Remember the time when it was difficult to become a published author? Back in the day there were only two routes available – either you were lucky enough to be picked up by a publisher, or you paid a small fortune to a dodgy company to ‘vanity publish’ your book. Now, of course, it’s different. The introduction of e-readers – especially Amazon’s Kindle – and print on demand makes it easy for anyone to become a published author. All you have to do is write a book, upload it and wait for the sales to roll in, right?
Many self-publishing authors cut corners by missing out the editing and proofreading stages. The result? There are thousands of books out there with fantastic plots and characters or indispensable information that receive poor reviews and make very few sales because they are badly written. If only those authors had employed an editor, it could have been a different story!
Part of the problem is not everyone understands what editing involves. It’s not just about checking the spelling – it goes a lot further than that. In fact, there are three – or possibly even four – stages of editing that every self-published book should go through.
Stage one: content editing
The first stage of editing is the editing the author does themselves. Don’t think your book is finished when you type “The End” on the last page! Put your manuscript away for a few days, or even a couple of weeks, and then come back to it with a critical eye. Read it through slowly – out loud is best, because it’s not so easy to miss out words. Make sure your book makes sense, that it says what you want it you say, and that everything you’ve written is relevant. Don’t be afraid to cut out waffle or add extra information, if you think your book needs it. Change any spelling or grammatical errors you spot along the way but don’t get too hung up on this. Your editor/proofreader will sort out the language; your focus now is on the content. It could be that your book actually goes through several draft stages – read it through each time and make changes until you are happy with it. But remember, there’s no such thing as perfect!
Stage two: beta readers
Traditional publishers will often use content editors to ‘sanity check’ the content of a book, to make sure the style of language creates the right atmosphere, the storylines all work, everything makes sense, there are no plot holes etc. You can achieve the same thing by using beta readers – people who read your book at this early stage and give you honest feedback. Pick your beta readers carefully. By all means give your mum a copy, but don’t expect much in the way of critical feedback! Instead, choose keen readers who are within your target audience, and who you trust to give you genuine feedback, negative as well as positive. Let them know that you’re not really worried about any spelling mistakes, but you do want to know what works and what doesn’t work. You could even ask them, quite simply, “What is wrong with my book?” Take on board their feedback and make the appropriate changes. Your book will be all the better for it!
Stage three: line editing / copyediting
A copyeditor will work through the text line by line, making sure it is clear, concise and coherent. They’ll look at sentence structure, edit out clunky text and make sure concepts are easily understood by the lay reader. (It’s amazing how much writers assume the reader knows!) They’ll pick up inconsistencies – people being in two places at the same time, or hair turning from blond to brown to blond again – and edit out extraneous content. (If we’re told a character gets into a car and drives off, we usually don’t need to know about them unlocking it, opening the door, putting the key in the ignition and indicating before they pull away!) A good copyeditor will create a style list that includes recurring phrases – for example, whether you use OK or okay – to ensure styles are used consistently throughout. They’ll also fact check (e.g. the spelling of place names) and raise any queries with you.
Stage three / four: proofreading
Traditionally, proofreaders checked a ‘proof’ copy of the publication for typos, consistent formatting, page numbers in sequence etc. before it was mass printed. Today, the role of the proofreader is more about checking for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and ensuring that any changes requested by the copyeditor have been made.
However, many proofreaders (myself included) actually take on a more editorial role, and will be looking for sentence structure, consistency, clarity etc. as well as errors and typos. Employing a copyeditor/proofreader for your book makes the process quicker and less expensive. Bear in mind that if you make changes after your book has been proofread, you’ll need to have it checked again, as it’s easy for mistakes to creep in.
I can proofread my own book!
Don’t be fooled into thinking proofreading is something you can do yourself. By the time you’ve planned, written, rewritten and edited your book, you will be so familiar with the plot and the characters you’ll overlook even the most obvious mistakes. For example, I once proofread a novel where a character’s name switched from Tracey to Tracy and back again from chapter to chapter. The author knew what the character was called but didn’t spot the change in spelling, because he was too close to the book.
There are thousands of self-published books out there and you want to stand out from the crowd. Editing may be an expense you don’t feel you can justify – but when it makes the difference between one-star and five-star reviews, or a handful of sales and a best seller, it’s an expense you can’t afford to avoid.