Friday, 24 August 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: what if I can't afford professional editing?

From a blog comment:
Dear Crabbit,
It would be great if you did a post on the best things we can do if we can't afford a full-editing service, Nicola. I'm on a strict family income and spending on my writing just can't take centre stage. I can save and build some money to use, and would love to know the best way to spend it to get the best advice for my work. I can see how important outside proof reading and editing can be, so I want to get it right with my limited resources!
Good question, especially since I was accused of giving bad advice when I mentioned that I'd paid very little for the editing of my short self-published books! To repeat: I wasn't advising anyone to skip the editing process and most of you know that I would never do that. I'm a constant champion of the need for published work to be properly edited, and that includes self-published work.

Editing in all its forms is a skill and an important one, or an important set of skills.

However, we are what we are and most of us would find it hard to pay the full cost of a professional editor. A self-published writer is entitled to cut whatever corners she wishes, and to cope with the consequences, which may be a flawed work. 

But I hope you want to avoid that. As a self-publishing writer, you want to produce the best work you possibly can. 

So, let's suppose that, however much you might wish to, you simply cannot afford the rightly substantial charges of experts and you don't have any expert editors amongst your friends who might give you "mates rates."

First, you need to be clear what the stages of editing generally are. Loosely:
  1. Editing - a "global" edit, looking for "big" things such as: structural flaws, problems with characterisation, inconsistencies or unbelievability of plot, and stylistic hiccups and voice or pov issues. This sort of editor will point out the flaws and suggest changes. YOU make the changes. Editors will also point out smaller things that they happen to notice, but it is not their job. (If you are looking for more detail, you need to ask for the next editing levels.)
  2. Copy-editing - a copy-editor checks for smaller errors, everything from inconsistencies and sentences or phrases that don't sound quite right to spelling and punctuation errors. A copy-editor would not be expected to make judgements about characterisation or plot.
  3. Proof-reading - proof-reading happens after the copy-edited work is typeset (for printed books) or formatted (for ebooks). In practice, proof-reading may happen before ebook formatting but it can only be done on a "final" document because the proof-reader is also looking for layout errors and appearance on the "page". The proof-reader checks for typos of any sort, including tiny things such as a double character space (they must be single) or a word which is hyphenated or capitalised in one place and not another. A good proof-reader would notice small points missed by the copy-editor, but a proof-reader should not be expected to undertake that stage unless agreed. 
You can see that different skills are involved. Professional editors (etc) are trained in what to look for and how to convey that to the writer.

So, how can you ensure that your book is "clean" if you simply cannot pay a professional?

1. Quid pro quo - do you have a skilled friend who might do part of this work in return for you doing something for her or him? Bear in mind that for some part of this you could be looking at something worth several hundred pounds, but money isn't everything and it could be that you can dog-sit (a few times!), garden, cook, anything you can do that your friend can't or doesn't have time for.

2. Your writing group - again, do you have experts or even people with very good judgement and experience in your writing group who could share this work amongst them? OK, so it looks as though I'm advocating crowd-sourced editing; I'm not, necessarily: I'm talking about making use of the skills of your friends and doing the same in return. No, it won't be nearly as good as using a professional editor, but we've already established that you can't afford that. We are working with what we've got.
      A similar approach, if you don't have a writing group or they aren't keen to do it, would be to ask for beta-readers. Do choose them wisely, though: they need to be knowledgeable in the genre, honest but also sensitive, and you need to work out what to do when you don't agree... (I spoke about this in Write to be Published.)

3. Cut your cloth to fit your budget - work out what you can afford and pay for at least part of the process. For example, perhaps you could pay for a professional critique of the first 10,000 words. This could give you a great insight into what else needs to be done in terms of a) the global edit and b) your language and voice. You can then put those points into effect. (Please choose your consultant carefully. I used to do this but am not taking on more clients, but I do have two trusted colleagues who might be able to help you.)
     Or, if you've had masses of feedback from your critique group or beta readers and are confident in the overall aspects of your book, save your money for copy-editing and/or proof-reading.
     I recommend that you do not cut corners on the proof-reading stage, so if you have a small budget, set it aside for this. (Unless you have a genuinely eagle-eyed and willing friends who might be able to do a great "amateur" job.)

How much might you need to pay? Here are two useful things for you to read:

Hope that helps. Editing in all its forms is really important and, done properly, a highly skilled task. However, if you can't afford to pay a professional, you can't. This does not mean you shouldn't self-publish, just that you will have to work harder to find solutions, and you may not get a perfect result. Your readers may well be tolerant of lack of perfection - besides, we've all regularly found the odd error in even brilliantly published work that has been professionally edited. That is the case for every single one of my published and self-published books. There's a typo in Dear Agent now... 

No one is perfect. We all just try to be. 


The Staff Wielder said...

This is a hard one... I'm lucky enough that my mum is a retired teacher, do I have her as a copy editor now, and a friend who works in editing who kindly does my 'global' edit work. With my first book I wasn't so lucky and it's only now that I'm happy with it.
It's important to edit and use help to do so from wherever you can find it!

F.A.Ellis said...

Nice post,and very helpful.I have to share this,and I also have to read over some of your older blog post.

I'm aspiring author/poet...and it's taking me a long time for me to get published.

Squidge said...

Just to back up what Nicola has said about beta-readers in the 'does the story work?' phase...I've used one recently, and her observations and suggestions are sensitive, honest and constructive.

More importantly, she 'gets' my way of writing, which is really important; she hasn't written the changes for me, but has allowed me to find my own way of expressing those I felt necessary to include.

I return the favour by offering to read her there's mutual benefit for both of us at no cost, except in time.

Lisa Shambrook said...

Excellent advice. It's a tough one when we're advocated to get as much professional help as possible, but not able to afford it all... This makes it easier to see where spending would work best and then be able to prioritise.
I've enjoyed returning to edit an older work after some previous professional story-line advice and maybe Beta Readers could be a port of call in the future. Then perhaps I can concentrate on paying for the deeper editing...we'll see.
Thanks for the post Nicola.

JO said...

Such useful advice. It's a tough call - weighing up the need for professional advice to make sure our books are the best they can possibly be without leaving us so short of money we have to sing for our suppers.

Diane Fordham said...

Excellent advice. Always a help to know people if you're not confident in editing your own material. :-)

Ebony McKenna. said...

Very good question and an excellent answer.

Make a budget and work out what you can afford. Don't forget to make a budget for the cover art as well. As much as people might say they don't, we do judge books by their covers as well.

Cameron said...

Totally agree with Ebony about the cover. That counts for a lot.
From my own experience (and I'm a retired English teacher too) I thought I hadn't done a bad job of self-editing.... until I got a "to do" list from my first editor and I was appalled at how much there was. I ended up virtually re-writing the book.
Been there, done that, was lucky to get out of the situation but yes, I do know how tough it is. Good question.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent advice, Nicola. One thing I did with my RLF students when they were writing pieces too long for me to go through completely (eg PhD theses) was to go through the first (say) three pages giving very detailed feedback with full explanations, then the next three just highlighting the same errors (colour-coded) and annotating any new errors. They then had to go through the rest finding and correcting the errors.

If you paid a professional to do this for you and were then very careful to DO the checking and correcting yourself, you could get a lot of the benefit of a full copy edit for less expense. It won't help in terms of a structural edit, obviously, as the person doesn't read the whole.

Becky said...

This is really helpful. I've been hearing more and more about self-publishing lately, but how much would that cost? I'm a student and couldn't dream of affording an editor, let alone self-publishing, yet I'm hearing more and more that it's an option worth considering?

Neil Ansell said...

One thing which struck me about this query was the unspoken assumption that editing is something that needs to be paid for ie the assumption that self-publishing is the only option. If the writer thinks their work has merit, then why not try to get it traditionally published? If it is accepted, then the publishers pay you for the privilege of editing your work.

Nicola Morgan said...

Neil - I agree with the underlying message in your comment, but the question was, I am assuming, from someone who does plan to self-publish, so i answered as such. I, too, prefer the idea of being published by a publisher (of the proper sort, ie selectively buying publishing rights and taking over the full cost etc) but there are some books that genuinely don't suit that. For example, a novella, or something radical, or short niche non-fiction (such as my Dear Agent and Write a Great Synopsis.)

Becky - I'm really sorry but there's such a lot I could say but this blog really isn't the place! If you are being published, you do not pay for editing (or anything). Self-publishing itself doesn't necessarily cost anything (if ebooks), but if you choose not to pay for editing, and cover design, at the very least, your book is unlikely to look or be professional. I suggest you read lots of blogs by self-publishing writers - I am first and foremost a published author, working with my publishers. My self-publishing was a sideline.

Everyone else - so sorry I haven't kept up well with comments recently. As you know, I'm changing direction and winding down the blog, and that's part of the reason. I don't like doing something if I can't do it well!

Stroppy - yup, and that's the method I've done with clients when I did Pen2Publication. Very helpful all round!

Cameron - indeed!

Middleyearsmadam said...

Your post Nicola, and the subsequent series of comments, are extremely useful for someone (me!) at the stage of contemplating how far to take the editing process with my first novel before deciding where to send it.

Thank you all!

Nicola Morgan said...

Middleyearsmadam - really important for me to emphasise that you do not have to (and shouldn't) have your novel edited before submission. Certainly, you should "self-edit", ie make it as absolutely wonderful as possible, but there are serious downsides to actually employing an editor before submission.

HOWEVER, it's also worth pointing out that nowadays even some trade publishers are demanding a high level of publication-readiness before acceptance. A problem I have no time to address!