After our third grade teacher assigned the class an essay to write, I remember little Billy Davis and asking her, "Does spelling count?" Billy Davis was still asking the same question our senior year of high school. Some teachers said "yes" and others said "no," but let me let you in on a little secret:
In the real world, spelling counts.
I'm going to be brutally honest in this section, so I'll apologize in advance. The fact of the matter is, books riddled with spelling and grammatical errors make the author look lazy and dumb. Repeated errors can make people put down even the greatest of stories, and prevent people from buying your next book. Sorry, that's just the way it is.
Pick up the book nearest to you and quickly flip through it, looking for typos. If you're looking at a legitimately published book, odds are you won't find one. That's not to say every book is perfect -- they're definitely not, and the more you read the more little things you'll spot, but those errors are definitely the exception to the rule. If you are planning on submitting something to a publisher or are publishing it yourself, your writing should be as error free as possible. That's where editing comes in.
There are two major editing categories: grammatical and logical.
Grammatical errors consist of spelling errors and structure errors. Don't you wish you had paid more attention in high school right about now?
Thanks to computers and word processors, flat-out typos aren't as common as they used to be. If you type the word "spellling" into Microsoft Word it will automatically change it to "spelling." In fact, it does it so quickly you might not even notice the swap. If you type "speeling" instead, the program won't correct it -- instead, it underlines the word in red, letting you know that you have a problem. If you are unsure how to spell an underlined word correctly, right-click the word and several suggestions will be presented to choose from.
This advance in technological solves one problem but introduces a another: incorrect words. If you're not paying attention, word processors may suggest the wrong word, or worse, swap one in for you when you're not paying attention. Here's a classic example. Back in college, every time my friend Chebon Levi would turn in a newspaper article, our word processor would change his name to Cheekbone Levee. Each time he would turn in an article, I (as the editor) would have to go back and change his name. Wouldn't you know it, I missed it one time, and sure enough the paper went to print with a photograph attributed to Cheekbone Levee on the front page.
Along with spelling, you may have errors in your sentence structure. Examples of this include when your subject and verb don't agree, starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending with a preposition, and all those other things you learned from Schoolhouse Rock back in the day. Technical errors include things like whether to place a period inside or outside of quotation marks (inside) and starting a new paragraph when changing speakers. Your word processor may detect some of these things but it won't catch all of them all of the time.
From experience I can tell you that the suggestions word processors make are not always correct. Most of them use simple algorithms to determine whether or not a sentence is correct, and sometimes they get confused. Their suggestions are often good advice, but keep in mind that they are not the law. It's okay to break the rules -- occasionally.
As a writer, logical errors are often difficult to find in your own writing. While writing Commodork I realized I had included half a dozen stories featuring my friend Justin long before I had ever properly introduced him to readers. I certainly know who my friend Justin is -- we've been friends a long time, after all -- but that information doesn't magically find its way into readers minds!
The problem with logic errors is that, as writers, we already know the story, which makes it difficult to find things that have been left out or placed in the wrong order. These same errors will jump out at someone unfamiliar with your story. That's why it's so nice to have friends willing to proofread your work. In the first draft of Invading Spaces I referenced a story a couple of times that I had inadvertently left out of the book! My dad caught that error early on and I was able to seamlessly paste the original story back into my work.
When it comes to editing, you have three basic choices: you can edit your writing yourself, you can have your friends help you, or you can pay an actual editor. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these. (By the way, Microsoft Word is requesting that I change the word "friends" in this paragraph to "friend's," which is obviously not correct.)
Editing your own work is a tempting yet dangerous option. Note that I'm not talking about proofreading your work before sending it to someone else to look at -- everybody should do that. By "editing your own work," I mean that you will be the only person to see your work before it lands in the hands of your readers.
There are a couple of obvious upsides to editing your own work. First of all, no one has a more vested interest in your book looking good than yourself, therefore it goes to reason that no one will put more time or energy into proofing your own work than you will. Also, editing your own book is free. You don't have to worry about burdening your friends or being embarrassing over silly mistakes if you do it yourself.
The problem is, it's unlikely that you will find every single error on your own -- in fact, I almost guarantee it. Instead of being embarrassed because your friends found a typo, you'll end up with the world finding it for you, and that's not good. One thing self-editors always seem to miss is mismatched tenses. I know that while writing Commodork I found that half of my stories were told in present tense and the other half were told in past tense. I didn't catch it after multiple readings, but all my proofreaders spotted it immediately.
Another problem with self-editing is that you are less likely to cut things that need to be cut. Without fail, you will write things that need to be cut out of the final draft. This could be small things, like a repeated word, or larger things, like a character, or a subplot, or an entire chapter. (It happens.) As writers our words are valuable and it's hard for us to see what needs to be cut out of our own work. These types of decisions are simple for an external editor to do. You don't have to follow every piece of advice an outside editor give you, but it sure is nice to receive it.
If you do plan on editing your own work, my advice is to wait a day or two between writing and editing. You will be surprised at how different your own writing looks to you after a bit of time as passed.
Having your friends help you edit also has advantages and disadvantages. As I'm sure you've heard before, having two sets of eyes look at something is always better than one. The more people that read your drafts, the more feedback you will get. And, unless they're really greedy, most of your friends will help you edit for free, so you're still not out any money.
Here are the four major problems I have found with using friends as editors.
The first is, your friends are (most likely) not professional editors. That's not to say that their input won't be valuable, and it most likely will be, but there are things they may miss that a professional editor might find. A professional editor is also more likely to know things about the current market than your friends.
The second problem is, your friends will most likely read your draft for content. When I sent the first draft of Commodork out to several friends, the response I got back from them was "Great book!" While the praise was encouraging, it didn't help me improve my work. I got the most valuable feedback from my wife and my dad; for my second book, I skipped everybody else and just used them.
The third problem you may encounter is that your friends may not feel comfortable providing honest feedback. You may think your book about a slime creature from outer space with a million eyeballs who kills its prey by lulling it to sleep with country ballads is the greatest idea ever, but even if your friends don't think so, some of them may be reluctant to tell you so.
The last problem you are likely to run into is that you will get several volunteer editors who will not edit your book. Some volunteers are only interested in reading your work for free. Some have good intentions but are busy and won't get around to it. And again, some will not want to hurt your feelings when it comes to making suggestions. I ran into all these things personally, and you probably will, too. I sent out the first draft of Commodork to half a dozen people and heard back from two of them. The people I didn't heard back from had good intentions, but the fact is, asking someone to find the time to read a novel and provide feedback takes a lot of time and work, and a lot of your friends won't realize just how much time it involves until after they've started.
If your friends do help you edit your book, be sure to thank them by name in your book and provide them with a free copy once it is released. Copy editing really is a thankless job.
Your third option is hiring an editor. The immediate downside to hiring an editor is that it is not free. A quick check of Craigslist turned up the following rates: "$2/page", "$5/page", "$20/hour", "$20/1000 words", and so on. As you can see, prices vary greatly. The reason prices vary greatly is, so does their experience and quality of work. Most editors have websites with references of things they've written or edited. Check it out -- if the writing stinks, seriously reconsider handing them money.
Along with checking references, be sure to find out just how long it will take your editor to look over your manuscript, and what types of feedback they will provide.
CUTTING THE FAT
The best works of prose are those with no fat. Make every word count. If a word isn't doing anything, get rid of it. It's easy to get in the habit of using specific phrases over and over: "to be sure", "for example", "in other words", and so on. Cut those phrases. They're fat. They don't add anything to your work. (I'm sure there are plenty of them in these articles that I should go cut right now!) A sculptor wouldn't leave an extra blob of stone sticking off of his latest creation. Streamline your word. Cut away every last speed bump; sand down every last bit of stubble until your fiction flows without friction.