To Hell with Editing!

William C Prentice

As the author of a poorly-edited self-published novel, I am definitely biased. Louise’s offer to let me state my case regarding editing is a great opportunity to rationalize my own behavior. Even if this were not a convenient forum for defending myself, it seems clear to me that we have evolved well beyond the need to hold editing, as a process and an objective, in the same high regard it once was.

The bulk of my professional and business career has been in the energy industry, and I have written literally thousands of business plans, offering memoranda, feasibility studies and technical papers. It was unthinkable to “launch” any such document if it had errors, but it still happened. I can remember catching a significant error on one proposal that had already been printed for shipment to the prospective client – it took a day to correct the page in a way that it ended on the correct word and line, and changing it out in all 35 hard-copies being shipped. I can also remember catching errors in such documents after they had already shipped, and having to issue an erratum sheet to follow it out the door. I can also remember catching one significant error after we had already been awarded the contract – nobody cared!

Back in the day of typed letters, it was equally unthinkable to let a piece of correspondence go out with an error. It was humiliating both to the professional sending the letter and the assistant who had typed it, and if the error was one that materially altered the intended meaning of the correspondence in a way that hurt the organization, then it could be a career limiting event. If you received a letter from someone with obvious errors, it was just cause to have a negative opinion of that person and his organization.

In other words, we were all extremely anal about it. I for one remained anal about it even after the world started to change, and I fought a losing battle against the growing flood of poorly edited material we are inundated with daily. The IT revolution has changed communications forever – we went from making a few calls, checking the mailbox, and getting a telex now and then to a world where a virtual fire-hose of communications hits us in the face constantly. That fire-hose has permanently destroyed the distinction between informal verbal communications, with its errors, mistakes and colloquialisms, and formal written communications.

One of my losing battles was a pet peeve of mine – the misuse of the three words their, they’re and there. I probably receive at least one text or email a day that violates this rule, and I rarely notice it unless it makes the meaning of the message unclear. The same could be said for just about all of the “rules” that we used to live by – Strunk and White is obviously not sitting out on anyone’s desk any longer. 

The villain here is efficiency. The objective of our communications is to convey information, or elicit information, or otherwise create understanding on the part of the recipient of the communications. With the growing need to respond to others and react to the need to convey understanding to others, perfecting any single communication robs you of the ability to participate on a timely basis with all of the other communications you need to participate in. The need has shifted from having to send out one or two “perfect” letters a day, to the need to originate or respond to several hundred calls, texts or emails a day. 

Our tolerance for errors in those communications had evolved. It is better to receive a poorly written text in response to a request or comment than it is to wait around for someone to have the time to properly draft and edit it. The rules have changed.
What about a book? I know I used to feel the same way about books. I once bought a promising paperback action novel in a bookstore at O’Hare, and I gave it away on the plane after finding a really stupid mistake about a firearm on page two. You expected better from a publisher who was going to send a manuscript out for a first printing of several thousand would have done a better job. 

But books aren’t like that any longer. The distance from your keyboard to the readers’ eyes has been shortened to virtually nothing. You can finish up a novel in the morning, format it and get it out there on Kindle within a matter of hours, or self-publish hardcopy that can be in a reader’s hands as quickly as it can be printed out and slipped into an envelope.

It takes time to edit a novel. Someone has to sit down and read it and mark it up. Then the author has to go through it and agree to changes or not, or rewrite or not. Or if you are going to self-edit, that means setting it aside for at least a day or two so that you don’t just pretend to edit because it is too fresh in your mind. While you are self-editing, the ideas for the next work that were fresh in your mind when you were wrapping your book up are all starving for attention in some part of your head, and some of those ideas may die.

All of this gets in the way of the same efficiencies that have changed communications in general. All of this gets between you and your readers, your customers.

In my opinion, the same tolerance for minor editing errors that has emerged in other areas of communications is still alive in the reader when he picks up your book. If you have self-edited enough that you are confident that the story you want to tell is being told correctly, and that any remaining errors are not material to the story, then further editing is a violation of the law of diminishing returns.

At that point, you should get it into the market and start working on something else. If you go back and find a lot of errors later on, then go ahead and edit it and then publish a second edition when you have a chance. When you are really famous your first editions with all the errors will have become a collector’s item.

Feral is a story of a man’s journey through war and rebellion, love won and lost, families torn apart and rejoined, business, and politics. It begins in the early 1970s with a young man coming of age under a brutalizing family situation, and taking on an assignment in Africa to fight in Rhodesia against communist insurgents. 

The story follows him back to the states and through his success in business, in part due to substantial hidden family wealth that he is charged with growing and using as his Legacy. Feral finds the hero returning to Africa at critical junctures as he develops a plan to liberate parts of the continent from its colonial past.

About the author – Prentice has been
a capitalist for nearly forty years, primarily in the energy business and
private military contracting. In addition to hanging out with family, Prentice
is devoted to rock climbing, martial arts, hunting and other outdoor pursuits.  

Prentice is also the author the novel Feral,
a poorly edited self-published work, and will soon be publishing
Ever Darker,
a collection of stories, one of which is being turned into a screenplay.

3 thoughts on “To Hell with Editing!

  1. Much of what you say is true, but I have not yet read a book that does not have some mistakes, so how far do you go? Was that a run on sentence? Does that matter outside the USA? The problem for most indie authors is that they are encouraged to spend money on editing and on professional covers which will chew up about £1000 for most adult novels. Will it produce a similar amount of sales? It is a tricky question and I have not yet seen an editor advertise their services by saying that you will get their fee back in sales.
    On the other hand, if I can't correct the issues ,you mentioned, and many more beside, then I should not be writing. Do you want to read the book I have written, or the one an editor thinks I should have written.
    It is a bit like the difference between stage acting and movie acting. See a stage show, and there is a good chance that it is different every night, see a movie and you will see the takes the director decided to keep. That doesn't mean movies are bad, they are not, but it is a different art form. I think the same thing can be said for Indie books. The great thing these days is that thanks to Smashwords, Amazon and others we can get our hands on both


  2. I'm not sure I agree with all of what you say. When it comes to everyday and business communications, I can see your point to a degree. Society has becomes more accepting of those errors. But when it comes to books, where an author's objective is to provide the reader with an “experience,” the manuscript should be edited well. Let me put it to you his way: I know the difference between their, they're, and there…as well as between your and you're, than and then, and all the other trouble words. What you're saying is that my reading experience isn't as important to you as someone who doesn't know the difference…because when I trip over wrong word usage in a book, I can assure you, my reading experience is impacted in a negative way. Do I not deserve the best experience you can provide? Shouldn't my hard-earned money I spent on your book amount to a good reading experience? Or should authors continue to become lazier about editing and flip the proverbial bird to those of us who know proper English and grammar?

    If the concern is for all the stories that are waiting to be written for fear they will be forgotten, that's what a notebook or “idea file” are for. I have TONS of ideas waiting to be written, and I would have forgotten some had I not taken a moment to jot them down or type up a quick summary. But I will not scrimp on editing and cheat my readers simply because I want to hurry and get to the next story. That's lazy and inconsiderate.

    I believe that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing well or not at all. To publish a book before it's ready, with the thought that “I can go back and edit it later and re-publish it,” is reckless and sends the message that you aren't professional and you're only out for money. I know someone who said months ago that she would fix her book after she published it. She was in a hurry to publish so she could make money. Well, the manuscript is a mess, and it's months later, and she still hasn't fixed it because she wants to hurry and get to the next story (ain't got no time to edit, sorry, gotta keep writing. I'll fix it later…but later never comes)…and the reviews are tearing her apart for the sloppy work. If you can't do it right the first time, don't do it.

    That's just my two cents.


  3. My inaugral lecture as a professor was titled 'Away with all Purists', so you can guess that I support a lot of what you say. In the end I suspect that the crucial consideration is the audience. If my book is so full of mistakes that I put off all my readers, then it needs editing. If it is OK with the the possibly quite large population who have worse grammar and spelling than me, then if the story is good I will probably sell books.
    On the other hand, if I am trying to pitch to literary agents or book editors, then I probably don't stand much chance unless I meet their standards.
    I don't think there is any right answer, though beta readers who are typical of the intended audience must be a good guide.
    I will admit to being a little dyslexic, it runs in the family. When I was younger I used to have arguments with people who said I had spelled a word wrong. I would insist that they could only know it was wrong if they had correctly determined what the word was, which meant that I had transmitted 100% of my intended meaning. In fact I had transmitted more than that, I had told them I could not spell as well. Unfortunately for some people that extra meaning is annoying, so what correct spelling does is to transmit exactly 100% of the meaning, no more no less.
    I suspect that editing falls into the same paradigm. Perfect editing means that the work transmits exactly what the author intended, no more, no less. With poor editing the message may be blurred, so the reader may have to work a little harder to get it.
    I think if I am selling a book for a pound or less as an ebook, then it is a fair bargain and the reader may not mind a little work. As a writer I am happy for my readers to do some work. I am trying to fire up images in their imagination, so some of the work has to come from them. If I am selling a glossy hardback, or writing a patent, or framing a statute, then different standards will apply.


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