Sunday, 19 January 2014

Can an Author Self Edit?

The general rule among the writing community is that an author should always hire a professional editor. This rule is strictly adhered to by many successful indie authors and ignored by many unsuccessful indie authors, who have been lambasted for the appalling quality of their work. Does this then mean that the rule is concrete; set in stone? No, it does not, and I will explain why.

First of all, I will address the subject of the enormous body of poorly edited rubbish that is out there. The mistake made by these authors is not that they failed to hire a professional editor. The mistake is that they chose to publish at all. Anybody can write and I would encourage all to do so. Not everyone, however, can write well. If you want to make money from something, I think that ability is definitely a prerequisite to any such venture. As stated in previous posts, lawyers are experts in the law, doctors are experts in medicine, and a writer needs to be an expert in writing. There are no shortcuts to this. A writer should have a significantly superior grasp of style and grammar than any non-writer (most readers are not professional writers). If a writer cannot produce a piece of work that is consistent, coherent and free of problematic errors, then that writer has no business asking people to pay for their work.

This brings us back to the rule: an author should always hire a professional editor. Can this be broken? In order to answer this, we must not address the rule directly, but take a look at the reasoning behind the rule. Why should authors not self edit? I have given this a lot of thought and the answer comes down to objectivity or a lack thereof. As authors, we are too close to our work. The story is so well defined in our minds that it is very easy to see things in a read through that are simply not there. Likewise, we are not aware of our most troublesome habits, but to an objective reader they can become all too apparent and even annoying. Sometimes, annoying enough to put down the book before they have finished.

The question that we now need to ask ourselves is whether a writer can ever approach his or her work objectively. I think that they can, but it takes time. A lot of time. One cannot have it all. This can most effectively be expressed in the form of a triangle, as below.

All writers want to produce work of the highest quality. They also want to be as productive as they can be, which, of course, means sticking to tight time frames. Lastly, they do not want to have to spend too much money in achieving their goals. We are, after all, in this business to make a profit. To examine these factors more closely, I will refine the labels in order to directly match a writer's goals.


We want to produce a book well, we want to produce it quickly, and we want to produce it cheaply. Unfortunately, we cannot have it all. We must choose just TWO of the above. It can be any two. The only catch is that we absolutely cannot achieve the one that we leave out.
  • If you want to produce a quality product in a short time frame, it is not going to be cheap. It costs a lot of money as this is when you must hire an editor, proof reader, formatter etc.
  • If you want to produce a low cost (or even no-cost) product, but maintain a high standard of quality, it cannot be rushed. When an author goes sit alone, it is going to take time. A lot of time.
  • If however, you merely want to get your book out there as quickly and cheaply as possible, you can do this, but the quality will suffer dramatically. It will be a steaming turd, no doubt about it.
We can now see where different writers fit into this triangle. The prolific indies, who release their books quicker than the rest of us change the page on our calenders, are spending a lot of money on professionals to make sure that their work achieves the highest standard of quality. They are also bloody good writers, because an editor, no matter how adept, cannot turn a frog into a prince.

Then we have the less prolific authors, who self edit and maybe only release one book a year (or fewer). To achieve the required objectivity to self edit, they must put aside their manuscript for a period of many months and move directly onto the next. When they return to perform the editing duty they find that their book now has a vaguely unfamiliar feel to it. It is as if it were written by another. They can now approach it with a degree of objectivity.

The last group are those who fit the description I gave at the beginning of this post. Those who never should have published in the first place. These are the ones who dispense with the editing altogether. Ultimately, they will pay the price as their ill reputation spreads among readers.

So that is what I think about the editing process. The most important factor being whether we choose to spend our time or spend our money. Professionals are not cheap, but they get the job done quickly. Self editing costs nothing in monetary terms, but takes time. A lot of time. As well as the lengthy rest period, a self editor will need to do many more read-throughs than the professional editor if they are to do as good a job, but it is possible*.

* I should add that although hiring a professional editor is not essential, having the manuscript checked by others for errors is. Whether it be friends, family or a team of independent beta readers, all manuscripts must be proofread by somebody other than the author. The more, the better.

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