Editing and Proofing a Novel – The Details Matter

Editor DefinedI’m an independent author. I self-publish my books. Although I have had five of my books released by publishers in the past, all of my books are now self-published. That means I alone am responsible for their content. There is no one to blame but me for anything between the covers of the book. In fact, I do the covers now too. The covers, front and back, and every page in between, have to be proofread and edited over and over again. The process of proofreading and editing is an arduous one. Proofing is fairly mechanical. Searching a manuscript for mistakes that detract from its meaning and presentation is a matter of going over each page as slowly and as painfully as I can. For most of my books, that process happens as many as half a dozen times for the entire manuscript. And, of course, I still miss some items. Editing involves the same sort of slow, precise review, but as a process it is creative rather than simply mechanical.

My training in proofreading and editing goes back to when I was a law student. During the summer of my first year of law school I managed to write on to the UC Davis Law Review. As a member of the law review, I was tasked with hours and hours of proofreading articles accepted for publication. This process included the minutiae of cite-checking to make certain all citations in each article I proofed complied with the current version of a style manual known to us as the Harvard Blue Book. As a specific skill, there is little crossover from cite-checking an academic article to proofing a work of fiction. However, in a more abstract sense, the painstaking attention to detail required of the former is directly applicable to the latter.

Law review members eventually become law review editors. At UC Davis, becoming an editor required submitting an article for review and eventual approval. That process was particularly applicable to the self-publishing process. Being able to proof and edit your own work is a distinct skill from proofing and editing someone else’s work. Your brain knows what you meant to say and what you meant to write and at times corrects the errors on the page as part of the cognitive process without any physical alteration of what’s on the page. Anyone who has done any sort of writing has experienced this, and overcoming it takes slow, methodical discipline. Once I became an editor, I had the pleasure of proofing and editing someone else’s work. I found the editing process far more fulfilling than proofing because it included creative decisions. Questions about strengthening an argument, increasing the clarity of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph, which word to use for a specific point, the overall flow of the work, internal continuity, logical consistency, and many others were all part of that process.

Proofing a work of fiction is no different than proofing a law review article. In fact, it’s easier given that a work of fiction has few if any citations which are a major aspect of any law review article. My article, for instance, had more than 180 footnotes, which still strikes me as absurd. However, editing a work of fiction is decidedly different from editing a law review article. The fictional world the author of a novel creates presents unique challenges. There are no characters in a law review article whose appearance, habits, and methods of expression have to be checked for consistency and continuity. Something as simple as the compass direction of a street has to be checked and rechecked. A law review article does not, in my experience, rely on dialog or characterization, both of which need to be constantly reviewed for verisimilitude and continuity. The action of a novel has to be checked as well. If a character discards something, he can’t have that in his possession 75 pages later. If a character is right-handed, she will go about tasks in ways that a left-handed character will not. The objects used in the action have to be checked for accurate description and for existence during the time period in which the story is set. In short, it all has to make sense, and it all has to feel real.

The details matter, and getting the details right for a final product is a tough, grinding process. That process begins the moment I start to write. The beauty of using a word processing program instead of a sheet of paper is that I can produce something that is visually clean even after innumerable revisions, and those revisions can happen in real time, as the story is unfolding in my brain. By the time a paragraph is part of my first draft, it has usually undergone a number of revisions just to get to that point. If I really want to, I can use the program to see exactly what changes I’ve made. I don’t do that often because I’ve found it inhibits me from making further changes or from deciding that the revision I made itself needs revising. The process ends once every aspect of the book has been reviewed to the best of my ability. There’s no doubt in my mind that a professional proofreader and a professional editor would likely improve my manuscript, but as a self-published author on the tightest of budgets I’ve learned to rely on my own training and experience for every aspect of producing my books. I’ll leave it to others to judge the merits of my approach.