Editors: Do Indie Authors Need Them? Catherine Czerkawska

The Amber Heart: eBook version.
          Most writers who have been published in the conventional way will have stories about good and bad editors. My worst experience was with an editor who rewrote substantial sections of my novel without using any kind of track changes software. It was only when I read through the manuscript that I thought, 'I didn't write that... or that ... or that.'
          Because this was a novel which had started life as a series of plays, and was set on a remote Scottish island, I had a very precise idea of how my characters would speak, and what would work. This wasn't incomprehensible dialect. It was more to do with the rhythm and musicality of speech which is such a feature of the area. She had ironed out these differences. When, at a key point in the novel, my Hebridean hero says to the heroine, 'I think I will just have to keep you!', she twice changed it to, 'I think I'll keep you.'
          It was then that the relationship broke down although, to be fair, this had been preceded by a number of insulting comments about my prose and (non-existent) anachronisms. And believe me, as a playwright, I'm no delicate flower. Most playwrights are quite comfortable with having their deathless dialogue questioned and questioned again!
          Oddly enough, my best editorial experience was with the same publisher, and it was wonderful: a helpful, thoughtful, precise and astute young editor who spotted all my typos and inconsistencies, as well as those passages where you think you're being totally clear, but somebody coming cold to the text might find things puzzling. Above all, he seemed able to spot - and hone in on - those places where I myself was a little uncertain, but couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong. We had a great many cheerful and businesslike email exchanges and the book was all the better for it.
          All of which leads me to the conclusion that (a) a good editor is a pearl of great price and (b) indie authors most certainly need them.
          The problem comes - of course - with finding that 'good editor'. Not many people know that there is a Society for Editors and Proof-readers, here in the UK. They have codes of practice (and making changes without highlighting them is definitely not recommended!) But not all editors are members of any professional organisation.

My precious Kindle in its turquoise cover.

          With the advent of eBooks and indie publishing, we are seeing a lot of unedited work out there, and writers - particularly beginning writers - are doing themselves a disservice by making their mistakes so publicly. It's worth paying somebody to edit your manuscript: all part of treating yourself as a professional.
          However - and it is a very big however - the rise of eBook publishing has resulted in the concomitant rise of the unpoliced indie-editor. Suddenly, all kinds of people are claiming to be able to tell you how to rewrite your novel and demanding payment for doing so.
          Writer beware.
          There are two kinds of editing. There is the general editing, conventionally undertaken by a publisher's editor, the person who acquires your book, but increasingly by your literary agent. As an agent remarked to me, 'Publishers are looking for an oven ready product, these days.'  He or she will look at overall structure, plot, character development and so on, and make helpful suggestions. Later, there is copy editing, which will look at the minutiae of your manuscript: typos, punctuation, spelling, etc.
          The former kinds of editors are only useful when they are demonstrably experienced enough to know what they are talking about - and when they understand what you are trying to achieve. As a writer remarked to me recently, 'Why in God's name would you trust a recent media studies graduate, with almost no track record except a handful of essays, to be able to revamp the essence of your novel and get it right?'
          Why indeed?
          Yet there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of highly prescriptive blogs and websites out there written by people who - with delusional self confidence, rather than any proven knowledge or experience - have set themselves up as founts of editorial wisdom.
          We do need editors. We need them to look at early drafts and ask searching questions, which is so often what a good theatre director does. He or she never rewrites, but I've sometimes had two or three closely written pages of questions about a play, and in finding the answers to those questions, I've made the play infinitely better. This relationship must always involve mutual respect and a genuine interest in allowing the true voice of the writer to shine through.
          A good copy editor is also essential. We need to bite the business bullet and pay the going rate. Even though an editor, an agent, and several readers had gone over the manuscript, I've just found two typos in my novel Bird of Passage, or rather had them pointed out to me by an eagle-eyed reader. Thankfully, with an eBook, I can make corrections!
          But take nobody on trust. Go by personal or professional recommendation if you can. Communications from your editor should be stimulating, interesting and exciting. Your heart should not sink at the thought of how they are going to slag you and your work off. Above all, beware of the inexperienced editor who may be too over-confident to know how little he or she really knows.
          If indie-authors need editors - and they surely do - who edits the editors?

Catherine Czerkawska


Jan Needle said…
it's too early in the morning to make a serious point, and i'm off to the zoo with two small children, so i'll just be silly. does your editor expect extra pay to spell your name right, catherine (not that name)? sorree!
Susan Price said…
A very timely post, Catherine! And what you say is absolutely true. I shall have to struggle with my natural stinginess and actually pay the going rate.
BTW, love your turquoise kindle jacket! Mine flaunts itself in bright red.
Dennis Hamley said…
My Kindle jacket is a serious black, but it does have a very useful reading light. I've not had trouble with an over-fussy and presumptuous editor but I have encountered a professional copy-editor for a very prestigious publisher who, obviously believing that German plurals were formed with 's', altered my careful mention of Junkers 88s so that eight flying tgether were Junkers 88s but one on its won was a Junker 88. This 'correction' appeared after I'd sent my own corrected proof copy back so I only saw it when I got advance copies. I complained bitterly. I'm supposed to know about WW2 air forces but now everyone will think I'm an ignoramus.It will be altered for the ebook version, never fear. Incompetence appears in the most unexpected places.
Sometimes I wonder if I can spell my own name right! I'm reminded of the misery of my infant years at school when everyone else could spell Smith and Jones and even Robshaw, but I was still struggling with Czerkawska;-)
CallyPhillips said…
While of course I agree that we should all be striving for the best production values we can, and thus editing is a very important part of the proceedure... can I just suggest that we think about the Islamic tradition of art (I think it's all art, it may just be rugs) where you always leave one deliberate error because perfection is only for God to achieve... and maybe we shouldn't crucify ourselves (oops, mixed religious metaphors) about the odd typo. They happen. No one can spot everything. A reader who can't forgive a typo is a reader with wrong priorities. (Having said that, I have to confess my own editing skills have previously all too often been a low B and I now aspire to A grade so will be addressing the issue personally!) But it's the story folks, the story, the narrative, the ideas and their delivery NOT the typos which matter.
I completely agree with you, but I know not everyone does. I can forgive a few typos too - I've never read a perfect paper book either - there's always something that gets past the editors - often quite a lot of things. I suspect eBook readers are sometimes out to catch us out though. A friend told me I had a word wrong in one book, but it turned out that the word was right - she just didn't know it. (I confess to a certain amount of satisfaction in telling her.) My previous agent has made me completely paranoid about commas. He littered my book with commas where I would never have thought to use them, and now it is getting in the way of my writing. I read various 'guides' in an effort to nail it once and for all, but then realised that there isn't any agreement among the experts either. I don't mean the obvious places, but all those 'well, if the sense is clear, you don't need them' places. I have a friend who is a very well regarded writer of literary fiction who simply doesn't use them and I've never had any trouble reading his work! I suppose all this means that we can only do the best we can. There's a successful US novelist and eBook publisher (I forget who now) who wrote a blog post saying that writers should aim to be good enough, but not become paranoid about it all.
Jan Needle said…
back from chester zoo now and ready for bed again, but prepared to be more serious about people's names. editors, professionals to the man, find it very difficult to get things right, and therefore should not be trusted too much. bertolt brecht more often than not appears as berthold or bertold than bertolt, which encapsulates the problem rather neatly. he chose to 'misspell' his name, after his parents gave him the bog standard spelling. editors, i cynically fear, quite like to show off, and when they 'know' something, they're quite resistant to checking. one can envisage them telling old bert - no, you spell it this way, herr brecht - pull yourself together!

more seriously, some editors change things to 'improve' your english or construction, et al - and often, as cally and dennis have illustrated, screw it up completely. i've had huge rows with harper collins editors in the past, because they've assumed i don't know proper grammar when i deliberately adapt it to what i want it to sound like in the context. it's a hell of an argument, and beyond the bleeding pale. on the other hand, the best editor i've ever had, tim waller, was a harper collins man.

the americans are worst, or at least totally impossible. they're comma crazy, change which to that and vice versa, and won't be argued with. i spent more money in transatlantic calls with one of my books than i earned from it! (mr needle, you're guilty of exaggeration, which, in america, is spelled with thre...etc etc)
copy editors yes - they can be brilliant. editors who change things because they know better need watching like the plague. (mr needle, you're mixing your meddafors again...)

get someone to do it if you must, but remember who the writer is. now i'd better go and have a lie down...
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
I think you're wrong about public mistakes. Or at least I don't mind my own. In fact, I don't give a fig that my first two novels are terribly flawed. (But I don't give a fig about readers either.) A writer has to learn to be her own editor; otherwise, she's done only half the job. If I were at all interested, I'd rewrite my books from the ground up, cutting out all manner of missteps. But they serve very well indeed as a reminder of where I once was and where I now hope to go.

The best editor is time: leave your early draft for a year and work on something else. Then go back. There will be plenty of searching questions. Not to mention typos and inconsistencies.
Ah ...time. The Amber Heart has had some twenty years and about two dozen drafts, perhaps more, and I'm still finding infelicities and inconsistencies. This is a novel and a story which has grown with my ability to tell it, while I've been publishing other things. Bit like a grown-up child. The only way I can let it go is because I know there is another much loved piece of work which needs my attention.
But I certainly care about my readers, at least enough to want to share something with them, to communicate with them, as I want to communicate with an audience through the medium of theatre.
Lee said…
Yes, I know I'm a minority voice here as regards readers. Of course I'm pleased when someone tells me they like what I've written...pleased for about ten minutes, that is. Essentially, the only reader who matters to me is myself. But I'm not trying to communicate something (remember, I'm only speaking for myself here, and am not criticising others). For me, writing is something of a game - a bit like a crossword puzzle where I'm trying to get all those words to slot in just right.

And just what is right? Now, that's a question...
Lee, you've opened an excellent can of worms here! I've been thinking a lot about your comment and it's fascinating. Because I think if we're honest, many of us DO write first and foremost for ourselves. Not so much to get it right, whatever that is, as to find our way through something to the bitter end, to tell a story, explore a set of ideas, whatever. The sharing with readers comes later. But I know not all writers feel that way.
julia jones said…
Utterly worst presented book I've read recently was Between Silk and Cyanide: a code-makers war 1941-1945. Brilliant account of a world where the slightest error could mean death. Not an indie e-book but a 'proper' £14.99 pb from commercial publisher. Whoever passed it for press shold have been forced to eat their own rip-cord.
"I think I will just have to keep you!"
Even at the literary agent stage, I've come across attempts to rewrite/edit the Highland Scottish lyrical musicality of speech. It's mistaken by some as the author not knowing how to write properly. Syntax also. The thing I learned to fear most was the "line edit", where a fait accompli is handed back to you, no document with tracking changes...just a "new" document, not just with cuts, but with new bits I had not written, and the choice proffered to take it or leave it. I had a story edited that way once, cut from 3600 to 2700 words, no consultation...I believe I was given 24 hours to decide whether I would accept the rewrite! Happy days!
Aaaargh is all I can say to that one, John :-) The same editor suggested that I should perhaps read a volume of 'letters' to 'get a flavour of the period'. When I looked up the book she had recommended,(fizzing slightly, since I'd written extensively about this period and considered that I knew my stuff!) I saw that it belonged firmly in the south of England, and had no connection whatsoever with eighteenth century Scotland. Mind you, I wasn't alone. I heard afterwards that when editing a historical novel by a colleague who not only specialised in his chosen period, but was actually lecturing in it at a Scottish university, she kept querying all his information on the assumption that he was a complete amateur. But as I said - when it works well, it's wonderful. Only glad I've had some positive experiences as well!
Stephanie said…
There is a tendency to over-edit. New and indie authors aren't very confident, and I think some editors are taking advantage of that and pushing more services than the authors really need. An editor is there to help the author's voice shine through, not shout over it with their own.

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