Software’s Place in the Editing Process

One of the common criticisms levied against self-published books in recent months has been the lack of professional editing that even a cursory glance at a few Kindle published novels reveals. While this criticism is not always warranted, in many cases it is.

The level of editing required after completion of a first draft varies from writer to writer. Some writers are able to deliver two or three polished novels a year, while less productive writers take years to finish a single book–grinding through years of continuous editing until they are happy with the finished product. Every five years or so Kazuo Ishiguro produces a new work. It’s invariably short-listed for one literary prize or another, and it’s always well worth the wait.

Why do so many self-published authors fail when it comes to properly editing their work? Don’t they want their novel to be as good as it could be?

I see three reasons.

Firstly, the new self-publishing industry has impacted the writing and publishing worlds like a live grenade tossed through the window of an antiques shop. Stories abound of writers publishing their own material as soon as it’s finished, selling thousands of copies a month, and leveraging those sales to land traditional publishing contracts and movie deals.

Eager young writers want to emulate this success, and they want to do so today. Why wait a few years until they become more accomplished when they can learn on the job? This approach is championed by gurus such as Dean Wesley Smith and others, who advocate publishing fast and furiously, all the time training yourself to write better and better. Not surprisingly, editing is often a casualty of this rapid fire approach to self-publishing.

Secondly, many writers who have never been published by traditional, dead-tree publishing houses have no knowledge of what’s expected before they can call a novel finished. They produce a first draft in a couple of months, follow Stephen King’s advice and set the book aside for a few weeks, then come back to it for what amounts to little more than a spelling and grammar check.

It’s not really their fault. Nobody told them that this was not how it was supposed to be. Nobody told them that they really did need to get a professional editor to work with them to produce a good, solid novel. The results are a published catalogue of half a dozen novels that read like middle of the road fan-fiction.

This is a style of writing I’m familiar with myself, having once had a passion for reading Stargate / Buffy crossover fiction. It’s a genre of writing that many writers excel at in their early writing careers, appreciating the immediate feedback from users, and the chapter by chapter publishing methods that are so common. Unfortunately, they often take this amateur approach with them as they venture into the more real world and self-publish their original works.

Finally, there’s cost. Professional editors are expensive. Good professional editors are more expensive still. In the world of old school publishing, this cost was and is borne by the publishing houses. In the new world of self-publishing, the cost belongs to the writer.

Many unpublished authors are not in a position to afford the costs of an editor, or convince themselves that they do not need to afford the cost. After all, they’re still learning. Three books down the road they’ll have improved, they’ll be selling more copies, and they’ll be able to afford that editor. Why not wait until then?

If a new writer can’t afford to pay to have their work professionally edited, if they feel that their only option is to learn on the job, then that is what they will continue to do. Wishing it were not so will not change things.

This is the backdrop to the development of SmartEdit.

SmartEdit was not designed to replace a human editor, it was created to offer the writer a first step when it comes to editing. With SmartEdit, they can make a start on the editing process themselves, improving their work as much as possible before deciding on a next step.

Should they also hire a professional editor? Of course.

But the better the writing, the less costly the editor. Most editors charge varying rates depending on the amount of work they will be required to do, and this depends on the quality of the writing offered to them.

SmartEdit can reduce this cost by helping the writer address many mistakes early. The software works best when it’s given a first draft of a novel to work with. The greater the material to draw upon, the more deductions it can make.

So how does it work?

SmartEdit applies up to twenty five individual checks to the writer’s work. It flags overused phrases, crutch words, clich├ęs and redundancies. It builds list of adverbs and dialog tags in a novel, as well as an invaluable list of proper nouns. It monitors the beginnings of sentences, and allows the writer to identify an over reliance on a particular phrase or word. It separates dialog from the prose that surrounds it, allowing checks to be run on one or the other–an invaluable tool for monitoring over use of words and phrases in character dialog.

SmartEdit also identifies more mundane issues such as excessive punctuation, double spaces, conflicting straight and smart quotes, and en and em dash issues–the sort of thing that can easily slip past a human eye and goes unremarked upon by word processors such as Microsoft Word and Open Office.

But it’s still a tool. Calling SmartEdit a glorified spell checker would not be doing it an injustice. It’s just as true that a technically oriented writer could produce scripts to perform many of these tasks themselves, and chances are many do.

But for the vast majority of writers, seeing all this information in one place, sitting side by side with their work-in-progress, offers a real opportunity to make a solid start on the editing process, a process that is often foreign to a great number of self-published writers.

Many will balk at the suggestion that software has a place in the editing process. To which I would counter that it already does. Spell checkers, features such as Track Changes in modern word processors, not to mention the much derided grammar checker are already heavily used by writers.

How many writers perform a search in their word processor for words ending in ‘ly‘? This is a simple effort to seek out an over-reliance on adverbs, utilising the technology already built into their word processor. SmartEdit does it better, taking on the techie tasks and letting the writer focus on the writing.

So long as the software does not automate any changes or even casually suggest changes, then it has a productive use in an open minded writer’s toolbox. After all, it’s the result that counts–the polished, finely honed manuscript that a writer can truly be proud of.

The world of writing and publishing is changing. Those changes are well under way and visible to all. The world of editing will have to change to keep up. That’s where SmartEdit comes in.

02 Aug 2013