Remember all those pulse-pounding dystopias and dramas with animal characters you read as a tween? No? Yeah, me neither. For ’80s and ’90s kids, growing out of Little Golden Books and “early readers” into lengthy chapter books also basically meant growing out of stories in which animals were the main characters. It’s not that exceptions didn’t exist, but the beloved big-kid books of the day were mostly peopled by . . . people. At the more serious end of the spectrum? The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney. Character facing seemingly insurmountable odds and having to churn up steely resolve? Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Characters fighting for independence in a universe gone control-freaky? A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
Whether you’ve decided to go the power-of-one publishing route, and want yours to stand out amid a sea of Kindle e-books with glittering graphics, or you’re seeking traditional publication and hope your manuscript rises to the top of the dishearteningly named “slush pile,” you can set your work apart by treating it to all the benefits of a shiny NYC-publisher edit. Having edited, copyedited, and proofread for various major traditional publishing houses, I have consistently seen three focuses of a publisher-backed edit that you need to incorporate if you want to play alongside (or join) the majors.
(1) Eliminate Common Grammatical Errors, Misspellings, and Typos
Nothing is more likely to get your book booted out of someone’s Kindle-for-PC library or rejected fast with a form letter than early mistakes in rudimentary grammar. If a reader opens your book and sees, within the first few pages, apostrophes used to make should-be-plural words possessive, inconsistent capitalization, misspellings, dangling modifiers, etc., chances are that you’re not getting a second one. End of story (literally).
Whether or not you agree with the logic, people assume that sloppiness or inattention in one area denotes a pattern; if you haven’t edited for grammar and proofread to catch the typos, many readers will assume you also have not properly attended to deeper structural matters of the story. And they will not waste their time.
(2) Weed Out the Offensive (Well, Where You Don’t Aim to Offend)
In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, etc., etc., etc., wildfire spreads like Internet outrage. Never has it been so apparent that there’s truth in the statement “You can’t make all the people happy all the time.” Neither is it your job to. Sometimes casting a wide net becomes stretching that net so far that any fish you’ve already targeted just swim right through the loose mesh. This is not about pandering to the greatest number of readers imaginable, and it’s not about cowering in fear of the Internet being mean to you. Getting up in arms, after all, is some people’s favorite sport. Fahgettaboudem.
This is about catching phrases and idioms that are likely to come across with an unintended hostility or divisiveness and can easily be reworded in a way that preserves the integrity of your intended message without the risk of alienating (reasonable) readers.
Given that writing begins deep in the trenches of your personal experience, this is a remarkably easy issue to overlook, and it’s a critical aspect of professional/publishing-house editing. Catching and then gently rephrasing these instances makes the difference between a smoothly running read and your reader thinking, “Woah, buddy” or “That’s just uncalled for” or even “Yikes, I wonder if the author grasps just how bad this sounds.”
And if readers do land on that last reaction, their confidence in you as a writer is in danger of sinking quickly. Your readers are basically entrusting you to steer their attention for the period of time they’re reading; if you come across as unaware or needlessly insensitive, it’s doubtful they’ll continue to see you as a worthy captain.
(3) Clarify Those Opaque Passages (No Matter How Pretty They Are)
Truth is we all have ways of phrasing things that make sense to us and, at least after a little indoctrination, to our near-and-dear crowd along with frequent email/messenger/chat partners. Every once in a while, we all get wooed by the perfume of our own flowery poeticism. And we’ve all probably asked, “Does this make sense to you?” to a spouse or best friend or parent, who may have said, “Of course!” because that person loves us and, let’s be honest, probably knows how easy it is to poke the bear.
The upshot of that is that your book is likely to end up with at least a few instances of pretty (in an abstract-painting sort of way) phrasing that is nonetheless prone to make the average reader—who’s never met you and doesn’t understand that you consider idiom inversion a form of subtle genius—to think, “Whaaat?”
Traditionally published books are often clearer than self-published ones because a professional editor has raked through every paragraph, every sentence, and every turn of phrase to ensure clarity. If your book contains too many descriptions that make readers think, “I bet that sounded good in so-and-so’s head but . . .” you will come across as unprofessional and, again, unaware.
An experienced book editor can ensure that your book is grammatically sound, free of unintentionally alienating phrases, and clear and coherent. I’m available to edit your book, whether you’re interested in a professional polish before you submit (or publish) or you’d prefer a structural edit or developmental edit in which I address underlying “big-picture” matters related to plot, characterization, overall structure, integration of theme, pacing, flow, narrative voice or tone, and more. If you are interested in having me edit your book, please contact me either via the web form on this site or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abstract painting credit: By Rurik Dmitrienko – Pierre Dmitrienkko (Dmitrienko-Archives) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons