Tuesday, August 27, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...You Only Need a Copy Editor (and Some Tips for Copy Editing Your Own Work, for the Brave)


Last time, we covered how to find beta readers, the indie (and even trade-pubbed) author's best friend--voracious readers who help you polish your manuscript and get it "up to snuff."

Once your beta readers have given you feedback, the obvious question is "what next?"

For most folks, the answer is "hire an editor."

I'm a bit of an outlier on this one; I have a good amount of editing experience from my jobs both as an attorney at a big firm and in my various professional writing endeavors. While I understand the need to have as typo-free of a manuscript as possible, I find that I can generally do the job of a copy-editor after some time away from the manuscript to get it out of my head.


A lot of folks find it necessary to spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on all sorts of editors: copy editors, story editors, etc.


I'm going to share a little secret with you:

The only editor you probably need is a decent copy editor!


Let's face it, unless you're a genius or prodigy, your first novel isn't going to be a runaway hit. "Oh, but I'm differentI" Great--go ahead and prove it by going out and selling thousands of copies of that first book. It does happen from time-to-time, but you need some marketing savvy and some luck for that to be the case (more on that later).

What your first novel will most certainly do is teach you a lot about how to stay disciplined, how to put a story together, and how to do all of this great stuff I'm trying to impart to you in this series. In short, it's a learning experience.


In all honesty, you have no idea how good your story is or isn't. Most writers (myself included) have a lot of reservations about their work when it's first finished.

You know who does know? Your beta readers! Presuming you followed my advice and got some good ones who will give you honest feedback, they should serve the role of a "story editor." If you ask them to keep an eye out for continuity problems, they will be able to (9 times out of 10) serve the role of a story editor, without taking your manuscript and turning it into something different entirely.


What a lot of folks don't want to tell you is that there's no standardized set of  credentials or criteria for becoming an editor, any kind of editor. You really have no idea how good or bad an editor is going to be until you've worked with them, and even then, you really have no idea whether they'll improve your manuscript or not.


You know who's ultimately going to buy your book? Not editors, unless you're going the traditional route, in which case, best of luck to you.

Nope, ultimately readers are going to buy your book. And if you followed my advice from last time, you should already have a stable of smart, capable beta readers to help you with things like continuity or even "does XYZ part work?"

Unfortunately, for as much help as they can be, and all of the great work they do catching whatever typos they can, beta readers ARE NOT going to copy-edit your entire manuscript. Copy-editing is hard work--it can take hours to do a thorough job.

That's why if you don't have the background to do it yourself, I'd suggest hiring a copy-editor to go through your manuscript and clean up the typos and grammar a bit. Think of it as an investment in your brand; if you get a reputation for putting out shoddy products, how many repeat customers do you think you'll have?


As important as covers and blurbs are (we'll get to those in future posts), what the customer is ultimately buying is the collection of words that you've cobbled together. While it's virtually impossible to ensure that collection of words is perfect (I still catch the odd typo or two in my novels), it's your responsibility to eliminate all of the obvious typos as best as you can before release.


Tips For Hiring a Copy Editor


-All reputable copy editors should be up-front with their rates, normally quoted as $X per 1000 words or so.

-All reputable copy editors will offer to do a free sample on a portion of your manuscript to make sure you're on the same page.


-Reputable copy editors should charge a flat fee; they SHOULD NOT ask for a percentage of your book profits in exchange for editing, unless it's a part of a package deal at a trade publisher, and even then, you know my current feelings about that.


-You might be able to find reasonably-priced copy editors in all kinds of places; local newspapers and magazines are often a great source of low-cost, high-value copy editors.


-Provide the copy editor with a "style sheet" when at all possible. The style sheet should highlight what kind of punctuation "style" you're using (Chicago, AP, MLA, etc.), as well as how you want certain words spelled or how certain characters speak in dialect.


For example, in Jesus Was a Time Traveler, the main character, Finny, is an American who grew up in England and desperately wants to appear to be British. Since he writes in the first person, I wrote in the King's (i.e. "civilize" becomes "civilise," "color" is "colour," etc.). There's a part at the end where Finny's getting agitated and outright angry, and I want his American roots to slip through, so I start Americanizing the spellings and words used. If you have a similar request, lay it out for the copy-editor ahead of time in the style sheet and notes.

Tips For Copy-Editing Your Own Work

Some folks have the background to do their own copy editing. If so, congrats--you might be able to cut out a pretty sizable cost of getting your book to market.

-Don't overestimate your abilities. I did this on my first book; I tore through the edit and thought everything was honky dorey. Thankfully, my first cover artist flaked out and left me to do another paper edit--I was way off! I had to re-double my efforts and treat it as if I was editing a good friend's manuscript for cash--like a pro.

If you aren't willing to do this, by all means, there's no shame in hiring a pro. Better to do things right once than spend a lot of time cleaning up your manuscript after it's been on the market for a while.
-Use a Createspace proof to save on copy costs. I can't stress this one enough; I must've spent $100 on copy costs at Kinko's when I started, not just printing out manuscripts to edit, but getting them bound, too.

Instead of that, either wait until your cover is done (or make a dummy cover on inDesign) and have Createspace send you a proof once your manuscript is done and uploaded. Each proof of a 360-page book costs $5 or so, with another $5 for shipping. Not bad, considering the same-sized manuscript would run you well over $20 at Kinko's.
-Wait a month between finishing the book and picking it up again to edit it. "But my idea is so unique! What if someone steals it?! I can't wait!"

1) It's probably not.

2) They can't/won't.

3) Sure you can.

This is a topic worthy of its own post, but you have to clear out your brain and do at least one hard-copy edit before releasing your book. Have to, have to, have to as a beginner. While I'm sure you'll think you've written a masterpiece directly into Scrivener (you're using Scrivener, right?), what you won't notice are the word repetitions, tense changes, and flat-out mistakes you make along the way.

As you write more stories and improve in this regard, you might be able to decrease the timeline on self-copy-editing. For now, though, give it some time to get out of your system, then hop in and copy edit once your mind has erased the book from its hard drive. You'll be shocked/horrified by what you find.


-Use the "turn the page" test. If you copy edit your manuscript yourself, you're going to have to have some indicator of quality, as in "yes, I should release this book," or "this is horrible--IT CAN NEVER SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY!"


The way I account for this choice is by my overall editing speed. If I get caught up in the story, even with the typos and whatnot, I promise you I will get through the edit a lot more quickly. My first, unpublished novel took me a month to edit it, start-to-finish. JWATT took three days. Hack took me one day.


If, after letting the manuscript sit undisturbed for a month, you find that you're still engrossed in the story, you want to keep flipping pages and reading on, even late into the night, you have a publishable book.


If not? Sit on it for a while, then consider re-writing it wholesale. That's the dilemma I'm facing right now with the Debt of Souls books--there's some decent stuff in there, but two of the three need major overhauls.


Editing is no fun; that's just the way it is. I'd much rather write something new than go over my own stuff for the umpteenth time.


But decent copy editing is crucial before either presenting the manuscript to an editor, or releasing it into the wild yourself. Hopefully, this post will help you figure out whether you should outsource the job, or if you can do it yourself.

Next time? How to compile your manuscript in Scrivener.

Previous Posts In This Series:

#1: Before You Start
#2: The Idea Hunt
#3: Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book for Cheap")
#4: Sit Down and Start Writing!
#5  How to Write More Words Per Day
#6  Indie vs. Traditional Publishing
#7: Finish What You Start (With a Little Tough Love)
#8: How to Find Good Beta Readers

D.J. Gelner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Contact him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

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