Sunday, July 17, 2011

Editing is hard

I’m a pretty smart guy. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. I have a PhD in computational biochemistry, which is, like, really hard, and stuff. I’ve also edited over a dozen scientific papers, and the most recent paper I wrote was accepted to one of the top journals in my field virtually without comment or correction. So I thought editing fiction would be pretty easy for me.

I was wrong.

Editing fiction is not the same as editing scientific papers. Not even close. For one thing, with scientific papers the bar is set pretty low. Many researchers don’t speak English as their first language, and as long as they can present their results with a basic level of coherence the paper usually gets accepted. The other option is to make it so convoluted and confusing that it’s published without comment because no one wants to admit they don’t understand it, but that’s a topic for a different time.

Regardless, the quality of the editing for creative writing is substantially more important. Because your work is in competition with all the other stories out there, and in the long run all the Tweets, Facebook likes, and 5-star reviews aren’t going to help you if your story reads like the literary equivalent of how sandals smell when you wear them too long without washing them.

You know that smell I’m talking about.

With the rise of “Indie” authors and the ability to bypass traditional publishing houses via Amazon and Smashwords, CreateSpace and Lulu, practically anyone can be a writer now at virtually no up-front cost to themselves. Which is why we’re seeing a deluge of wonderful, engaging stories hitting the markets from Indie writers.

So I think it’s time to start making a distinction between stories and books. Because I’ve seen a lot of great stories from Indie writers, but not a lot of great books. And at least in my mind, the difference between a good story and a good book is the editing.

And yes, I’m sure that there are a lot of really great books from Indie authors out there right now, but it’s hard to narrow down on the signal when there’s so much noise interfering, and often the best writers are not the best marketers.

One example I’ve found of a good book by an Indie author is The Well, by Peter Labrow. I bought his book after conversing with him on Twitter, and like so many others it has a great cover and plenty of 5-star reviews, but what sets it apart from the noise, what makes it a good book as opposed to merely a good story, is the editing.

I asked Peter about this (and I hope to interview him here soon) and he told me that he made the choice to take the long, hard road. Like me, Peter has experience with technical writing, but he realized that his eyes alone were not sufficient for the task. All told he went through ten revisions—and ten reviewers—before handing it to a professional editor. And the end results reflect that. Peter himself told me that aside from the technical and grammatical details, the book would’ve been much more shallow and naïve if he hadn’t gone through this process.

With this in mind, I took Jeremy Bates up on his generous offer for a free review of the first two pages of manuscript I’m currently working on, a high fantasy novella entitled The Heroes of Mithal. You can see the original version with his edits on his blog, Jeremy Bates Books, here. I’ve posted the revised version here. The difference is like night and day. And yes, you may argue that it’s still not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than what it was originally.

So I guess what I’m trying to say here is that editing is hard, but it’s totally worth doing. And no matter how good you think you are, you probably do need to get someone else to do it.

[Update: Have a look at Peter Labrow's own thoughts on the revision process: Revision - the agony and the ecstasy]


  1. I totally agree! You can tell the difference and it's crucial to selling your book!

  2. Everyone has a story to tell and a book to write. The problem is, no one's going to read it if it's not coherent. Most of the readers lose interest in the first chapter or even less than that. So why not have your book edited or polished by a competent editor before it's published? It's one step people often overlook and one step they shouldn't skip.

  3. If anyone is looking for an editor, Sirra offers professional services. You can find more information here:

  4. Can I have her as my editor instead of you?

  5. Hello! I revisited your post because, for one thing, it is a nice read and informative. I hope you the best with your book!

  6. Andy. This is a great post and one that every indie writer should read and apply! It is so true!

    I enjoy reading self-published writers and to encourage them in what they do. But there are so many out there that only want to be called author, and don't really care about the readers.

    There are also those, like Peter who do it right. Most of us know we can’t do it like a well-known novelist- They have many who read and proof read, edit and copy edit. Not just once but multiple times. Even then there are a few mistakes.

    As writers, novelist, we must do the best we can for the readers. That means have our works edited to raise the reputation of indie writers!

    It can't be said enough! Thank you