How bad editing can affect your sales (and knock your confidence as a writer)

When I went back to my university for the launch of one of their creative writing publications a year after I graduated, I was about a month away from the release of my debut novel Playground. The students in attendance, who were eager and optimistic writers, all had the same deluded belief I shared when I was at Uni; that they would write a book and it would buy them a house and car. But it was refreshing to see just how enthusiastic they were to approach someone like me and ask me for advice. A big circle of them gathered and someone said, “What would you say to someone who wants to publish a book?”

Having not even published my book yet, I was at a loss for something witty to reply. So instead I told them what I did know about, which was the writing process.

“Make sure you edit the Christ out of that manuscript. Make sure you shave that thing down to an inch of its life.” Now, as I hear me saying those words to that bright-eyed group of ambitious students, I can’t help but feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite. I still believe that what I told them was good advice, but it made me look like a complete arsehole for those that read my book when it came out.

I finished the first draft of Playground in July of 2009 and a publisher that I was working for in a nine-month placement asked to see a copy. Of course, I was excited and over the moon, but there was no way I was going to show her the first draft. The first draft of any manuscript is like some disfigured, awkward dungeon freak that slowly learns how to sit and eat dinner with its elbows off the table after lots of editing. That crazy bastard of a first draft will even refrain from burping after the meal if you take care when editing.

The first draft of Playground was a piece of shit. But because I was so desperate for her to read it while she was still interested I rush-edited it in two weeks. The general rule of thumb when editing your own work is that you leave the manuscript for as long as you can before going back to it, the idea being that your eyes will be too adjusted to the text if you just begin chopping once you finish the first draft. Incidentally, I finished the draft and gave it a quick edit straight after.

I got it into something of reasonable shape; the dungeon freak could climb stairs and open doors but wasn’t quite ready to eat in front of guests. Still, the publisher and the test-reader liked it and we signed a contract.

From there, I had one of my friends go over the manuscript to see if she could help the freak with its knife and fork and some general table manners. I was flabbergasted at the amount of mistakes she spotted; things that were so painfully obvious and hideously vulgar. I was feeling less like an author and more like some silly prick that has written a story for a laugh. So I went through the manuscript again after that and noticed even more mistakes. Then I got an unedited proof copy to go through and yes, there were more flabby bits hanging off the pages.

Eventually, I had something that I thought was decent and the editor at the publishers had presented me with a dossier that said what she thought needed changing and punctual mishaps I had encountered.

On the night of my launch (which was held at The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green), I was afforded my first glimpse of the copies that would be sold to my family, friends and the general public. With excited fingers I flicked through the pages and… Oh dear God, more mistakes. I don’t know how it happened, but my theory is that somehow, the unedited proof copy went to print instead of the version that both myself and the editor had made amendments to. I wanted to cry. I told my publisher on the night that I’d spotted mistakes but there was nothing that could be done. How embarrassing. Both me and the publisher were baffled, and I can only assume that there was a mix-up somewhere and that is just the way the cookie crumbles.

Playground gained generally favourable reviews. Critics praised it for being edgy, controversial, gritty (although I now can’t stand that word), and all the rest of the clichés associated with kitchen sink fiction. And what were the detracting factors? To give you an idea, a lot of people illustrated the numerous editing mistakes to me in polite emails. I also had friends coming up to me saying “How come you got all these spelling errors? Didn’t you have an editor?” to which I replied (through gritted teeth), “Yeah I did, but can you shut up please?”

The moral of this particular rant is that meticulous editing is crucial to your credibility as an author and can make the difference between gaining a great review and a polite one. A badly edited book can cause someone who may have been otherwise enjoying the read, to throw your novel in the bin and slate you off on internet forums.

So take pride in your writing, and be paranoid with your editing. Get as many people that love you enough to read your book to go through it and highlight anything they see that may cause you to get a rejection slip from an agent or publisher (a stack of which I have accumulated, as most authors probably have). Mistakes hide in plain sight. It takes professionals to exterminate them.

As a general after note, I should mention that I feel Playground is a good attempt at a first novel by a young author that wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, and it had enough sparkle to allow me a second crack at the whip. That being said, the spelling mistakes, punctuation and general lack of continuity in the initial print run really knocked my confidence.

Saying that, a lot of people have said they thought Playground was a good read (including a TV producer whom I nearly sold the rights over to). If I haven’t put you off my work, and I hope to God I haven’t, give Playground a shot; Kindle edition is dirt cheap.

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.