Edit Like A Pro: Guest Post by Harry Bingham

Last week, I spoke about the importance of getting the basics right. This week we are going to focus on editing, and in particular self-editing.

One of the more common criticisms self-publishers receive is with regard to editing (or proofing, which is part of the editorial process).

Sometimes the criticisms are misplaced, with readers confusing British English with a typo, or a stylistic choice (like whether to use the Oxford comma) with a rule. But oftentimes,  readers’ comments are on the mark.

Equally often, readers find flaws with the story that could have been addressed with a more rigorous edit. For example, if your readers felt nothing when a character died, perhaps you should have done more to establish an emotional connection. An editor could have pointed this out in advance, and suggested ways to resolve it.

This week, I have a series of guest posts from experienced editors who are accomplished authors themselves. First up is Harry Bingham:

Edit Like A Pro

David likes to quote Seth Godin’s maxim that it’s easier to design marketing into a product than to spend money on advertising a wrongly designed product after launch. Of course he’s right. How could he not be?

For writers, that mostly means that you yourself need to care enough about your book. You need to be a little obsessive, a tad perfectionist. If you haven’t yet managed to annoy your partner with the depth of your absorption in your book, then may I suggest you haven’t yet done enough work? Hemingway once told an interviewer that he had re-written the final page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. Oh, said the interviewer, was there some technical problem which caused you difficulty? Yes, said the Great Man, getting the words right. You need to be like that, and for the same reason.

On the other hand, you need to employ the right suite of professionals too. My forthcoming novel, which is being conventionally published, will have had several reads from my literary agent, a 6000 word editorial report from my editor at Orion, some further comments from my editor in the US, a professional copy-edit, my own revision of that copyedit, and then very careful proofreading, probably by two sets of eyes, as well as my own.

That’s a level of attentiveness to the manuscript which you couldn’t buy for less than, I’d guess, £3,000 (around $4,500). Perhaps the last proof-reading could be trimmed. Maybe one or two of those reads by my agent. But mostly, good quality publishing produces good quality books via a kind of obsessive perfectionism of its own.

Any self-publishing author, however, needs to strike a pragmatic balance between excellence and cost. If you’re a genius marketer (think John Locke), you can get away with a so-so product. (Indeed, even Locke doesn’t rate his authorial skills particularly highly.) If you’re a genius author, you can probably get away with so-so editing. But most of us aren’t in either of those categories. We need to be a pretty damn good writer for anyone to want to read our stuff. You’ll need to be a pretty damn good salesperson to get your work noticed in the deluge. But those things just buy you an entry ticket. They get you in the game. They’re not enough to transform your sales prospects.

For almost everyone, then, some kind of paid external editorial work will be essential. The questions is how do you approach that? And how much should you be looking to pay? Before I go on, I should also make it clear that, although I am a mostly full-time author, I do also help run The Writers’ Workshop, a company which offers everything from writing courses to editorial services. So although I have an expertise in these areas, I’m also potentially biased. You need to remember that as you read on.

First, I think any serious self-pub author needs a full editorial critique of their work. Every pro author gets that – indeed, as noted above, my work was looked at in detail by three editorial professionals (two editors and my agent). I don’t think you should need three rounds of assessment. But I do think you need one warts-and-all critique. That needs to be done by a pro – which means any professional novelist or any professional commissioning editor. English teachers don’t count. Academics don’t count. People who have written academic, business or professional texts don’t count. I know this because I’ve seen crits from all sorts, and the only ones which have ever impressed me are by authors or by editors. The rest are often worthless. (If you’re lucky: bad editorial advice will make a book worse, not better.)

Second, you need a copy-edit. That can’t be one and the same thing as the structural editorial critique, because they look at different things and require different skills. More than that, they pull in different directions. The editorial critique is all about pulling the manuscript apart. It’s about finding weaknesses in the manuscript and directing the author to correct them. A good author will do just that. Copyediting is the opposite. It assumes a settled manuscript and its aim is simply to bed the manuscript down even further. To give it its final form.

Depending on the length of your manuscript, the first type of critique will cost you around £400-500 (roughly $600-800). The copyedit about the same.

But what else? At the Writers’ Workshop, we often seen writers take a writing course, then come to us with a first draft manuscript for review, then some time later, they’re back again, then sometimes they come even a third time. The cost of all this can run into thousands of pounds.

Now, I’m not against people spending loads of money with us. Indeed, I rather like it. But does it make sense?

On the whole, I’ve realised that people sometimes use our editorial services as a way to build their own self-editing skills. Now that, in principle, makes sense. The more alive your own self-editing impulse, the better your work will be. The better your work is when you bring it to an external editor, the more value you’ll get from that editor. But if learning that essential editorial skill is what you’re after, then why not get there direct?

We run a fair few writing courses – everything from how to write a novel through to screenwriting – but the course which gives us our most impassioned positive feedback is our self-editing one. We get two author-editors to run this together and they teach writers how to look at their own novels. How to identify plot holes. How to test prose for soundness, characters for lifelikeness, everything for vibrancy. The actual week-to-week topics are almost exactly the same as those on our basic ‘How to Write a Novel’ course, but the approach is different. Because we’re dealing with people who have written a book and are now wrestling it into shape, their approach is different. We’ve had people tell us that the course has been transformative. Literally: that it’s taken them from one kind of writer (a stumbling amateur) to another (an emerging pro).

Now I don’t want to be too salesy about this. There are probably other good self-editing courses out there. You don’t have to buy them from the Writers’ Workshop. Indeed, you can go a long way just by recognising the issue, buying textbooks, reading carefully, and so on.

But the point remains. What do you need to make sure that your product has that Seth Godinish quality baked in from conception? I think you need three things, not two. You need an external editor. You need a good quality copyeditor. And you need a highly attuned self-editing faculty of your own. The more you have of number three, the less critical will be your reliance on numbers one and two.

As Hemingway hinted, the basic challenge is the same for every writer. Always has been, always will be. Getting the words right.

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Harry Bingham is a bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers a range of writing courses including a How to Write a Novel course.

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Thanks to Harry for kicking off the week. I’m sure his post will generate a good discussion.

Personally, I think self-publishers can be stronger than large publishers in a lot of areas: speed-to-market, formatting, marketing to readers, pricing, and covers (I often see books from large publishers with beautiful covers for print that don’t translate well to e-books), as well as creative thinking in terms of innovation and promotion.

However, I think we have some catching up to do on the editorial side. I see some self-publishers boasting that they only paid $200 for editing. They may well have gone through a rigorous editorial process in the hands of a competent, experienced professional for that price, but I seriously doubt it.

We don’t have to replicate the traditional editorial process exactly, and often some of the stages can be folded into each other as many freelance editors are capable of wearing several hats. For example, with my last release, my editor provided developmental (content) advice before the final draft, then after that was written we went through a couple of rounds of copy and line editing before I had it proofed. All of that took place well after I had cycled through several drafts, and several beta readers.

I haven’t used the services of The Writers’ Workshop but I have heard great things from those who have. I attended a conference they organized in 2010, and the workshops (some of which were taught by their editors) were of the highest quality and I learned a huge amount (not least that my novel needed another rewrite).

I think Harry made a very important point: developing your own self-editing skills will cut down on the amount you need to spend on professional help, and improve your writing.

Next up in this series is a two-part post from my own long-suffering editor on the common mistakes that writers make, and how they can learn to avoid them.