You Say Editing, I Say Proofreading

Yesterday’s post at Mad Genius Club* (Yes, Dave, that was amazingly concise when I can’t say things in less than five pages) as well as Bill Quick ’s on the roughly same subject – that the establishment is trying to convince ebooks will be the death of all books (what they think we can do about it, even if it were true, is beyond me. They do know, right, that tech can’t be put back in the bottle?) – has led me to think about editing, copy-editing and proofreading.

Why has it led me to think about that?

Because Dave’s comments turned to the art of editing and because of Bill’s exchange with a commenter on his blog who said the country is awash in talent that simply didn’t fit the old model. Bill said that no. He’s read slush, and most of it is painfully bad.

He’s right of course. And so is the commenter.

Which brings me to the first point of this post. Writing is an art, true. Writing is also a craft. The country might be awash in art – it is not awash in craft. It will never be because craft is work and not everyone who is artistically gifted is willing to work at it. Or even has any clue in which direction to work. This is sort of like saying the country is awash in people with talent for sculpture. It might be true, but it doesn’t mean that every barn and every garage shelters the equivalent of Michael Angelo’s David.

This is the point at which, usually, my colleagues start running in circles like their head is on fire and yelling “oh, no, my precious gems will be lost in showers of sh*t” and “readers will never wade through slush.” These might be true for some people. I have heard some readers will no longer buy independent works at 99c because they assume it will be raw slush. It’s not true for me, though, and probably not for a lot of other people, because a) I’m cheap. b) I will read three paragraphs and if the writer is not competent enough to draw me in, I set it aside. And this happens as mucht o independent books as to well-published ones.

No, what worries me about every beginner being able to publish himself is not that my gems will get lost in the muck. There’s word of mouth. And there’s other considerations. I’ve made a post about it here: The establishment (or even one of us when we read slush) cull for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. Like “does it fit the publisher?” Or “will it sell enough to justify investment?” And independent publishing has the potential to free up a lot of talent that otherwise would have no outlet.

What worries me and has worried me since I heard a self-published author read five years ago, is more the Michael Angelos who will be lost because they had no clue how to learn or that their sculpture wasn’t perfect and – having shown it to the public – it didn’t do well.

Both as a once-upon-a-time clueless writer and as reader, I don’t like to see that talent wasted.

This was brought home by reading for a contest. I’ve done this over the years for contests ranging from sf to mystery to romance. Not a single entry in a contest was publishable as was, though several of the people I judged and encouraged (hi Connie!) have gone on to be published. And though this is hard to judge, I’d say 90% of the writers are more talented than I am.

What they lack is craft.

Now, this is the point at which my colleagues start running around in circles, screaming “without editing we’re lost, lost, lost.” Okay, all I can say is that these colleagues either came into the field much earlier than I did, or they’re G-d’s little precious snow flakes.

I didn’t even know what in heaven’s name they were talking about when they threw these hissy fits. Because, look, most of the contest entries – most of slush too – is grammatically correct and properly spelled. The exceptions, like the mention of a copulant face (they meant corpulent, and yes, that would be wrong too) on the first line, were easily fixable.

And then I read Heinlein’s bio by Patterson, and about how Campbell worked with him, sometimes sending things back for rewrite three or four times. All you have to do is read Heinlein’s short stories of the time in sequence to see Campbell taking him from a raw beginner to a master.

Children, if this has happened to anyone in my generation, it wasn’t to those of us who were thrown into the mid list to sink or swim. And I doubt it happened to very many people for one reason: there weren’t enough editors. Oh, one additional reason: the editor who can do this is rare. When you have fewer editors the chances of one of these are… zero.

I came in the hard way, by getting rejected so much any sane person would have walked away. In between, I read how to books, most of which are of course useless and a few of which are invaluable. At some point I started getting nuggets of editorial wisdom (not always from editors) which did help. Like my first agent told me to forget about coincidences as plotting devices. Toni Weisskopf at Baen told me I had to get past the “there’s a secret to be discovered” plot. (This was true and false. It’s a type of plot, and a type I like, so all my books have a “mystery” in them. But I had a tendency to try to play keep away with all knowledge and that was wrong, wrong, wrong.) But mostly I learned on my own.

The thing is, I learned because I wanted to get published. Will self-published authors do that, or just give up? I don’t know. I do know that I would love to find an editor like Campbell. And that I feel bad for newbies who are paying for “editing” and getting proof reading.

This is not a scam. It’s just what most people understand for “editing.” It’s what most writers’ groups obsess about. It’s what most first readers THINK they’re supposed to do.

I don’t know where this comes from. Perhaps it is because proofing is hard and fast and we all learn it in school. Editing, OTOH is an art as well as a science, and it requires not only that one be a voracious reader, but that one be a voracious reader who can extrapolate why things work and why things don’t.

Most writers who came in the hard way and had to edit themselves into success can do it.

Whether they WILL do it is something else. (I can do it, and do it for my mentees and my kids. I also hate it with a passion. Yes, this is why I’m the world’s worst mentor, and if you send me something to read, you have to KEEP on me, or I’ll forget it.)

Again – most of what I’ve seen in contests and slush could be salvaged with expert editing and a few rewrites. And none of it had anything to do with proofing. Proofing is easy. Any monkey can do it, editing is very difficult and you need a good match between writer and editor, or it will only get worse.

So, a quick, handy guide:

Editing – if you are a beginner writer and you can get good editing, you should definitely do so. How do you get good editing? Oh, search me. Here is what you should shop for: someone who has experience making books marketable. Here is what you should beware of: someone whose experience making books marketable has been thoroughly directed to making them fit the old model. That might no longer apply and it might be counterproductive.*

One of the best editors I’ve had, I paid to copy-edit/proofread, and was shocked he was also tightening my sentences, pointing out where the plot went weird, and tweaking scenes.

What was shocking about this, is that he’s GOOD at it. Though perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, since he’s a voracious reader, an introspective one, and has worked as a non-fiction editor for years. (Yes, that helps, because he’s used to making things sound clear.) He’s also the Seneschal of Snark, but you take the bitter with the sweet.

So, editing involves telling you when your plot gets incoherent within a chapter. It involves telling you things like “if your character is allergic to oak trees, why does she live in an oak forest?” For a very gifted editor, it might mean also telling you how to fix it without ditching the whole plot “she’s under a geas that makes her cleave to the oaks.”

To figure out what editing IS you should go out and buy Self Editing for Fiction Writers. It will at least point you in the direction of what editing is and isn’t, and maybe even get you to edit yourself into publication.

Chances you’ll be your own Campbell are minimal, but miracles do happen.

Copy Editing – copy editing is something completely different from editing. Yes, I know it says editing in the title. Note it also says “copy.” Copy means the story has been accepted and is being prepared for publication. In old newspaper parlance, articles are “copy.”

One of the reasons that writers groups and first readers harping on the copy edit drives me nuts is that in most traditional publishing this is done, anyway. So, unless it’s really, really, really in your face distracting, you shouldn’t bother, because it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen by people who are trained to do it and who know “house style.” (For instance, most houses use FAR fewer commas than are strictly indicated in grammar manuals. Some houses – I’m looking at you Berkley! – try to remove the subjunctive. Etc.) There’s a good chance what you’re doing to the book is going cause more trouble in the long run and browbeating the author in the process.

Proofing – I view this as a different stage from copy editting, though feel free to consider it the same. Proofing is that last, last, just before print stage you go through to make sure your search-replace didn’t get funny, and that you didn’t enter a word wrong after copyedit.

All works, whether indy or traditional should have all three stages – Editing, copy editing and proofing. For years now, the traditional have only had the last two, but the publishers kept out those that needed heavy editing. Now, that’s each author’s responsibility. And figuring out what editing means is a good beginning.

*A bad editor is worse than no editor. Actually where I see this the most is where writers’ groups or first readers think they’re editors and the writer is too green to know better. The reason first readers come in bunches is that the writer is supposed to FILTER the comments. For instance, if less than three first readers have a problem with a scene (for a group of say ten first readers) you ignore it. No matter how vehement the first reader was. I am currently editing a friend’s book which has been glopped into an utter mess by integrating in explanations for everything someone failed to get. So, in case you need to know this, first readers are ALSO not editors. They are useful, but only if corroborated.

23 thoughts on “You Say Editing, I Say Proofreading

  1. Of course, one -moderately painful- way to get the “craft” part is to submit a story to either 1632 slush or Baen’s-Universe slush at Baen’s bar.

    The readers in both of those conferences, and the editorial team for the Gazette and JBU are used to taking raw newbies and helping turn them into someone who can actually write a story. Fair warning, this is not the kinder-gentler review you might get on some other sites. If your story is hopeless crap, expect to be told it’s hopeless crap, but you’ll also be told -why-.

    Of course, this is only useful if you want to write “traditional” stories, but if you do, then editing, as opposed to proof reading (although you get that too) is available there. (And in the case of 1632 slush the challenge of 4.5 million words of stories in print in the 1632 universe makes writing stories there comparable to writing sonnets or haiku, you can’t color outside the lines. It’s one more part to learning the craft.)

    And FYI, yes, Baen’s Universe ceased publication with the April 2010 issue sixteen months ago, but stories continue to be published in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette.

    1. I’ve run some things through Baen.slushpile and the comments I’ve gotten were almost exclusively grammar and spelling nits. Is the Universe slush group that much different?

  2. A few books could have done with a better Proofing stage. I’ve noticed there are more an more that seem to have skimped in that regard and these are printed books.

  3. Also appreciating the lessons. And, I’m betting, you’re reinforcing your own knowledge in writing them — nest paw?

    One thing I’m hoping for the coming regime is that — EXACTLY as the old schoolers feign to fear — it will provide a place to be bad. That, having demonstrated a certain level of chops at free shows and open mike nights, you will be able to play in front of audiences and get the kind of feedback that can only come from that.

    Yes. Exactly like comedy and music. Why do you ask?


  4. Orson Scott Card, in his book “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” has a good section on “training” beta readers. It’s through a set of questions. As I’m starting to collect beta readers (position is open if anybody’s interested ;)), I use these questions in an effort to find out where my story might be going wrong:

    Were you ever bored? Did you find your mind wandering? Can you tell me where in the story this was happening?
    What did you think about the character named xxxx? Did you like him? Hate him? Keep forgetting who he was?
    Was there anything you didn’t understand? Is there any section you had to read twice? Is there any place where you got confused?
    Was there anything you didn’t believe? Any time when you said “Oh, come on!”
    What do you think will happen next? What are you still wondering about?

  5. When I critique a story I almost never make grammar and spelling nits. If I get into the story I don’t see them. If I don’t get into the story then there are bigger problems than grammar/spelling (unless the problem is big enough that it’s what throws me out of the story). I tend to focus on what I see as “structural errors”: pacing, showing when one should be telling, implausible characters or situations, and so forth.

    On a side note, when I was participating actively in baen’s “slushpile” group the most common “error” I saw was “stories” that read more like outlines.

  6. Sarah, I drifted into this post from other links. I confess I’ve not read a single one of your books (sorry!).

    I’m a physician-scientist. I write for biomedical journals. I’m modestly successful at that. I also write grants (these go to government or private agencies) in which I beg, er, ask, for money. I’m modestly successful at that as well. I’m 56 and have been doing this for 25 years. By modest I mean precisely that; I’ve done well enough to continue doing this but I am not, and will not be, collecting any prizes anytime soon.

    With that background, I’ve been teaching a grant-writing course for our young trainees: physicians in the process of becoming scientists who are taking their first steps to writing a grant. Most of these young scientists are reasonably proficient as college-quality writers. They can write a passable term paper. They can write a report. They’ve spent a fair part of their lives writing about patients for the medical record. They are beginning to write manuscripts for the biomedical journals.

    But in writing a grant, what they generate for the longest time is what you would call ‘slush’. It’s bad. They are trying to integrate several processes at once: understanding the creative side of their science, generating a novel idea that is interesting (i.e., fundable), developing a series of hypotheses and aims that will explain their idea, and then writing a series of paragraphs that illuminate the background and processes by which they’ll do the work.

    They have ideas, and they have talent. But they lack craft.

    What they need, and why I’m writing to you now, is EDITING. That’s where I spend most of my time in the class. They project their latest paragraphs onto a screen, and the rest of us (their peers, me and my peers) go at it. Their peers at first consider ‘editing’ to be ‘proof-reading’, and it takes a while (with me telling them to ‘stop word-smithing!’) for them to see that the key is EDITING. It’s understanding the idea, seeing what is novel and interesting, and expressing that in a way that is readable. It’s flow and rhythm (yes, a good grant has those!). It’s exposing the logic of the idea and relentlessly tightening and strengthening the logic. It’s presenting ideas simply in as straight-forward a manner as possible. As Mr. Burkhead writes, it’s seeing the story.

    After a while the trainees begin to get it and the grants improve. I tell them that a significant portion of the rest of their professional lives will be spent writing, so they need to learn to find and accept good editing. Whether it’s scientific writing or the next great novel, each of us (especially me) needs a good editor. We need good copy editors, proof-readers and beta-readers as well, but an editor who can edit — oh my.

    Enjoyed your post.

  7. Ah editing. My old Nemisis. We meet again.

    Yeah, this is the part of the craft I struggle with the most. I get better the more I do it but it hurts. On the other hand, there’s no other way to get better than to do it.

    For me this was a great article. The main reason I’m still chasing one of the big six is the opportunity to learn editing from a professional. It’s also the reason I’m stalking Lou Anders but nevermind that. I’d kill for the chance to work with a Campbell or someone like it.

    Thanks for recomending Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. That is a great book. I’d say half of Stephen King’s On Writing is also pretty golden. If there are other self-help books that you think have useful nuggets, can you sing out?

    Thanks again for the post.

  8. Sarah, I agree with you that there’s three categories — editing, proofing, and copy-editing. Most people can only do the latter two. Some can do all three. But not every editor is good for every project.

    Lately I’ve been editing medical books. Yes, real editing, not just proofing and copy-editing. I ask why some ideas are here, why others are over there, and when something doesn’t make sense, I ask why it doesn’t. (These are medical books being written for the layman in some instances. In others, I have some specialized knowledge — usually just enough — and I admit when I’m over my head.) In nonfiction, this is easier than in SF/F, but yes, I’ve done the same thing with finished SF/F books. (I’ll also point out glaring, jarring problems at the same time because I can’t help but see them.)

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting better at seeing problems than I am at my own writing, because it’s really hard for me to turn “Editor Voice,” which is really loud and insistent, off long enough to write anything. But you work with the good as well as the bad; the good about what I can do is that I can sometimes help people fix a story they’d written off. (The bad, well, it interferes with my writing process something fierce.)

  9. I’ve just finally sent in a story for submission, it was rejected. Your post explains a lot. Thanks! I found you through Elizabeth Spann Craig, Mystery Writing Is Murder. She is always tweeting sites that are helpful to beginners!

  10. I wrote this up on my blog here:

    But thought I would add it here too.

    It’s long, but hey, I can always change it if you want me to later.

    Crowd Source Editing?

    Sarah Hoyt, author and blogger has an excellent post on the differences between editing and proofing.

    A critical read for every aspiring author.

    Basically proofing is correcting typos, common grammar mistakes and the like. It’s a facial and a new hair do. Editing is major cosmetic surgery. A good editor knows how far or how deep to cut and where it has to be stitched back together.

    I have had the novel “finished” for some time now, in the sense that the story is over, the plot resolved, the characters have traveled their emotional arc, but like building furniture, all the pieces may be together but it isn’t finished yet. It needs another fourteen layers of lacquer and polish, which usually takes as much or more time as building the darn thing in the first place. And often you have to wait for long times to let one coat of varnish dry and set before the next can be applied. In writing you have to wait for things to gel and set before you can tell what’s wrong with it. Errors that you are oblivious to today become glaringly obvious six months down the road, as any voter disappointed in a candidate understands.

    This is a soul-killing process and very frustrating.

    Your characters are very much your family and making major alterations to their lives feels like going to your own living children and saying, “You’re too short…grow up some more!” Characters are like living organic things, they don’t want to take orders or change, but sometimes you have to insist, and sometimes you have to send them to fictional nirvana by removing them from existence.

    So you labor for months to fix what took years to write, or worse, dither endlessly uncertain of what to cut or what to change. I am currently in what my wife calls “hand-slapping” stage. That’s the stage where you have to slap the hand of your children to keep them from picking at a scab. Editing is as much about knowing when to stop as when to start.

    There’s nothing wrong with the novel, but I can’t resist the urge to tinker, but eventually you tinker so much in one area you have to open whole other plot lines that have long been settled. So you end up changing stuff that need not be changed, until you’ve rewritten the whole thing again, which of course, demands another rigorous editing session. Lather. Rinse. Repeat until you put your head in an oven. This is why we set a firm release date for the book, to prevent this kind of work-crushing self-kibbitzing. Set it and forget it after that.

    But maybe there is a better way.

    Here’s where I think e-publishing has an answer…kinda.

    In dead tree publishing the thing has to be “set,” at one point in time. This was once literal. A typesetter had to set the type before production. This means that editing ends when the typesetter starts his craft and begins loading those tiny little metal metal mirror letters into the tray. The technology changed over the years but it was still the same, nothing could be printed until the text was finished. In the digital age however, the editing can continue even after the publishing.

    On Kindle, I can update my work, trim it, and fix the embarrassing typos should any slip in, but I can also continue to edit story, ideas, characters, updating them constantly if I so wish long after it’s been published.

    If the book isn’t selling, or if I get comments that one chapter drags, I can edit it. If they think the cover really doesn’t tell what’s inside, I can change it. I enter into a dialogue with my customers about the final product, improving it with each round. I used to work in marketing and this is exactly how the process worked in advertising. If an ad wasn’t selling, we didn’t wait for it to find an audience. We killed it and moved on, changing or updating the sell until it…wel…sold. The same could apply to fiction.

    The person who bought my book this week may get a slightly different book than the guy who bought one last week. The newer book would be presumably better. We are already used to lots of products being updated, why not fiction? We could see a future of endless feedback, using the crowd to beta test our work. Why have two or three first readers when you could potentially crowd source it and have hundreds? You might even release the work rough at a lower price to encourage these early adopters. Then take their advice and put on a few more coats of varnish later.

    (Bad news for freelance editors if this takes off, but hey, I used to work in slide libraries as a visual resource consultant, a job that doesn’t exist anymore thanks to digital images, so dem’s the breaks kid.)

    In theory, a work might never actually be “done” in the traditional sense, but might be constantly evolving.

    At some point this would probably be pretty ridiculous. I’m sure that an endless series of edits, though it might thrill some avant garde types, is a pretty good recipe for a lousy book. However, maybe we take on too much control and need to trust and grow with our fans. All authors do this, but they do it over the course of several books. Now with e-publishing, they can do it over a single book!

    I’m not advocating putting up just any rickety piece of crap. An author would ruin his reputation that way, but if you do solid work, then why not let them see you put the final touches on it?

    At some point the author must assert control, but right now I’m looking at this piece of furniture. It feels solid and smooth, and sanded. Nothing wobbles, and I’m thinking I’m going to skip the 18 layers of french polish and just rub it down with linseed oil and send it on to the customer and see how they like it. I can always add a touch of varnish later if they want it.

    1. I wouldn’t advise this. There have been some spectacular incidents with people trying this. The reader doesn’t like the idea that he’s getting a sloppy product — even if it really isn’t. I recommend getting ten beta readers, get them to read it for you, then fix things upon which the three of you agree. And get over the characters as children, ‘mkay. Just my humble opinion, but you’ll hurt yourself that way. You know how you might not realize how obnoxious your kid is because you’ve lived iwth him forever? Characters are like that too.
      I agree on dropping endless series of edits. If you look backward through my posts you’ll find one called “Recital pieces” on this concept. 98% is often not only good enough but FEELS better than “perfect and without feeling.” So give yourself a set number of times to go over it, do so, then put it up. And then take the lessons of that one to the next book. You learn more that way.

      1. lol. Yes indeed.

        Also an update. I did some poking around, and it seems that my idea is already happening.

        Large chunks of the book Machine Man was released first on the author’s blog last year to lackluster reviews. He retooled it and released it to so far good reviews.

        And when you think about it, it’s been happening in movies for years now, with all those extended versions, director’s cuts and what not.

        Of course, some of those are excellent and improvements on the original, or just expansions of an already good product.

        Some…I’m looking at you George Lucas…are not.

        Clearly an author who decided upon this should follow the Ridley Scott model and not the George Lucas one. (Shudder)

        I also think it depends on what stage you hand it over. If you turned it over at 70% to your crowd, it would just look lazy and sloppy though.

        At 90%, it might be fun for some to be part of the final process and a way to bond with fans.

        I agree with your cautions but notice I said…kinda…in my original post.

        I still think this may be a generational thing. Back when I worked at making informational websites for university programs, years ago, someone complained at a public mtg that they worried that moving everything online would be bad because of the eyestrain of reading on computer screens. We debated the advantages and disadvantages of reading online for some time.

        An elderly gentleman stood up in the back of the room, cleared his throat and said, “Your problem will be solved actuarially” Then he sat down.

        Most people didn’t get his meaning but I got it right away. Nearly 16 years later as I look at my students obsessively texting on itty bitty screens and I see that he was right.

        I suspect that “finished” will come to mean something else too as generations move on.

        We’ll see. I think e-publishing means that fiction will become more episodic, more like TV.

        I mean honestly…if LOST was a novel, it would never have flown.

        Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but I know it will change somehow.

        1. I think it also has to do with personality and experience. This weekend I decided to finish one of my old novels — it’s a challenge to myself — and once more I’m amazed how the twit I used to be couldn’t plot to save her life. And pacing? Ah! — and this was just three years ago. One thing we’ve found in writers’ groups is if you have wildly diverging… um…. I shall write about it for a blog post today, shall I? Thank you for the topic.

  11. I sweat over every line to the point where my wife thinks it’s OCD. I told her it’s just good self-editing and will save us money on editing services in the long run. My novel’s first draft is probably more like draft 1.5. It’s now in draft 3.0.
    Thanks for the book tip (Self-Editing for Fiction). I’d been looking for something good in that area.

    1. This type of sweat every line seems to be more a male thing than female. Women tend to do first draft quickly, THEN edit. (For a value of quickly. Some women are slow, of course.) Not really a “right and wrong” just — men and women seem to be different in this. My husband sides with you. I have a different variant. I HAVE to let go after five edits, no more, or I’ll beat it to death. Most books I HAVE to push out at 3 edits or I kitchensink them.

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