Writing gurus repeatedly issue august pronouncements, such as, “Professional editing is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” Their perception seems to be that “Indie Author” means “Independently wealthy but foolishly stingy dilettante scribbler.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The going rate for editing is 1½ to 2 cents (that’s $0.015 to $0.02 USD) per word, paid in advance. Depending on whose counter is used, Irish Firebrands clocks in at 196,131 to 199,230 words. Anyone can do the math, even without a calculator. The editing fee would be on top of three years of writing labor without pay (plus research expenses); and, mind you, this is for a service which bears the caveat that no guarantee or warranty will be made as to the subsequent merchantability of the manuscript.
This writer happens to be a pensioner who is living far below the poverty line, and hiring an editor would have meant going into mortgage foreclosure, or else having the gas, electricity, municipal services (water, sewerage, garbage collection), telephone and internet disconnected, due to being in arrears. So if I had hired an editor for Irish Firebrands, I’d have destroyed my credit rating, and might be living in a box under a bridge – but, hey, at least I could have said that the unmarketable manuscript I was using for campfire tinder had been “professionally edited.”
Sculptors and painters are not told that they must get their works edited by others, before they can put their Art on the market. If other Artists can be trusted to know what they’re doing, why can’t Writing Artists be trusted, too?
It’s not a question of formal education: the days of apprenticeship to an Art guild are long past, and even the MFA degree is no guarantee of success in any genre of Art. If other Artists can be legitimately self-taught, so can Writers; and by extension, Writers can also be legitimately self-taught editors. The tools of the editing trade are a grammar textbook and a dictionary, the same tools that prepared you to write your story, in the first place.
Even if you re-write as you write (as I do), when you reach “The End,” that’s the beginning of proofreading and editing. The following strategies helped locate most of the things that needed fixing in Irish Firebrands, bringing the writing well within what I’ve observed to be modern “professional” editing standards in today’s “professionally published” books.
- Saved chapters as separate documents and used a spreadsheet program to track chapter word count. To do this, I made the program exhibit a color-coded bar graph. This helped keep the chapters reasonably uniform in length (roughly 5,000-6,250 words, about 30-40 minutes’ reading). It was much more manageable to wrestle baby alligators instead of The Big Mama.
- Used a notepaper cube to jot down a brief description of each scene, flagged with chapter number. One sentence was enough. (This helped find a couple of scenes that were in the wrong place, and it revealed small plot holes.)
- Checked POV by writing down the point-of-view character in each scene, along with a sentence describing the main event. This was to see if there were any “wandering POV” problems (there weren’t), and to decide if the best character was chosen to portray the POV in each scene (one swap made here).
- Put the story on a calendar. This helped ensure continuity, as well as to keep things like seasons, the weather, and cultural stuff in context. (Irish Firebrands takes place from May 2007 to December 2008. Image shows the first 20 weeks.)
- Programmed the spelling and grammar checker to do only one or two tasks at a time.
- Converted each chapter to Adobe PDF, and used Adobe’s “Search” function to ensure that as many spelling and grammar issues as possible were found and fixed. An Adobe PDF was also easier to read and spot errors, especially when displayed book-style. The full-screen view helped with page-by-page proofing (black background, no distracting sidebars).
- Read the manuscript on a CRT monitor, not just an LCD screen. Trust me: it made a difference.
- Printed it in various formats: first as a double-spaced manuscript (and used a red pencil to mark changes); then each chapter in “book fold” format, single-spaced, to see it as it might appear on a real page.
- Read the chapters in reverse order. This helps prevent the brain from making a sort of Gestalt out of what’s being read. A Gestalt obscures the appearance of errors when reading chronologically, by making you perceive the whole instead of its parts (no difficulties discovered).
- Listened to the book being read aloud by a text-to-speech generator. The new generation of voices have improved greatly, but computer-generated speech still can have unexpected weird pronunciation limitations that make it necessary to pay close attention what you hear, so it’s most useful for turning up the occasional grammar glitch (rare instances). Try Balabolka (a free download).
Some specific editing flags and tasks:
- Failure to communicate: GUBU grammar can happen to anybody.
- Vocabulary: context clues lacking, or terms inadequately or unnecessarily defined (no problems noted).
- Continuity issues: Person, place, time, subject or scene out of order, or lacking follow-up (very few discrepancies here).
- Information dump: Excessive or unnecessary detail in summary or expository paragraphs, and ruminations or dialogue that were not appropriate in content and quantity. Back-story or background information had to establish the setting or character, foreshadow or justify action, be in character for the speaker to think or talk about it, and be reasonable for one character to want to say it to another character (I’m a stickler for this kind of thing, so there were no violations).
- Couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard: Inadequate or incorrect dialogue attribution tags (no problems found).
- Typographical and punctuation errors: This included italic words and punctuation (some of these still escaped into the first printing). The decision whether or not to use “Oxford commas” should be consistent (I don’t use the comma, but that’s just my preference).
- Made sure that every idiomatic expression, cliché, alternative verb, adjective and adverb maintained voice or developed characters (very important when you’re writing about a different culture; learning Hiberno-English and the Irish language made this part fun).
- Checked that research truths plausibly glued together the fictitious stuff (they did: everything in Irish Firebrands is backed up by facts).
- Rooted out any possible copyright infringement (entails critical thinking about one’s habits of speech: two scene revisions were polished to avoid any risk), and made all necessary acknowledgments.
- Examined the text for foreshadowing, repetition, symbolism and parallelisms, and made sure they linked (in Irish Firebrands, none of these things were planned – they were all ex post facto discoveries).
Are you still awake? If so, go take a nap. If you have an editing project ahead of you – especially if you write epics, like Irish Firebrands – you’re going to need the rest.
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