I used to be a writer. I had the diaries, the A-grade papers, the high school newspaper bylines, the SAT-II scores and an enrollment in a top journalism school (go Heels!) to show for it. I also had all sorts of delusions of grandeur about being a top self-made travel writer/photographer by the time I reached the age of 25. After a couple of years of jet-setting, I was going to settle somewhere in England or maybe Spain, with my exotic European husband, and shift into ‘family’ mode, while maintaining my writing career via a set of charming and witty memoirs about being a writer, traveling extensively as a young adult, and dealing with the quirks of raising a brood of adorable, dual-citizen, bilingual children in the old farm/vineyard/ramshackle estate that my husband inherited from an eccentric great-uncle.
Sounds awesome, right? Well, guess what. None of that happened. Not one bit of it (except the part where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism). My first mistake was overlooking the ‘blogs are about to change the world’ memo, probably while I was taking the ‘what would your unicorn name be’ quiz and publishing the results (Helleborine Sweet Mare) to my LiveJournal.
What’s more, I underwent a shift in my j-school studies. I don’t remember the hows or whys or whens, but at some point in the middle years of college, I went from wanting to be the writer to wanting to be the editor. I think it had something to do with the cram sessions, called grammar slammers, held in advance of the dreaded spelling and grammar exam. All journalism students had to get a passing grade on this test to graduate - even those guys in the photojournalism and graphic design tracks. (I scored a 94. Booyah.)
I loved these grammar sessions. I found more satisfaction in knowing the right answers than I ever did in my writing assignments. Ticket for the clue train, right? So I took the editing classes, I worked for the campus publications as a copy editor, and I edited friends’ papers with relish. Just ask Bryan - he was one of them.
Eventually I stopped slogging around the nonprofit scene and struck out on my own, as a freelance editorial catch-all. Which brings me to you. You’re a writer. I’m an editor. And we need each other.
You, as a writer, are a very special unicorn. You have stories, ideas, campaigns, and/or novels clawing their way out of you. These are all made up of words, and those words are unique to you. See? Special.
The problem is, you really aren’t that special. You’re (presumably) a flawed human being, which is my way of saying that you can’t get everything 100% right in the first, unseen drafts of your project. Yet there are many of you - yes, I’m talking to you - who let those unseen drafts become your final product. This is not a good decision on your part. Seriously. ‘Going it alone’ when presenting your work is not the way you’ll find success at this writing thing.
In general, people (or companies) make money by selling a product or service. As a writer, your words are your product - your source of income. Your product is the foundation of your brand. Your brand - your reputation, or your ‘street cred’ - is your identity as a writer. Maybe your brand is your name (Jen Lancaster ), maybe it’s your business name (Major League Baseball ), or maybe it’s even an idea or a movement that you spearhead (Budgets Are $exy) or maybe it’s multi-faceted (Kraft Foods). But ultimately, your brand is going to be the foundation of your success, whether that means a publishing deal, a steady freelancing paycheck, or today’s magic number of RSS subscribers.
How does a brand become successful? Well, aside from well-aligned planets and fistfuls of fairy dust, the key to success is credibility (you thought I was going to say marketing, didn’t you?). If a product consistently delivers the goods, the brand is perceived as ‘legit’ and is likely going to grow (assuming things like a working business model and scalability are also in place, but you’re a writer so you probably don’t need to worry about that so much). Incidentally, this is where marketing plays a roll - in spreading your message and making opportunities to build your credibility.
If a brand promises something that it can’t deliver, people will get cranky and mutter about how their border collie could do better than ‘those clowns.’ Then, sooner or later, nobody’s gonna buy. The brand has lost any credibility it might have had. You do not want to be that brand. (That reminds me, how’s your Enron stock doing?)
Here’s the deal: the quality of your product is the key to your brand’s credibility. That means that as a writer, your credibility is built on the quality of your writing. To be credible, you need to be professional. And as a writer, especially a self-publishing writer of any sort, another way of saying ‘professional’ is ‘free of errors.’
Whether you know the mechanics of the language or not, there are those in your audience - including those who can make a difference in your success - who do know the mechanics, and your mistakes get on their nerves. I am one of many people to thumb through a self-published book or poke around a blog without buying or subscribing - not because the material wasn’t interesting, but because there were too many typos.
Why are typos such a turnoff? Here’s why: basic spelling and grammar errors scream “I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU!" Writers who don’t have their work reviewed give off the appearance that they care more about hitting the publish button than they do about polishing their product for the readers (also known as ‘the people who can make or break the writer’s career’). Writers! You need to respect your readers! Many of them are probably smarter than you (no offense)! Do right by them! Have somebody take a look at your work! For the love of Pete!
If you’re a writer now, and you take your writing seriously, you should hire an editor, no questions asked. Editors offer all kinds of services - everything from proofreading (fixing commas and spelling) to copy editing (fixing some of the writing itself) to developmental editing (evaluating the entire project and making major recommendations regarding the structure, plot, etc.). If you were not one of the lucky people with an English teacher in the family, you can find an editor at pretty much any price point. It should be no surprise that with editorial services, like many other services, you get what you pay for. And by the way, those copy editors that the self-publishing company offers are often worthless. Do your work justice and get that service on your own.
If you’re the smart, successful person we all know you are, and you’ve demonstrated this by deciding to hire an editor (I’m looking at YOU, self-publishers) and you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend heading over to the Editorial Freelancers Association. While there, you can post a job description that will go out to approximately 50 zillion legitimate editors, who will then bid on your job (so be prepared for a flood of responses!). You can also check out the EFA's Rate Chart to get an idea of what kinds of rates you expect. Don’t let those rates scare you off, though: not every editor charges the average, and some editors cut breaks for students and individual authors (I am one of these nice people). Additionally, a few of us (ahem) editors love bloggers and have a special service for them, sort of a subscription-based low (low!) monthly retainer type of thing.
In short, you need an editor. By hiring one, not only will you be coming off smarter than maybe you are, but you’ll be presenting your best work, in its best shape - and really, isn’t that what this writing thing is all about? (Aside from seeing your name on the bookstore shelves, of course.) Your readers, who have earned your respect simply by looking at your work, will appreciate the effort (especially those editorial assistants) and will be more inclined to show it by buying and/or sharing your week, or even by hiring you, if that’s what your bent is. You may even get the feel-goods for supporting someone in your industry (who probably isn’t your competition).
Ashley Daoust is a freelance editor living in Denver, CO. She spends her free time laughing with her husband, knitting, and trying to convince the border collie not to chew on drywall. To learn more about Ashley and her services, visit her website at http://www.adeditorial.com. Tell her Bryan sent you, and she’ll give you a 20% discount on your first project with her.
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.