The Edit Ninja

By Brett Battles

Photos by Mari Deno

Okay, so you’ve written a book and decided you’re not going to look for a publisher and will it publish yourself as an ebook…or…you’ve written a book, shopped it around but while you might have had a few nibbles, no bites, so you’re going to publish it yourself as an ebook. Easy, right? Just upload it and it’s done.

Wrong. I think many independent authors (not all) try to take short cuts, and think all they have to do is upload their book and that’s it. That’s not it. Not even close.

As an independent author, what you need to do is think of yourself as a publishing house. And by that, I mean just because you’ve finished writing the book doesn’t mean it’s ready.

First step…story editing. This could mean hiring a professional editor (especially advised for those who have never been published before, but when looking for one shop around and get recommendations), or finding some other means of getting the feedback you need. For me, I have a group of trusted, savvy, and insightful readers who read my book and give me detailed feedback. The group contains several respected published writers, and others whose opinions I trust.

Okay, that’s done. Next: a cover. The rule of thumb here is: You get what you pay for. So if you want a cover that looks professional and will draw the attention of potential reader instead of turning them off, be prepared to pay for it. And trust me, it’s worth it.

But wait, your book’s still not ready. There is a vital step that cannot be skipped. You need (need, need, need, need, need) to have someone copyedit/proofread your manuscript. And I’m not just talking about finding someone who isn’t doing anything at the moment, and having them look for errors.

Good copyediting and proofreading are skills that only a small percentage of people have. I don’t have it. Never have, never will. So I’m lucky to have someone who excels at this who I can go to when I have a manuscript that is ready for this step.

I’d like to introduce you to her today. Meet my professional copyeditor and renowned Edit Ninja, Elyse Dinh-McCrillis.

BRETT: Okay, Elyse, first question: Why torture yourself copyediting other people’s material? I know that would drive me MAD! (Of course, as you well know having worked on a couple of my books now, I would suck at it.)

ELYSE: It’s much more torturous for me to read books full of errors! When I was younger, whenever I saw a mistake in a book/magazine/newspaper, I’d let out a full-throated ARGHHH! a la Charlie Brown when the football is yanked away. People in the room with me would say, “Why don’t you do something about it?” So I did. I like to think I’m helping put better books out into the world and preventing readers like me from the same kind of aggravation.

B: When did you first realize this was a skill you had?

E: I wrote for my high school paper and my journalism teacher said I was the only student who always turned in perfectly clean copy. I was compulsive about proofing my own work because I never wanted to look like a moron due to some stupid typo. My teacher named me features editor and I found I had a knack for telling others what to do editing other people’s work, too.

I also read a lot and retain much of it (do not flash your credit card numbers around me). I think it’s important to not only know the guidelines of grammar and style, but also be aware of pop culture and current events. A sharp editor would know there’s no such thing as a Mazda CRX, that sixty-six Americans were originally taken hostage in Iran but only fifty-two were held for 444 days, that the non-lightsaber weapons in Star Wars are called blasters, not guns. These may not be earth-shattering mistakes but you never now who might find them important.

B: Doesn’t everyone know they’re blasters? Oh…God…I’m a nerd, aren’t I? Anyway, you obviously enjoy doing it enough that you do it professionally. So, have you seen a psychiatrist lately? And if not perhaps one of our Murderati readers can recommend one to you. (Is my bias for how much I would personally hate being a copyeditor showing?)

E: Ha! Funny that you mention therapy because I think part of my job is being a therapist to my clients. I’ve spent hours on the phone with writers who are certain they can’t finish their book or they’ve written the worst book in the history of man. I talk to them and ask questions to help them figure out how to fix their problem areas. It’s quite satisfying for me when they achieve that breakthrough. That’s not to say I’m touchy-feely. If you’re just whining, I don’t have patience for that.

B: Joking aside, I cannot express how grateful I am for the work done by a good copyeditor, and in my case, that’s you. You have saved me from embarrassing myself multiple times in SICK and HERE COMES MR. TROUBLE. So I want to publicly thank you for that! Thank you.

E: Thank you for trusting me with your manuscript babies. You make my job a lot easier by writing thrilling stories. Plus you pay me and that’s cool, too.

B: Wait…are you implying you’d do it for free? Probably not, right? Okay, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about the process, how you work with authors, and what authors should expect from you?

E: The process is tedious so I should probably say something interesting like, “Well, Brett, it involves Samoan masseuses and corn” but that might confuse your readers. The real answer is, my fee includes fixes in grammar and style, rephrasing of awkward sentences, comments to help you fix weak spots, and fact-checking. Turnaround is about two weeks for a full-length ms, but I can do it faster if you have a specific deadline. If I’m doing developmental editing, I’m available for phone consultations and minor therapy as mentioned above. I’m not a licensed doctor, though, so you might have to sign a waiver releasing me from liability if you suddenly develop a drinking problem.

B: I know I have things I screw up all the time. In fact I have a list on my wall to remind me to check for some specific types of errors when I finish a manuscript. (It’s true, taped to the wall next to the kitchen.) What are some of the common mistakes you see authors repeating all the time?

E: Lie vs. lay, dangling modifiers, the misplacement of “only” in a sentence (“I only have one dollar” and “I have only one dollar” do not mean the same thing), i.e. vs. e.g., possessive pronouns vs. contractions, less vs. fewer, and redundancy (“I thought to myself,” “I rushed quickly through the door,” etc.). I guess that last one isn’t a mistake, it just annoys me.

B: Any pet peeves?

E: When potential clients want to pay me only $8-10 an hour and say that’s the going rate on Craigslist. I say go back to Craigslist and good luck.

E: HA! Good one. I refer readers back to the “get what you pay for” statement I made above about covers. Applies here, too. If an author is interested in hiring you, is there someplace they can go to find out more information about your services?

E: The Edit Ninja website.

B: Ooooh. Spiffy! Anything else you’d like to add?

E: I think there’s a misconception that editors are sticklers for rules. I’m not. As long as your language serves your story, I don’t care if you coin new words or end your sentences in prepositions. But if your style starts distracting from your story then it needs adjustment. I think astute readers can tell the difference between someone who flouts grammatical conventions intentionally and someone who doesn’t know what they are.

B: Thanks for spending a little time with us today, Elyse. I love hearing your insights.

Let me just say to everyone, if you’re a writer in need of a copyeditor, I couldn’t recommend Elyse more. The only thing I worry about is that too many people will start using her services and she won’t have time for me when I need her. Seriously though, if you have a book in need of copyediting contact Elyse. You’ll be very happy with the results.

Now, if you have some questions you’d like to ask Elyse—specific or vague or completely off topic—fire away. Elyse will be checking in all day.

37 thoughts on “The Edit Ninja

  1. Jim Thomsen

    Good stuff. I'm in the manuscript copyediting racket as well, so good to "know" a fellow word proctologist. The most common errors I come across are a) homonym abuse (affect vs. effect, principle vs. principal, peek vs, peak vs, pique, etc.) and b) inconsistency. For example, one author I with whom I recently worked spelled her protagonist's first name three different ways.

    And interesting stuff about rates. I hate the nagging feeling of uncertainty that comes every time I've overbid a job, but it is definitely true that some people don't want to pay more than the drive-thru guy at Hardee's would get. Copyediting, as Brett astutely points out, is an esoteric skill. And it should be compensated as such. That said, I'm willing to work with people on a budget … to a certain extent. As in all things, flexibility is one of a professional's biggest assets.

  2. Karen in Ohio

    I've done a lot of copyediting as well; homonym abuse is a good way to describe it, Jim. "Lead" vs. "led", "buses"–meaning vehicles–vs. "busses"–meaning kisses. Fingernails on the blackboard when I read those errors. It's also annoying to a reader when the same word appears on the same page more than once or twice, and there isn't a poetic reason for it.

    Interesting blog today, Brett!

  3. Elizabeth

    "I think astute readers can tell the difference between someone who flouts grammatical conventions intentionally and someone who doesn’t know what they are."

    B00M! That's it in a nutshell. You gotta know the right way to do it before you can deliberately do it the wrong way for effect. Go, Elyse, you kick-ass edit ninja!

  4. Murderati fan

    Ah! A foe of the dangling participle is found. (slightly passive).
    Walking up the stairs, she unlocked the door. Imaging this sentence sends chuckles through my brain.
    I know I will be needing your services soon. I'm amazed at how many times I can read a chapter and after the fifth read find "then" instead of "than." Drives me crazy. Question: My writing style includes fragment sentences. What do you think? And do you do partials or sample chapters. I might like to see not how good you are, but how bad I am.

    Don't you just love computers. I worked on typewriters for years. Corrections meant retyping entire pages.

    Gosh, writing to an editor can be intimidating. Judy

  5. Donna

    First, Elyse – what's in the coffee cup? Lol! Wonderful interview! Insightful, interesting and funny. With email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. people communicate in acronyms, their own type of shorthand, and emoticons. Those are fine for social media sites but for business and even personal communications, I am seeing individuals cross the line. Using acronyms or shortening words where it's not appropriate. Or just flat out annoying. As a copy editor, how do you feel when this happens?

  6. Jim Thomsen

    "I think astute readers can tell the difference between someone who flouts grammatical conventions intentionally and someone who doesn’t know what they are."

    Flouts or flaunts? Not quite a homonym error, but a common error nonetheless. 🙂

    Elyse, can you talk a little about how you built up your business? How you market yourself, and how you find most of your clients nowadays?

    (As you can see, I think sentence fragments are a stylistic necessity. Most writers I read and work with use them, and use them effectively, to set a certain tone.)

  7. David Corbett

    Fabulous and funny post, Brett. Thanks. And thanks to Elyse for being so generous and witty and smart.

    Copy editors are the guardian angels of the lit world — and guardian angels aren't tooth fairies. They have swords.

    One of the best bits of advice I ever received was: You don't know yourself by yourself.

    This is never more true than in one's writing. Writers need a skilled set of eyes to let them know where what they think they've said ain't on the page. And to check chronology, and fact check here and there when something seems a little off. All that, plus the slipshod grammar.

    Copy editors are worth every penny they earn.

    BTW: Red Room once asked writers to blog on the worst typo ever in one of their books. I wrote: "Worst typo ever? Easy. Page 301 of The Devil's Redhead: "sandstone palavers." (The fault was entirely mine.)

    Methinks the Edit Ninja woulda caught that one.

    Thanks for a great interview and great post. And thanks again as well to Elyse for joining us.

  8. Debbie

    Were we supposed to catch the now instead of know error (in the pop culture section)? <tee hee> I'm curious about the answers to the questions, 'what about sentence fragments.' and 'will you check just a small portion so we can see how bad we really are'? Oh, and here is one of my own: Can we use 'I' instead of 'me' if the sentence sounds awkward when written properly? My character's name is Zvi and saying, 'He read to Zvi and me." just sounds funny…or is it just me? Thanks Brett for the interview and Elyse for answering our questions!

  9. Fred Bauers

    Great article but I don't need a copy editor my writing is perfec…..
    OW!! What?! I'm AM telling the truth my writing is flaw…..

    OW! OW! OW! O.k. stop, please. My alter ego won't let me tell that lie so I guess I'll take your advice and acquire the services of a talented Edit Ninja.

    Once again, fantastic article. It was very informative.

  10. Paulette

    Great seeing you two haviing so much nerd fun! My question: doesn't anyone know about subjunctive mood? This error, especially subjunctive by supposition when it should read "WERE'', causes me to rephrase it aloud! Sometimes I am not alone….strange looks! I am sure my many grammar gaffs cause others to mutter to themselves.

  11. David Corbett

    On the "pleasures" of fact-checking:

    I remember G.M. Ford saying that in his books, someone takes out a "gun," period. Never a Mauser X45-PPX Platinum Magnum with Garrard Hyper-parabolic sound suppressor and key chain with optional wok, or whatever. He said no matter how much he and his copy editor fact-checked the weapon, they always got letters.

    But that was nothing compared to the grief he got when he put a Harley Davidson in one of his books.

    Never again, he swore.

    I wonder, O Edit Ninja, are there areas of factual concern you just prefer not to wander? Or do you just gird up and get to it?

  12. Elyse

    Hi, everyone, sorry I'm late in responding. I tried to earlier but the website locked me out, probably because I wasn't wearing a shirt and shoes.

    Thanks so much for allowing me to take up space here and for your kind comments. It's so nice to hear your appreciation of copyeditors. Many of my friends think I'm weird for wanting to sit in a room all day and obsess about minutiae.

    Jim–I'm flexible about working with people on a budget, too. As for building my business, I started out many years ago by copyediting a few scripts for free for screenwriter friends. They didn't ask me to; they just wanted feedback. But I couldn't deal with the errors so I cleaned everything up before sending the scripts back. They started referring other writers to me and every client I've worked with since has referred more people. I'm lucky that way because I'm terrible at marketing. I'd maybe mention what I do when I meet a writer who seems to be looking for a copyeditor but that's about it. Oh, and I definitely meant to say "flout," which means to openly disregard.

    Karen–I've noticed some writers have favorite words they like to use over and over. I had one client use "dark" to describe everything from people's clothes to their skin tone, mood, house, basement, car, etc. It almost became a drinking game every time "dark" popped up.

    Elizabeth–Thanks! You kick ass pretty hard yourself!

    Judy–Sentence fragments don't bother me; sometimes they help create tension. I'm most concerned with how well you tell your story. I can edit a page or two for free for potential clients but don't do whole chapters because that could mean 30+ pages. And don't worry about being perfect. Just write, I'll fix it!

    Louise–I'm a fan of your books so, wow, thank you!

    Donna–The cup is empty because snacks and drinks don't last long while I'm working. But it's usually black coffee with some kind of cookie. I don't use those shorthand acronyms but they don't bother me unless people overdo it (five acronyms in one sentence is too much!) or use it in formal documents. LOL and the like should never be in cover letters, emails to people's bosses, press releases or on business cards.

  13. Jim Thomsen

    Thanks, Elyse. I'm really impressed with what you do, what your clients think of you, and how you've managed to build up your business. Is it a quit-your-day-job endeavor yet?

    And I was teasing about the flout-vs.-flaunt thing. I spent two decades as a newspaper editor, and at least half the reporters with whom I worked couldn't seem to get that one straight. It still pops up quite a bit with my book clients.

    My favorite recent homonym error: A client who made reference to an "Oozy" submachine gun.

  14. Murderati fan

    " probably because I wasn't wearing a shirt and shoes"

    Elyse, I would never ask someone of your experience and referenced by such magnificence as Brett and Alafair to do anything for free! I was just wondering if using your service would show someone how terrible they really were. I know someone who uses the worst grammar and thinks the more commas the better. It's painful to read.

    By the way, I hear a lot of "more happy" and "more sad" being said. Do you find that in writing?

    Are you as funny in speaking as you are in writing?

    Delightful blog. Thanks Brett and Elyse. You have me competing with David Corbett for multiple posts.

    Judy

  15. Karen in Ohio

    Elyse, another pair of words often mixed up: regime and regimen. It is just a little harsh to describe an exercise routine as a regime!

  16. Elyse

    Alafair–Wow, thank you! And we have the happiest photo on earth to show for it!

    David–You are so, so kind. Another set of eyes is invaluable. We can't see our own mistakes because we know our intentions when we wrote the sentences so they make sense to us. But an objective reader might be confused about something or notice a dropped word we thought we'd typed because we certainly did it in our heads. As for yucky subjects, I'm willing to delve into almost any area because I learn so much when I fact-check, but, as you mentioned, the gun stuff can get a bit overwhelming. I usually advise writers to not get too caught up with the specific letters and numbers. A reader might either care too much and try to bust your chops because you got ONE number wrong, or not care at all and only want to know what the character wielding the gun is going to do with it.

    Rae–Hi, and thank you!

    Phillip–I'd bet your copyeditors love you for acknowledging them.

    Debbie–Could you be more specific about where the "know" error is? In your example, "me" is correct and should be used. But I'm lenient when it comes to something like "She's better than I." It's correct but people rarely say that so a character doing so might bring too much attention to his grammar. Obvious grammar, even when it's correct, can distract a reader as much as when it's wrong. I'd also leave "Who are you waiting for?" instead of correcting it to "For whom are you waiting?"

    Fred–Haha! Please don't beat yourself up. That's MY job!

    Paulette–Subjunctive mood IS tricky. And I read aloud all the time when I'm working and even when I'm not so I'm used to weird looks!

    Jim–"Oozy" is hilarious! Was the character planning to attend the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards and slime someone with his oozy gun?

  17. Jim Thomsen

    That reminds me of the frequent stumbles I see over "reign," "rein" and "rain."

    And my own continuing failure, as I adapt from Associated Press style to Chicago Manual style, to learn to love the serial comma. 🙂

  18. Jim Thomsen

    Elyse, I was envisioning a mafioso-wielded Supersoaker gun loaded with 10-30 motor oil.

  19. Catherine

    Thanks Brett and Elyse for this post. I might be weird this way, but I'm fascinated by the collaborative nature between an editor and writer.

    Jim the spin off images and possibilities of an oozy submachine gun are giving my morning an extra boost. Thanks.

  20. Murderati fan

    Elyse,
    Did I miss how to contact you? Judy

    And, David, I've never read a post of yours I didn't like. Type on!

  21. Reine

    Great post! Interesting and very funny! But why do I want to stop writing now? Help.

    _______________________
    Walking is highly overrated.
    Reading a book is not.

  22. Elyse

    Judy–I would never want a client to feel like a horrible writer after using my services. I hope that I can help enlighten them on some issues. I make corrections in Word using the "track changes" tool so the writer can see them and has the option of accepting them or not. If they choose to reject everything I've done because they think they're right, then so be it. When it goes out into the world, it's the author's name on it, not mine. I haven't seen much of the "more sad" thing but I wouldn't like it. As for whether or not I'm funny in person, you'll have to ask Brett because he's seen the way I behave around fries and cookies!

    Karen–I'm wary enough of an exercise regimen. I'd be absolutely terrified of an exercise regime!

    Jim–Would that be the Supersoaker TMH-420 or the PN57 Extra Wet Model?

    Brett–Thanks for answering Judy's question!

  23. Elyse

    Uh oh, I was just informed by my web host that my contact form at the site wasn't working earlier, possibly due to sudden increased usage. It's working now so if you used the form earlier, please try again, or just email me at theeditninja@gmail.com. Thanks and sorry for any inconvenience!

    Catherine–The collaborative process is fun when you have people on the same page.

    Reine–Never stop writing!

  24. M

    Great post!

    I am thinking that " but you never now who might find them important." should read " but you never know who might find them important."

    I am one of those readers that notices things like that. I have been told I should do editing for others, but have never really looked into it.
    Something I noticed in a book I recently read was that the main character Susan, was suddenly referred to as Sharon. At first I thought " Who the heck is Sharon, and how did I miss this character being introduced?" I quickly realized that it should have said Susan. She was referred to as Sharon starting about halfway through the book, for just over 100 pages, when she suddenly became Susan again. That annoyed me to no end. How was that missed?? The book was not self published. It was written by an author with over 60 best selling novels under her belt, and published by a huge publishing company!!
    Another bestseller I started reading last month got set aside because there was a ridiculous number of spelling errors. How does something like " I told told her that she was doing it wrong, but she said said she was was not." get missed?

    Any advise you could give me on becoming a proofreader would be greatly appreciated!

  25. Reine

    Yes. It's just hard work, and just keeping going is very helpful – a bit like NaNoWriMo, no?

  26. KDJames

    A fun and funny post, Brett. Thanks for sharing a professional resource!

    Elyse, I like your sense of humour and your common sense approach to editing. I've bookmarked your site for future use. 😉

  27. PD Martin

    Great post. I agree that lack of editing is a HUGE problem in self-published novels.

    I love copy editors! For the most part I produce pretty "clean" copy but it's amazing how many things you miss in your own work. You know what you intended to say, and your mind fills in the blanks as you're reading.

    Then there are grammatical rules you don't know. My first two books had the incorrect use of "I" and "me". E.g. "Darren and me went for a walk" instead of "Darren and I went for a walk." Scary thing is, this mistake got through two editors and a proof reader here in Australia AND an editor and proofreader in the US. That's seven professionals. And they're all good – it was just that there were only about three incorrect uses in the whole book and no one can catch everything, unfortunately.

    Time is a good example too. One of my copy editors once pointed out that I had a character who did year 12 when he was 20 (given his birth date). Doh! Or you say the results of a forensic test will take five days to come through, but in your novel's timeline it's three days. Copy editors are great for picking up those sorts of problems.

    In terms of published books, sometimes I think errors are introduced late in the piece. Last-minute fixes and changes can introduce new errors.

    Thanks Brett and Elyse for starting a great discussion.

  28. Jim Thomsen

    Elyse, you make a great point here about client management. Sometimes, after thousands of edits big and small, the biggest and best thing you can do for a client is write the diplomatic message that accompanies the edited MS doc. I always make clear that a) it's their work, not mine; that my edits have been set up in Track Changes mode in such a way that they can accept or reject my changes as they please; and that c) I wouldn't have agreed to do the work if I felt the manuscript was an irredeemable dog.

    Where world-class diplomatic skills are most required is when the client, invariably, asks: "So, what did you think of my story?" Even though developmental editing wasn't part of the job, I understand the client's desire to bond with me as a friend and contemporary, and thus seek my affirmation and validation. And I will give them an honest opinion. It won't be harsh, but neither will it "take the long way around the barn," as my dad used to say. Most, I'm happy to say, appreciate my thoughts (however unprofessional they may be) and don't end the working relationship.

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