I can still remember hearing the voices of my elementary school classmates asking, "Does spelling count?" after each writing assignment we received. Sometimes they would say yes and sometimes they would say no, but let me let you in on a little secret:
In the real world, spelling counts.
Some of you may find my frankness in this section bordering on rude; for that I apologize in advance. The fact of the matter is, if your book is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors then you will look like an idiot and no one will read it. Sorry, that's just the way it is.
Pick up the book nearest to you and quickly flip through it, noting all the typos that immediately jump out at you. If you're looking at a legitimately published book, my guess is 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 exceptions 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 basically 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, the program will automatically change it to "spelling." In fact, it does it so quickly you might not even notice the swap. If you type "speeling," the program won't correct it -- instead, it underlines the word in red, letting you know that you have a problem. If you right-click the word, several suggestions will be presented and you can choose the correct one.
This technological advancement solves one problem (misspellings) but introduces a new one: incorrect words. If you're not paying attention, word processors may suggest the wrong word, or worse, swap one in when you're not paying attention. Here's a classic example. Back in college, every time a friend of mine named 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 back. Wouldn't you know it, I missed it once and the next week's paper had an article on the front page attributed to "Cheekbone Levee."
From experience I can tell you for a fact that word processors are not always correct. Most of them use simple algorithms to determine whether or not a sentence is correct, and they're not all that hard to fool. Their suggestions are often good advice, but keep in mind that they are not the law. It's okay to break the rules -- occasionally.
Aside from spelling, you also have sentence structure errors, and technical errors. Sentence structure errors are things like not including a subject and a verb in your sentence, starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending one with a preposition, and so on (all the things you should have 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), starting a new paragraph when changing speakers, and so on. Your word processor may detect some of these things but it won't catch all of them.
As a writer, logical errors are very difficult to find in your own. Several times throughout my book Commodork, I mentioned my friend Justin. After reading a finished draft of the book, my wife turned to me and said, "Who's Justin?" Who's Justin? I introduced him right here on page ... where is it, it's right ... huh. I guess I never introduced him to the readers. Whoops!
The problem with logic errors is that, as the writer, you know the story; therefore, it's very difficult to find things that have been left out, or put in the wrong order. Logic errors will jump out at someone unfamiliar with your work, and 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 one early on and I was able to cut and paste it seamlessly 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 are the only person to see your document before you send it off to be published.
There are a couple of obvious upsides to editing your own work. First of all, no one has a more vested interest in your work 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. The other upside to editing your own work is, it's 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, chances are you won't find everything -- in fact, I would 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 a good thing. One thing self-editors always seem to miss is mismatched tenses. I know that while writing Commodork, much of the book was in present tense and many of the stories jumped into past tense. I didn't catch it after multiple readings, and all my proofreaders spotted the error 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, whether they include unnecessary characters, plot points, or entire chapters. It happens. As a writer it's hard to see what needs to be cut and it's hard to delete your hard work. These are things an outside editor will see differently. 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 its advantages and disadvantages. As I'm sure you've heard before, having two sets of eyes is always better than one. The more people that read your drafts, the more feedback you will get. Typically speaking your friends will read your drafts and make corrections or suggestions for free, so you're still not out any money.
Here are the three major problems I have run into with using friends as editors.
The first is, your friends are (most likely) not professional editors. That's not to say that their input can not be valuable, and it most likely will be, but there are things that they will miss that a professional editor might find.
The second problem is, people who are your friends will most likely read your draft for content. I sent my first draft of Commodork to several people and the response I got back from some of 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 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. Some will not want to hurt your feelings when it comes to making suggestions. I ran into all these things personally, and you 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 read something like a novel and provide feedback takes a lot of time and work, and a lot of your friends won't realize that until it's too late.
If your friends do help you edit your book, be sure to thank every one of 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.
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.