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.

Mistakes Aspiring Writers Commonly Make

Sleeping Kitty On MonitorI’ve reviewed enough manuscripts now to realise that writers make the same mistake over and over. They write a book with fantastically drawn  characters at the expense of the plot, or have wooden characters flitting around in an overly ambitious plot line.

Here is my personal list of common mistakes I have found during my years as a reviewer.  

Boring Manuscripts. There is nothing happening, no plot, mediocre characters who – to suddenly make them interesting – swear a bit.

Manuscripts with POV (point of view) all over the place: John stifled a yawn as Mr Rogers droned on and on about targets and financial reports. He was tempted to rest his head on the boardroom table and drift into oblivion. Dave Rogers hated the sound of his own voice. Looking around the room, he could see several people had zoned out already. He cleared his throat, and attempted to lighten the tone.

See what I’ve done? I’ve moved from inside Johns head, to Dave Rogers. It’s jerky and it reminds readers they are reading a book. This is the last thing you want.

Writing like real life. “Ey-up darlin’, ows aboot we gor onna wanda, like. Nor wotta I mean?”

No, I haven’t a clue, frankly. The odd slang, or darlin’ is fine. But don’t over egg the pudding. You want your books to appear real life, without actually becoming it. If you order a fillet steak in a restaurant you wouldn’t want it raw, would you? You’d want it cooked. Prepared. The same applies to your writing.

Characters not showing emotion. They go through life (or the book) without feeling shy, frightened, jealous, regretful. This doesn’t apply to anger somehow. There are a lot of angry characters out there.

Minor characters. I know all about the minor characters; from their eye colour to the type of pants they wear and then they are gone. Vanished back inside the author’s head, leaving the reader wondering what was their significance. Remember, if the character’s role is brief the reader doesn’t even have to know his name.

Show don’t tell. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but what does it mean? Basically, telling is moving the story along quickly, which can make it feel flat if it’s done too often or at the wrong time. Telling: She thought the flowers had a lovely scent.
And showing: She buried her face in the blooms, and inhaled deeply with a satisfied sigh.

In the second, I didn’t once mention that the flowers had a lovely scent, but you guessed, didn’t you?
But is telling so bad? After all, some well-known authors do it to tie up the ends as the novel draws to a close. So yes, a little telling is OK as long as it’s not all the time and especially not during a crucial moment in the plot.

Time line. Can your heroine fall in love, get married, have a baby all in three days?

Editing. Speaks for itself really. I’ve made mistakes with Eden and didn’t get it professionally edited after I redrafted it. Don’t make my mistake. It’s hard to be subjective with your own work. Go professional.

Irrelevant detail. As with minor characters above, irrelevant detail will bore the reader and cause them to skip pages. You don’t have to describe your character’s eating habits and every minute detail of their life like a running commentary.

Pompous words. Don’t show off with your knowledge of long, or strange words. You’ll end up looking like a plonker: Marcel assembled himself in the chair and beheld John from across the boardroom. Dave Rogers was trying to vaccinate a diminutive wittiness into the conference, but everyone had fallen into slumber. John’s crown was even somnolent! Marcel cleared his oesophagus and elevated a hand. ‘May I advocate a caffeine cessation?’

Basically if you can say with one or two symbols, do so.

Speech Tags. She directed, she shouted, she argued, she retaliated… she said is fine! It is an invisible word “argued”, “returned”, “protested” are not.

Clichés. Within speech, fine. Outside, no. Avoid them. They will weaken your otherwise fine story.

PenBackground. I’ve read novels with the main characters wandering through a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon, but strangely they seem to be the only people there! Bring in background noise, crowds, smells, unruly children, the heat or cold. In other words, flesh it out.  


Research. Do your research. With Google Earth you can visit places from your living room. Also, people love to talk about their profession and if you tell them you’re writing a book they will be very pleased to share their experience. Just don’t guess – readers are reviewers and will be sure to tell you of your mistakes.

Common Words. Everyone has a favourite word. Find yours and be wary of repeating it. This does NOT apply to “said”!

Below are just a few of my favourite “how to” books. The links in red will take you to Amazon UK. Link on the actual book for Alternatively, look over to the right and find “my picks”. These are all “how to” books especially picked for the aspiring writer.

Need a professional editor? I’ve used a few, and here’s what I think of them.

So, you’ve finished your book. Break out the champagne! You think it’s perfect, and family and friends are wowed by your literary mastery, so you dust off the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook and start to look for agents (or publishers) who take your genre. But wait! Are you sure it’s the masterpiece you think it is? A critique by a stranger who isn’t afraid to voice his views, good or bad, is worth one hell of a lot, and well worth the money.

But shop around, because there are some who don’t deliver. I’ve had a few “professional” edits: John Hudspith Jacqui Bennett Writers Bureau, Writers’ Magazine £49 Critique for the first 10,000 words and The Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service.

Jacqui Bennett Writers’ Bureau had EDEN and was the best by far. Encouraging as well as tutoring. I learned a lot from her, and even once she’d finished she encouraged further questions. It was all done over the Internet with my chapters flying through cyberspace to her for review and edit. She pointed out my mistakes, helped me rewrite various scenes and lectured me where she felt was appropriate.
It was like she was with me, looking over my shoulder, as I typed away.

The Writers’ Magazine had A PROPER CHARLIE and was disappointing. It was interesting to get another point of view, but this was something I was getting from the website youwriteon anyway, and so thought my £49 pounds was wasted. I don’t think WM offers this option anymore, which is just as well.

Hilary Johnson had VELVET CURSE and was disappointing too. I sent her my entire manuscript and waited with baited breath while she reviewed it. She told me she would correct any mistakes/typos and help with things like sentence structure. My precious novel came back smelling strongly of nicotine, which was most unpleasant. She doesn’t hold back, so her advisory isn’t for the faint-hearted, and my novel was ripped to shreds! She told me all what was wrong with it, but didn’t offer anything to help me. Some of my text was underlined with squiggly lines but with no instruction as to why and I was left scratching my head.

Hilary had offered to look at my MS again for free, but to be honest, I was so upset by her fierce review I refused. But looking at the manuscript now, I can see that is was no where near ready for publication, although I still say, not as awful as she claimed, and some of the squiggly lines still leave me perplexed today.

Somebody new to writing could have been totally put off by her furious approach. Others, though, have nothing but good to say about her advisory. So don’t let me put you off.

Johnny Hudspith’s critique is excellent. His editing is simple to understand, and he doesn’t mind being questioned on the whys and hows of his edits. His prices are affordable with credit crunch Britain and worth a look. He had A Proper Charlie, and seemed genuinely impressed. He only took five months to edit the entire MS, and it was all done in chapters by email and payment was taken via paypal.
Cornerstones had A PROPER CHARLIE after Johnny Hudspith because they’d been emailing me requesting that they could help. I researched into them and saw that they were scouts for agents, and so took them up on their offer. It was a little pricey at just under £300, but they have various packages so just choose one that’s right for you. 
It was sent to a reader who took about four months, and sent a very constructive report back to me. It was seven pages, and offered advice, criticism, encouragement and seemed to think that overall I had a very strong manuscript to sell.
Unfortunately, Cornerstones didn’t take A Proper Charlie on, but have asked I stay in touch and send them my next novel for consideration – for free.
I gave myself until November 2010 to find an agent for Charlie, and if I didn’t find one I’d self-publish with YouWriteOn again. And so, here I am, final edits in place and Charlie is flying through cyber space towards said publisher.
The publication date is somewhere between Feb and March 2011.