Long before I became a publisher author I believed myself to be a “good” writer. All through high school and university I did well on written assignments because I had an engaging writing style and my spelling, grammar and general formatting were always correct. Having loved books from an early age, I knew how to construct a story and had a fertile imagination. Besides I actually enjoyed writing – whereas other people hated the idea of sitting down and even writing a letter - that was a walk in the park for me. I regularly helped family members and friends write all kinds of things as well as edit assignments, speeches etc.
So, when I finally got around to writing the novel I’d had floating around my brain for years, I was fairly confident. After all, I knew how the story was going to pan out and, besides, I was sure in the knowledge that I was a “good” writer. My biggest challenge was going to be actually sitting down and getting the thing written!
When my publisher told me they’d sent my manuscript to the editor I was actually pretty excited. Things were really starting to move and provided she didn’t take too long finding those “little” last minute errors, my dream of having my very own published book in my hands was within reach. I spoke to my editor on the phone and was impressed that she seemed so friendly and nice. I was also happy that she seemed to really like the story. As my book is written in sections, we decided we would edit it in sections and she promised to have the first one back to me within a week.
I remember very clearly the day I got the edited first section of my book back. Clicking excitedly on the email, my heart sank when I saw the attached document. As my editor had used ‘track changes’ my 40 A4 pages were a sea of red and blue corrections and there were pages and pages of written comments! This couldn’t be right – after all I was a “good” writer – right??
My editor softened the blow by firstly complimenting me on how structurally sound my manuscript was. The spelling and grammar were all good, the formatting was correct and the story had the requisite components that made it work. She also assured me that I shouldn’t take her blunt comments personally – after all it was her job to be completely objective about what I’d written. She also assured me we wouldn’t have to change the storyline itself, just the way it was written.
So what was so wrong with my manuscript? Lots of things apparently! I had completely overdosed on the ‘ly’ adjectives/adverbs for a start (certainly, definitely, really…) and generally used far too many words. Many of my sentences took ten words to communicate something that could be said in six (mainly because I used the word “that” way too much as well as “quite”, “just” etc). My writing style was a bit formal for a novel and I tended to use passive verbs instead of active. Also, I didn’t have enough verb variety! To add to all that it was too slow moving in parts. I have to admit I was pretty devastated when she suggested removing almost all the painstakingly created scenes where my main character was procrastinating instead of studying. Apparently they would send my readers to sleep rather than demonstrate her state of mind.
After giving myself a day to digest it all I rang her for a discussion. She was still lovely and friendly and assured me that the report I got back was pretty normal for a first time novelist. We decided I would use the edited section as a guide and rework the other sections before re-submitting them. Optimistically I thought this might take a few weeks (considering I was working full time as well). Let’s just say it took a whole lot longer than that!
So, what happened next? Well, in fairness that first section I’d submitted was probably the weakest in the novel. So, the only way was up. I decided I would work on the part that needed the least fixing and gradually tackle the harder sections. I have to say it was painstaking to start with. Each sentence needed to be re-examined, each scene assessed to see if it was necessary – as well as making sure I was using active voice and a good variety of verbs. But gradually I began to ‘get it’. And when I re-submitted the next section (a month later and I still had another three sections to go) I was confident the report back would be better. And it was. There were still things that needed to be fixed, but there were only 2½ pages of comments instead of 7! This was progress!
Let’s just say it took me several months (and countless hours) before I finished editing my manuscript. However over that time I learned SO much. Editing became second nature and I knew that whatever I wrote next would be written very differently. I would still have similar ideas and the same basic writing style – but I would be using a whole lot less words. The other great thing I gained was being able to immediately spot those same errors in other writing. Whereas I might have read a book and merely enjoyed it, now I look at it with a critical eye as well. It’s like many things in life, once you learn a different way to do something you can’t go back. And as far as editing goes, that is a good thing!
So is there a point to this rather windy narrative?? Yes, I’m getting to it. In short what I’m saying is that “outside” editing is a very necessary part of writing, especially for a first-time author. No matter how good a writer you think you are, you WILL need a professional to look at it (not just your friends/family/ co-workers, unless they happen to be a professional editor). This is especially important if you are self-publishing. You can have a novel that looks great, is formatted perfectly and doesn’t have one spelling or grammatical error within it. But your story might still be much less than it could be, because you simply haven’t yet learned some of the tricks of the trade. Yes, it can be expensive, but consider it an investment in your craft. Like I said, you soon start to pick up new skills and pretty soon it becomes automatic. Looking back now I cringe to think of anyone reading my novel in its original form, although at the time I thought it was as good as I could make it.
I’m so glad I won’t have to go through that first mammoth editing process again, but at the same time I wouldn’t swap that experience for anything. I gained so much that will help me in my future writing endeavours and became a much better writer in the process. Ironically my finished novel ended up 30000 words longer than the manuscript – however believe me each one of those words was sweated over and considered carefully before it went in!
Good luck to all those who are yet to be published. It is the most amazing experience to hold your book in your hands and flick through the pages. And yes, I have read my novel more than once since publication. I’m sure you will too.