As an aspiring author you’ve probably been doing your homework – studying your favorite writers, reading up on how to publish and market your book, looking for cover designs. You might also be checking out grammar tips; you don’t want to be the person who writes, “You don’t want to be the person that…” Yes, an editor will fix those things, but it’s good practice to know the tools of your craft.
And as well as knowing your craft, you need to know your audience.
With a global marketplace and different versions of English spoken in various parts of the world, you need to think about who you want to buy your book. If you’re writing the great American novel, you’re probably okay using standard American English because everyone’s heard it on Mad Men and Friends. But maybe you’d like to create a British version of your book, or you have a British character and you want to make sure he sounds authentic. Is Nigel Lemming-Smyth more likely to say, “I haven’t gotten around to it” or “I’ve not got ‘round to it”? You know you need to change the spelling of words like “honour” and “centre,” but will you remember to catch words like “programme,” “jewellery,” and “furore”?
Watch those quotes and commas, too, because Britain and America have different rules about punctuation.
Similarly, if you’re self-publishing in England and you want to reach as wide an audience as possible, you probably want to appeal to the US market. So it might be a good idea to limit your idiomatic expressions, words or phrases that aren’t used in other countries. Words like “moggy” and “gee-gees” make sense to you, but Tammy in Miami may put your book down because she has no idea what you’re talking about!
A writer of children’s books needs to know what age group she’s aiming for, and write for that reading level. A story for a five-year-old can have a similar plot to a book for a nine-year-old: a child feels sad because he thinks no one remembered his birthday, but then his friends do something really special for him. Some things, like ice cream and cake, are ageless. But will a younger child understand the word “generosity”? And will a nine-year-old want to continue reading a book mostly made up of three-letter words?
Again, you’ll want to consider where you plan to publish because school curriculum and cultural attitudes may affect reading comprehension of the children you hope will read your book.
You not only need to figure out who you’re writing for, you need to know what the current trends are in that market. Know your competition. Read books that are popular with your target audience and figure out why they’re popular. What do you like about those books, how do they engage the reader? Don’t copy, but see what commonalities there are in that genre and think about how you can apply them to your writing.
Now, when you’ve done your writing, and you’ve re-read your manuscript, and fiddled and scribbled and made a few changes and read it again, get an editor. But remember, know your editor.
If you’re stretching yourself by trying something a little beyond your knowledge base – and there’s nothing wrong with that – you need to do your research, and you definitely need an editor who will notice inconsistencies and anomalies, the things that don’t ring true. An editor will go through your manuscript looking for those kinds of things specifically, and will point them out to you. For instance, I recently read through a book excerpt by a writer in Nigeria. There was no problem with the author’s command of English, but there were occurrences of both US and British usage. Given Nigeria’s colonial past and international influences today, Nigerians probably use a mixture of Englishes and may not be aware that some phrases are idiomatic to one country or another. I suggested to the author that he should stick to either British or American English to be sure his writing is clear to his intended audience. As an editor who has worked in both the United States and Great Britain, I look for those discrepancies and fix them as needed.
You may be a teacher of literature, and you’ve got a great story about the Bloomsbury writers. You know your subject and you know the language – you’re an expert, right? I still suggest you hire a copy editor, and maybe one who has some knowledge of twentieth-century English literature. You need an objective and knowledgeable reader to catch irregularities and make sure your work is as good as it can be. You wouldn’t want to sabotage your impressive author’s bio because you inadvertently spelled Desmond MacCarthy’s name wrong.
The editing process really isn’t as painful as you might think. Sure, you’re going to be a bit mortified or indignant when you see the changes your editor makes to your manuscript. Did she really need to remove that comma there and put one in over here? Maybe not – commas are pretty subjective. But your editor has probably read quite a few books and blogs that discuss serial commas and en dashes and parallel construction and misplaced modifiers. Books that tell you when to capitalize a two-letter word in a title (almost never). Blogs that you might consider quite boring. This is the kind of thing editors read for fun, so they usually know what they’re doing when they add or remove punctuation, or rearrange sentences or delete adverbs.
Besides catching obvious typos and mistakes, editors will look for consistency in your writing, like if you write “e-mail” in one place and “email” in another. They’ll notice if Louise’s sister’s name changes from Brianna to Brittany. They’ll tell you if you’ve used the word “tellingly” way too often. But an editor who has a particular background or specialty can be even more helpful when you’re writing for a certain, targeted audience. This is true if you’re writing in any specialized subject, from physics to architecture to horse-riding; you want an editor who knows his quarks, quoins or quirts.
You’ve done your homework and your research; you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your writing. You know your craft and you know your audience. If you find an editor who has done the same, your manuscript will be in safe hands.
Valerie Spanswick is a freelance copy/line editor, proofreader and occasional writer who edits both fiction and non-fiction. She has lived, worked and studied in the US and the UK, and is currently based in Eugene, Oregon. Her background includes art and architectural history and aesthetics, and work in publishing, technical editing and video production. She’s online at vswordcraft.blogspot.com.