It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.
On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.
I only get to help two or three writers a year develop their work, but nearly all the authors I help have a tale of editing woe. And it’s nearly always the same tale. They sent their book to a freelance fiction editor, but what they got back were basic spelling and grammar corrections that any English Literature graduate could make.
With the explosion of independent publishing opportunities via the Amazon Kindle and other ebook stores, it’s now common practice for writers to employ freelance editors as part of the creative team supporting their work. For authors new to the publishing process however, finding a good editor is remarkably hard.
Can you edit your own work? The answer to this question is, can you edit your own work?
This is partly because good editors are hard to find. Many writers work on intuition and “gut feeling”. An editor needs to know exactly what works on the page and why, at every level from word choice and sentence composition, up to dramatic structure and thematic devices. And they need to be able to communicate it back to the writer in a way that will improve the book. A rare combination of skills.
There are certain tell tale signs of bad editing. It tends to focus on spelling and grammar, which while important concerns, aren’t the key focus of a good editorial process. It uses opinion and vague language; “this didn’t grab me”, “this needs more pace”. Imagine taking your car to the garage and the mechanic telling you it needs to go faster. You’re editor is there to tell you exactly what tweaks and tune-ups the engine of your story needs to “go faster”.
To get the best value for your money when employing an editor, you need to know what a good editorial process does involve. Editing is commonly divided in to three different kinds, and most books need all three at the right point in their development. These might well come from different editors – a development edit needs quite different focus from a copyedit. (I’m a useless copy editor, so I hand that work over to other people when it’s needed.)
1. Development Edit – this can happen at any point from a book’s first conception, but it’s most commonly done after the first draft. When the editor and agent have an existing relationship they might well begin collaboration at the outline stage of a novel, with the editor making suggestions before any substantial writing begins. The focus of a development edit is the story. Common editorial guidance at this stage might include tweaking where the story’s inciting incident, combining characters that share the same function in the story, developing tension and suspense in a flagging mid-story, or flipping audience sympathies to create an explosive story climax. If there are major stylistic issues in the writing, a development edit will address those as well. For instance, if the writer’s use of point-of-view is inconsistent, an editor will point out examples and ask for it to be addressed in the next draft.
2. Deep Edit – can only happen once there is a solid first draft, but before a final draft is made. Doing it earlier can mean a lot of wasted work, as the development edit can knock out entire scenes and chapters from the story. If the development edit is about pushing the story to its fullest potential, the deep edit is about carving the writing in to the best possible shape. Does every sentence have a good rhythm? Is the narrative voice consistent? Is this line of description a confusing mixed metaphor? Does the dialogue all relate to each character’s motivation? Does every scene lead to a clear dramatic turning point? Do all these long passages of internal monologue add or detract from the story? These are the kinds of questions a good editor is addressing at this stage. It’s skilled and time consuming work. Consequentially, deep edits are expensive. Many professionally published authors don’t get deep editing support. But anyone who knows what they are looking for can see the difference instantly in a book which has been through deep editing.
3. Copy Edit – the last edit made on a text. A copy edit is about killing off as many textual anomalies as possible, things like spelling and grammar errors that throw a reader out of their immersion in the story. It can also include fact checking and logic errors. If a man sits down at a three legged table, he won’t feel it wobble for instance. Repeated words, repetitive sentences, repeated words, repetitive sentences, anything that might make the book look less than professional. A copy edit is never 100%. There will always be text errors. But there’s a major difference between three errors in a book and three errors per page in the impression a text makes on a reader.
How much editing does an independently published book need? It’s one of those piece of string questions, and it really varies from book to book. Two Crows by David Dakan Allison came to me needing a strong development edit and minor deep editing and copy editing. David’s writing style was already clear, concise and polished, and with work on the novel’s dramatic structure we were able to turn the book in to a winner through a relatively simple editorial process. In contrast, I’ve turned down two clients in the last year whose books simply weren’t ready to be edited.
One important consideration for independent authors is the more basic question, is my book ready to be edited? Employing a professional editor is a very expensive way to buy writing lessons. Realistically, even the best editorial process can only upgrade the quality of a text by one or two grades. Most editors will offer a preliminary read for a fee, and a good editor will tell you if a book isn’t ready and why.
Can you edit your own work? The answer to this question is, can you edit your own work? Most writers can’t, but some, often those who have worked as editors as well, can do so reasonably well. But editing is a valuable creative collaboration, and your entire writing career is likely to be poorer without it.
Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.