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Joel Pierson Provides a Unique Perspective on Book Editing

My name is Joel, and like you, I am an AuthorHouse author. I also have a slightly different perspective on the company, because for the last five years, I’ve worked as an editor here at AuthorHouse’s headquarters in Bloomington, Indiana. As such, I’ve read more than 500 AuthorHouse books. When I tell you I’ve seen it all, I’m really not exaggerating. Part of the fun of working in self-publishing is that I’m not reading only textbooks or only romance novels or only … anything. Our authors run the gamut of subject matters and styles. And at the risk of telling tales out of school, they also run the gamut of mistakes. But that’s okay—it’s why I’m here. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some wisdom gained from five years of editing these books.

Don't Turn in a First Draft!

The most important piece of advice I can offer is DON’T turn in a first draft! I know it’s very tempting to type the words “THE END,” then save the file and e-mail it off to the publisher, basking in the glow of completion. I would estimate that 80 percent of the books I edit are first drafts. You owe it to yourself to go through the book and make sure it’s your best writing. The word revision is made up of the word vision and the prefix re, meaning “again.” Literally, “seeing again.” Re-read your book as if someone else wrote it, as if you’re seeing it for the first time.

You’d be surprised how much you’ll catch the second, third, even tenth time through.

Please do have your book edited. Sure, I’m biased in this direction, but it’s just good advice. If you choose to have AuthorHouse’s editorial team do it, that’s great. We’ve got some fine folks here with sharp skills. We’ll take good care of you, no matter what level of editing you choose. But if not us, then please, choose somebody. Not your mom, not your mailman—not even your sixth-grade English teacher. Hire a professional editor, someone specifically trained in book-editing skills. It makes a big difference

Don’t trust Microsoft Word

With apologies in advance to Bill Gates, I offer the following advice: Don’t trust Microsoft Word to do it for you! Authors sometimes rely on Word’s spell checker and grammar checker; they’re not reliable. Grammar checker doesn’t know your intentions, and often corrects things that are already correct, and ignores things that are wrong. And the spell checker? Sure, it can tell you if you’ve spelled “bird” b-r-i-d, but it won’t make a peep if you’ve spelled “angel” a-n-g-l-e. For subtle matters, you need a human’s eyes and brain watching out for you.

When writing a book, always keep in mind that you know more than your reader does. This is especially important in writing fiction. You may know in your mind that your protagonist, Charlie, still carries the scars of abuse at the hands of his uncaring mother, but unless you share that with your readers, they won’t know. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to write “Charlie still carried the scars of abuse at the hands of his uncaring mother.” (Remember the old adage about “show, don’t tell.”) But do find ways of sharing important plot and character details with your audience. They rely on you.

People write their books for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, too often one unhealthy reason appears: revenge. Many many books have crossed my desk, written with the sole intention of exposing and shaming individuals (or organizations) that have hurt the author in some way. On bended knee, I humbly implore you—if the motive of your book is revenge, please reconsider publishing it. We’ve all been hurt in life, but publishing that “tell-all” opens you up to charges of libel, a serious offense—and, ironically, a chance for the one who hurt you to hurt you again. Even “changing the names to protect the innocent” doesn’t always help. If the people in question are recognizable, you could have liability.

Don’t Marry the Fly

A writing professor of mine in college, Robert Hellenga (who has himself published several very successful novels), gave his writing classes some very good advice: Don’t marry the fly. As he explained it, he once wrote a story, and determined in his mind that it was vitally important for a housefly to be a part of the story, as witness to the events. As he wrote and rewrote, it became harder and harder to make the fly part of the scene, but he was so married to the idea of the fly that he nearly ruined the story to keep it in there. So, “Don’t marry the fly” means don’t get so attached to a single detail that the greater work suffers as a result.

Just as you can’t cook if you don’t eat, you can’t write if you don’t read. Read many books, especially in the genre you’re writing. Don’t copy their ideas, but pay close attention to their format. See where authors break up paragraphs. Pay attention to how dialogue and narration are punctuated. Notice that authors choose either past tense or present tense, and don’t shift back and forth.

Don’t Edit Your Own Work

In closing, my last piece of advice would be don’t edit your own work. When I was done with my novel, French Quarter, I gave it to another editor to proofread. A strange choice, you say, coming from an experienced book editor? I knew that many times, the eye sees what it wants to see. I was so familiar with the book, I didn’t want to let my mind convince me that what I expected to see was what I actually saw. My editor didn’t find many mistakes, but she gave me a lot to think about. Enjoy the writing process as you create your book. Celebrate language; in your writing, it is not only the vehicle that gets you to your destination, but also the scenery you encounter along the way.