Since When Do Readers Care About Editing?

Actually, readers have always cared about editing. A well-edited, typo free book is a pleasure to read, and an error-riddled book is not. The real question is, why are readers talking about it now? I’ve never read a book that was 100% error free. Even my beloved old Webster’s 9th has a typo.

It’s not because of self-published books. The books on my Kindle right now are about a 50/50 mix of trad published and self-published. Overall, the self-published books tend to be better produced. When established writers reissue their back lists and are working off scanned conversions or unedited source files, their error rates are about the same as for indie writers starting fresh. Traditional publishers are the worst offenders when it comes to being sloppy.

The only thing new is that readers are actually talking about the editing. I’ve published 17 novels and a bunch of other stuff. I’ve had readers point out errors with my research, but never typos or formatting errors, and trust me, my fair share of those appear in my printed books. Since I’ve put out three ebooks, I’ve had helpful readers point out typos. I’ve always been a freakishly picky reader. Just one of my many quirks. These are normal readers contacting me.

What in the world is going on?

Over on The Passive Voice blog, PG posted an excerpt from an article about the Kindle as “the new medium.” The article by John Dvorak is interesting. The discussion going on in the comments is even more interesting, and that’s where it hit me:

I read differently on a Kindle.
Other readers are reading differently, too.

Last week I tried an experiment. I know I’m fussier when I read on a Kindle, so I used it to proofread a manuscript. Turned out it was just as effective as proofing printed copy and it was easier on my eyes and it went faster.

The Kindle offers a distraction free reading experience.

Think about it. With a printed book all the design elements work to enhance (or if poorly done, detract from) the reading experience. Even the size of the book affects how the book is read. When reading on a computer or even a tablet, the lighting, the colors, the bells and whistles, the knowledge that one is just a click away from a game or a website or a chat with friends are distractions. On the Kindle, with its grey-scale screen, uniform typography, and simple layout, nothing stands between the reader and the words.

I’d been looking at the Kindle’s simplicity as a problem. Now I wonder if it is a strength to exploit and actually enhance the reading experience. It’s something I’m working on.

In the meantime, what does this mean for writers and publishers? It means we need to get on the ball and step up our game. We don’t have fancy papers or layouts or shiny things to hide the goofs. Readers are noticing. Some are complaining–and they should. We owe readers the best product we are capable of producing. What they are buying is the total package–writing, editing, production–and the total package needs to be worth the price they pay and the time they take to read.

If you get an email from a reader who points out typos (or a reviewer complains) just wipe that pouty look off your face, say thank you and fix the problem. We can do that with ebooks. It doesn’t take long at all. If the book in question has been released by a trad publisher, writers, you need to complain. Or better yet, dig up an email address so the reader can complain directly to the person who can and should do something about it.

UPDATE: William shared a link: the People Formerly Known As The Audience. Well worth reading.

It’s All About Style: Proofreading

I’ve been doing quite a few proofreading jobs here lately (I tell everyone I dislike proofing because, you know, it’s not cool and only the nerdy kids get stuck with the job, but I actually enjoy it–it makes my inner nitpicker happy. So fine, I’m a word nerd, shaddup already). I’ve asked a few writers if they have style sheets for me to use. I’ve been getting blank stares in response. I finally realize “style sheet” sounds high falutin’ and fancy pantsy.

Let’s call it a “Cheat Sheet” instead.

Despite using computers for writing since the 1980s, I’m still very much a pen and paper kind of gal. Which accounts for much of the mess on my desk (watch for a future post on how Scrivener is finally breaking me of the paper habit). For my cheat sheets, I use a sheet of drawing paper (or two, depending), divvy it up into eight blocks and label the blocks alphabetically–A-B-C; D-E-F… and so on. Then, when I run across a proper name, a place name, preferred spellings, and other details easy to misspell or overlook, I jot them down in the appropriate block. That way, as I go through a manuscript, all I have to do is glance at the cheat sheet to make sure the usage is consistent.

That, my friends, is what it boils down to: consistency.

When I proofread, I’m looking for goofs and typos and missing or misplaced punctuation. I’m also looking for consistency. For instance, preferred spellings. Some words have two or more accepted spellings. The word “gray,” for example, which can also be spelled “grey.” It doesn’t matter which spelling you, the writer, choose to use. What matters is that the spelling remains the same throughout the manuscript. I also note how the writer uses capitalization. While a contemporary story might stick with standard capitalization, a fantasy novel or speculative fiction might use unusual constructs. I jot those down on the cheat sheet. The same thing goes for italics. I can usually get a very good feel for the writer’s style after only a few pages–always uses italics for direct thoughts (for instance), or only uses them in dialogue to emphasize speech, or italicizes foreign words in dialogue, but not in narrative. Once I see the pattern, I make a note of it, so I can check for consistency throughout.

Timelines are also useful. If your story is like the TV show, “24” and depends on split-second timing, or if dates are very important to the plot, a timeline can help the proofreader help you. You meant to write “one week ago,” but a brain fart made you write, “one month ago.” With a timeline, the proofreader can note the inconsistency and ask you about it.

So, indies, you’ll have better results working with a proofreader if you provide a cheat sheet. The process will go faster and be much more efficient. It’s easy to whip up a chart in a spread sheet, or type up an alphabetical list. If you’re using unusual spellings or constructions, make a note.

Your preference in grammatical style is also a good thing for the proofreader to know. My fall back on questions of usage and style is my old Webster’s 9th, which is basic and standard. It is, however, over thirty years old and grammar styles do change. So it’s not so much a matter of correct or incorrect if you use serial commas or not, or which style of possessive you use, or if you spell out numbers or use numerals. The key is always consistency. If you follow a particular style manual or a style guide on the internet, let the proofreader know. That way when they have a grammar question, the proofreader can reference your source.

A little note about unusual styles and grammar usages. As an indie who doesn’t have to conform to a publisher’s in-house style, you are free to experiment. Try to keep the readers in mind while you do so. It’s all well and good to try something nobody has tried before. Who knows? If it works, maybe others will emulate you. If your unusual construction or “creative” use of punctuation confuses or frustrates readers, then the experiment is a failure. A good copy editor or proofreader will point that out and you’d be wise to listen.

The Proof is in the Proofing

Pardon my crankiness, but since throwing my Kindle against the wall would be foolish (need a new term for wall-banger) I’m going to vent right here. Okay, indies, listen up. It’s time for a come to Jesus meeting. I’m reading a lot of your self-published fiction. I’m buying a lot of your self-published fiction. I am getting fed up with the sub-par editing. I will give you a pass on formatting errors. The technology is new, not all programs are compatible, hiccups occur. Eventually the bugs will get worked out. But the editing? Indies, that’s on you.

Read the following and ponder if any of it applies to you.

  • I don’t want an editor destroying my vision or homogenizing my unique voice or style.
  • I don’t know how to find an editor.
  • Editors cost too much.
  • I’ve been writing a long time, I even have traditionally published credits. I don’t need an editor.
  • I can edit and proofread my own work.
  • My mom (spouse, friend, next door neighbor, mailman) edits my work for free.
  • Come on, my book only costs .99 cents ($1.99, $2.99) and I don’t make enough money to justify paying a professional editor. Readers shouldn’t be so picky.
  • Editors are too slow. I need to get my work published as quickly as possible.
  • Traditionally published books are full of errors and they charge a lot more than I do, so obviously readers don’t care.

If even one of the above applies to you, keep reading. I’m talking to you.

I don’t want an editor destroying my vision or homogenizing my unique voice or style. Aren’t you precious? An editor’s job is to smooth out your prose, untangle your mangled messes, clarify the muddy patches, snip the excess and otherwise make you look a lot smarter. An editor is your partner in shaping and refining your work. To claim your writing is so unique, your vision is so special, your style is so… stylistic that it can’t withstand the pressures of a red pencil is to doom your writing to obscurity. Readers can’t see your vision when poor editing distracts from your words.

I don’t know how to find an editor. I’ll bet you found a place to make a cover. Fifty cents says you’ve found all sorts of places to promote your work. A great cover and promotion might get you a few sales, but if readers get disgusted with the sloppy prose, careless grammar and incessant typos, the best cover in the world won’t sell your next book. You can find freelance editors on the ‘net. Attend workshops and conferences and put out the word that you’re looking for an editor. Ask around at your local library or college. Join a critique group that has professional writers as members. They know editors. They might freelance as editors to supplement their income.

Editors cost too much. Skilled editors are often artists in their own right. That’s what you’re paying for and it’s worth every penny. Budget for editorial costs. Better to skimp on the cover and promotion and spend more on what really matters– making your prose shine. Hell, you’re an indie. That means you’re fearless and innovative and open to new ideas. Maybe you have something to barter. Trade services. Maybe work out a commission deal or monthly payments. If you want to be more than a dilettante, if you take your writing seriously, if you want to make a living at it, then you have to bear the costs.

I’ve been writing a long time, I even have traditionally published credits. I don’t need an editor. Ahem, bullshit. You might be an excellent craftsman, a skilled wordsmith, an accomplished professional, but trust me, no matter how cleanly you write, you have your quirks and failings. You miss opportunities, overwrite in places and drop the ball in others. You need an editor to point out where you’ve failed to say what you meant to say. You need a proofreader because quite frankly, no matter how many times your brain sees the missing word or translates the not-quite right word into the right word, on the page it’s still wrong.

I can edit and proofread my own work. Maybe. Probably not as well as you think. You need fresh eyes, objective eyes to make your writing the best it can be.

My mom (spouse, friend, next door neighbor, mailman) edits my work for free. And you’re getting what you pay for. No offense to the lovely, helpful people in your life, but proper editing takes skill and experience. Your editor needs to be well-read, bordering on fanatical when it comes to grammar and punctuation, have a sharp eye for details, and possess the patience and dedication to keep working until everything is just right. Editors are professionals. If you want to produce professional writing, you need a professional to help.

Come on, my book only costs .99 cents ($1.99, $2.99) and I don’t make enough money to justify paying a professional editor. Readers shouldn’t be so picky. I don’t even know what to say that. I don’t even want to talk to you. If you have such disdain for your readers and so little pride in your work, maybe you should consider another career.

Editors are too slow. I need to get my work published as quickly as possible. Good editing takes time. Just as there are no shortcuts in producing a quality piece of fiction, there are no shortcuts in making it shine. Why, exactly, do you need to publish as quickly as possible? If you’re putting out poorly edited crap, it doesn’t matter how much or how often you throw it out there, readers will catch on quickly that it’s not worth reading. In the long run, quality counts far more than quantity.

Traditionally published books are full of errors and they charge a lot more than I do, so obviously readers don’t care. And your point is? They’re slobs, so I can be a slob, too? Readers do care. This reader cares. Every sloppy sentence, incomprehensible paragraph, misplaced modifier, plot inconsistency and mixed up homonym is like a pebble in my shoe. It’s an irritant. Irritate me too much and I will remember the source of the irritant and not buy your other books. I won’t review them on Amazon or gush about them on my blogs or tell all my friends on Facebook and Twitter. Just how many readers can you afford to irritate? One? Ten? A thousand? You’re an indie writer, a proud breed with the opportunity to break new trails. Show your pride by emulating the best and never taking the “easy” road by slobbing out and telling yourself readers don’t care.

Okay, rant over. I feel better now.