MYTH 1: It doesn't matter if it's not perfect because an editor will want to suggest changes anyway and a copy-editor will pick up any minor errors. Oh, AND there'll be a proof-reader.
Both bits in blue are true; the bit in red is the mythical conclusion. I regret that nowadays the green bit may not be true either. Not using a proof-reader is a modern cost-cutting exercise and a very bad idea, in my view. Authors beware.
AN EDITOR will make general comments and argue for changes relating mostly to fairly major things. For example:
- the pace - too fast here or too slow there. Here's a post I did on pace.
- voice slippages - see my post here for a lesson on voice control for authors
- characterisation issues
- plot structure, believability and consistency - things that don't ring true or don't work
- many other things she/he feels prevent your story being as strong as it could be
- smaller things that she/he happens to notice (including all those on the copy-ed's list below), but the editor is not required to pick up small errors when a copy-editor and/or proof-reader will be coming along afterwards
- continuity errors - eg contradictory clothes / weather / personality traits / statements that you've made
- other inconsistencies and glitches
- odd / wrong usages of words
- sentences that would be better rephrased
- punctuation, spelling, grammatical errors and typos that the editor had not mentioned
(Some publishers, particularly smaller ones, may not use a copy-editor but go straight to proof-reading. If, however, there is only an editor, with no recourse to either copy-editing or proof-reading, I'd be worried. Then it's down to the author to have the eagle-eye.)
A PROOF-READER is the final reader, working after the book has been type-set (because new errors can creep in during type-setting) and looking for:
- anything at all that the editor, copy-editor and author have missed
- any new errors that have crept in, however small
- errors of layout, such as incomplete lines, extra spaces, widows and orphans, instances where a paragraph is broken in an unattractive place when a page ends (the copy-ed may also have spotted these, though things change after copy-edits have been inserted)
- inconsistencies of house-style - eg single or double quote marks, en- vs em-dashes
NO, NO, NO.
- while all these editing experts will bend over backwards to work with an author who is already with the publisher, they won't wish to do so for a complete unknown. There is good reason for this: they know that their existing author will deliver. For example, my editor knows exactly what she will get from me when she suggests changes: an intelligent response, a listening ear, a professional reaction. She knows [I like to think] that I am worth making effort for. But my editor does not know any of that about you - you might respond with crappiness or a blank look. You might fail to make the required changes because you may have made the errors in the first place through uselessness rather than oversight. Sorry, but that's how it is. Thing is, I and other published authors can get away with things that you can't.
- the editor does not actually make the changes: you do. The editor simply points out the problems. This means that you have to be good enough to understand exactly what is being asked and why. Again, the editor doesn't know this about you yet.
- if you send in a document full of glaring errors, this tells them that you are at best lazy and careless and at worst not a good writer. This is very different from sending in something that is beautifully written and structured, and perfectly laid out and punctuated (etc) but has a few things the editor would like you to do differently. If you send in the latter, the editor will want to work with you to perfect it; if the former, not.
- in short, you have not proved yourself worth investing in - so why should a publishing company risk a lot of time and money editing you to hell and back?
- first impressions count. If in the first few pages you have even a couple of errors that indicate lack of brilliance of language, this may be enough to stop the agent or publisher reading on.
- brilliance does shine through errors, yes, and allowances can therefore be made. But think of this as an equation: the more errors and problems you reveal to your potential editor, the more stunningly brilliant your book must be in order to capture her confidence. Of course, you believe your book is stunningly brilliant, and you could be right. However, if you are so professional and determined to succeed, do you not want to show your best work to your potential backer? Because that's another thing an editor does: backs you and your writing, not just now but throughout your career with that publisher. And sometimes for longer - my first editor moved to a different publisher, and I moved with her. [Funnily, she's an old bat too. The attraction of bats, I think you call it.]
- we are in a recession which is hitting publishing and authors hard - this means you have to raise your game higher; although perfection is unachievable, it should be aimed at more now than ever. That is a Good Thing. Published authors are also finding we have to raise our game in first drafts, too - some publishers are taking any chance to pull out of contracts and turn us down. Gah, it's a scary world out there - arm yourselves with the Shield of Stupendousness.
However, there's a caveat: it is possible to get so hung up on perfection that you never have the courage to send the damned MS. All I will say is that if you don't send it, you won't get published. So, aim for perfection, work hard to achieve it, but at some point make the decision that you have done the absolute best you can.
Then send it.
From that point, do not look at it again. Leave it and get writing your next book. You must not look at your first one again until a lovely editor wants you to make some little changes, which you will be absolutely thrilled to do...
I am going to blog soon about how to be edited and enjoy it. Most authors are only too happy with the idea of someone helping sort out their weaknesses, but a) a few are strangely reluctant to admit that they need it and b) even those who want it are often not sure how to deal with it when it happens.