Undoubtedly one of the most important things to do when it comes to preparing your work for release is to have it edited. Whether you self-publish or have a publisher, your writing needs to be examined by a trained eye and finely polished. It’s not about somebody being picky or splitting hairs, it’s about looking professional.
In this ‘The Write Advice’ post we speak with Stephanie Dagg who is an editor and author that knows the industry well. Not only does Stephanie reiterate the importance of using an editor but she also explains some of the services they can offer and what you should expect from them. There’s some great advice here and make sure you check out her five top tips on what authors should be doing before they even send their work off to an editor.
Tell us a little bit about your background and educational qualifications?
I’m English by birth but lived for a long time in the Republic of Ireland, and have now clocked up a decade in France. I’m married to Chris and have three children. We run a largeholding (a 75-acre smallholding, in other words, as under French rules and regs we don’t qualify as farmers!) where we raise alpacas, llamas, goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens. Lots of chickens, as I’m a closet crazy bird lady. As if that’s not enough we have a couple of dogs, six cats and an assortment of exotic birds. We also run a carp fishing business in the three lakes on our property.
I read English at Oxford University and then went on to do a postgrad degree in Publishing Studies at Stirling University.
What made you choose to become an editor and why do you enjoy it?
I became interested in becoming an editor whilst I was at Oxford, which is why I went on to do that Publishing Studies course. My first job was as a desk editor at Hodder & Stoughton. I’ve since worked as a sales rep for some educational publishers and had a brief spell as an accountant, but since 1992 I’ve worked as a freelance editor.
I enjoy the job so much because language is my thing! I started writing stories as a child and English was always my favourite subject at school. Initially as a freelance I worked for major publishing companies but now I work exclusively with indie authors. I find that very interesting and rewarding. There is so much talent out there that the ebook revolution has enabled to find an audience.
I believe that you also write, tell us about some of your work?
I certainly do write, but not as much as I’d like to. I’m a traditionally published children’s author of 30+ books, mainly with Irish presses. I’ve been translated into five languages. I’ve also self-published a dozen or more books, including most recently a Christmassy romcom, Fa-La-Llama-La, and a memoir of the first few years of our lives as expats, Heads Above Water: staying afloat in France. I intend to get another romcom written during this year’s NaNoWriMo (nothing like being ambitious!) and I have a series of cozies underway.
Should an editor edit their own work?
There is a certain amount of self-editing any writer can do, including editors. However, your eye and brain conspire to trick you into thinking that you’ve written what you think you’ve written, when in fact you haven’t. So you tend to miss some of your own mistakes. So it’s a very good idea to get a pair of fresh eyes connected to a brain that has no prior idea what you’ve written to look over your work.
It is extra tricky being an editor, though. It’s a bit of a no-win situation. If you get another editor to edit your work, people will think, “Humph, you can’t be much of an editor if you have to get someone else in,” but if you don’t then you’re more likely to miss a silly typo and then people will think, “Humph, you can’t be much of an editor if you let mistakes get through.” See what I mean?
My solution is to attempt to subject my writing to my usual high editing standards, but then run my books past a few eagle-eyed friends (author Paul Douglas Lovell and book reviewer Jacqui Brown helped me with Fa-La-Llama-La), as well as members of my long-suffering family. It seems to work well.
What different types of services do you offer and what does each one entail?
I offer critiquing, editing and proofreading, indexing, cover design, formatting for Kindle and CreateSpace, website design and management, and general tips on promotion.
A critique is a pre-editing read through to pick up any significant issues so that these can be addressed at this point, to speed things up later. If an author isn’t quite sure about the plausibility of the plot or their characters, or wonder if their language use is suitable for the target audience, then this is when a critique is an especially good idea. However, they should only ask for one if they are prepared to take the advice that’s subsequently given! You’d be surprised how reluctant authors are to change aspects of their novel sometimes. Now, I understand this, being an author myself – we do get a bit territorial – but it is worth taking an independent professional’s advice.
Editing is when I roll my sleeves up and set to with the spit and polish. I correct whatever needs correcting, reword where appropriate, suggest improvements, raise queries where there’s uncertainty. As well as ensuring language is used correctly and with clarity, editing also involves checking facts, well, by a good editor it does. I always check the spelling of famous names, places etc. since these are often misspelled, and the dates of any historical events that are mentioned. Again this is somewhere where errors creep in. Quotations are often wrong too.
Sometimes on editing services websites you see editing being laboriously divided into line editing, developmental editing, substantial editing and so on. I don’t hold with that. Editing is editing – if something needs fixing, be it a missing comma, a factual inaccuracy or a plot inconsistency, then I fix it.
Proofreading is the final read through of the manuscript, after any matters arising during editing have been dealt with. A lot of authors mistake proofing for editing but they are completely different kettles of fish. Editing is the nitty gritty stage. There should be next to nothing to sort out at the proofing stage; it really is the final check. It is not the time to start rewriting endings, introducing new characters, and so forth. The tinkering needs to stop when you hand your work over to the editor.
I don’t do a great deal of indexing, but it’s a fascinating thing to do. I’m an accredited indexer, which means I studied and learned the skill, and as well as knowing the difference between a word-by-word index and a letter-by-letter index, I’m up to date with relevant best practices in the field. I do indexes for a number of mainstream Irish publishers.
Good cover design is crucial, and I’m lucky to be able to include a very talented designer in the editing.zone team. You absolutely can judge a book by its cover so it’s important to have a clean, classy cover. A blurry photo with the title in red comic sans doesn’t cut it.
Formatting for ebook and CreateSpace: that’s what it says on the tin. This is something you can do for yourself, but it’s time-consuming and fiddly and can drive you to an early grave. You want the finished article to look slick so it needs to be done properly. Editing.zone’s tech guy has done many, many books now and can get the formatting done swiftly and accurately.
Website building and management: an author platform is all-important and begins with a lively, frequently updated website. You can find free web hosting out there, but it looks so much more professional, and cool, to have your own domain name. Editing.zone will build and maintain your site, register your domain name and we’ll host your pages on our server.
As for promotion tips, I’ll throw those at you whilst editing is going on to keep you on your toes.
What are some of the most common errors you see in written work?
Punctuation – for example, commas and apostrophes either where they don’t need to be or not where they do need to be, colons and semi-colons confused.
Spelling – the basics: your/you’re, they’re/their/there, were/where, definitely/defiantly.
Very often people almost get a word nearly right but not quite. Do check in a dictionary. A few examples are scold instead of scald, disinterested instead of uninterested, that instead of than, summary rather than summery, stationary and not stationery, and so on. There’s a lot in the English language to trip you up!
Overuse of what I call an author’s default words or phrases e.g. however, just, actually, really, the both of them, a little, a bit, said…
Overwriting. This is when an author is anxious about not giving readers enough information, and so goes into unnecessary detail. This can bog a story down. For example, you don’t need to show us your character getting out his key, unlocking the door, taking the key out and going inside, wiping his feet, and shutting the door behind him. Readers know all that stuff is involved. ‘Once through the door’, or ‘Once back home’ will tell us enough.
Names trip a lot of writers up too. Keep a list of characters as you create them. Make the names as distinctive as the people they belong to. I’d say at least half the books I edit have duplicated names (e.g. a couple of Daves or Johns, or James as a first name and also as someone else’s surname), and even more contain very similar names that can be confusing to the reader: Jim and Tim, Jane and Joan, Mary and Marie, Emma and Gemma.
When needing an editor for their work, what sort of things should authors look for as well as avoid?
Look for experience, qualifications and good references. Someone who knows the industry, and ideally from both sides.
‘I love books and reading’ is not a good enough qualification. At the very least someone offering editing services should have done some sort of editing or proofing course to show they’re interested enough to invest some time and money in honing their art. An editor also needs to be au fait with copyright law, current market trends and what the major players in the publishing industry are up to.
Avoid people who are charging sky high rates. It should not be costing you thousands to get your book edited, and I’ve seen those sorts of prices around. I admittedly under-price my services, particularly given my lengthy experience in the industry, but I want to be affordable.
Experience is the best bet each time.
How essential is it for writers to use an editor and proofreader?
It’s absolutely essential. Readers expect good quality, even for a 99p ebook, so you do need to run your book under a professional’s eyes for a tidy up. That said, there’s always going to be a couple of typos that get by everyone. The book is yet to be published that is completely error-free. However, when there are typos on every page then reader intolerance quite rightly kicks in. Self-published books have suffered from bad press and over-criticism in this respect, with readers often and unfairly turning a blind eye to the howlers that get through in traditionally published books. However, it’s fair to say that the image and standard of self-pub books is rising all the time.
What makes a great book?
Good presentation for a start! Also well-written in terms of varied and interesting language, a persuasive plot and rounded characters. Heartfelt is important too. If an author’s soul is in their writing, it shows. There are too many mainstream-published books out that are being churned out just to cash in. Series that go on too long. One cookbook too many. They’re written merely to make money. Now, authors want to make money, obviously, but if that’s the be all and end all of the writing process then that doesn’t make for honest, genuine writing. The book that simply insists on being written, and won’t let its author rest until they’ve given life to it, is always the best one.
Lastly, please give us your 5 top tips of what authors should do before sending their work to an editor.
Don’t be in a rush. Read through the work one more time.
See if you can suss out what your default words are and reduce them by half.
Run a spelling and grammar check – these aren’t foolproof but they do pick up a good number of mistakes. If an editor is having to correct numerous silly, basic errors in every paragraph then a) it slows things down considerably and may put the fee up, but, equally importantly, b) it pulls the editor’s attention away from the bigger picture so that structural (i.e. plot, characterisation etc.) errors may get missed first time through. This may involve an extra round of editing before proofing can take place
Check the chapter numbering – I’d say that half the books I edit have mistakes here.
Start building your author platform and drawing up your marketing plan.
We’d like to thank Stephanie for taking time out of her busy schedule to offer us those pearls of wisdom. I can guarentee there’ll be something that everyone can take away from this interview and having worked with her before, I can certainly recommend the editing services she has to offer. You can find her on Twitter or at her website, and can get in touch via the contact form there or at editor (at) editing (dot) zone.