Editing Nightmares

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Bobbi 2016by Barbara Florio Graham

I don’t review many books, but recently a friend  approached me. He needed a review for his local newspaper in advance of several book signings.

A retired civil servant who worked in planning and administration, he was so eager to get his first novel published that he ignored my warnings about pay-to-publish companies and took the book to a company that promises a quick turnaround.

He thought paying $5/book for 250 copies of a 225-page trade paperback a good value, as he could sell the book for $15-20.

Most SPAWN members would’ve asked key questions before proceeding. We would have insisted on having our own ISBN, that the book contain contact info for the author (not the so-called “publisher”), and on examining the credentials of the editor.

This particular company has been operated locally for many years. Despite horror stories from authors whose names have been misspelled on the back cover (!), pages (and in one case, an entire chapter) being transposed, and other astounding mistakes, they keep reeling in first-time authors eager to see their book in print, lured by what seem like reasonable costs.

The man whose book I reviewed had a friend who created a great cover design, so the book looked promising, but one glance inside alarmed me.

Like so many of these quasi-publishers, this particular company’s in-house editor provides standard layout without any correction of typos, spelling or grammar mistakes, missing words, or any other errors.

Here’s a brief summary of the problems I found:

1. Full justification without adjusting the typeface to reduce hyphenation at the end of lines:

As most of you know, achieving full justification means you have to either hyphenate many words (which really annoys readers!) or use a proportional font that gives different letters more space.

Since this book is fiction, I would have preferred a ragged right, which is easier to read and would have eliminated the hyphenation problem.

2. Paragraphing:

This book contains indented paragraphs followed by a double space. This is mixing styles! Either indent paragraphs (more common in fiction) or double-space between paragraphs, not both.

The addition of extra spaces in this book caused it to use more pages. That allowed the company to charge more (for more pages), and it also cheats readers into thinking they’re getting 225 full pages when in reality the text is quite a bit shorter.

3. End marks and dashes:

This book didn’t include the now obsolete double spaces after end marks, but I’ve seen other books published by this company that had “rivers” running down the pages!

Many phrases that should’ve been enclosed within commas or parentheses were, instead, separated by dashes.

4. Lack of consistency:

The book I reviewed contained a great deal of dialog. That really helped propel the plot forward, but there was no consistency in how quotations were handled. In some cases, each quotation appeared in its own paragraph, which works well unless there are a great many brief replies. When that happens, the reader is annoyed by many short paragraphs containing just, “Yes,” she agreed, or “I don’t think so.”

Instead, it’s better to handle this kind of exchange by including only key dialog, indicating brief responses in the narrative. For example, after one character delivers a paragraph of explanation, the author can then say that the other person kept nodding her head in agreement, or that he continued to shake his head “no.”

It’s also important not to add additional line spacing after quotations, and to follow the convention of punctuation, by starting each paragraph of a long quotation with opening quotation marks, but not closing quotation marks until the entire passage is complete.

The editor’s job is to make it easier for the reader to absorb the information. Anything that interferes with that needs to be corrected.

Consistency is also essential when it comes to tenses. It’s both annoying and confusing when the author switches from past to present tense, or fails to use the past-perfect to indicate long-past actions or situations.

The reader needs to know that: “We are pursuing this option, as we always have, and continue to follow the precedent set by previous executives who had ended each of these attempts with quick action.”

It’s also acceptable to shorten this to: “We are pursuing this option, as always, and follow the precedent set by previous executives who ended each of these attempts with quick action.”

What confuses the reader is: “We pursue this option, and had always done that.”

The author whose book I reviewed switched from present to past within the same chapter, which made it difficult for the reader to understand the sequence of events.

The author needs to decide whether a character (or a person being described) should be revealed as having a specific speaking style, accent, or mannerisms.

If a character is depicted as a poorly-educated manual worker, he shouldn’t have the sophisticated vocabulary of a Yale graduate. Similarly, teen-age slang shouldn’t be put in the mouth of a librarian, and a factory worker shouldn’t describe his financial situation in terms only an accountant would understand.

If the author doesn’t correct this, it’s up to the editor to point it out.

Descriptions need to be plausible as well. Don’t you cringe when you note that a woman escaping from a car hijacking in a movie appears in the next scene wearing a jacket and carrying a purse? Where did those come from? Didn’t we see her in a t-shirt with her hands in the air?

A good editor will notice if the bad guy has a gun in one scene then is tackled with ease by a young boy. What happened to the gun?

Some authors who have written many documents for their job or have had articles accepted by magazines and newspapers think they don’t need an editor.

Big mistake! Even very experienced authors need someone to take a careful look at the manuscript before it’s formatted.

Those attempting fiction for the first time should hire a substantive editor—one who will help shape revisions of the book so it might be accepted by an agent or a major publisher.

If self-publishing is the goal, the book still needs an editor, one who will not only copy-edit to correct obvious typos, spelling, and grammatical errors, but who’ll look for the other trouble spots I’ve indicated in this article.

As a publishing consultant, I often work with new authors who want me to help them find a publisher. Before I guide them through the very specific book-proposal process, I often make suggestions about how the book might be improved.

The last two authors I worked with rewrote the first chapters of their books after I pointed out that their stories began with too much background detail. That’s a common first-author mistake, and it is easily corrected.

Readers want to get into the story right away, and uncover the backstory later.

The new author I’m currently mentoring has crafted a fine book. It has an engaging plot, strong characters, and a clever premise. She writes well, but has welcomed my suggestions about stepping the book up to the next level. With my help she’s adding layers of suspense to this mysterious tale, deepening the connection between characters, and figuring out how to handle details her first readers (beta readers) have questioned.

First readers? That’s another step every author has to take. It’s too late to ask your friends to review your book after it’s already in print. You need their reactions, questions, and criticisms while it’s still in manuscript form.

Rushing to publish is always a mistake. Take your time to make it right.


Barbara Florio Graham is an author and publishing consultant. The author of three books, Five Fast Steps to Better Writing (20th-anniversary edition), Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity, and the award-winning Mewsings/Musings, she served as managing editor for Prose to Go: Tales from a Private List, which is now available as an e-book for just $4.99. Her website, contains a great deal of free information, including resources for writers and publishers.

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