Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Self-publishing your book often means working with an editor – a professional, objective person who will apply their expertise to helping you improve your work. Of course, an editor’s time costs money, so it’s best to only call them in when you’ve addressed everything you’re capable of handling yourself. That’s all well and good in theory, but how do you know whether your manuscript is ready for an editor or whether it still needs more of your attention?
Editors will happily work with you on any stage of a project, so the difficulty is often not in spotting what they can help with – it’s most things – but in identifying what you can do before you need their help. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at ten ways to tell your manuscript is ready for an editor. In this, part 1, I’ll cover the five practical signs – nitty-gritty details you can spot with your bare eye – while in part 2, I’ll look at the self-editing process, and the milestones that signpost whether or not you’re ready for an editor.
Before we get to either set of signs, however, it’s vital to contextualize the type of editing we’re going to discuss.
What editors do for writers
When it comes to self-publishing, ‘editor’ becomes a lot more general of a term. Editors can help you turn your idea into a story, improve your first draft with notes, or comb though your manuscript making sure every comma and apostrophe is exactly right.
This is something we covered in What It’s Like To Work With An Editor, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say that in this article, I’ll be talking about the type of editing where an editor suggests line-by-line changes to your work. If you’re working with an editor to find or shape your story, or working in tandem throughout a project, the advice below won’t apply. It’s a different relationship with a different type of feedback. I should also clarify that it’s obviously fine to consult an editor if you just don’t know what to do. The advice that follows is for people who want to firm up the schedule of their writing-editing-publishing process, not to discourage those who have reached the point of needing outside help. If you need help, go get it. If you know you want to hire an editor but you’re not sure if you’re ready, read on.
Value and editing
Editing isn’t about chasing the perfect form of a work. Instead, it’s about improving a piece in reference to what the author is trying to say. A lot of editing takes a tiered approach, prioritizing what gets dealt with at what stage, which is why good editors perform multiple passes of a work. Addressing a major issue clears away that major issue, but it also reveals some minor issues that now need to be addressed. For example, if a scene doesn’t make any sense, an editor might make some alterations so that it’s clear, but they then need to deal with the fact that it contains a moment that doesn’t feel true to a particular character.
In short, your editor can only do so much with the time they charge for, and if they’re busy tidying up huge errors you could have dealt with yourself, they won’t be able to address the fine details that they have the specific training and knowledge to handle.
Whatever you can handle in your own editing is an opportunity for your editor to tackle something else. So, before you contact some outside help, be sure…
1. You’ve been through your word processor’s spell-check results
Some of you will think this is too obvious to include, but the numbers just don’t bear that out. Unless you’re deliberately using minimalist software, your word processor includes a basic spelling and grammar check. If you haven’t gone through the results and you send your manuscript to an editor, you’re paying them to click ‘change’ or ‘skip’ on feedback you’ve already been given.
If you already have a word processor, this feedback is free. Sometimes, it’s also wrong, but it’s always worth searching through before paying someone else to weigh in.Your word processor’s spell checker isn’t perfect, but it’s a free resource self-publishing authors shouldn’t ignore.Click To Tweet
2. Your characters have consistent names
Again, this is a more common problem than you might think. ‘Mr. Smith’ will be ‘Mr. Smith’ apart from chapters 6, 8, and 19, where he’s ‘Mr. Jones’. Why does this happen? Often, writers will change a character’s name while they edit and for one reason or another, the change isn’t applied throughout. It’s also often the case that the character had a different name in the author’s mind when they planned the story – or the specific name isn’t as important as its function, like Mr. Smith’s name being nondescript – and on the days they wrote those chapters, it bubbled back up. Finally, maybe a character’s name is just really hard to spell.
In Belinda Blinked, Rocky Flintstone’s erotic novella and the focus of comedy podcast My Dad Wrote a Porno, a character switches from being called ‘Bella’ to ‘Donna’ partway through the story. ‘Belladonna’, of course, means ‘beautiful lady’, so it’s perhaps clear how Flintstone’s inspiration got in the way of his execution.
Once different names are used, authors can become blind to them, since they know who this character ‘is’ on a deeper level than their name – they know who they’re talking about, so they don’t spot the switch. I’ll talk about how to work around this without an editor in part 2, but for now, know that if there’s a random spot where a character suddenly goes by a different name, there are still things you don’t need an editor to fix.
3. You’ve edited enough to catch instant word repetition
Often, when you’re writing quickly, a word will get stuck in your mind for a moment and you’ll use it again almost immediately. This is especially common if it’s a somewhat unusual word, as in the example below:
The wait had been interminable, but I wasn’t going to give up now. I had the strength of character to hold on a little longer, no matter how interminable the experience would be.
This is a completely natural occurrence, but it’s also not something you need an editor to spot. If errors like this are still common in your manuscript (anyone can miss one or two), there are still things you can spot yourself.Reading aloud can help you detect repeated words or phrases.Click To Tweet
4. Your dialogue is at the same stage of editing as everything else
For reasons I’ve yet to ascertain (your theories in the comments, please), many otherwise polished manuscripts completely fall apart when it comes to dialogue. I don’t mean that the dialogue is poor, I mean that it’s improperly punctuated, lacking one or more speech marks, or so mixed up that one character says their own line and then another character’s.
“We cannot break into this bank,” said Maurice. Yes we can.” Dave replied
Perhaps it’s because our eyes tend to quickly glide over dialogue, or perhaps it’s because it’s easy to tinker, meaning that authors never check their dialogue without making changes (and thus adding new errors). Whatever the reason, make sure to check your dialogue before submitting to an editor, as errors like this take very little expertise but a surprising amount of time to rectify.
Something else worth keeping in mind is that new dialogue should usually be indented, and if someone new is talking, it’s common practice to start a new line. This may sound like a minor detail, and if you want an editor to handle it for you, that’s fine, but it’s something else that pretty much anyone can apply. This type of minor but recurring error can lead to editors being multiple billable hours into an edit without actually having read any of the words
5. Your styling is consistent
Many word processors allow authors to apply ‘styles’. Styles categorize sections of text in a way that tells different types of software how to present them – you can, for instance, style a section of text as a heading, which means that even when opened in a new program, it will still look a certain way.
Styling your document isn’t inherently problematic – although your editor will need to be told if you’ve applied anything exotic – but it’s common for a manuscript to contain inconsistent styling that can pose hidden problems.
This is most common when an author has created their manuscript by copying over sections from different places. Some were written in different word processors, some are old enough that they were written in a different version of the same processor, and some include a copy-pasted word or term from the web that accidentally brought its styling with it.Careless document styling can create a minefield for editors.Click To Tweet
Patchwork styling can lead to some words being dark gray while the rest are black; to a section of pages having different margins, tabs, or even dimensions; or to a mix of curly and straight apostrophes, like so: ’’. This can have a lot of knock-on effects that go deep into not just how a document looks, but how it’s understood by software (the kind of software that will convert it into an ebook, for example).
Now, it’s obviously not the case that authors have to dig through the styling of their documents. This is an area where editors have the specific knowledge and tools to find out exactly what’s happening and how it needs to be adjusted. What authors do have, however, is existing insight into which parts of the final document came from elsewhere. Take a look at how sections with different origins look. If they appear different, experiment a little with copying over the text without the style (as ‘plain text’). Your editor should address styling, but to them it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, while to you it could be as easy as, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote this part on my blog.’
So those were the five practical signs you can look for in your work to decide whether it’s time to contact an editor. Which of the above have you found in your own work, and what are some details that editors have pointed out that you wish you’d spotted on your own? Let me know in the comments!
Join me in part 2, available here, to discuss the editing process itself and five milestones to hit before contacting an editor. Until then, you can check out 3 Writing Myths You Should Feel Free To Ignore and What It’s Like To Work With An Editor for great advice on this topic.