Finding a good line editor (or any editor) is one of the trickiest things about being an indie author. Bad editing has caused readers to close a book, never to return, and it’s caused authors to scream in frustration and cry when they realize, after forking out hundreds or even thousands of dollars, their editor didn’t actually know how to use a colon, even though they were apparently one themselves.
If you’re an author who doesn’t think they need an editor or who makes the excuse ‘I don’t have enough money to pay for one,’ you can leave now. If you don’t want to put out a good quality product when you expect people to PAY for your books, you’re unprofessional and obviously don’t care about the reading experience, let alone take writing seriously. Now that all those people are out of the way, I’ll get to why I’m writing this post.
I run Booktastik, a site that promotes books for authors. We don’t rely on reviews but vet all books for editing—we want our readers to have a great experience, and we want writers who work hard to put out a professional product to be rewarded by reaching those readers. Unfortunately, we see quite a few books that don’t meet our editing criteria. We don’t expect books to be perfect, but we expect a certain standard of correct punctuation, grammar, and, of course, minimal typos.
As an indie author, I know how hard it is to find a good editor, and to be honest, not all authors even know what constitutes a good editor. I’m hoping to take some of the doubt out of choosing a competent editor, because any idiot with a computer and internet access can call themselves an editor, and too many authors have spent thousands only to learn later that it was money wasted :(.
This post isn’t comprehensive, as I couldn’t point out everything to look for—it would take too much explanation—but I will tell you basic things to look for in a sample edit and what YOU can do to mitigate your own ignorance.
- Find a successful author you like the work of, an author you know is professional, and ask them who their editor is. References are a must.
- Google the name of the editor you’re looking at and put ‘scam’ next to it—it’s amazing what can come up. There is also a good site called Writer Beware. Run by the SWFA, it’s also available to writers in any genre. Check them out when you’re researching author services—from publishers to editors and literary agents. http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/
- Educate yourself. Please, for the love of literature, study the basics of grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. The writing journey takes time, and there’s always something to learn, but don’t send your book anywhere, let alone publish it, if you have absolutely no idea what constitutes a standalone sentence and where basic commas go. This is where we get caught out. How can a writer tell a good editing sample from a bad one when they have no idea what they’re looking at? It’s like someone who has no idea about cars looking at two engines side-by-side, listening to all the technical specifications and being able to tell which one is faster or more reliable. An impossible task. And this is why authors end up paying thousands of dollars to ignorant assholes who think they know how to edit.
BASICS TO LOOK FOR IN YOUR SAMPLE EDIT
So, you’ve hopefully gotten recommendations from good sources. The editor should offer you a free sample and a quote. Samples can range from 250 – 1000 words as a general rule. There are two different types of editing: creative and line.
First comes the creative editing, which deals with plot, pacing, characterization, inconsistencies, scene setting, use of language, plus a few other things. Line editing is the final edit that makes sure your periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes are in the right place. Some editors do provide both content and line editing in the same manuscript. After the editing is the proofreading to catch any obvious typos, which is NOT editing.
The following is a very basic guide of what the line editor should know and is in relation to grammar and punctuation only (I could write a whole book on content editing, so realistically I won’t go there with this blog post). If the sample provided by the prospective editor is not picking up at least these things, ditch the editor and find another one. Also, ALL changes should be marked up (I’m assuming they use Word) and explained in the margins. No editor should be rewriting your work, either. So, things an editor should know or they’re not worth your hard-earned dollar:
- Two standalone sentences next to each other are never broken up by a comma or colon. Complete sentences must be separated by a period or semicolon. I love my cat. My cat loves birds. NOT: I love my cat, my cat loves birds.
- Have you used the same verbs, adjectives, nouns, or phrases unnecessarily more than once in the same sentence or paragraph? I grabbed the knife off the table, and then I grabbed the door handle and pulled. He pulled my hair, making me want to scream, so I kicked his shin, making him scream.
- When a dependent clause is followed by an independent one, you should have a comma, because in many cases, the meaning won’t be clear without it. A dependent clause is an incomplete sentence by itself and is something like: If I walk down that path…. Before she went to the shop…. With both these examples, a standalone sentence needs to follow to finish the sentence and give meaning to the dependent clause. There always needs to be a comma between the dependent clause and the independent clause. If I walk down that path, the giant spider will eat me. Before she went to the shop, it started raining.
- This next comma is necessary because the rules say so, but it doesn’t necessarily aid in meaning. Two standalone sentences joined by a conjunction (and, but, or, so yet, or any other conjunction) need a comma before the conjunction. I ran down the hill, and the dog followed me. An exception to this rule is if the sentence is very short.
- There should NEVER be a comma in the middle of a phrase/clause. If the comma splits an independent clause, the comma needs to get the hell out of the way. I felt like, eating chocolate. I regretted eating, the chocolate. Okay, so I didn’t really regret it.
- Dialogue attributions. Style guides (and I use CMOS—Chicago Manual of Style) recommend using plain old ‘said’ as an attribution to indicate who is talking. This is because we can skim over it, and it’s almost like it isn’t there. Don’t get all creative and put ‘exclaimed’, ‘commented’, ‘advised’, etc. Even though it’s okay to use ‘said’, don’t use it after every person talks, especially if there are only two people in the conversation.
Mary said, “Are you going to finish those chips?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But I wanted some,” she said.
“Bad luck,” I said.
“You are such a bitch!” she exclaimed.
“Don’t swear or I’ll tell mom,” I warned.
“You wouldn’t dare,” she answered.
You get the picture. It’s irritating and slows the pace. Once you’ve established who is who in the conversation, you only need to remind the reader sparingly. An even better way to indicate someone is talking is to use an action tag.
Mary stared at my plate. “Are you going to finish those chips?”
I moved the plate out of her reach. “Yes.”
- Exclamation marks. Use them sparingly or they lose their effectiveness. If you have lots of exclamation marks in your work and the editor hasn’t deleted them, they’re no good at what they do.
- From the Chicago Manual of Style: In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would. If your editor has put a semicolon in between a dependent and independent clause or in the middle of an independent clause, run. There are other rules for semicolons, but they refer to lists and adverbs joining two independent clauses, and that’s where it gets complicated. The instance I’ve described is the most likely one your editor will have to deal with.
- Unnecessary words. Before you even send your manuscript to the editor, do a search for the word ‘that’. Most of the time, it doesn’t need to be there. Read the sentence with and without it, and if it makes sense without it, delete. Other words that are often unnecessary include suddenly, began to, and started to. I’m sure there’s more, but the point is, a good editor should point these things out.
- In most style guides and dictionaries, alright is not acceptable. Some editors may say it’s okay in speech, and some dictionaries say ‘alright’ is fine in informal work, but still to use all right, as this is the universally acknowledged, formal way of writing it.
- Okay is ‘okay’ or ‘OK’. Choose the one you want, and stick with it. Consistency is key.
- Direct address. In dialogue, when one character addresses another by their name or by something that replaces that name (grandma, dad), commas set off the name. “Hi, Sarah.” “Don’t do that, Thomas.” “Hey, Brian, why won’t you come?”
I’ve just pointed out the most basic things your line editor should pick up (I’ve left out hyphens, compound adjectives, contractions, colons, evocative language, unnecessary wordiness, and the list goes on). As you can see, there’s a lot to know, and that’s why I think authors need to be their own best friend and learn some of this stuff. You’re only increasing your potential to be ripped off if you remain ignorant when it comes to basic grammar and punctuation rules.
So, to recap, editors should mark everything up on your document and explain why they have made the changes/suggestions they have. Being edited by a good editor is a learning experience and should improve your writing, so your next first draft will be cleaner than the one before. Learn the basics or you may get caught out—you don’t know what you don’t know ;). Google the editor to make sure there are no complaints. Get recommendations from people you respect. Editors should give you something in writing prior to editing, whether it’s in the body of an email or in the form of a contract, setting out what they’ve agreed to do for you and how much it will cost. Most editors ask for a portion (up to half) of the fee upfront. If they ask for 100% upfront, I would use extreme caution.
I’m an editor (although I’m not taking any work until next year as I need to finish my WIP) but even I need an editor. I don’t know everything, and I’m always learning, plus you can’t see the mistakes in your own work. If you’re looking for a competent, professional line editor, I have used and can recommend Hot Tree Editing, and specifically for Science Fiction and Fantasy, Marissa Vu Editing for both content and line. Another good content editor is Nerine Dorman.
I hope I’ve spared some of you the awful experience of paying for crap editing. Unfortunately, there is no standard degree or certificate one needs to get, or an organization one needs to join before they can call themselves an editor. Just make sure you let everyone know when you’ve had a bad experience—good recommendations help, but so do warnings on who to avoid. If we all help each other, maybe we can make it super hard for the bad ones to get work. I know that sounds mean, but it’s common sense, and doing a half-assed job and charging thousands of dollars is way meaner.
I’m assuming some authors will want to put their own recommendations in the comments, but I can’t endorse any of those, as I haven’t seen their work.
Happy writing and editing!