Alternatives to a Professional Edit
So far in our series about hiring a professional editor, we’ve looked at determining whether you need an edit and if so what kind, explored where to find good editors and what questions to ask to winnow down your options, and how to evaluate the sample edit to determine whether an editor is the right fit for you.
But what if the often several-thousand-dollar price tag simply isn’t in your budget right now? Does that mean you’re dead in the water, your writing career frozen until you can fund it?
It doesn’t have to.
Here’s the essence of what a good professional edit offers you: a mirror held up to the story on the page to reflect back to you what’s actually there, as opposed to what’s in your head, from the perspective of (ideally) someone expert enough to pinpoint what may not be working as well as it could—specifically why—and offer some suggestions for how you might address it, without being prescriptive or taking over your story.
Done well, this requires a great deal of skill, knowledge, and experience—there’s a reason editing can be a bit pricey.
But just as you can DIY a home renovation project to save money rather than hiring expensive pros, there are ways to gather external feedback on your story that can offer you valuable guidance in executing your own editing and revision. As with your home-makeover project, it may entail more effort, time, and trial-and-error than if you hired a pro, but if you’re willing to take that on you can still get the job done.
Getting Outside Input
Trading edits with other writers can be invaluable for you as an author—but it also comes with some risks and caveats.
In the “pro” column, you get that outside perspective you need to show you how well your intentions are coming across on the page—and from readers who, as authors themselves, may have enough grounding in craft to know what makes story work and how to pinpoint areas that might need shoring up.
Often even more helpful is the real, hidden benefit of these relationships: that they offer you the opportunity to edit others’ work. As authors we’re often “filling in the blanks”—we see what we meant to say, not what we actually said—which is what can make editing ourselves so hard in the first place.
But when offering critiques for your partner or group, you get to practice evaluating a manuscript from the 30,000-foot view an editor brings to it. That lets you learn to approach your own stories more objectively and analytically as well, and how to spot possible areas of weakness.
But on the potential “cons” side, not all critiques are created equal—and a bad one is not only unhelpful and can potentially lead you astray, but can damage your writing and your confidence. And if you’re not yet an experienced writer it’s not always easy to know whether a critique is useful and constructive—or how to discern what feedback works for your story and what doesn’t resonate with your intentions.
Yet like part of what a professional editor may bring to the table, a good crit partner or group can help you assess the strengths and weaknesses of your story and may point you toward ways to address any areas of weakness.
You may have heard about professional beta-reading services you can hire to receive feedback on your manuscript, a field that has exploded along with so many other services available to writers. Costs are often relatively low, but the product they provide varies widely, and hiring these services should come with many of the caveats I offer for hiring an editor in previous posts in this series: vet the providers, find the right fit, and get several quotes. But professional beta readers can be a more affordable option for getting detailed outside feedback on your manuscript that may help guide you in revisions.
But these services are a very recent entry in a time-honored process of soliciting lay readers who serve as an author’s “test audiences”—often friends and acquaintances willing to simply read it like a reader and offer their opinions. (Early cave dwellers no doubt summoned fellow clan members to offer first impressions as they perfected their petroglyphs.)
The “pros” are that this is usually free (though a small thank-you token for their time and effort, like a coffee-shop gift card, is always classy and appreciated), and offers you a trial run of your story with your end users: readers.
On the “cons” side, your beta readers may or may not be the ideal or target audience for your story, and they may or may not offer useful feedback. Not all lay readers can articulate specifically what they did or didn’t like about a story or why, and sometimes those close to you may be reluctant to offer anything but praise, which may be delightful to hear but isn’t necessarily helpful or actionable.
You can up your chances of getting useful insights by choosing beta readers who are widely read, ideally in your genre, and letting them know their genuine, unvarnished impressions are what will be most useful to you. (Keeping in mind that their feedback may not always come with the constructive tact a good pro editor brings to an edit—grit your teeth and smile and thank them anyway; they are still offering you their time and energy.)
You can also provide guidance for them to best help you; remember beta readers aren’t necessarily conversant with writing craft and may not know what to say or what you’re looking for. I like to offer a brief questionnaire to help them focus and articulate their feedback, phrased in ways any reader can relate to. Rather than, “Did momentum lag anywhere?” for instance, you might ask, “Were there any places you didn’t feel as engaged or put the manuscript down and didn’t feel compelled to pick it back up, and if so, where?” (You can find downloadable sample questions on my website here.)
This is potentially the most mixed of mixed bags—editors without a lot of experience or expertise can be damaging for an author, especially a newer author who may not yet have the experience to assess whether the feedback is on point or not.
But when an editor is just starting out, still learning and honing his skill, and trying to build a client list, he may be willing to offer fire-sale rates to authors as a sort of internship or training ground—I did (in one case, free!). For me it meant an author had little to lose in taking a risk on me while I learned my craft.
But sometimes you get what you pay for. These edits may not be skillful or offer useful, actionable input for you as an author. It’s essential to educate yourself on good editing so you can evaluate the feedback knowledgeably: Not all edits are created equal. (The post in this series on evaluating a sample edit may be helpful in evaluating any edit.) And it can be challenging to find a baby editor who is offering these reduced rates as she learns (asking someone for it is a bit of an insult).
While hiring an editor has become de rigueur, authors existed for many, many years honing on their own these foundational skills for any writer. Fortunately, there are some wonderful resources available to help you do that (and as with all aspects of the field, remember these can vary widely in usefulness).
General writing craft books will help you continue to expand your knowledge so you know what to look for in your writing and how to shore up any areas of weakness. But there are some useful books specifically targeted toward the craft of editing and revision on a developmental level, like master editor Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel; Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King; and my own Intuitive Editing.
Workshops and classes
Look for good editing workshops from trusted sources, like Writer’s Digest University, Jane Friedman’s online courses, the Editorial Freelancers’ Association’s education courses for editors, and courses offered by the University of Chicago, the publishers of the industry-standard style bible The Chicago Manual of Style.
Editing is truly a skill you learn by doing. Practice editing other writers’ work, as discussed in the critique section above. Analyze published books—scene by scene, line by line—to see how their authors effected specific reactions in you as a reader: where and how they elicited emotion, or suspense or tension, or kept you feverishly turning pages—or failed to. Analyzing why a story isn’t effective can be as elucidating as articulating what is.
Mastering these skills on your own and objectively assessing your own writing can be like attending the school of hard knocks. It may take longer. It may be harder. Like your DIY kitchen, there may be some elements you miss that a pro would have caught. But you are building skills that are essential ones for every author to have, putting more—and endlessly useful—tools in your writer toolbox.