The Self-Editing Myth

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

One of the best writing books of all time is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I’ve devoured that book multiple times. I used to read it, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White every single year. But today I’m going to talk about the fallacy of thinking we can adequately self-edit. Or more precisely that the self-edit is sufficient. Science fiction writer Eric T. Benoit summed it up nicely, “Self editing is the path to the dark side. Self editing leads to self delusion, self delusion leads to missed mistakes, missed mistakes lead to bad reviews. Bad reviews are the tools of the dark side.” Yep, the dark side.

There are many things we can adequately do for ourselves. Giving ourselves a good haircut, however, and editing our own books are not among those things. I decided to address this issue when a friend handed me the print-out of a review she read on Amazon. The review addressed the dangers of an unedited book so succinctly, I contacted Amazon and the reviewer, Sondra Kelly-Green, to get permission to quote much of it here. I’m not going to name the book because the author took the comments to heart and reissued an edited version of the book. But here’s the review:

I would love to recommend this book. I really would. [Title] made me laugh, and its premise and main character were engaging. BUT. . . as much as I would like to recommend it, I just can’t. This book is the victim of the same crime committed by the authors of many (MANY) other self-published books. In the heady rush to press the author neglects to get it to an editor.

There are so many spelling errors in this book it’s nearly impossible to follow the plot. Just one example is the word desert. It has one “s” like sand. Dessert on the other hand has two, as in strawberry shortcake. So as a result we’re faced with a lot of whipped cream and sponge cake where there should be arid dunes.

This is something that really hits me where my peeves live: Why can’t writers admit to themselves that there may be errors editors can catch that they can’t? Spell check is not the great license to go forth into print. The all-too-sad bottom line is that if I passed this on to friends it would imply I hadn’t caught the widely scattered errors on what would have otherwise been a perfectly delightful work.

So – if you’re not driven wild by typos, confused synonyms and operator error in general, you may find this a funny and sweet read. Just don’t say I recommended it, okay?

Gulp! I couldn’t have said it better.

How would you like to get that kind of a review on your book? And this reviewer was merely talking about copyedits. What about the substantive edit? Our friend Dr. Seuss once wrote, “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

Your turn. Have you noticed more typos and mistakes in books lately? How about doing some future-think with me. If this trend were to continue how do you see it impacting readers and books in general? Do you see a problem like this making readers shy away from self-published books?  Do we see this happening in traditionally published books more often than before? What should an author do?


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  1. T.L. Bodine says:

    I take issue with the idea that authors can’t (or worse, shouldn’t be expected to) do their own editing. I think it’s a myth propagated by editors. I’m a freelance writer and it’s my job to ensure that I work efficiently and turn in error-free text on a short turn-around. There’s no editor standing between me and my professional clients, so I have to be certain everything I turn in is polished.

    If an author wants an editor, there’s nothing wrong with that. And I can see the benefit to having someone proofread as insidious little typos sometimes creep up, often during the edits themselves.

    But I don’t think editors are by any means a necessity, and writers shoot themselves in the foot if they think having an editor absolves them of the responsibility to learn proper spelling and grammar. Words are your tools. Learn to use them properly instead of relying on others to fix your mistakes.

    • Larry says:

      I agree completely. There are many careers involving writing which don’t have an editor position: instead, it’s part of the expectations of the employee to be able to perform that role for his or her own work.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      T. L. I agree with you about the responsibility to create polished work but I disagree with you completely that an editor is not needed. It might be true that for short work like an article or advertising copy an experienced freelancer can create ready-to-print quality but for a book, no.

      We need those other eyes to see where we haven’t fully expressed ourselves or where we leave a story line dangling– the substantive edit. And we definitely need copyediting.

      You only need read a few unedited manuscripts to see the truth in this.

      But, yes, a writer should never see an editor as an excuse for sloppy writing. The writer should create what he believes to be a perfect book and let the editor disprove it. That’s how books move from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

    • As a writer, I desperately need an editor! I look forward to it. Right now I’m on my second draft of my book, and I’m catching things like an s missing on a word that should be plural. A period missing here and there. My time frame off in one spot or another. I’m always amazed at how I missed these things. But I know my story too close to catch them. My mind fills in what’s missing.

      And then there’s the blind spots we have as writers–we can see the whole story in our head, but we often don’t realize that we’re not conveying crucial things on the page. We need people to stop us and say, “Hold on. You lost me here.” It’s not something we can do ourselves.

      And language changes. I have a BA in English. But when I work on a book, my Chicago Manual of Style–hated thing!–is there, because what was wrong ten years ago is perfectly acceptable now.

    • Jamie says:

      I think T. L. mistakes copyediting for developmental editing. Regardless, both are needed. (A copyeditor would have pointed out the need for a space between initials, for example.) 🙂

      Certainly it’s the author’s responsibility to do as much as he or she can, putting the manuscript through many drafts until it seems perfect. And that’s when the editor’s work begins.

      Any author who’s worked with an editor quickly realizes the value of (if NOTHING else) a fresh pair of eyes. But there is so much more to it than that. Publishers hire editors for manuscripts (every single one, no matter how many books that author has published previously), which surely is a commentary on how much value they place on editors in the publishing process.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        Jamie, thank you for pointing this out.

        Jamie is one of those editors I was thinking about when I commented on Jenni Brummett’s question about editors below. But I won’t say that on a public forum like this because it’s already hard enough to get Jamie. 🙂

        Editing is an art form that is under-discussed. From the days of Maxwell Perkins to now, a good editor is worth his weight in gold. Some of my more experienced authors have even begun to notice the editors that are constantly connected to the award-winning books. There is a pattern here, folks.

      • Jamie says:

        Wendy, wow, I’m blushing. Thank you for those lovely words…

      • T.L. Bodine says:

        The day job mandates that I write in AP style, Jamie, wherein there are no spaces between initials. Unless form dictates that I use a different style guide, I stick with AP for personal use as well 😉

    • Barbara says:

      While I agree that it is the writer’s responsibility to learn to write well and all that that includes, and it is a possibility that an experienced writer may not need an editor, I haven’t see the evidence. I live in our state’s capital and am constantly appalled at the poor writing in every state document I’ve seen, from instruction manuals, to reports on endangered species. I see the need for good editing everywhere. I believe it is dangerous indeed to self-publish without the aid of good editing. I’ve been in the position of the reviewer where dear friends have e-published and I can’t whole-heartedly recommend their work because of too many errors. We discussed this once in our writer’s group, and it surprised me that several in the group didn’t think it mattered to the average reader. They expressed the opinion that writers are harder on other writers than readers are; that readers are not put off by typos and misspelled words as long as the story is well-told. For myself, I say, bring on the editor!

    • Robin Peacock says:

      If an editor decided to right a book (not unheard of) wood he or she employ an editor, I wunder?

  2. Anne Love says:

    I realize there’s been a trend to e-publish and self-publish that scares the pants off us lovers of tradition. But in the end, perhaps it will be to our benefit once that industry reaches its saturation point and makes readers demand the quality they can trust from traditional houses. Yet, I’ve noticed in the surge to compete, some typos still slip through in the traditional world as well. How disappointing. You get what you pay for. Personally, I’m holding out for the tried and true.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Anne, I love the idea of a saturation point. Hopefully, that will cause readers to demand more quality from books. Hadn’t thought about that.

    • I agree, excellent point about saturation. There’s a limit to what people will accept before they turn and demand better for their expenditures. And no, I did NOT use spellcheck or rely on the red line to get that werd rite.

    • It’s a nice thought, but I’m increasingly under the impression that the quality from traditional publishers is slipping. I found 40 errors in the 352 page “Victory of Eagles”, published by Harper Voyager – that’s around one every nine pages.

      A previous book in the series contained the line “and I hope you will permit me to suggest, Wilberforcewritten had“. For the life of me, I can’t work out how that got past an editor.

      It’s a real shame, because the stories are great, and they deserve better. The shoddy editing has made me wary of buying any more books in the series 🙁

      • Larry says:

        Indeed. It is quite erroneous to claim that, as publishing houses let go of their editors, that there is this stark divide between the quality control of traditionally published books and e-published books.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I agree, Anne. But I’ve also noticed more errors in traditionally published ebooks as well.

      I’m guessing this comes in the method publishers are using to convert files. Everyone is rushing to get their backlist into digital books and made available. At first this caused a proliferation of errors. I think this will be addressed as time and the frenzy to get everything digitalized all at once subsides.

  3. My too sense, a good editor is worth there wait in gold. Get over you’re fear of critique, and except help. More I’s on the pages, more reader’s for the book. (Couldn’t resist.) 😉

  4. And not just normal human writers need editors, have any of you read a scientific paper or even an email from a scientist/nerd??
    Oh my word, please just play a recording of the Chipmunks singing Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes. That torture is worse than reading a rough draft of a 20 page article that is half Latin (seriously) and the other half is Latin based English with teeth jarringly bad spelling. And maybe there might even be a capital letter in there somewhere.
    There is a saint named Caroline at my husband’s work whose job is editing science papers. I think she pours Red Bull on her sugary cereal to make it til lunch when she has 4 Cokes and a bowl of raw tobacco leaves with Ranch dressing.
    But they adore her and she is excellent at her job. And I was only joking about that many Cokes. She only has 3.

    • Jennifer, when my husband was working on his master’s degree in computer science, I edited his papers. I thought, “Cool! I get to use my English background.” WRONG! Who can understand that stuff? Longest three years of my life. I remember many late nights with my head nodding in front of the computer. But we survived, and now that education pays the bills.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Not just scientific papers. How about tech writing? When’s the last time you read operating instructions that made sense?

      • Hahaha! Oh my word, YES!!
        My dad is an engineer. *He* didn’t need the instructions. Ever. I cannot tell you how many times I shook my head and walked away from helping him repair something, hearing “You know, *I* am an engineer!” from behind me as I muttered “And we all know that, don’t we?”

    • Lori says:

      Jennifer, I think you are being way to hard on Caroline. Currently as a technical writer, we all have different talents. I have learned to understand a lot of technical stuff but I also had a lot of time in the industry prior to being a full time tech writer. (Note: My degree is in Communications not engineering or computer science) Prior to being a full time tech writer, writing at times was just part of my job. It was not my job. My years in quality assurance helped a lot. I was asked to be a full time tech writer which is what the job market was looking for at that time.

      Wendy, I have written many operating instructions that have actually taught users on how to use computer software without any prior knowledge of that software. In fact at prior job, I had a manager steal me from another department because of what needed to be done for her department after what she saw what I did for my original department.

      Writing instructions that actually teach or is able to be understood my many is an art. However, I may be able to write and follow technical instructions but I have a difficult time following a recipe in a cookbook. In fact, I want to pull my hair out.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        You are right, Lori. Tech writing is an art as well and one that can make our lives a whole lot easier. One of my friends, Marilyn Hilton, has been a Silicon Valley tech writer. She was on the team that wrote the owner’s manual for one of the database programs I used. It was a complex program but nobody could explain it like Marilyn. She said it was important that she was not a techie. Her job was to keep going back to the developers and having them explain it over and over until she could put the words to it to make it understandable to non-developers.

      • Lori says:

        Wendy, I checked out Marilyn’s Web pages and LinkedIn profile. Impressive. Now, when I get a chance, I need to check out her books.

      • I was terribly impressed with what I could understand of my husband’s papers. It proved to me just what you said, that writing on technical subjects is an art. It was just difficult to edit because I didn’t understand the material. He says he’s not a good writer, but I couldn’t have done what he did!

      • I wasn’t being hard on Caroline, I was being hard on the people who send her scientifically accurate papers with the worst grammar and spelling out there. The scientists are very good at their jobs, and Caroline is VERY good at hers. And she makes their work shiny. Shinier.
        I’m going to hush up now.

      • Lori says:

        And Jennifer, that’s why I have a job. It is my job to make the engineers shine and it is the engineers job to make the astronuats shine. So it all works out in the end.

  5. Jeanne T says:

    Wendy, interesting thoughts. I can definitely see the advantage of having an editor look at a book. One thing I saw that I was not impressed with in a traditionally pubbed book, written by a well-known author, was the name of a town in the state where I live misspelled. Not once, but throughout the book. I believe a town by the same name is also in the author’s home state, spelled the way it was in the book.

    That little gaffe bothered me because it made me think that someone had truly not done their research. I have seen more errors in traditionally pubbed books over the last few years, as well as in e-pubbed books.

    On the flip side, I know many authors and editors do their best to put out quality books. When I’m ready, I want other eyes on my story to ensure I haven’t missed any major edits—story wise or grammar, punctuation-wise.

    If books continue to be filled with errors, I think people will shy away from books—self- and traditionally pubbed.

    • It’s interesting you mention the proper spelling of locations. I’m from British Columbia. NOT British Colombia. Have I seen this? Yup. Is there such a place? Maybe at a tea room in Bogota.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Different publishers offer different levels of editing. In addition to the edits, the publishers I’ve worked with compile a list of names, places and foreign words and check the spelling on each of them and then hand that back to the author to double check. There is no excuse for an error like that. Especially since it pulls you out of the story.

      I hope you sent a quick email to the publisher. They keep a file on each book and make those corrections before the next pruning.

      • Jeanne T says:

        Hmmm, no I didn’t contact the publisher. I probably should have. The book’s been out for a number of years now. If/(When?) I come across this again, I will say something. Thanks for the nudge, Wendy.

      • Iola says:

        I sent one such email to a publisher based on reading the unedited ARC (I knew it the editing was finished, because there were notes like “Author name – have you got the French translation correct here?” throughout.

        I got a lovely response from the publisher’s PR department, assuring me they were confident these errors wouldn’t appear in the final version.

        But the errors were still there. Every. Single. One.

        The notes to the author had gone, but the things I had pointed out were all easily found using the Kindle Look Inside feature.

        So why bother?

  6. Diane Stortz says:

    As a writer (who also works as an editor), I’ve been blessed with some good editing (“Eek–how did I miss THAT?).

    As an editor, I’ve been frustrated at times with the manuscripts I’m given. Because I write, I KNOW the author could have caught this, tightened that, polished there. I most admire the authors who have learned to edit themselves well.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I think it’s important to emphasize, Diane, that as a former in-house editor for a traditional publisher and a professional freelance editor you still appreciate being edited yourself. It’s a gift, isn’t it.

      • Diane Stortz says:

        Definitely, Wendy! When I write, I do aspire to make my editor’s job as easy as I can, but I would never want to publish a book that a good editor or two hadn’t seen first!

  7. To err is hunam.

  8. Norma Horton says:

    I love my editor. She killed me. Her work resulted in carnage. Corrections hemorrhaged off the page, dripping down the right corner well below the copy line. They were endless, eternal. I even did a blog about the process, called Armageddon, or The Professional Edit: (Pleaes note the website relaunch occurs today, and we’re still working on spacing in the blog. This is a sneak peek.)

    The professional edit is the second best money I’ve spent in writing. I can get a lot of the junk out of my work, but I need a word-surgeon to be professional. (And bandages, antibacterial cream, and a lot of good chocolate.)

    For me, the professional edit is a necessaity. (I’m too busy working with my own creations to notice if quality is slipping elsewhere.) I am happy to invest in it if it improves my product—and it does immeasurably.

    • Norma Horton says:

      See? Necessity, not necessaity. I really DO need a professional editor! >: l

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      So Norma, inquiring minds want to know. . . if editing is the second best money spent, what is the best money spent?

      • Norma Horton says:

        Easy: being mentored by the inimitable DiAnn Mills in the CWG Craftsman program. I can honestly tell you I wouldn’t be here, or much of anywhere else, without her guidance, shrewd advice, and patient instruction. (This is NOT a paid endorsement.) : )

    • Jenny Leo says:

      Ditto to what Norma said. I hired a freelance editor for my first novel, and I cringed in horror when I saw some the typos, timeline problems, and sheer banalities she flagged. When reading my own work, I tend to see what I expect to see, not what’s actually there on the page. But how much better to cringe privately with a caring editor than to cringe publicly when a flawed manuscript reaches an editor’s desk or–gasp!–the public’s eyes. That editor is now on speed-dial for when my next manuscript is finished.

  9. Okay, Wendy, future-think: Do readers even know when what they’re reading is self-published versus traditionally published? How many readers look at the spine and say, “Oh yeah. [Name of big publisher] is terrific. I can trust this book to be good.” If these errors continue in self-publishing, could it turn readers off of reading all together? I mean, look how easy it is to pick up the remote control and have your choice of over 500 mind-numbing and brain-cell-killing entertainments. Perhaps our real competition is the television set. It would be an interesting study to see how/if reading has declined since the advent of television in the home. I don’t really know, and I know our conversation here isn’t about television. Okay, stream-of-consciousness done. 🙂

    I haven’t noticed more errors in traditionally published books, and I’m looking forward to that day when I get to work with an editor to make my book better.

  10. It’s interesting–in these days of computers, when correcting things is easy before printing them off, we do seem to have MORE errors versus the days of the classics. I’ve seen a couple errors in older books I’ve read, but then I realized they DID NOT HAVE XEROX MACHINES THEN. So they had to typeset each one, I imagine–yet still, they had fewer errors. There do seem to be more errors today, especially spelling errors. This is where a grammar-nazi crit partner can save you from much heartbreak! Or just become your OWN grammar nazi…I think it can be done.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Interesting observation, Heather. And compare the number of new books per year in the days of handset type to now. Staggering.

      It’s actually a little sobering to me since I come from an industry that was killed by a flood– no, a tsunami– of poor quality, cheap imitations from overseas. Some consumers appreciated the design and quality of the fine originals, but not enough.

      There are some parallels, but I’m holding out hope readers will still be diligent enough to find the quality books– whether traditionally-pubbed or self-pubbed.

  11. Larry says:

    While there certainly are some problems of quality control regarding e-published books (I like this phrase….it’s a good replacement for “self-pubbed”), the movement has certainly come a long ways from where it once was, establishing itself as a legitimate economic and entertainment source.

    I think much of your post today, Wendy, projects too much on the outliers of the range of e-published books: it isn’t that the books with the terrible pacing, syntax, etc. are representative of the e-book industry, but rather are their own sub-category. Much like one doesn’t project the quality of B-movies onto all of cinema, the cheap-and-loose e-books are not representative of the entire e-book industry.

    Furthermore, it isn’t merely unique to the e-pubbed market: as the industry continues to change, one of the more puzzling changes the traditional publishing industry has made is to let go those who are in charge of their quality control. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed the increase in problems of quality from all traditional publishers.

    Then there is the question of individual style. There are some writers who couldn’t get a traditional publishing deal due to the very nature of their writing style itself; the e-publishing market allows for these books to be available to the public, which otherwise were or would have been turned down by editors, or fundamentally altered to suit what the publishing house saw as “necessary” changes.

    And if writers really do need editors, what does that say about the writers’ ability to clearly communicate their story, themes, and characters? Should writers be expected to be incompetent? Should editors get co-author credit, if their work goes beyond tidying grammar?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I don’t know that I’m focusing on the odd case, Larry. This review came to me via a friend from church. She is an enthusiastic e-book reader, not a writer. She received a Kindle promotion about the book and went online to read a few reviews to see if it was something she’s like. She came across this review and thought it was so interesting, she printed it out and brought it to me.

      This was a book that was discovered by a reader by accident (by promotion). From what I’ve seen so far, the unedited book is not unusual for the self-pubbed book.

      As for your term e-pubbed, it doesn’t work when we want to discuss the difference between self e-pubbed and traditionally e-pubbed. And there is a huge difference so far in terms of sales.

      • Larry says:

        As I said, it may indeed be a categorical distinction:

        Much in the way every other form of entertainment has categorical distinctions between, for example, the B-movie and Indie films, or the distinction between someone who uploads a video singing off-key versus the work of independent local musicians.

        Such distinctions are important for understanding how non-traditional products are created, distributed, and function within the larger, traditional market.

        Reflecting further on the phraseology for e-books I offered, I agree that the word doesn’t really work, as it makes no distinction between self-pubbed e-books and the digital versions of traditionally published books

    • Jan Thompson says:

      Larry, thank you for this reminder that there are fringes in both self-pub and trad pub.

      Unfortunately, those fringe books stick out, and give the rest of the writers a bad name. This doesn’t just happen in the publishing industry but everywhere. E.g. bad apples in some fringe churches, and people assume ALL churches are bad. A few bad movies from Hollywood and we gag. A few bad politicians, and… you get the picture.

      “There are some writers who couldn’t get a traditional publishing deal due to the very nature of their writing style itself; the e-publishing market allows for these books to be available to the public, which otherwise were or would have been turned down by editors….”

      This is one of the benefits of self-publishing. Discoverability is more for the everyday writers now, rather than just for a small elite group of authors.

      But you see that there are many once traditionally published authors who are self-publishing now. So the blame can’t go to purist self-pub authors re: their poorly edited work or whatnot, but also to any author of any kind and background.

      E.g. Last night I read the first three chapters of such an author who was a NYT bestseller and has published over 30 books in her career. Well, the first three chapters of her new novel… I don’t know what to say. It seems like there is a missing editorial pen in there somewhere. Something off. It’s as if the author assumed that since she has been traditionally published that somehow her novel will be stellar. You know what, readers can tell. In the end I’d rather go read a technical IT manual upside down.

      So it goes both ways.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        You wrote: “Last night I read the first three chapters of such an author who was a NYT bestseller and has published over 30 books in her career. Well, the first three chapters of her new novel… I don’t know what to say.”

        I could write a blog post just on that. There’s so much at play when this happens– like an author who thinks she’s become too good to be edited. What a dumb mistake. a career-killing mistake.

        My daughter was just saying the same thing. She eagerly bought the newest book from one of her favorite authors even though the ebook was still at the hardcover price level. What a disappointment. Despite all her success, the author is slipping. The readers will not stay long.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        Which proves your point, Wendy, that authors need editors, sometimes badly, regardless of how long they’ve been in the business, and whether they produce books or eBooks. I think it takes humility for a writer to hire an editor.

        “The readers will not stay long.”

        That is so true. Even if the books are free or discounted in price, it would be hard for readers to remain loyal fans if the author’s writing is no longer good reads.

      • Larry says:

        I agree with what you said about traditionally published authors who go self-pub who might display a difference in their work. I think that gets to the question I raised, which is, “are writers expected to be incompetent?” Or, perhaps it is that with all the other duties writers have to do (social media, day jobs, etc.) that editors are a necessary function of a industry which tacitly acknowledges it demands too much of writers, and thus a fundamental aspect of the craft of writing has to be “outsourced” to a third party?

        Which once more raises the question, do editors deserve co-author credit? If they perform such a fundamental role, if writers absolutely require editors, if editors are in fact part of the creative process of shaping a novel: are they not deserving of such credit?

        Anything less is not something I would deem to be necessary, or that an author could possibly achieve on their own: and logic therefore dictates that unless an editors’ role is that fundamental, that much of a contribution, that unique to the process of completing a novel, that they are not necessary for the process of making a novel.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        Re: “co-author” credits. NO. Unless the editor is a ghost writer for that author. Or he is really the co-author and wrote most of the book. A writer who needs that much developmental editing probably should take a writing class.

        For eBooks, it’s common courtesy to mention the editor and the cover artist somewhere toward the front of the book. That’s all. You’ve already thanked them with what Ramsey calls a “certificate of appreciation” — that big payment check, that flat fee for their editorial services.

      • Jenny Leo says:

        “I could write a blog post just on that.”

        Please do!

  12. As an editor, I admit, I have an advantage when self-editing my books. Still, I find typos later on and think, “How did I not see that?!” So yes, every writer needs an editor.

    However, will I spend money to get my book edited? If I was self-publishing, yes. But I’m shooting for traditional publishing, and am hoping whatever publisher I land with has an editorial team to make my books the best they can be. I don’t really have the money to spend to hire an editor before that point, say, before I send it to an agent or editor who might request it. However, I do send my books to my crit partner and a few beta readers beforehand to get a larger content edit of sorts…something I DO believe every writer should do before submission.

    • Lindsay,crit partners and beta readers are invaluable. One of my readers knows the ending of my story so she can help me see if the foreshadowing is well placed. The other reader doesn’t know the ending, so I get her genuine reaction to each turn of events.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I agree with you, Lindsay. If the author is self-e-pubbing, he needs a freelance editor, maybe two– a substantive editor and a copyeditor. But if a writer is looking for an agent and a traditional publishing future, I don’t want to see a professionally edited manuscript.

      I’ve said this many times but if I’m considering representation, I want to see the writer’s own writing. I know other agents feel differently but for me, I want to see the real you, even if there’s a typo or two.

  13. I read one self-pubbed book last year that was fabulous. Just great. But there was a section where the book veered into a rabbit trail that slowed the story. It should have been deleted, and if it had been, that book would have been as good as anything coming out of publishing houses today.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I hope you wrote to the author and gently mentioned this. Especially since you could honestly tell her how outstanding the book was. I think in the future the reader will help shape the books we love.

      That happened with the book that birthed this review. The author took this reviewer’s suggestion to heart, edited the book and republished. So the book connected to this review is no longer riddled with typos. Sondra Kelly-Green, the reviewer, offered this author a gift and the author was wise enough to accept it and act on it. A new paradigm in publishing.

  14. Wendy, how does a publisher decide which editor to pair with an author? Once they’re paired up, do they continue their partnership through each of the author’s contracts with that particular publishing house?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Good question, Jenni. It’s different for every house. Some publishers use only in-house editors (employees of the publishing house) and they do the pairing very carefully. Usually the writer stays with that editor the whole time they are at that house unless the editor leaves or there are problems between the author and editor.

      Some houses use freelance editors. The best scenario would be for the author to be able to stay with the same freelancer but that’s not always the case. The very best freelancers have work lined up for months and months and may not be able to edit the next book to schedule.

      Some authors stick with their freelance editors throughout their careers. If an author has a significant career, they can request that the house allow them their editor.

      As agents pitching books, we sometimes ask for a certain editor if the project is big enough to be able to exert a little pressure. Believe me, there are some outstanding freelance editors out there (as well as in-house editors) and all the publishers and agents know who they are. Putting them on a project ensures that an already shining star will become even more brilliant.

  15. lisa says:

    Cut your own bangs- just no, and that took me awhile to figure out.

    If you read my comment typos, you will find I most surely, surely need an editor. I also need to keep revisiting the editing books you referenced, thank you. I revise A LOT, and I still miss things.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Me,too. And don’t you hate it when it happens in a public forum?

    • Jeanne T says:

      Lisa, I’ve only cut my own hair once. The stylist who had first shot at it massacred it. I would MUCH rather someone else cut my hair and edit my book, after I’ve put the best that I know into it. 🙂

  16. Jan Thompson says:

    Wendy, I’m all for paid professional editors. I think they have better eyes than the neighborhood critique group. Besides, you can fire an editor if you don’t like them (except Jamie Chavez — she’s a keeper, and I’m not even a client). But you pretty much can’t fire friends and family if they do a poor job editing your manuscripts LOL.

    I like pro editors so much I compiled a list of freelance editors on my Facebook page. It was supposed to be a shortlist, but it grew and grew. I feel that we do have good editors out there, and some don’t cost $$$. You can get a decent developmental editor for a penny a word, or you can pay six cents a word. The decision belongs to the writer’s pocketbook.

    If anyone else knows of an editor they like, feel free to add to the list:

    Having said that, I believe that the writer herself needs to know how to self-edit to begin with before she can sit down and write a proper manuscript. At least study the craft of writing (just look for James Scott Bell’s books on Amazon), take some writing classes if necessary, and learn grammar basics. I think a writer who can self-edit will write better drafts, and will earn the respect of editors they hire.

    But self-editing is not enough for a polished production, like Wendy said. IMO, regardless of whether you self-publish or go with a traditional publisher, I say it’s embarrassing to produce manuscripts full of typos, and you can’t blame the family pet’s muddy paws.

    I think that a writer needs to know her own limitations. There are so many types of editors to hire. Get some help. If it’s a story arc problem, get a developmental editor. If there are grammatical or proofreading problem, get a copy or line editor. And get real editors, not that second cousin twice removed who once wrote a poem in Greek for the last family reunion, unless of course, he is an editor.

    “Do you see a problem like this making readers shy away from self-published books? Do we see this happening in traditionally published books more often than before?”

    No. Maybe.

    These two questions are loaded, Wendy. Firstly, there are typos in both sides of the industry. Right now the cousins need to learn to be good neighbors LOL.

    Secondly, there are good freelance editors everywhere who are apolitical, and they have no problem editing either self-published works or pre-query manuscripts.

    As more Big 6 publishers get in on the eBooks realm, the quality to shoot for goes up, everybody knows they need to up their standards to remain competitive.

    Interestingly, it’s more than just editing and typos, really. In both self-publishing and traditional publishing, in the end it’s still about the story. Grammatical errors and typos and mechanics are easily fixed. But the story is still what makes readers buy the book or eBooks and continue to buy books by the same authors.

    As a reader, I look for the storytellers. Their books, I read, whether in print or eBooks. I can forgive copyediting problems, but if the story is poor, whether or not the book has gone through a developmental editor, as an avid reader, I just have to move on. Just as I’ve passed on reading some traditionally published novels because they are so poorly written, I’ve also passed on reading some eBooks for the same reason. So many other books and eBooks to read out there, so little time.

    A wise author once said — when the water rises, it floats all boats. I think that’s so true. When the quality goes up, the winners will be those wonderful readers for whom we write.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Much of what you say is true. As for the “cousins” learning to be good neighbors, I have to say that I’ve never heard anti self-pub attitudes from traditional publishers. They are pretty agnostic about it. The only resentment is from self-pubbing authors toward traditional publishers. The funny thing is the publishers hardly know about the resentment.

      As Janet and I traveled to talk with publishers and editors last year, encouraging them to join the online dialogue about the sins of traditional publishing, most were totally unaware of the discussion. They are busy running companies and were surprised to hear.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        Sorry, I should clarify — the attitudes I’m referring to are not from publishers per se since they’re businesses, and more sales make for better business (e.g. reports today that Hachette is winning in the eBook market).

        But what I was referring to are the authors of those books and ebooks themselves — the “cousins” so to speak. In my observation of both self-publishing and traditional publishing, I’ve come across some undercurrents of wariness of authors on both sides for the other, with the exception of hybrid authors in the middle trying to be nice with everyone.

        There are many reasons for the wariness, and some of them include the idea that it takes a long time for traditional author to get their books to the market via publisher, sometimes as much as 2-4 years. For a self-published author, it takes less time, sometimes as little as 2-4 months. And then there’s the pricing of books, and differences in royalties, etc.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        Of course– the authors themselves. yes, I can see how that may be a problem– hopefully less now that many traditionally published authors are also self-pubbing their own out-of-print books.

        And I hear you on the pluses for self-e-pubbing.

  17. JJ Landis says:

    Thanks for the wisdom!

  18. Can authors self-edit? Yes. Should we? Yes. Do we need to get a professional editor on board? Absolutely! I can only do so much on my own. I’m too close to the story to truly do it justice. I need those outside eyes to make sure everything makes sense. I live with the story 24/7, sometimes for years before it makes it to paper. The reader doesn’t know about all the scenes I cut, all the backstory I wrote to bring the characters to life.

    The reviewer’s comments are why I’m so hesitant to read/buy most self-published books. It’s why I refuse to self-publish right now. I can’t afford a freelance editor and I refuse to put something up for sale without it.

    I’ve been burned more than I’ve found gems when it comes to self-published books. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s what I worry about, Rachel. The reaction to a poorly edited book can spill over onto to the many fine books out there. When there are no gatekeepers all those coming in through the wide open gates need to police ourselves.

  19. I shy away from self-published books because of the last one I purchased. It had a wonderful cover, great back cover blurb, and was grammatically correct. But it was full of chapters that went nowhere, characters that didn’t belong, and a plot so full of holes it was amazing. The sad thing is the idea of the story was a good one…

  20. Interesting discussion today, everyone. I am definitely not as good a self-editor as I want to be, at least as far as catching my own typos and making sure what I’ve said is what I mean. Since I’m writing picture books, I don’t seek the help of an editor, but I do run all my books through my critique group. When I edit, I tackle content issues first. Then I go after typos, and finally I focus solely on grammar. Using this method has increased my skills at self-editing, but once my MG novel is done, I plan to find someone else.

    I didn’t see this brought up during our discussion, but I also feel it’s too easy for a person to claim he’s an editor. Many self-published authors I’ve interacted with have paid to have their books edited, only to find out many errors remained.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      “I also feel it’s too easy for a person to claim he’s an editor.”

      Good point. Buyer beware! I think credentials are important, and referrals from other writers. I would look at the final result of the books they claim to have edited.

      Also important to me is whether the editor understands the genre I write in.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Cheryl, you’ve brought up a key issue that I probably should have addressed in this blog. (but my blogs are already too long.) Almost anyone can call himself an editor. And they do! A writer with one or two books published hangs out a shingle for his new day job– editor.

      We’ve talked about this in many of our staff meetings at Books & Such. Three of our agents were editors– the kind of editors who rose through the ranks, being mentored for at least a year by a supervising editor before they could even put red ink to paper. The kind of editor who had her editing edited for a long time. It pains us to see people call themselves editors who have no formal training in the art.

      We’ve even talked about the need for some kind of oversight agency but alas, we cannot fix the entire world. (Even though we sort of think we can.) 🙂 So how do you find a real editor? It’s hard because many writers will give a glowing review to their buddies who are “editors.”

      I see a blog post coming on from one of our former editors.

    • Iola says:

      “Many self-published authors I’ve interacted with have paid to have their books edited, only to find out many errors remained.”

      One round of editing isn’t going to fix all the problems, yet that’s all many self-publishing authors can afford. But desert/dessert? That should have been picked up.

  21. This is one of the best posts and discussions I’ve seen. It amazes me that as writers we go to so much trouble to defend our every word – “our babies” – and then acknowledge that a few misspelled words, changes in POV, a shift in tense is acceptable to avoid paying an editor. As a previous quality management professional in healthcare and now an editor and author, I think quality control is spot on and shouldn’t be ignored. Authors are lucky that our lack of quality control isn’t as tragic as disasters like the oil spill in the Gulf or taking out the wrong kidney, but we have a responsibility to our clients and to the art of writing to make each piece clear and pristine. Why labor for years to create our tome and then insult it with mistakes? I, for one, am tired of finding a good read and then stumbling over basic line-edit mistakes!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Mahala, you said, “Why labor for years to create our tome and then insult it with mistakes?”

      I couldn’t have said it better!

  22. donnie and doodle says:

    Just last week, donnie and I were eating dessert in the desert It was delicious.

    Wendy. . . I’d hate to think that with a single misplaced ‘s’ – we would have been eating – sand in our strawberry shortcake.

  23. Wendy, you are so, so right. Every time I get my edits back, I realize just how much I need an editor! A good editor is worth gold. A lot of gold. No matter how good I think my book is when I turn it in, I always end up cringing at the mistakes, missed opportunities, and ridiculous repetitions my editor points out. So thankful for editors! And it will be a bad day when I think I don’t need them!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Melanie, you mentioned “missed opportunities” being discovered by editing. That’s something we don’t often think about. But knowing our book can be that much better with experienced eyes is a huge plus in favor of professional editing.

      And, as a fan of your books, I have to say they are flawless. If that’s due to a team effort, I say, “Go Team!”

      • Aw, Wendy, that means a lot to me, coming from you!!! Sweet of you to say, and yes, my editor, Jacque is wonderful at helping me fine-tune and at pointing out ways to make the characters and the plot better!

  24. Emma says:

    I think, to an extent, most authors can self-edit. First-timers need to, at least, so when they query agents, the agents aren’t getting a poorly-written novel. But that’s a good reason to have a circle of friends to read over your manuscripts and catch errors. But errors in any published book really bother me. It’s one reason I’m not a big fan of self-publishing.

  25. Jackie says:

    I am a writer who actually used to work as an editor, and I wholeheartedly agree that *even I* need an editor!

    Another set of eyes on the page, another mind processing the words and plot … of inestimable value.

    That’s why I meet monthly with other local writers for critiques and why I shell out my dollars to hire editing help!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Isn’t that true, jackie? And when we see the mistakes we make we cringe. Publishers cringe as well when a book goes out with a typo when the pages have been proofed beaucoup times.

  26. I appreciate all of the comments about the errors in traditionally published books. They are there; but when there are self-published authors to attack, traditionally published authors tend to get a break.

    Wendy, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that any agent did not want a professionally edited manuscript. In fact, I’ve always thought the opposite especially given the competition and the slush pile. Still thinking on this one….

    I’m also still thinking on your statement about self-published authors being resentful toward publishers. Maybe I’ve tuned this discussion out in the past or I’m just clueless, but I can’t imagine why this would be. I can see being disappointed about having a manuscript rejected, but I don’t see the point to being resentful.

    Please forgive these next comments as they “plug” my own blog, but the topic is fresh on my mind. I tackled editing on my blog today (one in a series on self-publishing), and yes, I did praise professional editing. One of the reasons I gave is that “we tend to see what we think should be there whether it is or not, especially after multiple readings and edits.” Another reason I gave is that “a good professional editor can also alert you to industry standards with which you might not be familiar.” I was rudely awakened to this second reason recently when I learned that CMS is the preferred style of publishers. I don’t recall ever seeing this mentioned anywhere before.

    I don’t know about other self-published writers, but for me, having or not having my work professionally edited wasn’t about thinking my words were golden but rather that there was no gold in my moneybag either! Yes, a good editor is worth gold, but I’m thankful I’ve found a good one who will accept silver. 🙂

    Thanks, Wendy, for writing on this topic.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Wise words, Sylvia!

      And about not wanting to see a professionally edited manuscript, maybe I’m the only one. It would be interesting to ask.

      My preference comes from an experience. I received a manuscript from two authors– one of who is brother to one of the top writers in the English-speaking world, so agents were all paying special attention. They stressed that the manuscript had been professionally edited by a women so it would have “that voice that women readers would appreciate.” It was a mess– filled with purple prose. I asked to see the unedited manuscript. It was clean with a much more readable style.

      I decided then and there I’d rather make a decision based on the author’s own voice than read something book-doctored. A bad edit can be worse than no edit.

      • That makes perfect sense. My idea of a good content editor is one who points out what he or she thinks are problems and maybe makes suggestions, not one who re-writes the manuscript!

  27. I certainly don’t have a need for no editor. People just need to educate themselves on reading typos. It’s easy. My friend’s say they read stuff full of typoes all the time.

    Yous Trully

    P J

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Let me tell you, P. J., readers are getting educated on reading typos and misspelling. I’m horrified to find myself thinking “U R” for the words for the words “you are.” Eek! The spelling texting hath wrought.

  28. In the self-pubbed world it is not the editor that the author has hopefully been wise enough to hire that submits the book. It is the typographer who makes the final entry. This is where the last human error occurs. There is a need to hire an ace editor, and a trustworthy, perfectionist, typographer. I don’t know the exact ratio of self-pubbed authors that attempt all three jobs by themselves. That would be an interesting statistic.

    Fresh eyes are a writer’s best friend. Even a critique group’s vision can blur if they’ve gone through the entire novel journey with you.

    Readers are invaluable as Jenni mentioned earlier. They offer a fresh perspective. I have two for each novel and they never personally meet. One knows the end of the story and the other doesn’t. I ask a man and a woman so I get the male and female take. They pick up things the critique group has missed and offer character insights that are usually 100% on target.

    One thing my book club has noted these past few years is a definite increase in errors in traditionally published books, and a lesser quality paper. There are only two authors in the large group of ten. The lifelong avid readers are the most disappointed in the decline in the old standard of quality. They mark all the errors.

    Editors are my favorite people!

    Thank you for this terrific discussion, Wendy!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Absolutely, Kathy. and yes, readers AND editors. I can’t stop thinking about how Jenni does it with her first readers– such a great idea. And you, having a man and a women is unique. (Not that many men will be your readers but it doesn’t hurt to get the male perspective.)

      • Wendy, when you receive a proposal for a novel, do you read the synopsis first or the entire manuscript? Do you like knowing the ending before you begin?

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        I always read the pages first. If I’m not drawn in by the writing, there’s no need to look at the synopsis.

  29. Hi Wendy. I agree that thinking that self-editing is sufficient is the path to the dark side. No matter how many times I read over my own manuscripts (and even read them out loud to myself) I always seem to miss something. Having someone else read the writing after I feel I have it perfect (haha)always helps as I invariably have made mistakes that I’ve failed to catch in the forty-five times (okay, SLIGHT exaggeration) I’ve self-edited the manuscript.

    Have I noticed mistakes in self-published books? Very definitely. Have I found them in traditionally published books? Yes, but generally far fewer. Even so, the number of mistakes in traditionally published books seems to have increased, which I suppose is because of how over-worked and stressed everyone has become due to cut-backs. I can ignore a few mistakes (say, four or five in a 350 page novel), but as a reader I find numerous mistakes distracting.

    Will readers shy away from self-published books because of the numerous mistakes? I already do avoid them, but I think the answer to the question varies from reader to reader. Some readers are more forgiving than I am and many of my friends aren’t as disturbed or distracted by grammatical / mechanical errors as I am. As a reader / writer / English teacher, I tend to be hypersensitive to editing issues. It’s an occupational hazard. 🙂


    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I think a lot of readers are hypersensitive– grammar girls or not. If it pulls you out of the story or out of the idea, it’s a huge loss.

  30. Can I just say this is so true. This reviewer had a happy ending to her story, because the writer actually took her words to heart. (And it would appear this reviewer is careful and specific, with a good grasp of English mechanics.) It’s gotten to the point where I cringe a little when self-publishers ask me to review their books. They’re so hopeful about publishing, but their books are filled with errors which even I can spot. One of the last ones was a sad story. That writer had paid an editor to line edit, but still it came back with crazy errors like plurals constructed with ‘s instead of s.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And it is so uncomfortable when it’s someone you know who asks you to read it. There’s way too much at stake and we writers are emotionally tied to our books. The thought that I might wound a friend over a misplaced apostrophe scares me into silence.

  31. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals, least of all self-editing self-publishers.

    However, the realities of life and finite resources dictate that we do the very best job we can on self-editing. Substantive (big picture) edits, copy edits, line edits, proofreading. You’re talking about $1000 to $2000 for an 80,000 word novel. I don’t know anyone who has that kind of money sitting around waiting to be invested in a self-published book. I sure don’t.

    And critique groups and beta readers are close to a joke. Maybe I’ve been unlucky with the ones I’ve had, but I have almost never received more than general feedback from beta readers, despite my giving proofreading-level edits in reciprocation. I think I would drop dead from disbelief if a beta reader ever gave me what I gave them. A critique group that meets twice a month will take two years to go through an average novel, so it’s way too slow. Again, maybe I’ve been unlucky with the critique groups I’ve been in, but the knowledgable and helpful comments are mostly lacking.

    So we have to learn to be good self-editors. Fortunately it’s a learned skill, not an innate characteristics. For some it’s easier than it is for others. We won’t make our books perfect. But you know what? Readers don’t demand perfection. If they did no book would ever sell a single copy. They just require a certain level of excellence, somewhere on the continuum between unreadable and perfect (hopefully pretty close to perfect).

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I can’t argue with you, Todd.

      And $1000.00 – $2000.00 for an edit from an experienced, skillful editor would be a bargain indeed. But it’s part of the cost of starting a business which is what you are when you become your own publisher.

    • Pat says:

      it is the cost of doing business. Do not go into the business of sewing custom wedding gowns and then make me a bad wedding dress because you do not have the right equipment to make it properly. Editing is part of preparing a book for the end user. As a reader, I care far less about the author’s finances than I do my own. I feel scammed when I buy a book and discover it would have benefitted from the fresh eyes of a good professional editor.

      That is not to say I am thrilled with much of what publishing companies are producing compared to twenty or thirty years ago. It seems publishing on a budget is becoming popualar.

  32. My thesis advisor told me that it would take me at least 6 months to properly edit my PhD dissertation..I thought she was kidding but she was totally right. Now, I feel like I’m editing expert. But it’s always good to have an editor look it over (painful at times but always helpful). My editor just had me revise things which I thought were funny…but he didn’t. He was right.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And that’s a good point, Jennifer. The experienced editor helps us see when humor doesn’t work or even, when we slip into the melodramatic, that by pulling back the emotion, we can have a more profound impact.

  33. Peter DeHaan says:

    It seems that no matter how many people go over something – including proofreaders and copy editors – the next person will find an error that all the others all missed.

  34. Scott says:

    In my tech writing field, editors have become rare, and are sorely missed. I once heard that even a good self-editor will find only about 70% of the errors on each editing pass. The problem is, we read what we think we wrote.

  35. This is a wonderful lively conversation. Since I’m on a deadline, I rushed through all the comments. Please forgive me if someone else has made my point or if this comment contains errors.

    I hold a degree in Psychology so the first question I’m contemplating is “why” do authors make so many mistakes. Before we become defensive shouldn’t we ask if it is possible to be mistake free?

    The answer is no. The human brain works at lightening speed once a task becomes ingrained. You may have received a forwarded e-mail that contains a paragraph of nonsense. Every word is jumbled in various ways. Yet…as the e-mail promised – it is possible to read. The brain recognizes the word even if it’s misspelled. Because our brains have had many years of practice, we can get the message. Often we will “see” it spelled correctly even when it isn’t. As Scott commented, that’s a handicap that everyone has. For example….”Ym mtheor wkoe pu dna jneiod su ni eht lvinig moor.” It may take a moment or two to catch the message….but you will be able to read the sentence.

    If you are writing a 50,000 word book, you probably will never have the time to stop and concentrate on every single word. Instead, even when you “think” you are concentrating by reading the material slowly and properly checking for errors – your brain will speed ahead and you may not see mistakes. Especially if they are small.

    The editor is invaluable because she will see your work for the first time and her brain is not thinking ahead. She didn’t have the initial idea for the book so she must follow your lead. She will be jolted when the plot isn’t right – whereas your brain will “think” the action that isn’t expressed with words. Spelling and grammar errors will shine like beacons because she hasn’t seen the material before.

    This discussion shouldn’t be about your ability. If you have chosen this profession and if you are working to be your best – it’s not about your desire to produce quality work or even about your talents. WE all are striving for quality and to be the best we can be. It is about the nature of our brains and how they work. Do we have the ability to always overcome the massive lightening speed of our brains? Unfortunately, we do not. We simply can’t catch it all. Like Scott’s comment – we read what we “think” we wrote. If you want to be the best at your craft….you need a good editor and you need to trust that editor to promote your message or story by getting rid of the annoying errors that will hurt your work.

    Jerry Jenkins is an excellent author and by this time in his career he could probably call himself an editor. Yet, I’ve caught several mistakes in his work. Why? The human brain will always speed ahead and not notice some errors. Thank goodness we are a team that needs each other. Thank goodness that God has called some to write and some to correct. As a team we can make our finished product the best it can be.


  36. Rinelle Grey says:

    I’ve seen some people give themselves a pretty good haircut! Not everyone can, totally true, but some can.

    I think using one book as an example of why all books need editing is a little narrow. There are many books out there that don’t have that number of errors. Some people really can self edit their work to a pretty high standard.

    I think the important think is to know yourself. I did get an editor, because I know I miss grammar subtleties. (And spelling!) I have a couple of friends though, who picked a dozen errors out of my edited book (that the editor missed), and who’s books are remarkably error free.

    I do definitely think though that you need someone to proofread your book, to pick up the words you’ve missed etc, because you’ve been over it so many times that you don’t even see them anymore.

  37. Reba Stanley says:

    Thanks for the post. I have read a few books lately that were traditionally published that had typo’s. We’re all human….it happens.
    To put it simply:
    Self-published authors cannot edit their own work, because they know what each line is going to say, therefore, they do not see the boo-boo’s.
    I am a Self-published author and I do not edit my own work….No Way! I hire an editor.
    I am also an artist and when my painting is ready to be framed, I seek the advice of a framer. :0)