In a recent post here on the blog, a writer just starting out on her indie journey mentioned that she was interested in finding out more about finding, testing and paying an editor. (This one’s for you, Kate M. Colby.) That got me thinking, not just about editing, but about the whole process of polishing your book ready for publication. So here are my thoughts and advice about getting reader-ready …
Everyone Has A Different Standard
I know of authors who upload their first draft directly to Amazon, with the barest of checks beforehand – a quick pass round their friends and family (“My best friend used to teach high school English so she’s the perfect proofreader”), and off it goes. At the other end of the spectrum are authors who throw everything at their manuscripts – financially and otherwise: six drafts followed by a critique, then a structural edit, then a line-by-line edit, then beta-readers, then another ‘final’ edit, then proofreading. Which of these two examples would make the better book, do you think? (My answer might surprise you.)
The Writing Is Everything
I’d say that the better book would depend on the talent of the writer, and on the story and characters they have created. Yes, a novel with countless typos and grammatical errors would indeed be irritating to read, but equally you can’t make a boring, flat, tedious story fantastic just because it’s been edited and proofread to within an inch of its life. I have friends who are editors, and I watch them tearing out their hair with authors who are resistant to suggestions of improvement, or glued to ideas and characters that just don’t work. Why, I’m writing this blog post directly after a tutorial with my supervisor on the MA, and we had a very heated debate about whether a particular plot point in my next novel is or is not ‘convenient’. (I acceded to his viewpoint in the end, of course.)
Editing does not a great book make. Is is not substitution for great writing. So write and write and write some more, learn all you can, read widely, think about what you read and what makes it good or bad, learn some more, write some more, and then – when you are sure you have written the best book you personally can – start to think about the editing process that makes sense for you.
Options For Book-Polishing
Here are the various processes in getting a manuscript ready for publication, in no particular order:
Beta-reading. Beta-readers are lovely people who read your book (usually for free, or a reciprocal read) and give you informal feedback. The feedback may be detailed or brief, you can ask questions or leave it up to them, but the idea is to have a few beta-readers (three or more, but no more than six or seven) so you get a variety of views. Beta-readers are best for getting a feeling of the overall success of the book’s structure, and how effective the ending is, and also for likeability – or relatability – of the characters. Some beta-readers will make notes on typos etc, but it isn’t a substitute for proofreading, in my humble opinion. Find beta-readers via your blog or other social networks – just ask.
Critiquing services. A critique is a little like a beta-read, but by a professional who charges you for their time and comments. Usually this will be a published author, or someone who works in the publishing industry like an editor or agent. I once paid for a critique from the very well-known Hilary Johnson’s Critiquing Service. It was a bracing experience, let me tell you! But it certainly made me a better writer. Personally, I feel the critique should come at the point in your writing career when you are still learning your craft, and shouldn’t perhaps be part of the polishing process, but I know some authors are a little addicted to them so I thought I’d add it here. It should also be said, however, that taking a really good creative writing course will also provide you with opportunities to be critiqued and give you chance to refine your work and learn and improve. Critiquing services cost upwards of £400 for a novel, and as with all writing-related services, it’s usually best to go on a personal recommendation if possible.
Editing. Editing can be carried out on different levels, from structural to line-by-line, and each different type of edit will offer something different to your book. Structural editing may be needed when there is something about a manuscript that simply isn’t working, even though the story is good and the characters are well-drawn. Most authors can structurally edit their own work, and so this takes the form of redrafting. Line-by-line edits are self-explanatory – the editor considers the manuscript at a very detailed level, offering advice and making suggestions to strengthen the writing at the level of the sentence, as well as giving comments on the story as a whole. You can pay anything from £400 to £1000 for a good edit, and it is probably a good idea to get a price per 1000 words rather than per hour. Most editors will be happy to give you a sample before you sign up – you send them a sample chapter, which they mark up with comments etc. Be clear about what it is exactly you are looking for in your editor, both in your own mind and in all communication with them. Get an agreement in writing – email is fine – before you start which sets out how much the edit is to cost and how and when the editor should be paid. Ask your writing friends for recommendations, or join writing communities on Facebook or Twitter to seek out recommendations.
Proofreading. For some reason, people seem to confuse editing and proofreading, or maybe it’s a cultural thing. But as far as I know, in the UK proofreading remains the term for the very, absolutely final process in publishing a book. All editing should be done by now, all changes made. The proofreader checks the manuscript one last time for typos and errors, as well as continuity problems (eye colour changing halfway though the novel, that kind of thing – although the editor may have picked up on this already), before the book goes to print or is uploaded in ebook format. My proofreader currently charges around £4.50 per 1000 words, and is very good on the continuity thing. Again, ask for recommendations before you approach a proofreader – there are many so-called professionals out there who call themselves proofreaders but who aren’t properly trained and who don’t really offer value for money. The Society of Editors and Proofreaders is a good place to start, and where I found my proofreader. (I then contacted one of the authors she listed as a client and asked whether she would recommend the proofreader or not.)
How Much Is Enough?
Only you can answer that question, but make sure you answer it honestly, without being swayed too much by cost. If you are really good at editing your own work and reasonably experienced, you can probably get by with beta-readers and a proofreader. If you have zero budget and are willing to take the flak for errors in your ebook, do your own proofreading – like, a hundred times. If you have the budget and are publishing for the first time, or in a new genre, you could try a critique and probably should contact an editor. Beta-readers never hurt anyone, and often are the people who will pop those all-important early reviews on Amazon, so I would always recommend a beta or two. And don’t forget, when looking for your first beta-readers your blog can be a valuable source of support. Back in 2012 when I started blogging, I posted chapters of my debut novel Can’t Live Without on my brand new blog. The bloggers who commented were my very first beta-readers, and many of them went on to be readers of all my novels – and some went on to be really good friends too.