Wednesday 7 October 2009


Here begins an occasional series of short posts on Myths about Writing. The first one concerns a serious and oft-expressed misconception amongst writers when sending a submission to an agent or publisher.

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.

Let me tell you very briefly what those three people do, before explaining my main point.

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
A COPY-EDITOR comes along once you and the editor have agreed all the changes, and looks for smaller problems such as:
  • 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
The copy-editor usually doesn't have direct contact with you, but is instructed by the editor. The editor looks at the copy-edits first, then passes them to you with comments; you go through them and make such changes as you agree with, and then pass them back to the editor.

(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
I can understand that you might be thinking, "So, if they do all this, it doesn't matter if I submit my work to an editor or agent with a few errors in. In fact, isn't it a waste of time on my part to bother with such details at this stage?"



Here are a few reasons why:
  • 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.
In short, do not contemplate offering your work to an agent or editor if you think you could make it better.

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.


Simon Kewin said...

Great post. I tend to be the obsessive perfectionist myself so your caveat rings very true!

Anonymous said...

I find your fifth bullet point particularly apt. I can't tell you how many times I've stumbled over that!

I can't even get my current ms. past my agent, forget about an editor. He says that it's missing a few obligatory thriller scenes. I say it's not a thriller.

Feh on all writing.


Tamsyn Murray said...

This is all very, very true. Even though my head knows that the editing process improves a novel, my heart still has a little sigh when I am asked to make changes. But (and this is the crucial bit) I always consider what I've been asked to change and nine times out of ten, I make the change.

Definitely make your novel as good as you can before you submit it. But don't make the mistake of thinking that it is finished :-)

Marisa Birns said...

As usual, a very good post. You've already walked through the woods and are, graciously, sharing with us the best path to get through it without tripping into unpleasantness.

May I be a proofreader for one moment?


7th sentence under the Here are a few reasons why:

Sandra Patterson said...

Adding to your scary view of publishers' cost cutting measures, have you seen this recent post from Editorial Ass where she observes some publishers no longer edit AT ALL?

The chill wind of recession, indeed.

Unknown said...

Sound advice, as always.
Thanks Nicola.
Another Perfectionist!

Patience-please said...

Thank you, Nicola. I now know I am obsessed for good reason! "Don't over work it," say my well meaning friends who are not writers.

"Arrrrrgh!" say I, every day, not just Talk Like A Pirate Day. "It's not ready. I'll know when it is."

And, blog readers make great proofers!

Sally Zigmond said...

I was going to write something about how grateful I am to my editor, copy-editor and proof-reader(s). Without them I would have had egg all over my face and more. I am typo-blind. Also, an historical novel is littered with potential anachronisms and even the slightest historical reference my editor queried I had to justify--with named sources.

But what I feel I must do is answer our anonymous 'Proe'.

More novels are rejected because the writer doesn't know exactly what he or she is writing. If your novel is not a thriller, then why did the agent think it was? If it's not a thriller, what type of novel is it? Maybe the problem isn't with the agent.

Sally Zigmond said...

Sorry for the meaningless opening to the last paragraph. I meant 'Many' not 'More.'

Anonymous said...


Of course the problem isn't with my agent. The problem is with the triple-cursed publishers! (And surely you're not suggesting the problem is with -me-. I assure you that I neevr err.)

Actually, I just got off the phone with my agent. He's a pretty big agent who likes making pretty big deals. The book is currently a horror novel. But he says if I rewrite it into a thriller (a dark one), it'll have more mainstream appeal--and more sales. He doesn't think it's a thriller. He thinks it -should- be a thriller.


Go away google said...

Oh yes. And increasingly, with staffing levels going down, time is a deciding issue. A good manuscript which can be polished with a bit of back and forth between the editor and the author is going to win over a manuscript with flashes of genius but a lot of muddle to sort out.

When I was last working in-house I did actually enjoy sorting out text that was bad enough to need significant attention, because I like writing. But it was a very ambivalent pleasure - I was much more conscious of the fact that I needed my work time for editing, and my creative time for my own books!


Anne Lyle said...

My tip would be to find an eagle-eyed friend (a writer or other word-conscious person) to give your manuscript a final read-through, to try and catch any lurking typos. One of the first things I learnt when I worked in non-fiction publishing was "You can't proofread your own work". Doesn't stop me from trying, of course...

If you can't find a suitable proofreading buddy, try reading through your manuscript backwards one page at a time, so that you don't get distracted by the story!

Daniel Blythe said...

Frightening the number of times I've heard this 'the editor does it all' attitude from unpublished writers!

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks all - am still on trains so difficult to comment fully. Marisa - thanks for pointing out the typo but it'll hav to wait till I can properly access it! Proof-reading from the blogger desktop before posting is hard and I scheduled the post for while travelling!

Anne - v good tip.

Proe - are you referring to my rogue typo bullet with no point attached?!

Tam - absolutely!

Patience - ooh, that's annoying, isn't it?! Very presumptuous of them, as they know nothing about it.

Anna - if we were speaking on Twitter I would be retweeting your sentence beginning "a good manuscript ..."

Dan - indeed!

Sorry, I know I've missed some people but if I don't send thus now I will be cut off from signal ...

Rebecca Knight said...

Anne--I love that advice, and will have to take it!

I am a total perfectionist (and it seems I'm in good company) so I have a whole team of wonderful people helping me before I send my manuscript out. My husband is King of Anachronisms and busts my chops on anything that doesn't quite add up. My Mom is in charge of "this scene is boring--amp up the tension!" My crit buddies each have different super powers: Active Language Girl, Captain You've-Already-Said-That, and The Amazing Semicolon are all in my Proofreading Justice League.

Seriously, I don't know what I'd do without them. I absolutely want to put my best, shiniest foot forward!

Lucy Coats said...

Having first been an editor--and now an author, I agree entirely with what you say, Nicola. My editor has just left for a sabbatical and I am now working with another who has taken over the project(a reissue of a very long previous book in a new 12 book series format). She doesn't know the original book (not her fault), so I am having to be extra careful and pick up all sorts of things that would otherwise have slipped. All I would add is that even if you ARE lucky enough to be published, as the Crabbit OB and I are, it is much better to be an obsessive checker than to airily assume that 'someone else will do it'. Some younger junior editors (not mine, thank God) are not as hot on grammar etc as they used to be. It's not fashionable to teach grammar and spelling these days. Sad fact.

JaneF said...

Ooh, finally something I can comment on usefully (maybe) – because I am a copy editor (of non-fiction, but still).

In your section about copy editors’ duties, there’s a telling omission. You’ve neglected to mention the most important aspect of any copy editor’s job (in my opinion anyway): to pick up text that just doesn’t make sense. Text that you read and think ‘Eh? What the hell does that mean?’ I suspect you’ve left this out of your list because you’ve never had a copy editor point out such a problem with your own writing, which, however crabbit, can’t be faulted for clarity!

I’m talking non-fiction here, but if there are too many places where the text doesn’t make sense I tend to stop and send an email to the publisher asking them whether I should continue to edit (I’m only meant to spend a certain number of hours on each batch of work) or whether they want to send the whole thing back to the author or editor for revision. Either way, this is not great for the author’s reputation. I wouldn’t stop for problems with grammar or consistency – they take a lot less time to fix.

So here’s my tip from the point of view of a copy editor: this may seem obvious, but try to make sure that what you’re writing will make sense to the reader. (And of course I always take my own advice – not.) YOU know what you mean, but will a reader, coming to it cold?

Anonymous said...

That's not just a blank bullet point, Nicola, that's a reflection of the essential emptiness of my prose, and I stared into the void and wept bitter tears.


Sarah said...

I'm a perfectionist, too, so this post made me cheer.

Actually, it reminded me of your very first post, Nicola, about unexcusable ignorance. You said a question was stupid if you could Google it and come up with an answer. That stupidity really boiled down to laziness- an unwillingness to do even basic research.

To me, grammar and punctuation are the same sort of self-centered ignorance. Yes, other folks can clean up my writing, but so can I. Why should I ask editors or copywriters to attend to something I'm unwilling to work on?

You get the idea.

And on a tangent... Remembering your post about ignorance reminded me of this link. These demotivators always make me laugh.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Very good post.
I worked very hard on the second novel and gave myself time to leave it alone for a few months, came back at it, made it the best I could and delivered it two weeks ahead of deadline.

My editor called me a genius, and my main characters were divine. Then she went on to give me two pages where she suggested 'room for development' as she so nicely put it.

And I love her to bits for it.

Speaking of which, I must get back to it.

Go away google said...

Thanks, Nicola. As you liked my input I'll now do the shameless thing and promote my blog, which only has a few posts so far but which I've set up in part to discuss thorny issues in publishing, at least some of which will likely be of interest to your readers:

Anonymous said...


Your blog is v. interesting. If you enabled Anonymous comments, I'd be there in a flash.

Not sure if that's a -good- thing, though.

Go away google said...

Anon - I'm new to using blogspot so hadn't found that buried in the settings. I've enabled anonymous comments now.

Okay, hopefully ceasing to hijack Nicola's comments section now...

Nicola Morgan said...

Anna - a pleasure. Hav just visited your interesting blog and added your first comments! I hope you enjoy blogging as much as I have

All - will get back to replying to you when I get home tomorrow evening. I should be asleep.

Michael Shawn Keller said...

Wow...I wish I read this before I sent my transcript out!! But in all seriousness I was proud when my editor told me that she could not find any fixes (that made me worry!) and my first book was published as is...
Do it right or not at all is the way I was taught, and always learn from your mistakes.
As always, thanks for your great advise.

Phillipa said...

You wouldn't present a half cooked cake (if you can help it) for a special event. Getting your manuscript as professionaly presentable as you can should be a matter of pride. Of course you will be edited but I found it rather pleasurable, all these clever people combing over my baby. I presented it as well as I could and was pleased to say my publisher told me I needed a 'light edit' only. That might not always be the case but it's what I'll be aiming for.

Lauri said...

I only just found your blog after reading your interview at Nik's blog (great BTW). Last night I sat down to read this post and got to voice slippage- skipped to that post and then became very depressed. I have seven published books and when I read that I felt like I knew nothing at all. Sick head. Sick stomach. Only remedy- bed.

Today I'm back and better and have accepted writing is a process of constant learning. I intend to stick around and thank you for 'learnin' me'.

Jay said...

As an unknown, I had always assumed what I sent in had to be as perfect as was humanly possible. First impressions count, right?

Great post and more food for thought. Thanks!

BubbleCow said...

As an editor I couldn't agree more with this post. I don't want to see your manuscript until you feel you have taken it as far as it can possibly go. Only then will I be able to add real value to your work.

Anonymous said...

first impressions count.
I love you. Authors often lose sight of that because it's very hard to put oneself into someone else's shoes. But when I see a manuscript filled with what can only be described as sheer laziness, I see that as a lack of respect for me, and for themself.

Given my druthers, why on earth would I chose someone with that little regard for sending only their best? Answer: I wouldn't.

Always remember, it's a buyer's market and competition is high.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

I'm one of those who keeps editing, but doesn't send the manuscripts off.

Shall take note and get on with it.