Here’s an interesting story from the Washington Post. It seems that more and more simple errors are sneaking into print, and readers are noticing. It’s not hard to figure out why. The story notes that the newspaper’s stable of copy editors has been whittled from 75 to 43 in the past few years, even as the duties beyond pure copy-editing have increased.
In my day (er, night) job — you know, the one that pays the preponderance of my bills — I work as a newspaper copy editor. I’ve long considered it a sound policy not to discuss one’s employer on a personal blog, and I’m not about to abandon that wise course now. Instead, I’d like to discuss editing in the big picture, across all forms of publishing. I guarantee you, what’s happening at the Washington Post is not an isolated case.
When I originally self-published my first novel nearly a year ago, I was — outside of my wife — the only person who had laid eyes on the words, and I’m afraid that deficiency was easy to spot. When the first book landed in my hands, I immediately spotted dozens of errors — dropped words, backward quote marks, dangling modifiers, etc. Because the book was print-on-demand, I was able to upload a new interior file and fix those. Then came the new book and a new round of errors. I must have done this five or six times.
By the time I turned the manuscript over to Riverbend Publishing for the book’s re-emergence as 600 Hours of Edward, I had read it innumerable times and rooted out every possible error, or so I thought. But the publisher found a few, and then I found a few more in the proofing stage, and finally we had a completed book.
The first time I opened it, I found another error.
Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s damned hard to come up with a pristine manuscript. Harder still when editors are removed from the equation.
Unfortunately, that’s what is happening across a broad swath of the publishing world. Houses, even the biggest ones, have cut deeply into their editing ranks, for reasons of expedience and expense. Maxwell Perkins, were he alive today, would probably be an acquisition editor, focused chiefly on getting the books into the publishing house and not so much on honing them into word-perfect shape. Many of the traditional editing chores now fall to literary agents, and while they’re often fully capable of doing that work, they already have other vital and time-consuming chores, such as persuading the acquisition editors to bring the work aboard. So, then, the onus falls to the writer to get it right in the first place, and while there are many ways in which we can improve our craft and our self-editing, we can’t possibly give ourselves the same benefit we would get from an intensive edit by a professional.
So how do we bridge the gap? A few ideas:
1. Be damned good in the first place.
2. Failing No. 1, become a better self-editor. Read well-edited material and take note of what it does well (precise word choice, economy, structure, etc.). Take advantage of the myriad (and free) editing tips that can be mined on the Web. Our friends at The Blood-Red Pencil regularly offer excellent editing advice.
3. Join a writing group. Even if your colleagues can’t offer detailed copy editing, they can give you big-picture reactions to your stories and essays.
4. Trade sweat equity with a buddy. He reads and edits your stuff. You read and edit his.
5. If you can afford it and think you’ll benefit from it, engage the services of a professional editor. I’m happy to recommend one: My friend Leon Unruh at Birchbark Press does unfailingly excellent work at a competitive price.
We owe it to readers to give them the best experience we can with our books. That’s our bond: In exchange for their money and their time, we offer the best story we could write, with as few flaws as possible.