by Lillian Csernica on May 12, 2015
Last week somebody out there in Twitter Land had a free copy promotion going on. I followed the link. The book looked interesting, a collection of short stories that promised suspense and paranormal chills. So I downloaded it to my Kindle. One evening, after the work of the day was done and the kids were asleep, I settled down in happy anticipation.
I was disappointed.
Typos. Punctuation errors. Grammatical errors. Awkward sentence structure. Stilted dialogue.
These were not the errors of just one author. These mistakes were present in three different stories by three different authors. None of the stories in that collection was fit to be published. How do I know? Who am I to judge? I’ve worked as a slush reader for a fiction magazine. I’ve been reviewing fiction for over twenty years. I’ve published a novel via traditional publishing, aka the hard way. I’ve also published over thirty short stories. I have the experience and the credentials to know the difference between the work of a professional writer and somebody who still has a lot to learn.
As long as there are wannabes, dilettantes, and tyros in the world, there will be some form of vanity press. Unfortunately, the wonders of the Digital Age have made available to people at every level of writing skill the opportunity to “publish” their writing. I have to say this. Just because you can churn out something that looks like a short story, or is long enough to be classified as a novel, that does not make you a writer.
I see far too many people swanking around these days referring to themselves as “authors.” Having a book to sell has become a fad. There was a time when going to a seance was the thing to do. Then Houdini started busting the fakes and the con artists. Remember when everybody had a Pet Rock? That was just silly. Billy Ray Cyrus had his one hit wonder days with “Achy Breaky Heart” and all over the country people were line-dancing to that song. Now anybody and everybody can slap together their own version of Tolkien Lite, put a cover on it, and fling it out into the electronic marketplace.
This makes me angry, and I’ll tell you why. Far too many people want to be “authors.” They don’t want to write. They don’t even understand the difference. They do not respect the art and craft of writing. They do not respect the writers who have spent their lives doing their best to improve their work, to polish their style, to honor the unspoken contract with the reader that says, “You pick up my book and I will give you a story worth reading.”
Having said all that, allow me to offer these thoughts on why an editor is an essential part of a writer’s life.
1. You don’t think you need one.
If you really believe you don’t need an editor, then I hope for your sake that you have some variety of OCD that has made you go over your manuscript with a microscope. Even then, because of your familiarity with the story and the words, your brain may commit what’s called “closure” and prevent you from spotting an error.
2. Unless you have an English teacher for a beta reader, odds are good your writer friends don’t know much more than you do.
The best writing teacher I’ve ever had knows all the technical terms for all the nuts and bolts of grammar. Thanks to him, I know the difference between an “adjectival phrase” and a “predicate phrase.” I know about the inner essence of sentences. And I still don’t know much. If I hadn’t kept that teacher’s handouts, most of what he taught me about the inner workings of what people call “microwriting” would have fallen out of my memory. My point here is that not many people make it their purpose in life to understand exactly how the English language is supposed to work.
If you’re in a writer’s group or a critique group where all the other people are at the same level of skill and accomplishment, how are you and the rest of the group going to grow as writers? If you don’t know what you don’t know and nobody there is a qualified authority, you may be able to do each other some good with regard to plot, character, setting, etc., but you aren’t going to bring your manuscript up to the best, most marketable standards. There are people who know how to do that. Those people are called editors.
3. “Fresh eyes” are essential for spotting any mistakes.
Time and effort have proven that I write five drafts before I have what I consider a complete story. That’s true whether it’s a short story or a novel. By the time I’ve finished the fifth draft, I’ve caught most of the obvious errors and I’ve cut as much as I know the story does not need. By this point the story is so familiar to me that I’m sick of looking at it. Now is the time to hand the manuscript to somebody who has never read it. If you want to be really drastic, give the story to somebody who does not like that particular type of story. Me, I don’t read Westerns. They do nothing for me. Since I am not likely to be caught up in the story, I will be paying greater attention to the word choices, the grammar, the punctuation, and any typos that pop up. If one of my writer friends wanted me to beta read a Western manuscript, it would be an uphill battle to draw me into the story and make me feel sympathy for the main characters. If the writer succeeds in doing so, that really counts for something.
4. I don’t care how much experience you have, there will be a misspelling or typo lurking in there somewhere.
Believe me when I tell you there are few things more painful that seeing your work in print and THEN spotting the typo, the renegade comma, or the missing word that totally screws up the meaning of that sentence.
5. There is always room for improvement.
I don’t ask my beta readers for help until I’ve take the manuscript as far as I can possibly go. Before I give it to them, I do my best to make sure the manuscript is so clean it sparkles. There’s no point in getting a second opinion on mistakes you know you’ve made. If you’re hiring an editor, there’s no point in spending money just to be told what you already know. Make sure your writing is as good as you can possibly make it, then get that second opinion. As hard as you’ve worked, there will still be other word choices, other possible plot twists, other ways to write a given character’s dialogue.
These are strong statements, I know. What do you think? Do you agree? Do you think I’m full of hot air? Do you believe there’s no difference between an author and a writer? Tell me how you you feel about all this.