Last week I explained why editing is essential to the publishing process and how to go about snagging your very own helpful editor. This week I’m going to explain some money-saving shortcuts you can take to reach a professional, polished final product without breaking the bank.
While you should never forgo professional editing entirely, there are plenty of things you can do to produce a cleaner manuscript that will require less professional help.
Editing You Can Do Yourself: Round One
Let your completed manuscript sit, ideally for at least a month. Don’t work on it. Don’t even peek at it. The more recently you’ve read the work in question, the harder it will be to get an accurate idea of how it holds up.
After a cooling-down period, read back through your work. Is the narrative gripping? Does it hold your attention? Does it work? Are there places that are confusing, jumbled, or too slow? Are there plot holes? Revise as needed.
Read through again and fix any of the above that survived. Remove unnecessary wordiness. Correct awkward sentences and typos. Now you’re ready for the author’s secret weapon: test readers!
What Are Test Readers?
What these readers are called and what they do varies a lot depending on who you ask. Those who read early on in your story’s development, for instance while it’s still a rough draft, may be referred to as alpha readers. Those who read later drafts may be called beta readers. Typically I would call readers who receive fully edited copies prior to publication advance readers, but some people refer to these as beta readers as well.
Early on in the editing process, some test readers serve a similar function to developmental editors. They point out weaknesses and inconsistencies in story structure, plot, and characterization, and may even suggest solutions.
Some provide a reader’s viewpoint: does the intro pull me in? Does it make me want to keep reading? Did the story grip me from start to finish? If not, where was it weak and why?
Finally, some test readers make a final pass for errors your editor(s) missed.
In short, there’s a lot test readers can do for you! I recommend making them part of your team whether you can afford an expensive editing package or not.
Where Do I Find Test Readers?
Test readers can be friends who read your genre of choice and respect you enough to give you their honest, helpful opinion. They can be other authors, or even strangers from writing and critique groups.
A good way to build up a list of contacts who may be willing to test read for you is to offer to do so for others. Get involved with the author communities of your genre(s) of choice on Twitter and Facebook, and keep an eye out for other writers looking for test readers. Be prepared to return your feedback within the time frame requested, and be as helpful as possible.
Regardless of where you find your readers, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Ideally, your readers should read and enjoy the genre you write. It’s hard to provide a helpful critique of something which bores you or which you’re unfamiliar with.
- When working with people you don’t know, it’s not a bad idea to include some kind of non-disclosure agreement.
- Let your readers know ahead of time if you’d like their comments back by a certain date. Likewise, briefly outline what kind of feedback you’re looking for.
- If they’ll be reading a rough draft, warn them so they can focus on the big picture (plot, characters, tone, pacing) rather than grammar and punctuation.
- Always be professional about the feedback you receive.
Self Editing: Round Two
Once you have your first draft back (or whatever you’ve chosen to call the draft you polished up and sent out to your alpha readers,) it’s time to assess the feedback you received and revise accordingly.
While not all feedback will be helpful and not all suggestions lead in the direction you want to go, it’s a good idea to review all feedback with an open mind. A good rule of thumb is if multiple readers point out a flaw, there’s probably something to it. Resist the urge to go back and explain a particular point to your readers; if they’re not getting the point from the manuscript, there’s room for improvement.
Once you’ve identified places in need of improvement and revised or rewritten accordingly, give your manuscript time to cool off and then go back through your editing steps. If you plan to go to an editor for your second round of outside eyes, this would be a good time to make your manuscript really shine (see below.)
Outside Eyes: Round Two
At this point you could either go to a professional editor, or to another set of test readers. While these can be the readers you used in round one, it’s more effective to use different readers for your alpha and beta reads. Ideally they’ll be looking for any major lingering problems with your manuscript (and if they identify any, don’t ignore them!) as well as pointing out smaller errors.
Revise and correct accordingly. While you should have been making your manuscript the best you could with every pass, now’s the time to really make it shine. Here are some things you can do to reduce the number of errors that slip by.
Make Word work for you
Thanks to its near-universal adoption by writers, editors, and publishing platforms, there’s a good chance you own Microsoft Word. If so, it includes some tools that can be useful during your self-editing process. Word’s spell-check function is better than some other word processors’, but I still run into common words and names it doesn’t recognize, so it can be worthwhile to double-check its work. Word’s grammar checker can come in handy for spotting awkward sentences, and even more so for words that are spelled correctly but used out of context. Remember vs remembered, for instance, or stand vs stained.
When editing for consistency, Word’s find function is extremely useful. I personally prefer grey over gray, but decided to use gray in my published work because it’s considered the US English standard spelling. I used the find function to quickly locate each usage of grey.
Caveat: I don’t recommend using the automatic find and replace function, because Word will replace any instance of the set of letters specified with the new set of letters specified. That includes when the letters specified are part of another word. This can lead to horrific errors, like replacing ‘may’ with ‘will’ and ending up will a character named Willbelline using the word ‘willbe’ in dialogue while talking about the month of Will.
Second caveat: when changing a character’s name, make sure you search for possessives and shortened versions/misspellings separately, because as noted above Word will search for that exact combination of letters, and that exact combination only. If you are changing William to Richard, Word will find all instances of William but not William’s, Williams, or Will.
While you may never be your own best proofreader, this is a useful trick to upgrade your proofreading game. Change the font of your manuscript to something readable with a different appearance than what you usually write with. This forces your brain to pay more attention to what it’s reading, thus making it less likely to skip over typos and punctuation errors.
The Final Polish
While every author’s editing process is different, and you may even have some helpful editors in your test reader team, I generally don’t recommend publishing without having an editor go over your work. Doubly so if your test readers have mentioned that your manuscript looks good for pre-line edit or pre-proofread work.
You may be asking “Why did I go to all this trouble if I’m going to have an editor go over it anyway?” The answer is simple: the cleaner your work is, the less editing it will need and the less that editing will cost you.
If you’re on a tight budget, there are editors out there who charge very low rates. While price doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, I do recommend getting a sample edit to see what an editor can do for you. (For more on picking an editor who’s a good fit, see my previous post in this series.)
One editor I’ve worked with myself and can comfortably recommend is Berger Proofreading and Copy Editing. Her rates are quite affordable and she does excellent work.
In conclusion, hope this series has helped you on your editing journey. Now go out and make your writing the best it can be!