On Editing - Debbie Bennett

Editing. Love it or hate it, it’s a necessary evil for a writer. And it causes much confusion too – as it can include anything from a rip-it-apart-and-rebuild-it to a quick read-through for typos. Copy-editing, line-editing, editing for style, accuracy; I’m not going to bore you with the details, because honestly, I don’t think any two writers would agree completely on the definitions.

As an independent writer, do I even need an editor? They’re just the people who work at the publishing houses and buy books, aren’t they? Many would-be writers think they can simply rattle off a good yarn, submit it to a publisher and the editor will tidy it up and iron out all the creases, while the writer moves on to the next masterpiece. Maybe it did used to work that way once – but not anymore.

You want to submit your novel to a traditional publishing house? It had better be as damn-near perfect as you can make it. Whether it’s one of the Big 6/5/4 (however many there are now…) or a smaller independent publisher, the reader assigned to your submission is looking for an excuse to reject it – any excuse at all. So don’t give him/her an easy one straight off. I’ve read submissions for many competitions and anthologies and trust me – one that is easy on the eye and typo-free has a galloping head-start!

Or you’ve decided to publish your novel yourself? Good for you. But that doesn’t mean you can skip the processes the big boys do; you have to budget and buy them in for yourself if necessary. Editing is one of those processes.

So can you self-edit? To a certain degree, yes. The beauty of independent publishing is that you make your own rules and you are free to experiment with language as you wish – the proof of the pudding is in the eating (and you can beat your readers over the head with every cliché under the sun too…). Some writers are better at self-editing than others. I find that just changing the font and/or size helps – words moving around the page somehow makes things easier to spot and you start reading what is actually there rather than what you thought you’d written.

Or you can buy-in editing. I decided to do this with my latest novel Rat’s Tale, which I released in April. My first thriller Hamelin’s Child was agency-edited and I now have eagle-eyed and dedicated beta-readers, but Rat’s was different. For a start it’s significantly shorter than my other novels at 47k and I wanted to structure it slightly differently. I also wasn’t confident about my ability to write believably from the point of view of one of the bad guys and yet create reader empathy with him.

So I sent a sample to John Hudspith who does a lot of indie editing and came highly-recommended. He came back with lots of useful suggestions (mostly of cutting all the redundant words I didn’t realise I was using) and so the process continued 10k at a time.

It’s fascinating watching somebody analyse your writing – pick apart the bits that don’t work and suggest things that might. I think that’s the mark of a good editor – somebody who gets what you are trying to do, but is objective enough not to tell you how to do it and simply suggest ideas that might work. I argued a lot (which may not surprise those people who know me), but after thinking about it, John was usually right and my final chapters ended up significantly changed for the better.



JO said…
Travel writing is different - in the sense that you don't make anything up (though I have been known to shift events in time). But I wouldn't dream of publishing without a copy edit - I get carried away with the narrative and then see what I believe I've written.
Susan Price said…
Very, very good advice, Debbie...
Bill Kirton said…
Yes, excellent advice, Debbie. In my historical novel, The Figurehead, which first appeared in the USA, the publisher's editor asked me if I was sure I wanted to call a character Marie Docherty because that was the real name of Sister Alphonso, a nun guilty of abusing residents at a children's home. The editor lives in Florida and the home was Nazareth House, which is about half a mile from where I live.
I've had good and bad editors.The worst made extensive onscreen changes and rewrote whole paragraphs without using Track Changes so that I had to do a sort of double re-edit with a printout and change most of them back while fuming gently and swearing a lot. This is so unethical that she shouldn't have been in a job. When Saraband offered for The Physic Garden (which was only ever edited by me) they weren't at all sure that it needed any more editing and we talked about it. Eventually they paired me and it with a superb editor. She spotted a few things that weren't working as well as they might, queried them, we had discussions using Track Changes and I did some rewrites most of which involved adding rather than deleting material. She questioned, I wrote. Her questions were just so good that they allowed me to make the whole thing better, more polished. A good editor is a pearl of great price, but a bad one can cause mayhem. I think the best advice in terms of self editing is to give yourself the time to set something aside for weeks or even months and go back to it. Amazing what you see that you didn't notice at the time. It's sometimes a bit too easy to hit that 'publish' button before doing this.
Lydia Bennet said…
Good advice Debbie, and glad to hear you've had good experiences, most of us have had both of course, and that's the problem. Catherine, I edited my poetry collection proofs using track changes, they'd made quite a few mistakes, and the publisher went ahead and published presumably as they didn't know how to 'implement the changes'... a previous publisher's assistant. very annoying.
So annoying, Valerie! Even if you don't know how to do it (and I didn't when I started using it) you can look it up fairly easily. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? My 'editor from hell' insisted on sending even small word documents in 'zip files' as though they were huge files. Somebody had obviously told her about these and she thought they had to be used for everything. Since my PC at the time was taking grave exception to any zip files or folders and throwing a wobbly whenever it encountered them, it only added to the stress.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes it is annoying (it wasn't my current poetry publisher btw!). Zip files are irritating. She really put you through it - perhaps a sadist!?
Jan Ruth said…
I've had a few bad/ indifferent/ inconsistent editors who've actually made matters worse, but I share the same editor as Debbie in John Hudspith and I can really vouch for his work.

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