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THE MANY WAYS A BOOK CAN GO WRONG

(OR, 22 REASONS EVERY AUTHOR NEEDS AN EDITOR)

— P. N. Waldygo, Professional Book Editor, Copy Editor, Proofreader, and Writer

When writing their first draft, authors can ignore the book-editing advice in this article. That is the time to discover their voice, go deep, and connect with their audience. Editing is crucial for any written work, but focusing on nitpicky grammatical issues too soon will inhibit writers’ spontaneity and communion with the Muse.

Book editors can work magic but not miracles. An editor needs good content to work with. That’s why the first draft is so important. If the subject matter and the narrative don’t resonate with readers, no amount of polishing and editing will transform a book into a best-seller. (When I say “first draft,” it could also be the second, the third, or the fifteenth—basically, I mean the writing you do without censoring yourself and before you start editing.) Yet at a certain point, editing must happen.

Can I Learn to Edit My Own Book?

Authors can either invest their own time and effort in learning how to edit their work (which fiction writers absolutely must do—see "Tips for Editing Fiction"), or they can use a professional book-editing service. A well-known rule of thumb says that it takes ten years to gain proficiency in a new skill or art form. Many nonfiction writers don’t want to spend this much time learning to edit, because their main priority is getting their message out to the world. Unlike fiction writers, some authors of nonfiction do not, first and foremost, consider themselves writers. Often they are experts in the fields of health, politics, history, psychology, self-help, and so on, and that is their main identity and source of professional gratification. For authors such as these, learning to give a book a professional edit would be a waste of time, when they could better spend their energy doing research for their next book.

Novelists are in a different category, though. Many have been writing since childhood, have a good grasp of their native language, and have probably developed a unique voice. Yet they may have a few blind spots about grammatical issues, and most of them have not memorized the Chicago Manual of Style and the finer points of preparing a book for publication. In addition, although most fiction writers feel that they know their books inside and out, after writing and rewriting multiple drafts, they might be unaware of their tendency to repeat words in close proximity, use the same ideas and descriptions in different parts of the book, and a thousand other flaws that a good editor will notice.

Doesn't the Publisher Pay for Editing?

Nonfiction writers who are lucky enough to get a contract with a traditional publisher needn't worry about having a perfectly edited manuscript. They don't have to rack their brains over where to find book-editing services. The publisher will take charge of editing the book. Nonfiction publishers often accept manuscripts that are a complete mess. The writing may be ungrammatical, the thoughts disjointed, a million and one problems could exist. In these cases, the publisher depends on a take-no-prisoners copy editor to do whatever is necessary. The in-house editors may even jump in to edit parts of the book.

Why would a publisher go to this much trouble and expense? Because, for whatever reason, the publisher foresees a best-seller and is willing to pay extra to get the manuscript in publishable form. Maybe the book exposes a controversial issue, or the author has her own TV show and could promote the book to millions of viewers. In light of potentially huge sales, the expense of paying a copy editor to do an extremely heavy edit is a mere pittance.

The catch-22 is, if you want to take advantage of a publisher's book-editing services, how do you first get a book contract? Usually, by impressing either an agent or a publisher with your book. What's the best way to do this? With a professionally written and edited manuscript.

You may be able to skip this last step if you are a celebrity; if you are well-known in your profession and have a venue to promote the book, such as self-help workshops or a lecture circuit; and/or if the topic is cutting edge and of broad interest. If none of these fortunate situations apply, you should probably hire an editor to help bring your manuscript to its full potential. Then your sparkling prose can sell itself when you approach book agents and publishers.

Pitfalls of Self-Published Books

If you are self-publishing, you’ll need a manuscript editing service even more because you won't have access to a publisher's team of in-house developmental editors and freelance copy editors and proofreaders.

You've heard the old adage “The devil is in the details.” A related saying, however, is that “God is in the details.” One self-published book may be so riddled with fiendish grammatical errors that a reader throws it down in disgust. Yet another self-published book will be a pleasure to read, resulting in a transcendent mind-to-mind communication between author and reader. Sometimes the difference really does come down to good editing. Once the details are taken care of, the entire book snaps into shape.

What Exactly Does a Book Editor Do?

Whether you seek a traditional publisher or plan to self-publish, a book editor will work with you to:

* Emphasize your own unique voice, cut away the “deadwood,” and use language that will appeal to your target audience.
* Ensure that your words are clear, concise, and accurate in conveying your message.
* Focus not only on the details but on the macrocosmic view and, if necessary, rearrange sections of the book for better flow and understanding.
* Fix all errors of syntax, grammar, spelling, capitalization, and so on, as dictated by the Chicago Manual of Style.

If you need any further convincing about the wisdom of hiring a book editing service, read on. Following are 22 of the most egregious problems that a professional book editor will correct.

And now here are the "22 Reasons Every Author Needs an Editor"

Disclaimer: Any resemblance between the following examples and books I’ve edited is purely coincidental.

1. Deadly Boring Passive Voice

Passive voice can lend the stamp of authority to a statement and can also absolve the author of personal responsibility. In certain cases, this is effective: “Mistakes were made.” (Visualize an army general explaining why a smart bomb blew up the cookie factory.)

Yet most of the time, passive voice slows down the action and weakens the impact. Often, academic writers will craft an entire book predominantly in passive voice. That’s fine if they are aiming only for a scholarly market or are writing college textbooks, but most publishers of mass-market books don’t want this. They usually instruct copy editors to change most passive verb tenses to make the book reader-friendly.

While writing, be on the lookout for an overuse of “is, was, were, am, are, will be, have been” and also “There is,” “There are,” “There was,” There were,” “It was,” and “It is.”

Use the following verb tenses only when absolutely necessary or in sentences where they actually sound better: for example, instead of “I am living on Maple Street,” write “I live on Maple Street.” Other examples of this verb tense are “I was living,” “they are living,” “we were living,” "she is living," “he was running,” “she was asking,” and so on (in other words, pairing any verb with passive “is, am, was, were,” and so on).

It's fine to use these verb tenses occasionally, but if you find that 90 percent of your verbs are in this category, you've got a problem. Your book will sound flabby and, IMHO, a bit amateurish. As a first choice, use simple present or past tense wherever possible: “he ran,” “she asked,” “we live,” “we lived.”

(Now forgive me if I proceed to break this rule and put some of these book-editing tips in passive voice. I need to invoke the voice of authority.)

Examples:

[Passive] Holes in my sandals were patched with chewing gum.
[Active] I used chewing gum to patch holes in my sandals.

[Passive] The lawyer’s office was littered with cigar butts.
[Active] Cigar butts littered the lawyer’s office.

[Passive] The cash made from playing poker was plunked down in front of my mortified father.
[Active] I plunked down the cash I made from playing poker in front of my mortified father.

[Passive] In Churchill Falls at the time, there were only a few black families.
[Active]At the time, only a few black families lived in Churchill Falls.

[Passive] My secret mission was discovered, and I was punished for not paying attention to my studies.
[Active] The deacon discovered my secret mission and punished me for neglecting my studies.

 

2. A Misuse of Present Participles That Implies Simultaneity of Action

Lots of intelligent writers make this common mistake.

. . . .

“Still, we needed that poker money, so Snake wheedled his way into my Friday night foursome, shuffling the cards like a Vegas pro.”

[Editor's note: “Shuffling” implies simultaneity of action with “wheedled,” but these are consecutive acts.]

Two Possible Fixes:

“Still, we needed that poker money, so Snake wheedled his way into my Friday night foursome and shuffled the cards like a Vegas pro.”

“Still, we needed that poker money, so Snake wheedled his way into my Friday night foursome, where he shuffled the cards like a Vegas pro.”

(To continue reading "The Many Ways a Book Can Go Wrong," click here.)