It's never fun to read a critical review, but even worse than a reader who simply didn't like your book is the critique that says something like "And on top of it the typos and punctuation errors on almost every page really made me cringe." How can this be when we pour hours and hours revising and editing, running spell check and combing through our manuscript searching for mistakes?
I liken it to housekeeping. Ever walk into someone's house and think, "Oh, my, how many dog/cats do they have?" Walk into your own house, though, and you are far more likely to overlook the dishes in the sink or the Eau de Fluffy because, hey, it's your house and you clean on Sundays and it's only Friday, right? Same with your manuscript, which you know by heart. You know you meant "you're" not "your." But without a fresh set of eyes, one that doesn't already know every plot twist, you will miss things and people will notice. This is where an editor comes in handy. Even if you don't plan to self publish, an editor can be an invaluable tool along with your critique partner and beta readers, in getting your manuscript in the best shape possible.
Let's define some terms. I conferred with fellow Floridian and freelance editor Becky Stephens to help understand the different types of editing services a writer may use. (Disclosure: portions of the information provided by Becky appeared on my blog earlier this month in an interview format, so I am using quotation marks to ensure her comments are properly attributed) "Although the terms can vary from publisher to publisher and editor to editor, generally speaking, the 'copyedit' editor ensures that the prose is smooth and the style consistent. She provides line edits with the focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, verb tense, word repetition and usage, and all the minute things."
But, you say, in the word processing age, won't the almighty spell check will catch all my mistakes? "No. The word processor’s spellcheck is never enough. It can't differentiate between “your” and “you’re” or to spot “in” when “it” was correct, for example." This is where your beta readers comes in handy. And speaking of beta readers, if you use them in lieu of a professional edit, ask yourself what you expect from them. "Do they read simply for overall plot? Will they spot an inconsistency, such as a character walking barefoot on a cold floor, but suddenly is wearing shoes two pages later? Will your betas notice the missing or incorrect punctuation before the closing quotation mark in front of a dialogue tag? If you aren’t 100% sure they will spot these types of things, consider bringing an editor on board."
Back to defining terms. "A 'content edit' (also known as a developmental or substantive edit) starts with the editor helping an author develop ideas. In the case where a manuscript is already completed, a substantive edit is a significant restructuring of a manuscript. The content editor helps an author organize, sharpen, and tighten a manuscript so that the characters and dialogue are believable, the plot is coherent, and the setting appropriate."
So, the big question. How much is this going to set me back? According to Becky, the rates vary considerably from modest to budget busting. Do your homework. The ranges of common editorial rates set by the Editorial Freelancers Association will give you guidance on what to expect.
Once you decide you want to hire an editor, how do you find the one that's right for you? Ask yourself these questions: "Are you looking for someone who follows all the rules laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style, an editor who is willing to bend–or even break–the rules, or someone somewhere in between? What you want is an editor who meshes with your style and genre(s). Don’t hire the first editor that pops up on a Google search. Talk to other authors. Ask your author friends and their friends for references. Find a Facebook group or Goodreads group where you can inquire about editors. Authors who are happy with their editors are willing to brag about them. It’s up to you to do your research. Once you find a few potential editors, get in touch. Ask about her portfolio, what genres she is most passionate about, whether she specializes in content or copy editing, and about her other clients. Due diligence on your part is critical."
I was curious what are the most common mistakes/problem areas that editors see. The winner is: Incorrect dialogue tags and punctuation. Becky provided these examples:
“Maggie, darling. You’re here!” Jonathan cried out. In this case, because the dialogue tag says he cried out, the exclamation point is overkill. A comma is all that is needed.
“Jonathan,” Maggie breathed. In the example above, an incorrect dialogue tag is used. Breathed is a body function, not a dialogue tag. Maggie probably whispered his name.
I admit it. I've had characters "shrug" words. I've used all caps in dialogue. Everyone occasionally messes up putting a comma instead of a period. But with the assistance of an eagle-eyed editor, the world never has to know we didn't get it right the first time.