I have already discussed editing before, but I think the subject is so imperative to self-publishing that it couldn't be ignored when discussing the basics. Editing comes in many forms. To completely understand the process of publishing is not my goal here, but I feel it important to at least hit the high spots of how a book goes to print.
The Author's Edits
As writers, we need to understand that grammar, spelling, and punctuation are crucial to ensuring that our message is clear. I teach writing students that the number one rule of writing is clarity. If we can't make others understand, then we have failed. Our job is communication: ideas, stories, events, information, emotions, or messages. Our readers must be able to pick up our book and at least on the surface, understand what we are trying to convey.
To do this, we as authors must be the first and most stringent editors. This is difficult, because we often gloss over small details. Our inner voice "hears" the comma and therefore it is there, whether we typed it or not. We read it to ourselves and see "him" when it actually says "hem."
I am as guilty of this as anyone, so I do not feign superioritity, but rather empathy. Recently, I submitted my novel DARK MOUNTAIN to a friend to edit it. At our first meeting, she asked me, "Did you know you start a lot of sentences with 'And?'" I nodded, realizing that I did in fact do this purposefully at times. I also don't add a conjunction sometimes in compound sentences on purpose. I try for a unique style and voice that transcends grammatical rules without sacrificing the reading experience, the clarity (see, I did it right there). The problem was, when I re-visited the manuscript, I saw something HORRIFYING. I didn't just use this technique once or twice per chapter but rather multiple times on EVERY PAGE! Boy, was I ever embarrassed.
Other things that crop up: the Oxford Comma (serial comma, the one after the "and" in a list), the ommission of words ("he went the trip"), and lack of capitalization (coke instead of Coke). More probably exist, I don't know. The point is, as the writer, your edit goes first.
The author's edit needs to go deeper than grammar, spelling, and punctuation. We need to be aware of all of the elements of a story. This is a tall order, but if we have honed our craft, then it becomes easier. First, if you are to be a writer, you need to be a READER. Understand what story elements work: pacing, dialogue, plot twists, character development, suspense, paragraph develepment, sentence length variance, transition words, story intros, rising action, resolutions, multiple plots, interweaving plots, and more. Understand the elements that are common to your genre by reading in your genre.
The second step you can take in order to hone your craft is to study. Plenty of resources exist at the library, online, in writing magazines, and through writing classes offered locally. The best way to become a better writer is to spend time writing, find an audience, and discover what works and what needs more work. You have natural strengths as a writer; nourish them. You have natural weakness, too. These you will need to strengthen through practice, study, and feedback from an audience. Writer's critique groups are great places to hone your skills, and tighten your writing. Be prepared to offer as much constructive feedback as you receive; a critique group becomes stronger only if every member gives as well as receives.
The Line/Copy Editor
Once you have polished your novel to the best of your ability and feel it is strong the way it is, it is time to send it off to get it taken apart and taken to a different level. That would be what editors do. Before you cringe, thinking this is too harsh of a punishment for the baby you have sent out, realize that this part of the process is necessary. You are too close to the novel. You have birthed it, wiped its little story bum, burped it, and watched as it took its first steps and spoke its first words. Now it is time for someone else to mold this young'un to make it better.
Think of an editor as a grandmother, a loving kindergarden teacher, a Bible school teacher or a favorite Aunt. Their role with your baby is important, but they are removed from it. In the end, the grandmother hands the baby back to the parent with its bum dry, a few more sweets than is normally recommended, and smile on her face. The point is, they love your baby, too. They just see it differently than you do. You may find that they can be more strict, more precise, and less attached to your baby than you are.
This can result in the recommendation to cut characters, lose chapters, change directions, change the order of events, add a section, fill in plot gaps, fix punctuation...you get the picture. Your spit and polish is all fine and good, but the editor brings in a butcher knife, a plunger, and a brush. Some things need to be cut, some sucked out, and some spread around.
In the end, all of these editing processes are necessary. They occupy a totally different skill set to putting the story on paper (screen). The self-published world gets knocked hard because writers rush things out, don't edit, don't have the writing chops, and don't get their work edited. It is a shame. Some of these writers actually may have a good yarn to tell. By ignoring editing, they make a mess of things. They ruin their reputation and continue to support the opinions of those who think that self-published writing is "dreck."