Why It’s More Important Than Ever to Master Your Craft

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

I could be wrong, but I believe we’re moving into an era in which high quality, intensive pre-publication editing is going to be harder and harder to come by. While many publishers are still doing a tremendous job in this area, others have cut their editorial staffs and are spending less time and money on editorial. On top of that, many of you will be going the indie publishing route, in one way or another, within the next few years. The amount of editing you can get for your work will be limited by what you can afford or are willing to pay.

All of this adds up to more books getting into readers’ hands without benefit of the level of tender loving care that used to be considered normal.

Why does it matter?

Because readers can tell the difference.

They may not be able to identify why they’re not compelled by a book. Maybe they can’t point out there is too much narrative and not enough action and dialogue. They might not be able to articulate that the story is boring because the protagonist’s conflict is all internal and isn’t balanced by compelling external conflict. Your reader might not be able to point out that your paragraph structures lack variety or that you often use passive constructions that deaden your writing.


They know when a book is good enough to not only finish, but recommend to their friends. They know when a book was amazing or “meh” or awful. They may not always know why, but they know.

They also know when there are typos or elementary mistakes in grammar or punctuation. And in those online reviews, they’re vocal about these kinds of mistakes.

So this means the burden is on you to keep working on craft. Keep studying plot and structure, character building and dialogue. Proofread carefully before delivering a draft—whether to an agent on submission, to your publisher, or to the file you’re uploading for your e-book. And get the best editing and/or proofreading help you can afford.

The quality of your writing IS going to determine if people want to read what you write. And more and more, the quality control will be your responsibility.

How much do you think writing quality and editorial excellence determines readers’ response to a book?

54 Responses

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  1. Excellent post, Rachelle. Writing quality and editorial excellence matter a great deal. I just slogged through a book I am due to review soon that an editor could have helped to greatly improve. Way too many unnecessary details, too much telling and little showing, and incorrect pacing for the genre made it a painful read. The author had a great idea and did his research, but an editor would have helped tighten the work and improve the overall quality of the story. I’ve read earlier reviews and they are saying the same things.

    • Lynn Johnston says:

      It seems common sense that we as writers need to polish our craft before presenting for publication. After recently submitting a fiction proposal, I would only assume that a poorly written book would not attract interest. With this in mind, I agree with your previous post about constructing a “Marketing Team.” It would nice to find a group of writing buddies that could back each other up. Perhaps we could offer editing support to our friends. I agree that we need to work a little harder to present the best work as possible.

  2. Anne Love says:

    I’ve noticed this in some debut author’s work. I’m wondering if it’s also individual to an author’s contract or does it go generally across the board?

  3. Sue Harrison says:

    A much-needed post, Rachelle. Thank you! Just yesterday I was contemplating buying a novel to read on my Kindle but the reviews that mentioned immense grammar problems dissuaded me. There is a bright side with this problem. A lot of novelists who ARE good with grammar might be able to supplement their income through freelance editing!

  4. Chad Allen says:

    Thank you, Rachelle! Next to craft the rest is codswallop! We (Baker Publishing Group) still invest a lot in development and editing and proofreading. Having said that, another point to add here is that the better shape a manuscript is in when it arrives, the better we can make the final product. One thing is certain: traditional publishers do not have an unlimited amount of time they can spend on a manuscript. Therefore, the better it arrives, the better it will leave.

  5. Jeanne T says:

    I think you are spot on. Even before I began writing, I got frustrated by grammatical and spelling errors. If they were plentiful, I put the book down or gave it away. Readers can tell when a story sings or if it merely sputters.

    Yes, as a writer, working on craft is a necessity.

  6. Michelle Ule says:

    I guess what I don’t understand is grammar and spell check are a free feature on my Microsoft Word–can’t people start there?

    I also would guess some of the problem stems from running out of time, or not getting constructive feedback early.

    My next deadline is February 15, but with the holidays looming, I started writing this week.

    I wonder, too, if it isn’t better to have three or four manuscripts under your belt before you get one published. Such experience is invaluable. At my first Mt. hermon Davis Bunn said he had written seven before he sold his first book.

    That freed me to not worry about publication for years and I, too, sold my seventh or eighth try out the gate.

    Patience is not only a virtue, but a necessity in the writing life.

    • Michelle, your last point resonates right to my core. Patience is so, so important.

    • Nan Bush says:

      The free spell-check is essential, but it’s as basic as you can get. It cannot distinguish between homonyms, or when an “s” has been dropped from a plural, or when a word is simply the wrong word. And in 25 years, the grammar function of Word has never once suggested a correction that made sense in my writing. It seems incapable of managing anything beyond the simplest of simple sentences. I cannot imagine what algorithms it is using, but they have not shown any talent for compound or compound-complex sentences.

  7. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this great reminder. I think as a novice writer, I wrongly assumed a lot of revision happened after your book was accepted. I quickly learned that was absolutely not the case. A friend just asked me how many times I revised each page of my WIP. I think I have lost count 🙂 Patience is very important!

  8. Writing quality plays an enormous role in maintaining reader interest, and like many, I rely on spell/grammar check for basic help, but that is what it is – basic. I am blessed to have a former lit professor in my critique group, (read grammar Superhero); her eyes beat any computer program.

  9. Rick Barry says:

    Preach it, Rachelle. I’ve read some drafts from writers who have potential, but who don’t want to do the re-writing necessary to develop the high-polish luster necessary for a great read. As a former editor, I can’t stress enough the need for editing. Even if you’re an editor yourself, everyone benefits from experienced editorial eyes.

  10. Alicia says:

    Thank you for this!! There are so many self-published novels that I have read lately that have been just awful! The punctuation and spelling are terrible, and their formatting is atrocious. The characters are boring and the situations unrealistic or far-fetched and I usually end up putting the books away after a couple of chapters. I certainly try to support new writers but this is getting ridiculous. Many of them are just cranking out stinky stuff just to be able to put “Author” next to their name. That makes me sad. Back to the classics for me!

  11. Julie C says:

    I agree with this. I am a voracious reader and am constantly seeing books with grammatical errors, misspellings, run-on sentences, and words mashed together.

    The editor/s could’ve fixed those problems, but didn’t. In a book I am currently ‘trying” to read, the errors begin on the acknowledgements pages! The editors appear to have never looked at the manuscript–there are 33 errors that I’ve caught by page 100, there may be more. Those were just the ones who mugged me.

    Then I think about Word or whatever the equivalent is in a Mac) that has spell check. Did these authors not notice the red and green squiggly lines alerting them to problems? Or did they just assume that an editor would pretty it up for them?

    Great piece. I hope every writer sees it!

  12. Tim Klock says:

    I definitely need the help and guidance of an agent & editor. Every time I read my own story again, I wonder how I could have missed all of the mistakes before. I think I’m done, but read it again, “just in case.” Sure enough, there are more mistakes! There is no perfect story or book. That’s why editors are so important. They’re not perfect, but they know their stuff. It’s their job to catch mess-ups before your book goes to print.

  13. Samuel says:

    This recommended diligence is make-or-break. DO IT!

  14. Honestly, when a book is well-edited these days, it stands out from the pack. I’ve seen so many repetitive phrases in CBA books that editors should’ve hunted down and cut. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    When I read Mike Duran’s THE TELLING, it was obvious he had an OUTSTANDING editor. I found next to no errors in phrasing/wording, etc. It was Alton Gansky–no surprise! Though I know Mike’s an excellent writer, as well.

  15. For me as a reader, editorial excellence is essential. If I don’t like an author’s writing (whether due to passive verbs or use of all short, choppy sentences, etc.) and ESPECIALLY if there are actual errors, I will often stop reading a book. Part of that could be because I’m an editor in my day job, but I think you’re right–a lot of readers know it’s there, even if they cannot put their finger on it.

    It’s very interesting that publishing houses are cutting back on their editorial staff. Does that just mean they are using more freelance editors, or that they are expecting authors to pay an outside editor to edit for them?

  16. What I can see happening is more marketing emphasis on the production side of all forms. And will we see ads for new books include “professionally edited in the style of traditionally published?” Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, but a good editor’s endorsement or “stamp of approval” may become as important as an A-list influencer on the cover or marketing blurb. (And maybe we’ll inspire future generations to study English and grammar, and actually put it into practice.) One can hope.

  17. I know the value of editing and proofreading. I used C. S. Lakin to edit my first book that has just come out, and she was worth every penny I paid her. Another lesson learned, I decided to proofread the galleys myself instead of letting Susanne or someone else do it. My wife found several typos that I had to pay to get fixed.

    Good editing is a must!

  18. Stirling Noh says:

    Editing a written manuscript, to my mind, is much like editing a musical manuscript. You’re trying to help the energy of the author’s ideas and themes flow. A good editor opens blocked pathways, allowing the music to be music.

  19. My life is too short to read bad books.

    The books I’ve written and intend to write need to meet high standards — which means I need to rely on a team of people who all contribute to its quality. Your post opens up a big issue in publishing today.

  20. Julie Luek says:

    I feel like part of the “amen choir” adding a comment here. I’ve had this sense in many blogs, articles and posts I’ve read. The times are a’changing and authors need to take more responsibility, up front, for producing quality work. Your post certainly reiterates this point.

  21. Well said. People DO notice when a book isn’t well-written, even if they are not voracious readers. Though we often hear about books exploding despite the low-to-mediocre quality of their writing, these are the exceptions. In my experience, it’s even rarer that people look forward to other works from those authors once their series are over. Writers who excel at craft seem to elicit much more long-term excitement. They find readers who look forward to the next work from the author, regardless of what it is, rather than the next book in a finite series.

  22. I totally agree with one of the editor’s comments about delivering a very good product to the editor at the start, which actually strengthens Rachel’s position.

    Writers are the first readers and content editors of their books. Thoroughly learning the craft of writing–pacing, flow, character development, etc., are important to a book’s clarity and readability.

    To another point, I’ve seen typos and editing misses in the traditionally published books as well. I’ve just finished reading a book by a very famous agent whose traditionally published book is full of typos and missing words.


  23. Marielena says:

    Yep, to all of the above.

  24. Ruth Taylor says:

    I try to keep the following rule: 1 book on writing for every 3 novels I read. I can’t imagine how elementary my writing would still be without educating myself. One of the reasons I know if my work is readable is reader feedback – both those who I know, as well as strangers.

  25. I’ve gotten to the point where I won’t buy a self-published book that hasn’t been recommended to me–assuming I can tell it’s self-published. Or will I read books from certain publishers. Do you think we’ll get to the point where readers are searching out not just particular authors, but particular publishers, looking for high-quality? I don’t know. I know that when I read a terribly-edited book, I look to see who the publisher was more often than when I read a well-edited book.

  26. Great post Rachelle.

    I recently picked up a book by an author I always loved. I hadn’t read any of her books in about a year. During that year I finished up my course with the Christian Writers Guild, began work on my own novel, read many blogs and many writing books.

    I am sad to say I struggled to get through her book now that I konw what I know. The book swam in passive verbs, I found myself counting them at one point and I stopped myself. I read chapters that made me wonder how this moved the plot along?

    I did finish the book but I think that might have been my last one by that author. I think your point is valid, we need to do our best writing always and not grow lazy, readers will notice.

  27. I agree completely. I read so many books by Christian publishers that I consider not worth reading because they are not well written, containing bad metaphors and similes, hackneyed plots, and 1-dimensional characters. Frankly, most of my reading is from non-Christian publishers because I see a higher standard. I have not read one Christian novel of the standard of Pat Conroy or Ann Patchett (two of the authors I have recently read). I would rather pay someone to fix the errors in my novel than have it released as I wrote it, because every time I read my draft I either find errors or create new ones when I edit.

  28. Julia says:

    While I agree with some points I disagree with some of the statements. As a reader, what I don’t like of many of the books chosen by big publishers is that they seek action. Why should I care for action? I love inner conflicts. Many literary classics have more inner conflicts than external ones and they don’t have much action. Not all readers like what the big publishers think is “good writing”. Good writing does not mean more action and more outer conflicts. Then, of course, I agree that careful editing is very important, but the previous statements are based on misconceptions and due to those misconceptions we have less choices, as readers, from the big publishing houses.

  29. Barbara says:

    When my now published novel was in the editing stage at the publishers, it went through three different editors. Each editor asked for more changes. On the third edit, I commented that I wish I’d been given all the changes at one time, as it felt I was redoing some of the same passages. The response I received was that as the work becomes cleaner, more weaknesses are exposed. And then I was grateful. Grateful that my publisher was willing to take a flawed manuscript and continue to work with it until it came up to their standards. If I had self-published, the novel would have gone through one edit, but I shudder to think how many errors would have remained. As it is, after the three edits, it was professionally proofread, and we still ended up with a “font porch.”

  30. Such a good subject for today’s post. Reading a well written book is a treat–like going on a long anticipated journey. When a new book comes out by any of my favorite authors, I savor each word.

  31. Iola says:

    I’ve just finished a self-published novella by an author that has previously been published by a major CBA house. It swam with errors – head hopping, awkward sentence construction, repetition (brown-haired brunette), overuse of adverbs, and even two characters with the same name.

    I was disappointed, because I know this writer can do better. Or perhaps this is her standard of writing, and in her previous work, her editors did most of the work?

  32. So true!
    I’ve been editing for a newbie author recently and yes, learning the craft is the MOST IMPORTANT thing.
    There’s a trap though, I think some writers think that all their problems will be solved by paying an editor. Sure, you might have a great concept, but if you lack fundamental knowledge of the craft all the editing in the world won’t count.
    For example: I can clean it up and make suggestions. But that author has to go back and work work work!

    Yes, sometimes you have to put that book aside and start another, and another.

    I’ve written four full novels and have two unfinished. YESTERDAY I found out that Love Inspired Suspense want to by my latest manuscript–the fourth that I’ve submitted to them.

    So Amen, Rachelle. And YAY! I sold my first book!

  33. I think you are absolutely correct. Before I understood the specific elements of craft, I’d often wonder why I didn’t like a book when the plot idea seemed to be a good one. Somehow I didn’t get into the story or feel for the character or feel a part of the action. NOW I get it. I’ve also noticed the difference of quality from the same author from one publishing house to the next. In fact, I actually look to see who the publisher is as a selling point for the book. So to me, editing is important. But I guess, as a reader, this will be harder to predict. As a writer, it means I need to continue to refine my skills.

  34. Cat Woods says:

    It is paramount. I just wish more writers would love themselves and their manuscripts enough to go that extra step.

  35. Peter DeHaan says:

    As more and more books are published that contain errors, I wonder if most readers will just learn to tune them out.

    It may not be a fair comparison, but in the early days of cell phones, because of quality issues, few people thought they’d ever be more than a novelty item or a device for short urgent conversations. Certainly businesses would never use them for important calls. But now we accept dropped calls and connections that cut out as being normal.

    Could book publishing follow this same path?

  36. Jenny says:

    I’m going the Indie route and I have a new appreciation for editors. After years of writing and months of editing with a lot of feedback from book clubs, I’m finally working on the smallest grammar details. Every time I think I’ve corrected all the mistakes I find another one, but I’m determined to put out a high quality book with NO errors because I know how bothersome they are to the readers. And I don’t want to let all my hard work in writing be overshadowed by minor mistakes.

  37. Jan Cline says:

    I guess I’m surprised that no one (unless I missed it) talked about the expense of hiring an editor. I spent so much money on my self-published book to have it edited, I will probably never recoup the cost. I feel bad for writers who really have a great story to tell and are good writers – but they can’t afford an editor. Not only is it expensive, but it’s hard to know if you and the editor are a fit and that they won’t over edit or under edit. Even well recommended editors can be a mismatch. I did what I had to to earn some money to hire someone, but if the money isn’t there it isn’t there. I’m not complaining – just stating what I see becoming a bigger deal to new writers these days.
    Has anyone else had this issue, or am I alone?

    • Jenny says:

      Jan, I didn’t have money for an editor. My friend used to work in the communications department at a large hospital, so she’s a good grammar editor. She has done the lion’s share of grammatical and spelling editing. I don’t know what I would have done without her. I asked a couple of book clubs to read my story to help me find errors in the story line and find what they liked and didn’t like. That also helped a lot. And now I’ve spent 50+ hours pouring over my “proof” book looking for errors and fixing formatting issues. I’m glad you brought it up. It feels like writers and crushed between the “rock and the hard place.”

  38. I completely agree. With so much out there now (because of self-pub, print-on-demand) you have to give the readers quality in order to stand out.

    Having said that, I must somewhat contradict myself by mentioning that, according to my wife, in terms of WRITING, “50 Shades Of Grey” is a piece of [email protected]

  39. Erich Kreppenhofer says:

    Editing always was the weak point of writers. The demise of edits and editors is already a market condition. One poster said, 50 shades is a piece of crap..absolutely tru, another one is the new JK Rowlings novel, it has so marked mistakes it is actually embarrassing. Yes, self publishing has been making its impact for the last two years. But I also think publishing houses have anticipated the decline in the amount of written books and have cut back.
    At the Writers Festival in Vancouver a well known author said to me, his words, “Too many ESL and too many Immigrants, the language skill is not that important anymore. The story is, the amount of erotica and violence sells better than my Booker price novel! I admit he has a point! For my part I miss the smell of a new book, the weight of the volume and the rustle of the pages when I turn them.
    I will not pay an editor $20.00 dollars per page, sixthousand bucks of blood sweat and tears, yes blood and tears too! So I try to get around it with fourth year MFA students for a 1/4 of it! That is my two bits…

  40. benzeknees says:

    It has occurred to me I should perhaps be looking for a new career has a freelance proofreader. I am also great at grammar & punctuation. If this is the future of publishing, maybe I should get on the bandwagon. I am working on my first book & I am so discouraged by the self-published/indie books available out there with the horrible mistakes. Now I am reading about the changes in the traditional publishing industry which will require me to pay a lot of money for editing or not get any editing at all.
    Maybe I could work as a freelance proof reader to make enough money to hire a professional editor.

  41. Ann Bracken says:

    Whenever I read a book and there are typos and grammar mistakes, it pulls me out of the story. It’s become more common over the past year, it seems, even from the big publishing houses. Drives me bonkers (and I don’t have far to go!).

    I’m with others, maybe I should hire myself out as a line editor! I know I won’t catch everything, which is another reason to have multiple successive edits of a manuscript, but I’m pretty sure I’d do a passable job.

  42. Susan Janos says:

    Hi Rachelle,

    Thank you for your blog. I work as a freelance writer/editor and have found there a quite a few publishers that send their editorial projects out–especially, if you are an unknown writer. Authors, however, should still expect quality service from a publisher. That is part of the benefit of using a publisher. They should talk with their publisher if the quality of the edit is poor.

    Susan Janos

  43. Celia Jolley says:

    Editing is like enjoying a good bowl of clam chower until you chop down on grains of sand. The clams weren’t cleaned carefully enough, a common mistake. An ounce of prevention… (It’s funny how many mistakes are in our blog replies.)

  44. Paula says:

    Sleep is overrated but definitely desirable.

  45. SolariC says:

    I think in the changing world of publishing, writers will have to train themselves into a more rigorous and critical approach to their own writing. Perhaps this might mean fewer books will be written, but if the upside of that is a better product, I can’t complain. After all, if you think about it, great writers like Melville put out 10 novels (sometimes fewer) in their life. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for modern writers to put out twice that many novels in just a couple of decades. Perhaps a tougher editing environment will lead to a sort of natural selection of the best writers and books.

  46. I think anyone who is contemplating to self publish should definitely seek a professional editor to evaluate and undertake what a traditinal publisher does.
    I’ve read a few self published novels only to be disappointed with what they call a good story.
    If I take this route I will definitely seek out a professional editor, one who will do my work justice.

  47. GREAT post, Rachelle. This trend has been coming with traditional publishers, and now in the era of so many self-pubbed books, we’re seeing enormous amounts of half-finished books tossed into the sea. Readers ARE taking note, and complain to me every day about the shoddy quality of books out there these days.
    Thank you for your insights!

  48. Catherine Hudson says:

    I could not agree more. I have a close friend (aren’t I blessed) who is a free-lance editor. I use her services and cannot recommend her highly enough.
    If we love good quality books then we authors must do all we can to make that happen – lets keep the bar high!

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