Judging Writing Quality
One of the refrains I hear constantly from authors is: “If I get a contract from a publisher, I’ll know the book is good enough to publish.” What they are saying is that acquiring editors at publishing houses know what good writing looks like and, if they meet their criteria, they will be offered a contract.
The quality review that an acquiring editor provides is a trained eye (one hopes) for what types of books sell well for that particular publisher. Note the words “for that particular publisher.” This is why the same manuscript sent to multiple publishers will get different responses. That editor is not only judging your general prose writing and storytelling ability, she is also judging whether the book fits their line.
But does getting a contract mean the writing is quality? Not necessarily. Good editors know they can fix almost anything, if the writer is willing. So, they are often buying the story (for fiction) or the expertise (for nonfiction). And if the person is well known, editors know they can hire ghost writers or co-writers to get that book done.
My first nonfiction book, published by Pearson, was accepted primarily because of my expertise in distance learning. Back in 1998 no one was writing textbooks about that, and only a cadre of about thirty people around the world were writing academic articles on the topic. When I look back at what I submitted, I’m horrified. But I learned a lot about writing a good book from my editor and the publishing process.
My first fiction book accepted at a major publisher, NAL, was in much better shape because I had a lot more places to hone my craft before submission. I had joined some writer’s organizations, become part of a critique group, entered it in contests and received feedback from judges. Even with all that, I again learned from the acquiring editor how to make my story better.
What do indie authors do to ensure they are writing quality pieces before publishing their short stories or books? What about Medium bloggers? They are indie authors as well. In both cases there are no gatekeepers. Anyone can write whatever they want and post it to Medium, or publish their book and put it up for sale on a number of distributors. The only rule is the work doesn’t break the terms of service of any distributor they use. The work can be riddled with typos and grammatical errors or sentences that don’t make sense. It can be a story that goes on and on, or one that cuts off too early. Distributor bots don’t check for that very well.
Medium provides some quality control through publications and curation. Some publications take on writers specifically to help them grow with practice and perhaps minor editing. Others take on writers that who already have a track record of publishing good articles — whether self-published or through a publication. Being selected as a “writer” for a publication may be one step to knowing your writing is “good enough.”
Curation is done by a number of Medium members and publishers who are looking for quality articles around specific topics. Like all readers, what they like and judge as good varies. However, getting the basics down of punctuation, grammar, formatting, good storytelling, and good keyword selection goes a long way to getting curation.
Where to Find Help to Improve?
The first place to look for help is among family and friends who read the type of book, article, or story you are writing. Try to find someone who you believe is a good writer or is known as a good reader. Also try to find someone who won’t be afraid to tell you if there are problems.
Another place to look for help is in your local community. There are many organizations, some that are purely local and others that have an affiliation with a national organization, that offer a variety of services for writers. Some writer’s associations or organizations are free; others charge membership fees. Many of these writer’s associations also have annual conferences and may have local or online meetings that focus on writing craft, networking, and publishing.
Before joining a writers organization, be sure to ask a lot of questions to make sure that the group is appropriate for you. Many with local meetings allow you to visit for a certain number of meetings before making up your mind. First make sure the people in the group are writing something similar to you. For example, if you want a genre-specific group there are organizations for romance writers, thriller writers, mystery writers, and science fiction and fantasy writers. There are also groups specific to poets, short stories writers, and a variety of non-fiction writers. Some of these groups accept members who are just starting out and nurture them in some way. Other’s require a certain level of professional publication first to become a member. They key is to find out if they provide the services you need.
There are also a number of international organizations geared toward helping writers across both fiction and nonfiction and multiple genres. One I belong to is the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLI). They are headquartered in the U.K. but have members from around the world. They provide a lot of resources both for new writers and professional writers in the form of free books, videos, Q&A sessions, and conferences.
Other ways to find groups are to check with your local library, attend a writer’s conference, take a class or workshop on creative writing, or join one of hundreds of groups of writers helping other writers online. The Write Life has a list of several Facebook groups their members recommend. They range from freelancers and bloggers to both fiction and non-fiction writer groups.
All of the above is just a beginning. If none of these appeal to you, simply Google writer’s groups and you will get thousands of options.
How Do Editors Increase Quality?
For full-length book writers, I am a big believer in using editors. If you are writing short, whether nonfiction or fiction, I highly recommend investing in an editor. After you’ve published successfully a number of times in short nonfiction or fiction you might not need an editor prior to submission. Most practiced writers are good about editing their own work, or have a critique group or knowledgeable friends to check them. Short work is easier to get friends or other authors to provide feedback than a full book.
However, if you are writing longer form non-fiction books, novellas, or novels, then I believe an editor is very worthwhile. I have now written over thirty full-length books, twenty-one have been published. I’ve had an editor on every book — either one provided by the publisher or I’ve paid an editor prior to independent publication.
Does that mean every book is perfect? No. Even editors don’t catch everything. They each have preferences for story, voice, pacing, etc. And proofreaders miss things as well.
What does “perfect” mean anyway when it comes to writing? The ultimate judge of all work is the reader. Because all writing is interpreted by the readers based on their own expectations and needs. Perfect for one reader is not for another.
No matter how good a writer you might be, I believe you should not try to edit your own book-length work. It doesn’t matter if you teach English at a university or have a graduate degree in Creative Writing, you still should not rely only on yourself to edit your manuscript. Once you have written, edited, re-worked language, changed story, you are no longer an objective reader. When you read your completed manuscript it will say what you want it to say because you read your intention into your own words. Only an outside reader can tell you whether it is on the page and whether it makes sense.
Assuming I’ve convinced you of the validity of a good editor, what kind of editor do you need? There are three types of editors and, yes, it is costly to use all three of them. However, for the best, most perfect finished manuscript you need these three edits in some form. Here are the three types.
This is someone who understands your genre. A developmental editor in a nonfiction book would be someone who has the expertise to understand what you are writing. When I was writing about distance education, which was new at the time, my editor didn’t know much about it. However, he had edited many books on education. He understood learning theory and was reading the book as my audience (education students) would have read it. Therefore, in addition to editing my prose, he could point out where something didn’t make sense or he stumbled in a sequence of steps I had created.
My fiction developmental editor knows the genres I write in because she reads them herself and has studied them extensively. She understands the expected tropes, the craft of story structure, character development, story and character arcs, pacing, beats, setting and mood descriptions, foreshadowing, backstory, climax, denoument, and so much more. She recognizes the reader’s expectations in that genre and knows all the parts of a story that make a difference between a story your readers are likely to love vs a story that may be well written on a line-by-line level but doesn’t keep the reader engaged. Though some developmental editors will also make comments on line-edit problems, this is not their primary function.
My developmental editor will call out voice, continuity, word choice, and sentence construction problems when she notices it. But we have an understanding that she won’t notice all of them and I should not rely on her for copy edits, typos, or grammar. If my story needs a lot of work, she won’t notice the line edit stuff at all. Where my story is working well on it’s own she is more likely to see line edit needs and mark them.
Copy Editor (sometimes called a Line Editor)
This person is the line-by-line checker. She concentrates primarily on consistency of voice, punctuation, grammar, character, and plot. A copy editor may suggest different phrasing, some word choices, and sentence structure based on your voice and approach to the story. For example, if your character tends to speak in short sentences with pauses represented by ellipses and always uses modern vernacular, the copy editor will call out the dialog that goes on and on, or a section that sounds more formal or descriptive, as being inconsistent with your voice or the character’s voice. She will not change it for you, she will point out that you need to change it. For non-fiction, the copy editor might include fact-checking, spelling, consistent formatting on a chapter-by-chapter basis and a match to the chosen “house style.”
House style refers to the specific usage and editing conventions followed by writers and editors to ensure stylistic consistency in a particular publication or series of publications. When I was published by Taylor and Francis, because they publish primarily books around education and the social sciences for academia, they followed APA style (American Psychological Association). When my fiction was published, they followed the Chicago Manual of Style.
As an indie author, if you hire a copy editor, you will want to let them know what style they are to apply. If your writing differs from that style, you will need to provide the editor with that information. For example, my science fiction and fantasy books have a specific naming convention they use for proper names and pronouns. Therefore, I would give a copy editor that convention or a list of all the names and pronouns that are different from the Chicago Manual of Style.
A proofreader is the one who goes over your manuscript after the copy editor. She looks for things that were missed during the editing process. This tends to include punctuation, spelling, and formatting. The proofreader should not be making word choice changes, plot changes, character changes etc. She is simply making sure the manuscript is clean.
What Does An Editor Cost and How Do You Choose?
Editing costs vary widely. It is not necessarily true that the best editor is the most expensive. Editors set their pay structures by a variety of metrics based on what they need to make per hour, what they believe they are worth, and how they see the competitive market. Most editors charge either by the word or the page. A page is double-spaced, usually Times New Roman 12 pt font, one inch margins and approximately 275 words. Those who charge by the word vary from one cent per word to ten cents per word. Though there are those who charge more. Developmental editors tend to charge more than copy editors and proofreaders based on the needed expertise to be good at it.
Because professional editors tend to price based on the hourly rate they are looking to get, it varies from country to country and even within regions of a country. Also, it varies based on how fast the editor believes she can complete the job.
My developmental editor, for example, is very quick because she limits what she takes on in her business. She only accepts romance, science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers. She doesn’t take on other fiction genres like mystery, true-crime, horror, memoirs, or nonfiction because she doesn’t know those areas as well. She requires a sample edit before taking on any new clients. She does this for free (approx. 5 to 10 pages) for two reasons: 1) to determine if the client is willing to take direction. Clients who question her every mark require more time than she’s willing to spend. 2) to determine if the work is so riddled with problems that the time it would take to read and mark it would not allow her to make her minimum wage requirement.
Because she limits what she takes, she is able to charge only one cent per word. She has won two national awards for editing and could certainly charge significantly more and get it. But she understands how pressed independent writers are and wants to keep her prices reasonable.
Another editor I love and trust, but I don’t use, charges ten cents per word. She is worth it but it is too much for me. She used to work in publishing and has a higher requirement for her hourly wage. She charges more because she takes more risks. She takes on all genres and people, including people who still struggle with grammar and punctuation, and nurtures them from the beginning to a finished manuscript. But that cost is significantly more. Shop around for what you can afford and what provides the services you really need.
So, what if you can only afford one editor? If that is the case then hire the developmental editor. The story is important above all else. If the story is in great shape, a reader will forgive the occasional grammar or punctuation error. However, if you have a perfect proofread manuscript, but the story doesn’t hold up, it will not be easily forgiven.
There are a number of other ways you can get sufficient (though not as good) line edits and proofreading with a combination of beta readers, exchanges with critique partners, and even free software like Grammarly. But most beta readers and other authors will not be good developmental editors.
Whatever route you decide to take to creating a quality work, I hope you do something other than edit yourself until you’ve learned craft, published successfully, and seen payment or reader traction many times. For books, I hope you are using an editor. I’m still learning and growing even after 21 published books. I suspect I will continue to learn and grow in my writing craft until the day I die.