Avoiding Editorial Disasters

ScreamWhat I would have to say in the review is "Stop the press and finish the book!”

When I agree to review a book, there’s an unstated contract that my glowing review will help promote the book. If I can’t ethically do that, I won’t write the review. I tell the author “I don’t think you want me to review this book. Here’s why.”

I made the notes below a couple of years ago to clarify my thoughts before emailing the author of a book I did not review.

… focused too tightly on few weeks when marriage finally died. Lacks background information. No sense of bigger picture. Doesn’t quite make sense. Seemed like her family wanted to knock some sense into her. His behavior not acceptable, but not egregious.More back story needed for context and less space documenting her helplessness.

…NO mention of physical affection during trial reconciliation  beyond briefly holding tight to him at beach and a couple of peck-on-the-cheek kisses. “Holding hands” in bed? Bizarre! Story is about the relationship. If they had sex, she should say so and tell how it affected her. If not, say so. Details are irrelevant, but avoidance creates gaping hole.

… She mentions money several times but no details. There is some, apparently hers, but ? His mother knows things he doesn't. Readers know only that we don't know. Ditto for details of her moving out of their shared apartment. Lots and lots of loose ends. Irritating!

The real tragedy is that this book was professionally edited – or at least the author paid someone for that service. Can you imagine anything worse than spending a sizeable hunk of cash on editing that results in this sort of reaction from readers?

Use these guidelines to help you avoid this sort of tragedy:

Seek input from at least half a dozen astute readers. Instead of or before you find a professional editor. Remember that friends and relatives know your story, so they may not see holes that strangers notice right away.

Look beyond your circle of writing friends. Much of my most helpful input has come from people who hate to write. Many book club members have highly developed critical abilities. They can spot plot flaws, awkward wording, inconsistencies and other areas for improvement.

Learn about various types of editors.

  • Developmental or structural editors point out missing back story, loose ends and other flaws such as I mention in those notes above.
  • Line or copy editors revise awkward wording.
  • Proof-readers check for typos and similar errors.

Seek developmental editing help first. Don’t waste time polishing words in a story that needs major revision. I suspect the author I mentioned above used a line editor when she direly needed a developmental or structural one.

Check references. In .03 second, Google will find you tens of thousands of “professional editors”. A far better plan is to seek referrals from people you know or friends of friends. When you find a likely candidate, ask for contact information for authors they’ve worked with. Of course they will only give you names of happy clients. You should know that a startling number of authors are not satisfied with the first editor they work with and end up paying two or three.

Have others read the manuscript again after the professional edit is done. The author I mention above might have found out about those flaws before the book was in print if she’d sought more post-editing input.

YOU own the story. If anyone’s input, professional or otherwise, goes strongly against your grain, ask why they suggest what they do, then you decide. This is your story. Don’t be bullied. And don’t rashly reject input.

Consider your goals and budget. Who are you writing for? What are your sales goals? What can you afford to spend? If you are primarily writing for family and friends, input from people you know may be enough. If you dream larger, look for a qualified pro. But never spend more on book production than you can afford to write off. Don’t quit your day job and don’t spend your retirement fund.

Bottom line: In my opinion (and that’s all this is), a large team of astute readers can give you excellent results and are often enough for a superb story. If you have the money and inclination, professional editors can be worth their weight in gold, and working with one is an educational experience. Use due diligence in selecting one if you decide to go beyond what your circle of readers can help you with. And never rely on any one person’s opinion, no matter how qualified.

Write now: Make a list of people you know who might be willing to read draft copies and give you feedback. Keep this list growing, with the commitment that you will return the favor by reading for others.


KathyPooler said...

Sharon, this is excellent advice. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you've highlighted here. Underlying all these steps is the importance of being open to constructive feedback from a variety of sources. The points that stand out for me are: be discerning about the the professionals you hire and the specific services you require at various levels--interview them; have a variety of people inside and outside your genre review it as beta readers and tell them what you want , I.e, check pace, plot, character development and discern what to change and what to keep based on what you feel is best for your story, the one only you can tell. Thanks for this important post!

Sharon said...

Thanks Amber, I know you went through the entire process with your memoir, seeking input from all sorts of people and maybe in a somewhat competitive environment at times. I'll bet you look great in that t-shirt.

The topic of feeling reluctant to give honest and complete feedback is worth an entire post. I am often in that position myself and always look for tender ways to convey tough messages.

Sharon said...

Glad you agree Kathy. I know how diligent you were about finding the right editors and what a difference they made for you. I also feel honored that I was one of your circle of beta readers. At this point you are probably qualified to teach classes on how writers can find the support they need. You've at least earned your t-shirt, as Amber has. :-)

Joan Z Rough said...

I love your honesty and your willingness to tell it like it is.

Sharon said...

Thank you Joan. I have a lot of experience talking about the Emperor's wardrobe.