A decade ago surveys suggested that 80% of Americans planned to write a novel. The advent of e-publishing has offered many the opportunity to realize the dream. Unfortunately, just because you can self publish doesn’t mean that you should self published. I am not suggesting that content and plot lines should be determined by book agents and publishers. Those two had their shot at it and the result was a miserable decline in profits and menu selections based on misguided commercial success predictions. I believe that self publishing has increased the available reading selection much in the same way the Indie films and Indie music has offered new things we’d never see from Hollywood and never hear on the heavy rotation agenda of Pop radio.
The lack of commercial gatekeepers (i.e. Publishing Houses) is not an invitation to an “anything goes” mentality, nor is it evidence that the rules of proper writing or the mechanics of grammar serve only as an option. In fact, the absence of gatekeepers means an increased responsibility on the part of the author. That implies that an author cannot use “good enough” as the bar when pressing publish. A good story is not good enough and no, readers are not going to look past the violations of writing mechanics simply because the writer has a good idea. Bending and breaking the rules is acceptable for authors with a complete mastery of the craft, the rest of us need to edit, and to edit within the guidelines of proper English grammar. I am not a professional editor. I am not so much giving advice as I am suggesting that every not-yet-ready book published hurts the argument for the future of Indie Publishing. In other words we’re trying to have at least a semi-formal party so please don’t bring box wine and cheez-wiz. And you say…
“I agree and I go through my work several times to ensure it is correct.”
“I’m pretty good at grammar but I’m not holding back my dream just because I can’t afford an editor.”
“Reader’s aren’t that particular and will overlook an occasional error.”
“When I get picked up by a publisher they’ll ensure my work is edited.”
“I am creative so that I like to create my own grammar rules.”
If any of those statements are the reasons for not having a qualified editor then you should not publish your story. Would you take your car to a mechanic who couldn’t afford tools? Would you see a doctor who was “pretty good” at biology but didn’t earn a degree?” Would you live in a house built by a creative contractor who creates his own rules of physics? Would you buy a product from a manufacturer who promised that when his company was purchased they’d ensure the product was functional? Probably not (well hopefully not). So why would you publish something, offer it in exchange for money, and not be able to promise quality?
“Because I’m really good at grammar and I know there aren’t (a lot of) mistakes.”
“Boulder dash” I say (since my discussion with Jenelle I’m making an effort not to cuss.)
There are three solid, factual, proven, and time-tested reasons that you can not self edit regardless of your skills, talent or training. It may work from time to time. There may be a few exceptions, but lets assume that most of us are the rule and not the exception. And being the rule means that we are ruled by our brains. An incredibly efficient organ that makes cognitive life easy at the expense of details. The brain is so efficient that when it comes to the written word, and most things visual, content and context rule over specific detail. Three similar operations are in motion and these operations mean that the writer is the least effective member of the editing team. If the writer gets it correct the first time, all is well, but where there are mistakes the writer will be the last to know.
You can’t un-ring the bell – Gestalt theory, developed in the early part of the last century, sought to explain brain efficiencies through the recognition of patterns. In short, we don’t need to see the entirety of a thing to understand the whole. For example when a person stands in front of an object, the observer does not contemplate whether he is seeing a whole person. The brain fills in the missing parts and we perceive an entire human. Example two – Your favorite movie is just a string of still shots moving at 24 frames per second that is interpreted as motion.
In simpler terms, consider this object. What is it?
You probably answered a “box” or a “cube” – Theoretically correct, but factually wrong. You observed a two dimensional object comprised of hundreds of small circular colored pixels. Your brain did its little act of efficiency and you interrupted a three dimensional object that in the English language we use the sound “cube” to label. When an author reviews her work, she is focused on the content and meaning of that work, not the specifics. Thus the author is far less likely to recognize mistakes than a person will discover who has no expectations. The editor doesn’t see the intentions, he or she sees what exists between the capital letter and the ending punctuation – and all the accepted and agreed upon rules that apply to it.
The Speed Readers – When we first learn to read we observe and stop at each word. We search our memory bank for pronunciation and meaning and then we move on to the next word. At the end of the sentence we consider all the words together to discover the content. With practice and increased vocabulary our reading velocity increases. The familiar words are processed quickly and the only thing that slows us is the presentation of something unfamiliar. As our minds build the most basic constructs of the rules of grammar, the brain relies on those expectations and… being efficient… it no longer requires that we read each word. Most humans read only every third word in a sentence. Like the cube analysis, our eyes take in the whole and the brain uses context and patterns to create the meaning. This is why an author can review several pages, several times, and still find mistakes on future reads. An editor doesn’t care what was intended, he or she is looking at the construct to ensure it follows the rules and makes sense as is, not as we authors dreamt it to be. Even the best writer cannot “un-marry” himself from the work enough to be an effective self-editor.
I know exactly what you mean -The brain is like your mom, dad or closest friend. It is your partner during the comfortable silences. It knows exactly what you mean. It does not require long explanations and it understands you through even the simplest of gestures. Here is the famous Cambridge Study that makes the point:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
You don’t need an editor because you lack the intelligence, you need one because your brain is a highly efficient organic machine. As a writer, you are best served by borrowing another person’s highly efficient organic machine to focus on the words and the structure and to do so on a sentence by sentence basis. Even a great editor won’t catch every mistake, but they’ll catch far more than the writer will alone. And editors are like writers. They get better with practice and experience. So it’s not just a matter of a second set of eyes, it’s a matter of a trained second set of eyes.
If there is a single reason to use an editor than I say that it is this: Your name is going on the book and your legacy is within those pages. Your skills and ability will not be judged on your idea alone, but on the “whole” of the work, and as Henry Ford so aptly said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”