A Question About Editing

Regina asks:

So, I have a serious question here, and forgive me if you’ve addressed it in a blog or something somewhere. Why do you think that there are so many badly- or un- proofread e-books? It seems to me that writers have so many more editing avenues these days. I’m reading this great, imaginative story right now, full of adventure and great characters, and I keep getting sucked out of the moment by spelling, homophone, and syntax errors. Lord knows, I’m no grammar police, but it makes me a little crazy! What do you think?

Good question, Regina. The reason for so many poorly edited books these days is the same reason so many bands you go see at small gigs have an instrument out of tune, an amplifier that doesn’t sound great, or a singer who is off-key. Respectively, each of these is a matter of professionalism, cost, and ability (amount of practice).

Reviews certainly help highlight books with and without problems so readers know ahead of time. Be sure to notice the books that are well edited, and reward the author by highlighting this fact for other readers. Or do what my editor did and email the author with suggestions. Or reach out and offer editing services. Freelancers are popping up everywhere, and they are both sorely needed and greatly appreciated. Many of us just don’t know any better as we set out. We’re all still learning.

This might not seem obvious at first, but some of the fault lies with our expectations as readers. Shakespeare couldn’t spell a word the same way twice in a single sentence. Back in the day, words were there to communicate ideas, not to align to some golden standard. There was no standard. It was left up to the writer. Punctuation didn’t even always exist. At one point, all the letters ran together. No spaces, no periods, no nothing! It was up to the reader to do the work and piece together the meaning.

So writers have indeed gotten lazy these days, but so have readers. We expect perfection. Not a hiss or pop of static or a missed note. Maybe we should train ourselves to read how people used to read: with a little effort. Not getting hung up on discrepancies of spelling and punctuation (which used to abound), but allowing the words, in all their variability, to form pictures in our heads.

This takes practice. It takes a different approach to grammar and spelling. You have to learn to see words the way we hear voices: with accents and drawls and occasional mispronunciations. I go back and forth between books written by US authors and UK authors, and the variability doesn’t bother me at all. It’s part of the voice. I see authors all the time who use semi-colons between dependent and independent clauses, which is technically correct, but I take their meaning, gather a deeper breath, and read on.

They are the ones leading me. It’s their dance. I can choose to fall in with a slightly different step and enjoy the diversity of experience, or I can approach reading the way we perform the electric shuffle, crying “That’s not perfectly right!” and wishing everyone felt the same.

But the primary onus is certainly on the writer. They should have respect for what they’re doing. But if I had to pick between a great storyteller who lacked precision of language and a perfect writer with no story to tell, I’d take the former every single time. We teach too much prose to writers and not enough plot. Plot is king. Prose is pawn.



50 responses to “A Question About Editing”

  1. I think this is a great question, and I love your response. I’m still trying to figure the punctuation things out. As a journalism major, AP was beat into me. And now my editor is trying to undo much of what I’ve always known. But I enjoy learning. And I’m with you, I’d choose being a great storyteller over being a perfect writer with no story to tell. (Not that I’m either yet.)

    1. T.K.,

      I write in AP style (I’m a journalist) and it drives my editor nuts. It is a tough adjustment!


      1. I’ve held exactly one job that required AP style writing and I despised it. Thankfully, I found another gig within a year, so it never became that ingrained. I feel for you both as you work your way out of those conventions!

  2. This is an interesting perspective! I used to be the kind of reader who rolled my eyes over every typo (and I can’t remember the last time I read a book from any publisher without at least one). I started to let go of that when I began publishing and realized that even when you have an editor, a proofreader, and several advance readers going through things with magnifying glass, typos and errors still slip through. I consider myself fortunate to be publishing in a way that allows me to go back and fix these slip-ups quickly and easily, and I try not to be so hard on others these days.

    I still can’t excuse lazy writing or not doing basic editing. If I have to read every other sentence twice because of awkward structure, homophone mix-ups, and errors like having multiple characters speaking in one paragraph, I’m going to put the book down. It’s not worth investing that much energy into it, and I shouldn’t have to if I’ve paid for a book to relax and enjoy. I can’t absorb the story if it’s badly told, even if it should be the most interesting book ever.

    But I’m trying to be less judgemental, and I’ve definitely learned to excuse the little quirks if they amount to nothing more than little speedbumps. :)

  3. Thank you for saying this. I like to equate the problem to movies, summer blockbusters especially. There are a certain group of people that can’t watch a big budget movie without picking them apart, and there are no doubt readers that are always going to do the same. No plot hole goes unnoticed, no continuity error escapes ridicule.

    Modern blockbusters are projects with hundreds (and sometimes thousands) or people working on them, multiple stages of quality control, etc. Some people have a hard time understanding how errors could slip through the cracks, while others have the ability to unplug, suspend disbelief, and enjoy the ride.

    I agree that an abundance of errors can pull you out of even the best story, but the occasional one is probably best glossed over. The story is what you bought when you picked up a book, the formatting, spelling, and grammar is just the delivery system. An audiobook contains the same story as the ebook, with none of the (visible) formatting or grammar.

    Writers need to still make every attempt to keep their prose on point (even hiringand editor or bribing friends with talent in that field), but as you said, a spectacularly edited, boring book is still a boring book. I’ve never read a review that stated, “The story was uninspiring, but it’s SO well formatted, and the editing! THE EDITING!!!” lol.

    1. Case and point?
      *even hiring ‘an’ editor


      1. Case in point

  4. Great article, Hugh!

    I agree with Regina that too many writers skimp the editing stage, and it hurts their book. That said, I also think that sometimes now readers hold indie authors to an even higher standard than some traditionally published books.

    I work with a fantastic editor (Evelyn Duffy of Open Boat Editing), who edits legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s books, among others. Even after her (very thorough) edit and a copyedit (and in the case of my latest book, ANOTHER round of copyediting from Amazon), occasionally you get people nitpicking something or broadly claiming there are errors without specifying what they are. Sometimes it really comes down to word choice by the author and it’s not an actual error.

    This is not to excuse books that don’t go through that editing process, which is vital. But as a reminder, it’s worth noting that even traditionally published books have mistakes in them. I was reading a NYT bestselling author the other day and came across a glaring mistake (it was something like “said told” after a quote, so obviously wrong.) Yet I didn’t see reviewers slamming the author for it, because most of us just accepted that it was a one-off mistake and didn’t reflect the overall quality of the work. Yet indie authors can get hammered for even that single mistake.

    Just something to keep in mind when reading a book, indie or otherwise. Mistakes happen. Too many and it’s a problem. One or two, and I’d join Elsa in singing, “Let it go.”

  5. I agree with Regina. You mention that the expectations of writers are much more stringent today than in days past, but that standard has been set, for better or worse (better). I want a great story told by an author with a respectable degree of competence using the chosen language. Running into a train wreck of grammatical errors makes me lose interest the story and reduces credibility of the author. If perfection is the new standard, perfection is what must be achieved. Rigorously polishing and editing a book before publishing is simply paying respect for the story and the readers.

  6. I agree, plot is king. However, typos, wrong use of words, and spelling/punctuation errors all weaken the overall enjoyment of the novel and credibility of the author and his/her reputation as much as plot holes. A good editor is worth the investment–says this content editor/reviewer/great reader.

  7. Hugh, you forgot to mention that one can find help with proof-reading by fellow members of a writer’s group. When I first published my book on Kindle, one of my fellow High Country Writers bought a copy and then emailed me a list of goofs I’d overlooked. I found more goofs myself when I went over the proof for my print copy, and together we tightened up the whole finished product (I gave her a free, signed copy of the print version as a thank-you). I’ve actually re-published the Kindle version three time, each version better edited and formatted than the prior. That fellow writer, and a couple other members of HCW, have offered to proof-read my next book when its ready. Writer groups don’t just help write; they also help you get published and provide valuable input with every step in between.

  8. When I read, I have an ever-sliding tolerance scale. It begins with the cover. If it seems at all homemade, we’re off to a shaky start. If there’s a blatant typo on page one, I sigh and begin to expect the worst—now distracted and on alert for problems.
    Otherwise, if I catch a typo 15 pages in, I go “hm” and move on. Another on page 30, another “hm.” Page 40, page 50, and that irritation/distraction sets in. If there are maybe five or six spread throughout the book, I shrug it off. But if they’re close enough together for me to remember the last typo, it does seem unprofessional and lazy, not “slipped through the cracks.”
    On the other hand, my then-eleven-year-old son read The Dig for the first time last year, almost four years after publication, and three revisions. He found a typo, and it was something super embarrassing for me like their/they’re/there and I was horrified imagining just how many people had caught that. I couldn’t post the new revision fast enough.
    Now I have another proofreader in my arsenal.

    1. Regina Belcher Avatar

      OMG! I loved “The Dig”!!! Seriously!

  9. I think readers are not so much lazy as used to something better. It’s not a horrible thing for readers to complain about grammar or spelling problems that make it hard to read, because it’s certainly true. (And not really applicable to say, a play, since that is spoken in the end…)

    I wouldn’t mind things like regional dialects, (or, really, pseudo-dialects… ALL written (or acted) dialog is unrealistic)) but for somebody used to reading quickly, glaring grammar and spelling mistakes stop me cold, and I have to back up to figure out what the author really meant.

    A few mistakes are okay (and virtually inevitable), but constant ones are just sloppy.

    There’s such a wealth of excellent, well-edited, books available, that my patience for those that make reading less pleasurable is not very great…

  10. There are readers who will forgive horrid syntax. You can publish your book with no editing and please those readers. But in my opinion, to do no editing at all (whether you do it yourself or hire someone) is doing your book a disservice. Because it’s not just about proper semicolon usage; it’s about getting your meaning across. It’s about clarity. And then it’s about flow and pacing. Proper semicolon usage and all those nitpicky bits… that’s way down the list of what you should be getting out of an edit (and many readers are forgiving of those things anyway).

    That said, there comes a point when editing gives you severely diminishing returns. There are some things I correct when I’m editing and I think to myself, “The only people who would even have noticed this in the first place are OTHER EDITORS.” My rare edits to Hugh’s writing are almost entirely like that, but I think it’s because he self-edits like crazy to begin with. If you can’t afford to hire an editor, I think doing those extra passes is a great idea.

    1. Listen to this guy. And hire him if he has the room. This is one of the best freelance editors in the biz, folks.

      1. No kidding, Hugh. I’ve read some of David’s anthologies and have no complaints on grammar or punctuation, and the stories are well-crafted.

        1. Completely agree with David. After all, we’re trying to deliver something to the reader that transcends the words on the page. but if the words on the page get in the way, the delivery is broken. I recently read a nonfiction indie book that was spot-on with quality of information, but had several outright spelling errors–the kind that any spellchecker would find (not homophones, but typos that result in non-words). It didn’t shake MY faith in the message, but it certainly might make credibility wobble for another reader.

          1. …and that was supposed to be a comma between “page” and “but” in the second sentence. Damn you, typos! :D

  11. I think your analogy holds up okay – I can say that, as a musician who knocked around some bar circuits back in my day, that there was as wide a variety of bar bands as there are of indie novels. There were some who just weren’t that talented but who *believed* they were good. There were some who were hampered by poor equipment but you could see the sparks there. There were a bunch (perhaps the majority) who took pride in their performances and critically assessed their own playing/singing and their ability to hold it together even while making $300.00 or less for their five hour gig that night (to be split between 4 or 5 musicians). There wasn’t enough money for a sound guy (analogous to a live performance editor?) or light guy or instrument techs who could tune guitars and fix stuff on the fly. I know for us (a five piece cover band) we tried really hard and our critics (the bar’s patrons) seemed to like us and follow us around for our eclectic set (we ran the gamut from The Cure to Dwight Yoakum with all the stops in between) and our sound. Sorta like an indie author, who might not be able to afford even a hundred bucks for an editor or a really good cover but puts a lot of time into making things as good as he/she can under the circumstances of his/her reality…

    1. Regina Belcher Avatar

      Totally true analogy. Art is art, isn’t it? I also cringe when someone hits a sour note vocally… More OCD…

  12. “Plot is king. Prose is pawn.” That is a brilliant line. Great post!

  13. As a new author who has struggled with finding a good editor I am bit surprised at those who seem to think that it is easy to find a good professional editor. I have to my dismay paid not one but several editors who have proven to be not up to professional standards.

    It is difficult for a new author to find a “professional” editor. Search the internet you will find hundreds. Go to author boards and again you will find many who are recommended by the other authors and again that does not mean you will receive your money’s worth. All the while your books suffer from all of the mistakes mentioned here.

    While I agree your book should be professionally edited that is not always an easy person to find. Especially for new authors.

    1. Roger – you have nailed it perfectly. I’m in a similar boat with my first novel. It’s currently “with my editor” who is someone I found online, because I have no reference point on how to find one any other way. I’ve had friends ask “How’d you choose your editor?” and my only reply is that unless you know someone first-hand, it’s a shot in the dark.

      1. Regina Belcher Avatar

        Editing for plot continuity and consistency is one thing. Proofreading for the kinds of glaring errors I have encountered is quite another. I’m certain it is not a simple thing to find an editor who can build a cohesive and constructive relationship with a writer. However, with the prevalence of social media, email, etc., it seems to me that today, proofreaders would be very easy to acquire…

  14. Good question! I’m certainly no grammar expert so expect my debut (if I ever finish it!) to have a smattering of grammatical errors. I can’t afford a professional editor so I’m doing it myself. So apologies to those who may (fingers crossed) one day read it. But, poor editing/grammar doesn’t always mean the story or the reading of it is a poor experience. Cormac Mcarthy would be a prime example! Basically just a stream of consciousness. But if you enjoy his work it’s surprisingly easy to read. There’s a book I read recently, can’t remotely remember what it’s called, about a kid who wins a virtual world competition and lives in stacked trailers? It’s full of continuity errors that I won’t bore you with. But, I loved every page even though I couldn’t help thinking that the author didn’t appear to have read his own work with a critical head on!
    So I think what I’m saying is that as long as it’s not chronically unreadable does it matter all that much? Probably, a bit anyway.

    1. Regina Belcher Avatar

      Sounds like “Ready Player One!” Well, if you need a proofer, I volunteer!!!! :)

  15. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I would add one additional comment.

    Not only are editors expensive, the freelance editing market is in the same the wild west phase that indie writing is in. I love my current editor, but I’ve plenty of past experience with fellow writers that thought they could edit, people who got an A in high school English and ran a newsletter, so they now call themselves editors, etc. It can be really tough to find someone who is good, affordable and a good fit.

  16. Great post, Hugh! Funny, as I finished “Second Suicide” this morning I marveled how easy it is to read your books and stories because I never find typos…..the only things that “stop me cold”.

    1. Regina Belcher Avatar


  17. I’ve reviewed indie books for Forward Magazine, BlueInk, and others for the past several years, and I must say I don’t think readers expectations are set too high. Too many of the self-published books I’ve reviewed just don’t stand a chance because they are full of not just distracting punctuation and grammar errors, but confusing structure and plain old awkward writing.

    I always try to review based on the author’s apparent intent, the story they are trying to put out there, but sometimes really great ideas get stuck inside some unreadable prose.

  18. I’ve reviewed indie books for Foreword Magazine, BlueInk, and others for the past several years, and I must say I don’t think readers expectations are set too high. Too many of the self-published books I’ve reviewed just don’t stand a chance because they are full of not just distracting punctuation and grammar errors, but confusing structure and plain old awkward writing.

    I always try to review based on the author’s apparent intent, the story they are trying to put out there, but sometimes really great ideas get stuck inside some unreadable prose.

  19. So, on the basis that “Freelancers are popping up everywhere, and they are both sorely needed and greatly appreciated”, here are two suggestions:

    I’m admin for a Facebook group called The Authors Editing Cooperative. It’s a group of Indie authors who will proofread and edit each other’s books on the understanding that the favour will be returned when their book is ready to be edited.

    I’m also a freelance editor offering full edits at prices starting at $150, so the cheapest in the business. All details are on my website. http://www.annajonesbuttimore.com/flat-fee-editing/4580163958

    1. Regina Belcher Avatar

      Sounds perfect! I love proofing stuff. It’s like picking out a splinter. I can’t stop until I rephrase that crappy run-on sentence!

  20. Seriously, thank you for this.

    I have also found though with typo finders that there is a holier-than-thou attitude and that drives me insane.

    One book I did, I had several beta-readers who sent their suggestions and edits through Word. Well, these were all people I knew personally, and all with Master’s degrees. A few “corrections” one reader said fix it this, and another said no it goes this way!

    And I can see the contridicting edits right there in front of me. I don’t remember the specific edit, I just remember thinking, even highly educated people have differing opinions.

    Which also taught me, as David Gatewood said above it really is about clarity, and sometimes what is clear to one reader is not to another it can be an opinion.

    I don’t mind typos being pointed out, and thank you for pointing them out.

    But seriously get over it, it doesn’t make you Hemingway.

    (P.S. I did not have time to edit this, so forgive me.)

  21. I’m a writer and editor. While I think errors can and should be pointed out in a constructive, polite manner, I disagree that being irked or put off by them makes a reader lazy.

    I don’t think a reader should have to work to make sense of a sentence or paragraph because the writer was unwilling or unable to respect their craft–or the reader–and called a mess of misspelled words, homophonic errors and poor grammar “good enough.”

    The same is true for any craft. If a carpenter makes a table, the legs should all be the same length. It’s not an arbitrary golden standard. That’s just how a table should be. It’s supposed to be level. The person who buys that table shouldn’t have to shore it up with shims to keep it from wobbling–they shouldn’t have to do that work to keep the table steady so they can use it and enjoy it.

    If you want to be a writer, or any kind of craftsman–especially if you expect people to pay you for your work–then be responsible for all the tasks that go with your craft, whether you perform them all yourself, or you get someone to help you.

  22. Excellent piece, Hugh.

    I am a self professed “grammar nazi,” so this is a topic near and dear to me. I’m a firm believer in good editing for reasons already pointed out in the many replies. I especially liked David Gatewood’s comments as they hit at the heart of the matter with regards to editing.

    There is also such a thing as over editing, which can render prose lifeless. Over the years I’ve had pieces edited by others, only to find they’d been stripped of style. I guard myself against too much editing, modifying what I write only to the extent that it needs cleaning up and clarifying. Like Hugh, I’m an assiduous self-editor, so by the time another set of eyes hits the page, I’m confident the majority of what I’ve written makes sense and is grammatical.

  23. Great post! Unfortunately I couldn’t finish reading it because the word “onus” was a big distraction for me. Could you please stop using such omophonies? ;-)

  24. As a someone trained as solely an editor, not a writer–but a critical reader hopefully of the best sense: 30,000′ view as well as laser-sharp eyes for tiny details, I am always amazed and surprised how few of my type there are. It’s a teachable craft and I’ve dogs so and absolutely enjoy sharing my own best gaffes from journals to galleys to now my own creative work as I dip my toes into that genre, but to be honest? Readers do indeed make for fantastic providers of feedback as well as sense, flow, and lots of grammar and sense. But with all due respect, something is to be said for that very wee pool of use truly trained as wordsmiths, to help bridge the grammar/voice/tone/etc gaps that may pop up, should they not be already harnessed by great groups. All in all, still a wonderful idea, especially for ebooks.
    I’m now off to fix a gaffe in my own website–how appropriate ;)

  25. Gaiman’s law: if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.

    Muphry’s law: If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.

  26. Thank you for posting this question and your wonderful answer Hugh.

    I am my own worst critic when it comes to editing my writing. However, that being said, after proof-reading something 6 times and correcting it, when I send it off to others to read, there are still mistakes.

    I believe in today’s world, with the advent of self publishing easily available, that one needs to strive to stand out above the rest. And with that I mean by professional editing, professional art work and all. However, the reality of economics stand sway over us and we can only do what we can afford to do with the money that we have. And, as indie publishers, we have (Or at least I do, don’t know about the rest of y’all) little to do anything with.

    It is my goal that my work will become as widely read as Hugh’s has become and to then end, I strive to be, at the very least, a little bit better than the other offerings in my genre.

  27. This is an interesting response but I have come across self-pub books that I just can’t read because of the editing and that is a shame. The worst offenders force me to go back and read the sentence 3 times to try to work out what they’re actually saying. It takes me out the flow and spoils the experience.
    On the other hand, I’ve read, or tried to read, literary fiction that I can’t get through because they play fast and loose with the rules for ‘artistic’ reasons e.g. one trad pubbed book used no speech marks – I had no idea what was going on and it ruined it for me.
    I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in my own work but I always try at the very least to be clear – we owe that to the reader.

    1. You make a great point. Somehow, Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written for being nearly impossible to read.

  28. Thanks for this post, Hugh, and thanks, Regina, for that question! I struggle myself with this dilemma as both a reader and a writer. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment that readers have gotten lazy. And how could they not? We have all made it so easy for them. I have found myself less frustrated by mistakes (which I still find from vetted, skilled writers) and more frustrated by tools that lend to making it easy for readers, such as repetitiveness. At what point should a reader remember what they are reading or what they have read? I was just reading a series where it was wrought with repetitive writing. It almost got to a point of, ‘Yes, I know what that person does. Yes, I know what that magic trick is. Yes, I know that class of people and what it means to be one.” I almost strained myself by rolling my eyes.
    As a writer, even trying to write as a character can backfire. Trying to be grammatically correct can kill a character or plot sometimes. Not having to dance a fine line (in reality that line is really blurry) makes writing fun at times and almost poetic.
    Conversely, tennis wouldn’t be much fun if there wasn’t a net, boundaries, and rules. But where do we strike a balance between abiding to the rules and breaking them without being smacked for doing either?
    And sure, plot is king, but prose can easily revolt against that king and lay waste to the kingdom.

  29. […] A Question About Editing Interesting post from Hugh Howey about editing, today’s reader, and the modern expectation of perfection in writing. […]

  30. I’ve found small typos in two Two Pulitzer prize-winning novels, not even looking for them. As a writer, I feel a huge relief in that. Not in a snarky way, but in a “we’re all human” way.

    1. thank you for that! I would wish readers would read with that in mind more often ;)

  31. Thank you so much for this post – and http://www.christophergodsoe.com/ for his comment – that made my day! As a bilingual who grew up with two different sets of grammar rules colliding in my head I know I’m prone to using phrases, metaphors or words that barely make sense in the other language. I have the same problem in both – no, it’s actually worse in German where I need a dictionary twice to form a simple sentence. I try hard. I know my imagination is great and things work inside my head. That I tend to over-describe is a valid point and yes, I am extremely close to my characters – as deep third comes natural. But I try and when I bow my head and hand my work over to a critter group I of course expect and know I’m in need of lots of pointing out and correction. But what gets to me is when one of those overzealous and yes arrogant readers puts me on the spot because I ruin the day and reading in general for them because I make it “oh so difficult for them”. While this might be legit for a reader who BOUGHT a book (and I would assume this reader would read in before buying – unless she/he only buys a book they don’t like so they can vent after), it’s not for a critter. We need unbiased assistance to improve and not someone who crashes any motivation. Unfortunately those readers exist. I try to remind myself that they aren’t professionals either (are neither published and maybe rant without showing what they have to offer in turn even)and that they only voice their opinions – however insensitive that may be. But we all know how deep the negative goes – if it is constructive it pushes us on, if it’s brought to a personal level it freezes us. And yes, it hurts. Yes, there may be those writers who just rush out and self-publish before a work is ready and I find that unfair to a reader too. But in other areas I beg readers to get over their self-righteousness and HELP a writer. Assume they are trying their best and even if it’s a bumpy read – read, try to get it, ask and help the writer one with useful advice. Who knows, you might help unveil a great book and be mentioned in the thanks one day!

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