I know from personal experience how tiresome and aggravating it is to pick up mistakes in something you’ve made after you thought it was done: a disordered sentence in a book, a spelling mistake in a poem, or a perspective error in a painting. How does one get into these situations? It starts with the little voice that is inside everyone who makes a creative product, which says at some point, “Enough already – it’s not worth any more trouble and expense.” That little voice is your ego speaking. And that is a big problem. You might think that your product, your book for instance, is done and as good as it’s ever going to get, and that it’s ready for the printer and the public. And that the fact that you are sick of it is a sign that it is ready to be released into the world and make you money. But, nope. You are mistaking satiation for sufficiency. Just because you have done editing and tweaking ’til you are sick of it does not mean that your effort has been enough. So when is enough, enough?
An unavoidable sunk cost
As Marketing guru Seth Godin recently explained in a post called the thing about sunk costs, enough will be enough after you have handed over your problem – or your project – to someone else to finish off.
Godin explains that all that trouble you have gone to – all those years of working on your writing project and agonizing over it, and spending time and money on it, that whole problem at which you have been slaving away – all of that is a sunk cost. It might not be a project that has exactly gone sideways, but by refusing to hand it over to whoever is better suited to do the final finishes on it, you are doing yourself and your project a disfavour. (And refusing to face facts.) There is nothing you can do about the sunk costs, the money has gone down the Deep Black Hole of Creative Endeavours, and keeping on trying is, well, idiotically charging at windmills, like poor old “Don Quixote” in Cervantes’s novel.
Basically, the reason you are in this awful cycle is that there is no escaping the workings of human biology. The way your brain functions will cause you to overlook mistakes in your own writing. There are specific techniques for getting around that, but it takes practice and special effort (for instance, proofreading in reverse). Rather than failing to catch the mistakes over and over again, you should hand over your lovely manuscript to someone else to proofread, edit and finalize – with trepidation and a cold sweat maybe, but you have to do it.
Doing this handover is completely antithetical to anyone who does creative work. It feels scary and wrong in every possible way. But it must be done. As Ludwig van Beethoven wrote in the margin of the sheet music for his String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, “Muß es sein?” (Must it be?). He replied to his own question, “Es muß sein!” (It must be!). The whole movement is headed “Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß” (The Difficult Decision). So, es muß sein, people. No two ways about it.
“Muß es sein?” (A case study in pigheadedness)
How do I know this? From personal experience. From ten years of writing online book reviews and being embarrassed by the endless typos in my writing. From more than twenty years of writing hefty, 100-page+ documents for Engineering firms and working myself to a state of manic exhaustion to catch those last few typos before deadlines. And failing most of the time. From wasting a whole lot of money self-publishing books without anyone else’s help, and then finding mistakes and having to republish them. But the most expensive and the hardest lesson I learned was in this past year.
In beginning of 2020, I started making music again after many decades of not having had the time for it. (Thank you, COVID-19.) I wrote a few instrumentals and recorded the songs in GarageBand. That took me a few months. I started with some strange, abstract concepts and trying to express those ideas in music was very difficult. And then I edited, fiddled, changed, fixed, rewrote, and fiddled with those songs for some more months, until I realized I was stuck with the editing.
Worse than not being able to fix my mistakes, I could not find them – I could not hear the mistakes. I was stuck. Nothing I did made it better. Every time I looked at the composition or listened to it I found another thing that was obviously wrong or sounded sort of wrong. It made me very depressed. It was literally a case of my not being good enough in the language I was using, and not knowing what I did not know. I could not express what I wanted to express. I was in my own humble version of Beethoven’s conundrum – facing a “Difficult Decision” about my compositions.
“Es muß sein.” Yep. Jawohl.
Desperate for answers, I started researching the emotional language of music, hoping to find a solution, and came across the blog of Luke Garfield, a Mix and Mastering Engineer, whose studio has the amusing name BananaLlama. I was intrigued, and thought to myself, might as well bite the bullet and talk to this guy.
A bananallama that speaks a whole different language
I had seen pictures and videos of these engineers sitting behind banks of computer equipment in recording studios, but I did not understand what the role of a sound engineer is. I emailed him a few questions and he understood exactly what the problem was. It turns out I’m not the only one in that boat. Almost every artist and composer gets to that point. I found out that he does exactly what I needed to have done. He works with music recordings and edits them, just like a publishing editor edits written works, to remove the mistakes (a clangy-sounding instrument, a badly matched beat, an off-key note, a missing phrase, a jerky bridge…) and he makes small tweaks to strengthen the essence of the project. Are some notes too loud and others too soft? That can be fixed. You want the piano to sound less Bösendorfer in a hall and more Steinway in a studio? OK, can do. But he obviously cannot make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. If the entire thing is a botch-up then no editing will help.
After another frantic few weeks trying to make the pieces as good as I could get them, I sent him a batch of my songs. I was seriously worried that I would be outed as a talentless no-hoper and be told there is no way these songs can be saved. A few weeks later he sent me back the mixed and mastered version of the first piece. Suddenly, the music that I had had in my mind all along, was there as a perfectly finished sound file! His changes were subtle yet the impact was tremendous. I was seriously impressed with his skill and amazed that he could have created something that sounds so great from what I’d done, and wrote to him:
Obviously he now has more of my compositions to work on. The lesson I learned through this process was that I was throwing good money after sunk costs by continuing to struggle to finish those songs. I simply could not do it myself, but spending more to get it done properly by an expert was a worthwhile investment. And it has been, and continues to be, a huge learning experience. So, how does this recovered song sound? I’m still not confident enough to let other people hear it, but believe me, I am still over the moon happy with it!
C’mon, hand it over
Whether it is a book, a piece of music, a poem, photographs, or a film, you are going to need an editor or two. But referring particularly to writers, a book that is published with mistakes in it is simply wasted money. You’ve invested time and money in the writing, but because it has not been finished properly, your sales will suffer. Readers can forgive poor structuring, plots, characters, settings, etc., to a certain extent. But correct language is a fundamental requirement. You are a writer. You’re supposed to be good at writing in whichever language you call your mother tongue. The best option is to have an editor work on it, and you have a choice of types of editing, depending on how far your project has developed and what it is.
(Help!) You need somebody – (Help!) not just anybody
- Beta editing – Reading followed by candid reactions to drafts or early versions. Can be friends and family, a writing group, experts on various subjects, or a group of fans.
- Developmental editing – Makes recommendations on changes to technical aspects: suitability for intended readers, theme, characters, place settings, time in which it is set, plot, mechanisms, comparison with genre features, etc.
- Structural editing – Assesses the structure: chapters, plot, timeline, story arc, etc. – for complicated stories
- Copy editing – Corrects obvious (generally agreed upon) mistakes/typos in grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choices, usage, sentence structure, number formats, foreign words, etc.
- Proofreading – Compares manuscript to author’s personal style sheet or other style manual; finalizes manuscript for publishing. Working to the author’s style sheet means that ultimately the author always has the final say to approve any changes.
- Fact-checking – Facts, statements, numbers, names, etc. (Rarely done by publishers.)
- Technical editing – Reviewing text written on a technical topic and ensuring adherence to a style guide. Includes copy editing (above) plus checks for scientific terms, units and dimensions, significant figures, ambivalence, disambiguation, conflicting statements, citations, contents list, index, headings and subheadings, data, graphs, charts, etc.
- Online editing and editing for search engine optimization (SEO) – For online publishing, e-books and blogs
All professional authors use one or more or these types of editors – really! Some writers are lucky and have friends, family or fans with the right skills (seriously, otherwise it is wasted effort) to be able to do this for them for free. But whoever your editor is, you will have to work with them to decide which things to fix, and to learn which mistakes you make.
Some writers do not use editors because they do not know that they ought to, or because they think they are fine, or because they cannot afford it. Their books, often debut works, can go into print with mistakes in them, unfortunately branding them as amateurs.
Even the best writers sometimes get it wrong
This brings me to an example where this editing stage went wrong in a publication by a professional author: Eoin Colfer, creator of the successful Artemis Fowl series of children’s books, wrote a sequel to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, called And Another Thing – Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Part Six of Three.
I recently reread it and I noticed many grammar and spelling mistakes. I will not list them here, but they vary from plain bad grammar, to missing and wrong punctuation, to poor sentence structure. I confess I was cheesed off. The more mistakes I found, the more I looked for them, and the more I found. In the end I hardly cared about the story, I was grouchily and vindictively checking every page for typos. I think that the “eagle-eyed editors” from Michael Joseph publishers, whom Colfer thanks in his acknowledgements, got editing fatigue and became careless. That does happen, but it shouldn’t.
You, as the author, must demand that your editor picks up and corrects every last error in what they are specifically checking for. While you are paying them for a professional service, remember, ultimately you, the author, always has the final say to approve any changes. Put it in the contract, and hold them to it. And learn from your mistakes!
Every artist needs an editor
Anyone who produces creative work, songwriters, lyricists, poets, writers, bloggers, etc., needs an editor’s input before they can call their work finished. We sell ourselves short if we’re unable to quit a project because we cannot bring ourselves to let someone else to work on it. To reiterate Godin’s words: “What happened yesterday already happened. It’s a gift and an asset from your previous self.”
If you believe your creative work is worthwhile, and you’re proud of it, don’t release it to the market unless it is as good as it can get – and realize that you are not the one to get it to that end state of perfection. Choose your editor carefully and don’t hesitate to hand it over to them – it’s worth it in the end.