If I haven’t mentioned it before, I am a novelist. I write obsessively with a view to achieving a publishing contract, six figure advance and lots of international travel. Who doesn’t? I am also a realist. I consider myself to be a competent writer with good ideas and an ability to put them on to the page in something resembling the correct order. My grammar is good and my spelling is excellent, why would I possibly need a proofreader or copy-editor? The good ones cost a fortune, money spent before you have a penny back from sales of your book. And that’s assuming you sell any.
This was my view, until I realised that unless I wanted to starve while my book found a publisher, I was going to need a second income. Then I began training as a proofreader and copy-editor. Two of the first lessons I learnt were:
1. Everyone who is published by a traditional publishing house uses proofreaders and copy-editors. Whether you are JK Rowling or Jane Doe publishing her first book, your publisher will have your work edited and proofread.
2. You can’t edit or proofread your own work.
Q: So why do publishers accept the expense of editing and proofreading? A: To ensure that the work that is published in their name is as good as it can possibly be, free of the majority of errors and the reader can enjoy a well produced book and aren’t distracted by poor spelling, grammar and layout.
The Society for Editors and Proofreaders defines copy-editing as:
‘A copy-editor makes sure that an author’s raw text, or copy, is correct in terms of spelling and grammar and is easy to read so that readers can grasp his or her ideas. A copy-editor also tries to prevent embarrassing errors of fact, alerts the publisher to any possible legal problems and ensures that the typesetter can do a good job.’
And a proofreader as:
‘After material has been copy-edited the publisher sends it to a designer or typesetter. Their work is then displayed or printed, and that is the proof that it is ready for publication. Proofreading is the quality check and tidy up.’
A copy editor will also look at:
- Suitability of text for intended audience
- Content and structure
- Sentence and paragraph length
- Illustrations and tables
- Legal issues and Technical matters
Attempting to do these jobs on your own work isn’t sensible. You are too close to the material, you have spent too many months or years writing, to be objective. No matter how many times you read through your own work you will miss errors. You read what you expect to be there, the words that you are sure you wrote, not necessarily the words that are on the page.
Every year agents receive tens of thousands of submissions of novels, works of non-fiction and poetry, the vast majority, if you are fortunate, will have the first few pages read and then a polite rejection letter will be sent out. Many will hear nothing at all.
The time and effort that goes into writing a novel or non-fiction book is prodigious. That accomplishment deserves recognition and the opportunity to be enjoyed by the widest possible audience. To achieve the success that is deserved your work needs to be as good as it is possible to make it. Error free, grammatically correct and relevant to the audience you want to attract.
Go the extra mile and invest in your achievement, good copy-editing and proofreading will pay dividends whether you choose to go the traditional route and approach an agent or be in charge of your own destiny and self-publish.