Why You Shouldn’t Publish Your Manuscript Without an Editor

As a nonfiction editor, as well as a writing coach and publishing mentor, I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts come across my desk that were in dire need of help; their author’s did the right thing by spending the time and money on a professional editor prior to sending them out to agents or publishers or deciding to self-publish. I’ve also seen some manuscripts that went straight to print without ever crossing an editor’s desk; those authors did themselves and their books a huge disservice.

Despite the low cost of independent publishing, many writers continue to cut corners by skipping the editing phase of the process. This may mean that their great idea may be missed by their inability to write well or the grammatical errors included in their book. Or they may decide they can’t afford to spend the money to have their book proposal and sample chapters edited prior to sending them out to an agent or publisher. They forget that they have only one chance to make a first impression and, therefore, blow their chance with the same issues–grammatical errors, poor writing and an overall unpolished piece of work.

When I asked Sue Collier, head of Self-Publishing Resources and co-author of the newly released The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition and the upcoming Jump Start Your Book Sales, 2nd Edition, if she’d contribute a guest post for me, I had no idea that she’d reach back to her roots as an editor and provide me with one about the need to hire a professional editor. I couldn’t agree with Collier more. So read her words and take heed. And if you want more information on working with an editor, read this post as well.

Why You Shouldn’t Publish Your Manuscript Without an Editor
By Sue Collier

Your manuscript has finally been completed, but before you breathe a sigh of relief, realize you’ve got more work ahead of you. It’s time for the editing process.

I’ve edited hundreds of manuscript over the years—as a technical editor for medical and engineering associations, as a staff editor for a trade publisher, and as a freelance editor—and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that even the best writers can benefit from good editors working behind them. Editing is a special skill the average author doesn’t always perform very well.

A poorly edited book is harder to read, harder to believe, and less likely to be reviewed. It is shameful to see a good book cut to ribbons by a reviewer because of poor grammar or spelling. In a recent review, while the plot of a particular book was praised, the reviewer noted, “Unfortunately, the reader also has to detour around some disasters in editing and proofreading.” Because self-publishing and subsidy publishing has gotten so easy today, many authors get caught up in their excitement and submit their book to a pay-to-publish site without editing. If our industry is to prosper, every author—especially those who are self-publishing their work—must take personal responsibility for presenting a quality product.

Because authors know their subjects so well, they are usually too close to their material; objectivity is lost. And for those of you writers who feel skittish at the thought of someone else getting their hands on your work, remember that the job of a good editor is to hone and polish your manuscript to a fine edge, not to impose his or her style on it.

Essentially, there are three levels of editing. They may be called different things by different editors, but they pretty much include the following items.

1. Copy edit. This type of edit includes:

  • Correcting faulty spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Correcting incorrect usage (such as can for may).
  • Checking specific cross-references (for example, “As Table 14-6 shows…”).
  • Ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, and capitalization.
  • Checking for proper sequencing (such as alphabetical order) in lists and other displayed material.
  • Recording the first references to figures, tables, and other display elements.
  • A copy edit does not involve interventions such as smoothing transitions or changing heads or text to ensure parallel structure. The editor checks content only to detect spots where copy is missing. A copy edit may include typemarking.

2. Substantive edit. In addition to all copy editing tasks, this type of edit includes:

  • Changing text and headings to achieve parallel structure.
  • Flagging inappropriate figures of speech.
  • Ensuring that key terms are handled consistently and that vocabulary lists and the index contain all the terms that meet criteria specified by the publisher.
  • Ensuring that previews, summaries, and end-of-chapter questions reflect content.
  • Tracking the continuity of plot, setting, and character traits, and querying the discrepancies, in fiction manuscripts.
  • Enforcing consistent style and tone in a multi-author manuscript.
  • Changing passive voice to active voice, if requested.
  • Flagging ambiguous or incorrect statements.
  • Typemarking the manuscript.

3. Developmental edit. In addition to all substantive editing tasks, this type of edit includes:

  • Eliminating wordiness, triteness, and inappropriate jargon.
  • Smoothing transitions and moving sentences to improve readability.
  • Assigning new levels to heads to achieve logical structure.
  • Suggesting—and sometimes implementing—additions and deletions, noting them at the sentence and paragraph level.
  • Rewriting, where needed.

Where do you find good editors? Ask fellow writers for recommendations, or contact the Editorial Freelancers Association or the Rocky Mountain Publishing Professionals Guild. Be sure the person you hire has had experience editing books. An article or book writer is often not experienced or qualified in the editing process and typically has an editor going over his or her manuscript.

Short of hiring a pro, which is best, enlist the help of several literate friends or associates to go over your work. It’s a good idea to give them some instructions. Ask that they underline any misspelled or questionable words, circle unclear passages, and note rough transitions with a question mark. Also recommend they jot any suggestions in the margins. Encourage them to be specific. Distinct constructive criticism is like surgery; it cuts out the malignancy and spares the rest of the body.

Even bestselling authors use others to refine their work. James Michener said, “I invite four outside experts—a subject-matter scholar, editor, style arbiter on words, and a final checker—to tear it apart.” Should you do any less?

About the Author

Sue Collier brings together a multitude of talents in the publishing industry, including several years in the trade side. She heads up Self-Publishing Resources, a writing, marketing, and publishing consulting firm that assists authors in surpassing their personal and professional publishing goals. She is also co-author with industry guru Marilyn Ross of the newly released The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition and the upcoming Jump Start Your Book Sales, 2nd Edition.


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