traditional publishers, I looked forward to both my editor’s notes and those of the managing editor (really a copy editor/fact checker). That still didn’t stop me from making errors regarding firearms that alert readers always pointed out. Now, that I’m self pubbed, I hire a freelance editor who was laid off from her New York publishing job. I still relish the help. Hey, Hemingway and Fitzgerald needed Max Perkins, didn’t they?

    1. I’m going to jump in before anyone else with a welcome to IU, Paul. I didn’t realize you’d gone the indie route, but read and liked some of your traditionally published books (The Solomon and Lord series).

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