Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Great Story, Bad Book

All writers need editing. I've said that before, but every year, it seems, I read more and more books that are poorly edited, if edited at all. I just finished one—a really good story, so I saw it through to the end, but the lack of copyediting and of things like mixed-up character names drove me nuts. On top of that, the galleys had apparently never been proofed because I saw formatting errors like hard returns in the middle of paragraphs. That publishing house so obviously didn't care about the quality of their product that I may never buy another of their books.

Editing can make or break you as a writer. Yet editors are traditionally so invisible that, in these days of self-publishing-made-easy, we forget editors exist for good reasons. Readers and most unpublished writers (and some published ones) have no idea what a good editor does or should do for a book. Here's what I've learned from the good editors I've had the pleasure to know:

1. Good editors don't let you settle. They point out your manuscript's weaknesses, coincidences, lame plot devices, loopholes, bad structure, and questionable research. They can zero in on those parts of the novel you slapped together (at the last minute, on too little sleep, to make your deadline) like flies zero in on garbage.

2. A good editor will ask you to change anything that makes you sound as if you don't have a command of your native language and a decent vocabulary. They'll say things like, "You used the word 'though' 187 times. Change a few of them." They won't let you use 200,000 words when 70,000 will do.

3. Good editors will tell you when your characters are out of character or wooden or just plain stupid. Editors should have a sixth sense that knows the page at which your average intelligent reader will get fed up with the hero and hurl the book across the room.

And here's what I've learned about good editing from bad editors:

1. A good editor will never, ever make changes in a manuscript without the writer's permission. I had one editor take colloquialisms out, until I was left with no narrative voice. I only found this out when I was sent the first proofs. I just heard of another writer who had this sort of thing happen at another house.

2. A good editor knows punctuation, spelling and standard text formatting. You'd think I wouldn't have to say that, but it's truer now than ever.

3. A good editor makes the writer fix his or her own wording, plot problems, etc. Mild suggestions are acceptable, but the editor has no business doing the writing. Too many editors seem to want to mark their territory this way. And too many novice writers would rather leave the rewrites to someone else. What you get is a book by committee.

This is why, when I decided to do an original series on Kindle, I sought out a good independent editor for the books. And I use several proofreaders for every story and novel I write, even before an editor picks it up.

Too many writers simply want to be published. A good piece of writing should be published well, with some level of integrity. Authors ought to care about that integrity more than anyone else. After all, check out whose name goes on the cover.


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