Finding an Editor

11th July 2016
All the characters in my book had the same names as my cousins. I have a lot of cousins. This was completely unintentional. When I write a story, it’s like watching a film, I see what is happening in my head and write it down. When a new character arrives, I pluck a name quickly from the air and continue. Obviously somewhere deep in my subconscious, my cousins’ names popped up. I didn’t even notice until reading the manuscript a few weeks after I had finished it. None of the characters were like my cousins, they just shared names. I changed them (the names, not my cousins.) I now use the internet to find ‘the most popular names in’ a certain year, and choose a surname from the telephone directory. It is safer.

My point is, it is difficult to always see what we have written. We are too involved. This is why I think an editor is an excellent investment. Someone unconnected with the book can point out that you use ‘that’ five times in a sentence and that it isn’t always that essential. Plus all those split infinitives that want naughtily to creep into your writing.

Finding an editor was not altogether easy (nothing was, to be honest.) To begin with, anyone can call themselves an editor, so how do you know who is worth employing? It will be a major outlay before you can even think about recouping any money – about £750 for a 100,000 word manuscript. If an editor is worth having, they will be busy, so sending them samples of work as a ‘test’ is unlikely to be possible unless you intend to pay them for that. You can of course ask which other books they have edited and buy them. However, how do you know if the splattering of unnecessary commas and the split infinitives are because the editor didn’t spot them or because the author/publisher rejected their editorial points? We decided on two editors eventually, one for Hidden Faces and one for Counting Stars. We figured that whichever one we preferred could then edit my other books (which had now grown to four, as I had finished writing Joanna, my story about a psychopath.)

One person (who had better remain nameless) was an editor by trade, did a lot of work for mainstream publishers and was very busy. So busy in fact that we had to wait three months before she would start work on my book. This was annoying, but I felt she was ‘a professional’ and therefore worth waiting for. The other editor we chose, was a writer himself, a writing lecturer and had edited various other books.

I think you need to decide what you want the editor to do. I thought I wanted them to simply proof read my work. This is a confusing term. A proofread is the final thing that happens, after the work has been edited and type-set, before it goes to the printer. What I actually wanted is called ‘copy-editing’.

My use of English is not terrible, I have taught English, I know most of the ‘rules’ about using possessive apostrophes, using fragments of sentences, all the usual stuff. I also knew that it is very difficult to notice mistakes in my own work. I tend to read what I meant to write. I also tend to miss things if I have rewritten something, and perhaps the tense is now different, or the possessive comma is now in the wrong place because I have changed to a plural noun. There is also lots of formal English that I do not know. I am hazy on when you need an Oxford comma, when to use “had -plus -verb” in past tense, when “leant” should be “leaned”. I would guess that most of my readers would also not know, however, I find badly written books irritating to read. I did not want my book to irritate someone who was better educated than me. I did not want to be embarrassed by my book (letting strangers read my work is embarrassing enough as it is!)

Editors will also check for continuity. It is easy to lose track of days in a story, and then you find that you have a nine day week. Or a character enters a room wearing a blue sweater and leaves wearing a red one. The editor should spot these mistakes. I also wanted to be told if the book was too long, or had boring parts, or was confusing. It is difficult to know yourself, because you have written it, you know everything about the story, someone else has to tell you if you have communicated it effectively.
The final thing an editor will do, is prepare the file for the type-setter. So, when everything is edited and all the words are perfect, they will prepare a file that shows where the time breaks are, which paragraphs should be indented, things like that.

As a separate point, do you know where paragraphs are indented? I thought a new paragraph was always indented. My editor pointed out that actually, the first line of a new chapter or after a time break, is NOT indented. I had never noticed that before! This is the sort of thing that makes paying for an editor worth the money. If I had simply printed my book (the “vanity press” label) then I would have started the chapter with an indented paragraph. Then, when someone pointed out to me that actually, ‘proper’ books do not have this format, I would forever be embarrassed by my book. (In case you haven’t noticed, this is a big fear of mine.)

Now, the actual process of editing was also unexpected. Editor 2 took my manuscript immediately and in roughly two weeks, returned it, with comments put in using ‘track changes’. This allowed me to read his comments and either accept or reject his advice. It was good advice, I accepted it. He told me things like, I had built up a lot of tension, and then immediately let it go, I should keep the reader in suspense for longer. Or, I had used “then” four times in a paragraph. Or, Max had put a drink into his bag but the next day he took out a snack. He pointed out split infinitives that I had missed, some dodgy spelling and suggested I lengthened some descriptions. All very helpful, well worth the money.

Editor 1 was a different experience. As a rule, I try to not criticise people on my blog – I think there is enough negativity in the world. But I want to warn you, so you don’t make the same mistakes. Some of her recommendations were valid, but many were just frustrating. She changed things that made the text clunky to read, changed the flow, made it feel like a school essay, not a novel. I spent many hours going through my manuscript, mainly changing her additions to what had been there originally. This is a definite bonus with self-publishing. If someone else was publishing my book, they may have accepted all her suggestions, changing my work into something which I myself would never want to read. I’m not sure how you would initially avoid this. People have different writing styles, so unless you have worked with an editor previously, you will not know if their style suits your own.

This makes choosing an editor difficult. If they do not actually write themselves, will they be aware of emotive writing, making the words flow easily, building atmosphere – or will they just plonk down full-stops where they were taught to in school? If, however, they are writers themselves, will they necessarily know what a split infinitive is? Will they have the discipline necessary to catch every error?

Then, when I returned the manuscript to editor 1 for the next round of changes, she informed me she had received a lot of work from Random House, she would let me know when she had time to pick up my script again.

This was a shock! I had expected that, having waited three months for her to start, my manuscript would then take priority. I felt like the person who hires builders, watches while they dig a lot of holes for foundations, and then doesn’t see them for months because they have gone to build something else. Please learn from my experience. If you hire an editor who works for mainstream publishers, those publishers are likely to take priority. If time is important to you, discuss that at the outset and put it in writing.
Also, someone who is using all their energy editing other work, will not necessarily be as thorough with yours. I found grammatical mistakes in my returned manuscript. True, I had missed them myself, but my misconception was that an editor would find and correct them all. This is not the case. I sometimes read books that have occasional errors in them. It doesn’t much bother me, they are easy to pass over, and I have always assumed they were printing errors. I now realise they might not be, they might be mistakes that neither the author nor the editor nor the proofreader picked up prior to printing. No one is perfect and three checkers do not guarantee perfection. When I queried this with the editor (and in fairness, she did lower her final bill accordingly) she said that no editor would expect to pick up every mistake, that is the job of the type-setter and author and proofreader. So, be warned, employing other people does not mean your own work is finished!

Eventually, your work will finally be edited. It has been back and forth several times until it is exactly how you want it and this takes time. It is a full book. A book takes a few days to read and every time it is returned you need to read the whole thing, from beginning to end. Hours of work. By the time I had read it for about the eighth time straight, it was beginning to lose some of its appeal. I was finding it hard to enjoy the story. This is where you need good family and friends. My sons pointed out that authors often dislike their own work when it’s first published, that actors and directors are renown for not wanting to watch the films they are in. This was normal. I should keep hold of my first conviction and keep going. (Sometimes my family are nice to me.)
After the editing, you also need to consider the cover, the blurb for the back, the type-setting, the final proofreader. Then of course, you will need to sell your book, which involves some marketing. Son the Economist has studied Marketing, he had a LOT of advice. I will continue this another time.


Thank you for reading. Anne E. Thompson has written several novels and one non-fiction book.
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Her latest novel is Clara – A Good Psychopath? A compelling story, which shows how someone very bad can achieve something very good, Clara is set partly in the slums of India. Read a story that shows what it means to have been trafficked as a child, and how even in the toughest of situations, there is always hope.

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