In an ideal world, every manuscript would go through multiple levels of editing, but hiring professional editors can be expensive. Even traditional publishers are cutting back on the amount of editing they do. But a quality product is important in today's oversaturated market ... how can a writer with a limited budget compete?
Editing takes time ... and it's hard work.
"Editing demands a yogi's physical stamina, flexibility, and steady mind." ---- Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
And if you're going to hire someone to do it for you (which is necessary if you want a professional product) ...
It also takes money.
But you can reduce the amount of money you spend on editing by increasing the time you spend refining your manuscript.
The following suggestions aren't a substitute for professional editing, but they can help your book get into better shape so an editor will have less to do. Your book may end up requiring less passes, and you may be able to get away with hiring only one professional set of eyes.
So before handing your manuscript off to a professional, make it as polished as you can.
"Write that heavenly story. And then edit the hell out of it." —Beth Hill, The Magic of Fiction
Please don't send your manuscript off to an editor (or to be published!) immediately after writing "The End" at the bottom of your first draft (unless you're stuck and need help from a developmental editor—see below). There's a reason it's called a first draft, because after it comes rewriting, rewriting, and more rewriting.
If you need guidance on rewriting (and how it subtly differs from self-editing), I highly recommend The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words into Story by Beth Hill.
Editing is a different skill than writing, and putting in the time to master this skill is one of the best ways to save money on your book.
When writers learn to better edit themselves, editors will not be out of jobs; rather they will be working with texts at a more advanced stage, and their work will be less an act of excavation than one of refinement." ---- Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
Get some distance
Editing requires objectivity, which is why even editors need their writing edited. (For a more detailed take on the many ways to gain emotional distance, check out the first chapter of Susan Bell's The Artful Edit.)
Set it aside
You may not have a big budget, but if you have an abundance of time, you can set your manuscript aside for a while. When you return to it, you'll have gained the needed distance to see things you couldn't before. The amount of time needed to achieve "fresh eyes" varies from person to person, but try for at least a few weeks.
Change it up
If time is in short supply, a great way to achieve distance (which requires advanced planning) is to write your first draft by hand rather than on screen (or, if on screen, resist the temptation to constantly scroll back and rework your writing). When it comes time to self-edit, the words will be less familiar to you.
If you've already written your manuscript, try changing the font, reading your manuscript aloud to yourself or another person, changing your location (if you write in bed on your tablet, edit at your desk on your computer), or printing out your manuscript and editing on paper.
Hone your skills
Books on self-editing and reference books for editors are great low-cost resources for writers; these are my favorites for self-editing at the big-picture (developmental) level and at the sentence level:
The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words into Story by Beth Hill
The following were the main texts used in my copyediting course, and are great for the nitty-gritty style and grammar details:
The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn
The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage by Mark Lester and Larry Beason
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (Though, to save money, getting the 16th edition is probably a fine alternative for fiction writers intending to get a professional copyedit.)
To my knowledge, there isn't an up-to-date style guide geared specifically for fiction. So I wrote a series of blog posts on fiction style, and then compiled them into a pdf e-book for ease of use. For more information, check out the blog post "A Fiction Style Guide for Independent Authors."
#3. Enlist the help of others
Once you've "edited the hell out of it," it's time to get more eyeballs on your manuscript. Writers are so close to their work it's essential to get feedback from actual readers, and doing so may help you avoid the expense of developmental editing.
Friends and Family
Loved ones are the easiest people to ask for a favor. But because they care about you, they might not feel comfortable pointing out what isn't working in your story. So you shouldn't rely too heavily on friends and family for feedback, and you generally shouldn't use them for beta readers. However, if you happen to know an eager reader who isn't afraid of telling it straight, or you have a friend who's trying to break into editing and is looking to gain experience, consider enlisting their help.
However, close friends and family members can make good alpha readers: those you bounce ideas off of during your early drafts. And the ones with sharp eyes might be able to help out with proofreading your manuscript before it's sent out to beta readers or after it's been copyedited by a professional (because nobody catches everything). Pointing out a few typos is much less emotionally fraught than critiquing a loved one's story arc or writing style.
While a professional is optimal for the final proofread, if your budget's tight your money may be better spent further up the editing chain. But if you do opt for volunteer proofreading, try to enlist several people rather than just one. And be clear you just want them to look for indisputable errors like missing words, typos, or double words, not offer their opinions about your writing or suggest changing things they think are grammar mistakes but actually aren't. You don't want to undo the professional copyediting you paid good money for.
Beta reading is a volunteer service performed by non-professionals who read your manuscript and tell you their reactions. While some people charge for the service, that's the exception rather than the rule.
Look for beta readers that fit the profile of your target audience, but it doesn't hurt to have a few who aren't widely read in your genre since they'll bring different perspectives. And try to get at least five if you plan to skip developmental editing.* If only one reader finds your main character unlikeable, it's fairly easy to dismiss the criticism, but if two or more point out the same problem, it carries a lot more weight.
Beta readers can be found through your author website, social media, online writers' communities, author groups on Facebook, local book clubs, and through writer friends' recommendations.
Even though beta reading is a free service, it's only good karma to be willing to return the favor, and a free copy of the published book or a mention in the acknowledgments is a great way to show your appreciation.
For more on beta readers and how to work with them, check out these excellent articles:
The difference between beta readers and critique partners is that a critique partner will give you feedback from the perspective of someone with knowledge of—and experience in—the writing craft. It's a one-on-one, reciprocal relationship, so you should seek out critique partners whose writing ability is similar to your own.
To help you get started, The Write Life has an article on the 41 Places to Find a Critique Partner Who Will Help You Improve Your Writing.
*Know yourself and proceed with caution. Some writers can be derailed by too many other voices, losing confidence in their own vision. If you suspect this may be you, consider limiting beta readers to only a few that you really trust, or eschew them altogether for a book coach or developmental editor. For more on the pitfalls of using beta readers, check out this interesting article by Carolyn Haley.
#4. Self-edit again
Once you've processed the feedback, it's time to do more self-editing. With any luck, you selected astute readers who were able to pick up on many of the same issues that a developmental editor would—and your critique partners have helped you come up with viable solutions for these issues. But if after you've revised you still feel unsatisfied with elements of your book, it may be time to procure the services of a developmental editor. Another option is to go back to your critique partners and beta readers (or acquire new ones) to determine if the changes you made are working and if there's still revision that needs to be done.
In my opinion, finding effective beta readers and critique partners is the single most important thing you can do to save money. However, wrangling multiple beta readers through multiple rounds of self-editing is certainly harder work than handing your manuscript to a developmental editor, so if you can afford it, by all means work with an editor or a book coach.
If you decide to go with developmental editing, opting for a manuscript critique is the most affordable option. The editor will read your manuscript and write a report on what is and what isn't working in your manuscript, with suggestions for how to fix any problems—similar to a beta read, only done by a pro. But because the editor isn't going line by line, commenting within the manuscript, a critique is significantly less expensive than a full developmental edit.
#5. Be strategic about the editor/editing services you choose
Picking the wrong editor can be a costly mistake—and by "wrong editor" I don't mean a bad editor, but a bad-fit editor—so it's important to figure out what your book needs, find an editor that specializes in that, and then communicate clearly with that editor so you're on the same page. Requesting a basic copyedit when what you need is a heavier copyedit (often called a line edit) can lead to an additional round of editing that you didn't budget for. And asking for a proofread when what you need is a copyedit is another common mistake. Many editors will tell you if they think your manuscript needs a different level of service than what you're requesting, but they can't always tell this from a sample.
Some editors specialize in one level of editing, while other editors will do whatever they think the manuscript requires (a comprehensive edit). If you're doing a lot of self-editing to save money and you can afford to hire only one editing professional, you should first consider your weaknesses as a writer and self-editor. If your story is strong and you're a natural wordsmith who spends a lot of time polishing each sentence, a basic copyedit may be just the ticket. If your story is strong but the writing could use some refinement at the sentence level, then finding an editor who will do a combo line edit/copy edit is probably your best bet—more expensive than a basic copyedit, but cheaper than doing line editing and copyediting separately.
#6. Sweat the small stuff
Something that can be easily overlooked by a writer can be a huge time suck for their copyeditor. And since time is money, why not get it right before paying someone else to do it?
Double-check your timeline
With each new scene that represents a jump in time, your copyeditor has to stop and record when it happened in relation to the other scenes. Then, if there's an inconsistency or illogicality in the timeline, the copyeditor either has to fix it or suggest a way to fix it. A little glitch here and there is to be expected—and is within the scope of copyediting—but major timeline problems create major headaches, possibly resulting in entire chapters needing to be moved or revised, something that is better to resolve before copyediting.
I dream of the day a writer gives me a timeline that they created when structuring their story; then I could simply check the events in the story against the timeline to see if everything matches up. If I can see up front that there's an underlying logic to the passage of time, then I know that any discrepancies in the text are either caused by simple errors or by misleading wording that belies the author's intent— straightforward, easy fixes. Otherwise I might spend time untangling events only to discover the confusion was caused by one misleading phrase—time and money wasted.
I get it that tracking your timeline on paper or on a spreadsheet might make your head hurt (sometimes it makes my head hurt too), so if your brain just doesn't work that way, this is a great opportunity to make use of a detail-oriented, logic-minded loved one who's been dying to help (or owes you a favor😉).
Avoid fancy formatting
Formatting and book design take place after copyediting, so it's a waste of your time ---- and your editor's time—to get creative with the visual look of your Word document. Your editor will have to undo your formatting in order to prepare your manuscript for the book designer and make it easier to edit: fancy fonts and creative colors are hard on the eyes.
Use black, Times New Roman, 12-point type on a white background
Use standard page size (8.5" x 11") and set margins to one inch on all sides
Set alignment to left justified and line spacing to double-spaced
Don't make a mess
Even if your manuscript doesn't look fancy, there may be an invisible mess lurking under the surface,* just waiting to gobble up your editor's time (and your money). If your copyeditor doesn't clean it up, your book formatter/designer will have to. Either way, you'll have to pay for the time spent. To prevent this, make sure to do the following:
Instead of hitting the Tab key (or the Space Bar five times) to indent paragraphs, go to Paragraph settings and set a .5 inch indent for the first line. (Even better, use Styles—see below). In fiction manuscripts, all but the first paragraph of a chapter or the first paragraph after a scene break should be indented.
Limit yourself to only one space between sentences—no matter what your typing teacher taught you years ago. If you're having trouble breaking the habit, use Find & Replace to locate and delete any extra spaces. (Enter two spaces into the Find box and one space into the Replace box).
At the end of a chapter, hit Enter/Return and then add a Page Break instead of hitting Enter over and over until you get to the next page.**
Never use soft returns in your manuscript (Shift + Enter).
Hit Enter only once at the end of a paragraph. Don't use tabs at the end of a paragraph to begin a new one.
Signify scene breaks not with an extra hard return, but with three asterisks. This makes it clear to your editor that the scene break is intentional and prevents it from getting lost in the book designer's initial formatting process (where they'll delete any extra hard returns); whether or not your scene breaks have a graphic or an extra line space in the finished book is something to work out with your book designer.
Instead of manually formatting your chapter headings and paragraphs, use Styles. This allows you to navigate your document easily and simplifies any future formatting changes. For more about using Styles, Louise Harnby has an informative article, Formatting Your Book in Word: How to Save Time with the Styles Tool.
Take care when pasting passages from other drafts/documents into your manuscript, especially if you formatted each document differently. You may end up with different fonts or formatting mixed throughout, and sometimes the differences aren't even visible until you try to apply styles or modify a style.
Send your manuscript as one document, not individual chapters as separate files.
*You can reveal hidden formatting marks by clicking on the paragraph symbol (pilcrow) in the upper right of the Paragraph section of the Home tab. The keyboard shortcut for PC is Ctrl + Shift + 8, and for Mac is Command + 8.
**Page Breaks make whatever follows always start at the top of the next page, which will make it impossible to lower your chapter titles one-third down (standard formatting for fiction manuscripts) without using hard returns. But using Page Breaks rather than Section Breaks is important for your book formatter, who will likely need to use a global Find & Replace at some point. So if you're sending the manuscript to an agent or a publisher and need it to look it's best, you can add a hard return to release the chapter title from the top of the page and then go to Paragraph settings and increase the spacing before the chapter title. For your editor or book formatter, leaving the title at the top of the page is just fine.
#7. Communicate your preferences
Freelance editors are usually willing to deviate from a style manual and accommodate author preferences (this is not always the case when working for a publisher). Style is flexible, and you, the writer, are the boss of your book. Knowing your preferences and pet peeves in advance allows the editor to factor them in from the get--go instead of having to take time to query you about them.
For example, the American spelling of "axe" is "ax." Despite being American, I personally think this spelling looks weird and wrong (same with dialogue/dialog), so if the British spelling was used in a manuscript, I would query the author, asking whether its use was a deliberate choice. If they didn't care either way, I would default to American spelling.
Some writers loathe a certain word, the use of italics for emphasis, or a particular punctuation mark (poor, vilified semicolon😢). If this sounds like you, let your editor know before they waste time suggesting an edit that contains one of your pet peeves. Finally, If you've done anything that deviates from customary style, such as creative dialogue formatting, it's wise to let your editor know that it was a deliberate choice, not a rookie mistake. Expect them to tell you if they think the choice is questionable—and why—but your editor should respect your right to make it nonetheless.
The better your editor understands what you want—and don't want, as the case may be—the more efficiently they can edit. Win--win.
#8. Consider a less-experienced editor
Everyone has to start somewhere, and it's become harder and harder to learn on the job by working in house before going freelance. Lots of editors are starting out as freelancers now and—in order to gain valuable experience—offering lower prices. Just make sure any editor you consider is well-educated and trained. Request a free sample edit and then compare that sample to a few others from more experienced, more expensive editors. You may find an excellent editor for a reasonable price this way.
If you go this route, you'll want your prospective editors to quote for the project rather than bill by the hour. With experience comes speed (and the ability to accurately predict the time it will take to complete a job), and you don't want to end up paying more for a slower, less-experienced editor than you would for a faster, experienced editor.
#9. But don't hire a too-cheap-to-be-true editor.
Cheaper doesn't mean cheap. While some reputable editors get work through sites like Fiverr or Upwork, most have abandoned them because of people bidding ridiculously low prices for editing jobs. Editing takes time to do well, and if someone is willing to work for a few dollars an hour, you have to question their skill level and their commitment to their profession.
For more on the different levels of editing, check out my earlier post: What level of editing do I need? And for a detailed description of the different types of editing I provide, head over to my Services page.