Every writer --whether newbies or veterans suffering acute crisis-of-confidence issues-- has wondered: do I need outside editing help to whip my book into publishable shape? Below is an e-mail I received from just such a writer, and the advice I provided. Was I wrong? You tell me, and I'll pass it along. --Earl Merkel .
--Original e-mail-- From: D. (name deleted on advice of E.Merkel's attorney) . To: Earl Merkel (e-addr withheld because I'm not insane) .
Sent: Sun, Sep 27, 2009 7:18 pm .
Subject: Author needing advice .
Hello Mr. Merkel My name is D.(deleted). I am looking for some advice. I have recently completed a novel. (Author name) and (another Author name) have read it, and have given me some excellent suggestions. Most of those suggestions fall within the bounds of my abilities. There is a point, however, that does not. Proof reading! This is something that is very very difficult for me. I've tried most of the techniques out there, reading backwards, short intense periods of focused concentration, I've gone through the entire manuscript word for word, crossing out each word individually as I go. I still miss things. I would very much like to get this project on it's feet, so I am investigating professional proof readers. I did message (Author No. 1) about this. He gave me the benefit of his experience, but also suggested that I ask you for your advice.
- I have a lot of question. The services I looked at on line focused in on non-fiction. They were all about business proposals, technical papers, that kind of thing, I didn't know what they would do with something artistic. Are there services for fiction writers, with large manuscripts?
- It's occurred to me that perhaps this is something best handled by individuals, not services. If that's the case, do you know or can you recommend someone?
- How does one proof the proofer? I spent a lot of time gluing words together in very odd non traditional ways. That's my charm, or at least it's the delusion that keeps fuel in the tank. Is there a "get to know you" period with a proof reader. Does the proofer look at what your work and decided if they can get behind it. Would it be appropriate to ask see for things they've worked on?
- What can I expect to be charged for this service?
- What would be a normal turn around time? I'm sure that depends on the work load of the individual, but I'm pushing to get this thing done. Is there a rule of thumb?
What have I missed? Is there any facet I'm not seeing? Any input on this subject would be greatly appreciated. All The Best D. .
--Reply from EMerkel-- Sept. 29, 2009 .
Hey, D. -- good to hear from you. Congrats on the completion of your m/s, even if it's still in-progress with getting it into final form.
You pose some interesting questions. Certainly, there are proofreading services available... and they'll almost always do a good job of picking up misspellings, transpositions, and (if they're working to an established stylebook) errors of grammar or usage (again, in accord with the aforementioned stylebook). Generally, they work on a per-hour or per-page -basis... and nope, they generally won't ask to evaluate the manuscript before taking on the job; for proofreaders, it's just another job. The faster you need it done, the more it will cost; for more on costs, see below.
But there are a couple of problems with using proofreaders for a book such as one you describe:
1) As Tom Wolfe (the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test TW, not the Look Homeward, Angel -guy) discovered, being non-traditional in one's writing style and usage generally befuddles proofreaders; unless you pepper the manuscript with an ungodly number of paren'ed "SIC" ("statement/spelling is correct"), you'll spend days marking "STET" ("let it stand as previously written") on the multitude of "correx" they mark. It's far from productive, and annoying as hell for a writer. Proofing the proofreader thus becomes as much work as proofing it yourself (pre-submission to a prospective agent or publisher) and telling the prospective agent or publisher's acquiring editor (the one you or your no-longer-prospective agent have submitted it to) that "all the non-traditional stuff herein is there on purpose to get the response from readers that I anticipated when I wrote the stuff that way." Of course, unless you are Tom Wolfe (or James Joyce, or Henry James. or maybe Buck Henry) non-traditional usage pisses off publishers anyway, which risks a too-prompt form-letter rejection from editors who are overworked and unsympathetic-to-anything-we-can't-easily-pitch-to-Barnes&Noble's-purchasing-rep. (Whew; long sentence, eh? But you clearly see the problem here, no?)
2) By definition, proofreaders tend to work from source material (usually, a manuscript already edited-to-perfection) to make sure the first-typeset galley (the typeset "proof", which is then used to lay out the pages of a book) is a perfect reflection of the m/s. While detail-oriented to a degree comparable to your average institutionalized obsessive-compulsive psychotic, proofreaders generally aren't really "editors" (who are assumed to be able to discern a writer's individual style and are supposed to be able -- at minimum -- to make intelligent margin-notes when the manuscript/author's intention isn't clear to them). Proofreaders don't question authorial intent (and, even if they're not yet institutionalized, you probably wouldn't want 'em to, anyway); rather, they're fixated on catching typos. When you intentionally include what could be seen as typos... well, re-read comment No. 1.
3) All that said, you may be looking for an independent book editor (i.e., not a publisher's employee; don't expect a publisher to "shape up" an author's m/s, unless you already have a Bookscan tally rivaling Tom Clancy's) from a service, or a freelancer. I've not used either, but I have talked to people who have. Some were satisfied with the editing (which included content suggestions, as well as proofing of typos), many were less so... but virtually all of them were daunted by what they termed "outlandish" costs. I don't know what the market bears these days, but one writer told me several years ago that the editor she used charged a bit under a thousand dollars for a 380-page m/s. Seemed excessive to me... and as of the last time I spoke to her, no publishing house had bought her book anyway. Rather a thin ROI for the money involved, I feel.
4) But if you're only interested in proofing for errors-- well, have you asked your spouse/ best friend/ people at work/ mother to "look it over for mistakes"? (Okay-- strike that about giving it to your mother for proofing; you'll only end up discovering she either loves you way too much, or nowhere near enough). I've heard myths about people enlisting members of their writing group for this kind of proofing work (I'd suggest one chapter to one member, another chapter to another, etc.)-- though, like all mythical stories, the origin thereof is strictly hearsay and (I suspect) wishful thinking. Can't hurt to try, tho.
I guess I'd sum it all up by saying: okay, proofreading isn't your strong suit. Mine neither, and I suspect a poll of most writers would prove neither of us atypical. But whether ADD is a factor or not, if you're serious about getting your project done --and not inclined to spend a fortune on dubious outside "professional" support-- you have to suck it up and just DO it yourself. Again, and again --one paragraph, even one sentence, at a time-- and probably go over it again-again. You say you've already done this... but, of course, that's why I just invented the term "again-again" (copyright E.L. Merkel 2009).
And know that even after all that, there will still be a few errors in the m/s you send to an agent or publisher. Not to worry; if the content / storyline is compelling, a handdfull of typoz wont' mater. If they love your book, they'll hire their own damn proofreader.
I wish I could have been more encouraging about actually answering the questions you asked, much less actually solving the problem you posited. But if this crazy profession we've chosen was easy, everybody would be writing a book-- each of 'em, perfectly spelled and punctuated.
Best of luck, and don't quit.