publishing · writing

Yet another self-publishing guide: Editing

(PLEASE NOTE: I have only self-published two novels, two-thirds of a novel, and two short stories [current amount I have on Smashwords]. I’m as much a newbie to this as you, so feel free to say, “This doesn’t work for me,” and toss out whatever I’m saying. However, please also keep in mind, this is based on my experience, small as it is. If you want a more experienced guide, please take a look at Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, or read his book, Think Like a Publisher. [I do get a small amount from Amazon if you purchase through the above link.])

Okay. You have your manuscript. You’re writing whenever you can, practicing as often as you can, without feeling like a burnt-out ember, and now you have a manuscript you would like to publish.

Now comes the tricky part.

If you went the traditional route, this is where you would send the manuscript off to either an agent or an editor. But you’re self-publishing, meaning you’re responsible for the whole publishing process. This includes the next step in the process: editing.

There are five things you can do:

  1. Hire an editor
  2. Go with beta readers
  3. Use software
  4. Do it yourself
  5. A combination of the above

Here are the pros and cons of each:

  1. Pro: Chances are good you’ll get quality work. You’ll feel comfortable knowing a professional has looked at it. Con: If you don’t know what kind of editing you need, you may get the wrong professional for the job. There is a chance you’ll hire someone whose skills are not as strong as they’d like to think. So, you’ll be in the awful position of having to respond to people who say your book should have been edited when you paid good money to avoid that. Oh, also, editing can be very expensive.
  2. Pro: Free. If you get good beta readers, your structural editing is covered. If  you get really good beta readers, some aspects of copy and line editing might be covered, as well. Con: Done wrong, beta reading can lead to “writing by committee.” This means your voice gets swallowed up in the crowd, along with the energy that drove your original story. Also, beta readers can be very wrong in their attempt to help “fix” whatever isn’t working for them. Bad beta readers can make you wonder why you started writing to begin with.
  3. Pro: Relatively cheap. Will cover proofing and some aspects of copyediting, if you get a solid program. Cons: I haven’t seen a program yet that can say if a story works or not, structurally. It will catch most of what a copyeditor would catch, if you get a good program, but it won’t catch everything. Also, if you don’t have a decent grasp of grammar and punctuation already (or access to someone who does) you may end up introducing mistakes instead of correcting them.
  4. Pro: Voice stays intact. Cons: I used to be much more harsh about this option, but time and experience has softened me. So, here’s my revised view of the cons. If you’re weak in a particular point of grammar, or unsure what to do, you’ll miss something that might derail a reader. You’ll have to be pretty detail-oriented in order to catch as much as a trained editor, and even then, you’ll likely fail. Also, it’s your story. You won’t see it the way others will. But, if this is your only option, I do have some recommendations coming up later in this post.
  5. Pro: You might get exactly what you need. Con: You could end up with the worst of all worlds.

No matter which option you choose, I would strongly recommend reading up on different kinds of editors and how they do what they do. I used books and the web, but any way you get the information is fine.

If you decide to hire an editor, I recommend you read this article on Jane Friedman’s site. I haven’t read the book this is excerpted from (yet) but it’s a very good overview.

If you decide to use beta readers, here are some links (they’re all from Jami Gold’s site but only because I like the way she explains this topic):

Ask Jami: how do we find beta readers?

Three tips for being a better beta reader

What should we look for in a beta reader?

If you decide to do the editing yourself…may God have mercy on your soul.

Seriously, this is not a route I recommend. But. If you must. Here’s what I recommend.

First, put your manuscript away for about a month. The longer it’s been since you wrote it, the more you’ll approach it like a reader, not a writer.

Second, study what great writers do. This means a lot of reading. Read books outside your genre as well as in. Read bestsellers and the books no one has heard of. Read books you couldn’t stand but everyone seems to love. Figure out why you couldn’t stand them. Read books you love and figure out why you love them. Go back to the books you hate and figure out why others love them. Be honest in your analysis (no snark). Be detailed.

Every writer should have access to a dictionary and a thesaurus. In addition, if you’re going to do your own editing, it might be wise to get a good grammar guide (or two or three). If you’re really weak in this area, order something like Analytical Grammar or a similar homeschool textbook and treat it like a class. Whatever you choose, read it. Study it. Most of your grasp of words is going to come from reading, but a guide will help you break apart what works and what doesn’t, on a sentence level.

In line with this, you’ll want to get a style guide of some sort. Research the kind you’ll need. (SF/F uses the Chicago Manual of Style. Why? I have no idea.)

For copyediting, you’ll also need a book on the subject. I like Copyediting: a Practical Guide, by Karen Judd, but just as long as your chosen reference explains the job clearly and how to do the job, it should work.

For the actual editing, I would recommend dividing it up into structural, copy/line edit, and proofing. For structural, print out the manuscript, double-spaced, and read through it like a reader. (I try to do this with everything I write, by the way. It works for me.) Keep notes as you go through, marking with a pen any changes, or taking notes if the changes are really big.

Make the changes in a copy of the original document (so you can replace anything if need be) and put the story away again for at least a week, though a full month would probably be good so that you read like a reader, not a writer.

For copy/line editing, use a style sheet and some sort of thing to keep track of time (calendar, timeline, etc.) so that events are kept straight and somewhat believable. There’s a whole host of things a copyeditor looks for, so try to keep that in mind as you go through.

Make the changes in your edited copy. Save. Put it away again for a long while (more than a week).

Go through it one final time, this time looking for punctuation errors and other little things that were missed in the first two passes. Read slowly and carefully. Do NOT make wholesale changes at this point. Do what you can and move on.

Now, all that said, again, I strongly recommend that you use a hybrid system of some sort if you can’t get an editor. If nothing else, get some good software (Editor by Serenity Software is pretty good as is Word’s grammar checker) for that final proof. It really is amazing the things you’ll miss.

Next time, I’ll talk about covers and what I’ve learned about cover design (get that salt ready).

(By the way, if you really want to do this as a career/job, it’s a good idea to start the next novel or write short stories while you’re preparing a manuscript for publication. Content is vital and must keep coming.)

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7 thoughts on “Yet another self-publishing guide: Editing

  1. There is so much good information here, this is definitely a ‘keeper’ post. I’ve gone with a hybrid solution, but I do worry about your (very valid) point that, having gone with a less experienced editor/proofreader to save money, I might get accused of not having used one when I have! I think that would be worse than knowing I hadn’t….
    Although I love the freedom, flexibility and sheer excitement of self-publishing, this does all make me realise why I keep sending my books to agents anyway, just in case… 🙂

  2. Thanks for linking to my posts! 🙂

    This is a *really* good overview of all the pros and cons for the various options. I haven’t seen such a succinct rundown that still manages to hit the important points quite as well. Great post!

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