In my last blog post, I discussed why I feel it’s worth paying for good editorial work; my opinion (unsurprisingly) still stands, and if you are wavering at all on whether to pay for editing, please do read it before deciding. However, as I mentioned, I’m fully aware that some writers just literally don’t have the money – or at least not for now. If you’re in a situation where you simply can’t afford to spend any money on your book, hopefully this post will have a few ideas for what you can do.
I would start by recommending that you do begin saving, if at all possible. Unless you are literally writing your book for the sake of writing it (rather than to actually sell it) – which you may be, and that’s very fair! – you are probably going to need to spend something. Yes, you may get it back – indeed, you will hopefully get lots of money back! But like any investment, you almost certainly need to put money into your book in order to get money out. If you want a professional-looking product that will entice readers into buying and then reading and sharing and becoming a fan, you’re going to need good cover design, good beta readers, and a good editor at the very least.
However, let’s assume that for now, that stage is far off and unattainable. You’ve finished your manuscript, into which you have undoubtedly poured hours and hours of hard work, as well as all your creativity and inspiration. What can you do next in order to ensure that it fulfils its potential?
One of the most important things you can do for your book which is both free and relatively simple is go over it yourself – perhaps several times. Although you won’t catch everything, you can get rid of a surprising amount of errors and typos this way, and also ensure that your plot and characterisation is as watertight as possible. See my top tips for self-editing for more detail on how to do this.
Find General Readers
The next most useful thing you can do is ask people to read your manuscript – the more, the better. Start with literally anyone who will agree to read it: your mum, your sister, your housemate, your next-door neighbour. Even if those people aren’t professional editors or beta readers, every person who reads your work will give you an insight into how people will receive it. Ask them to make notes, if they don’t mind, on anything they are confused by, anything they especially like, and anything they feel could be improved upon. You don’t need to change everything based on these notes; they’re likely to be wildly varied, so if you try, you’ll probably end up going mad! But they may highlight areas that you hadn’t noticed needed work, or provide perspectives you hadn’t anticipated.
Find Readers of Your Genre
The closest thing to paid beta readers is someone who is willing to read your manuscript for free and has a lot of experience in your chosen genre – i.e. they prefer to read/watch/play it, and/or they have written it themselves. For example, if you’ve written a high fantasy epic, pick readers who love The Lord of the Rings. These readers will provide more specific feedback. In the notes you ask them to make, as well as those for the general readers, ask them: Are there too many similarities between my story and any well-known books in this genre? Do I deviate too wildly from my chosen genre? Will readers of this genre find this book interesting, new and enjoyable?
Find a Reader Who Is a ‘Grammar Nazi’
…With the caveat that not everyone who says they are good at spotting mistakes is on the same level as an editor or proofreader. I don’t discount the possibility that they might be (I started out reading people’s work for free!), but try to find someone who obviously takes care over how they write and doesn’t often make mistakes or typos. Depending on how well you know or trust them and how much of their time and effort they are willing to give you for free, ask them to outline the general areas that need improvement (e.g. dialogue, punctuation, pacing, spelling, word choice), make more detailed notes for each chapter, or actually go over the book with a red pen or Track Changes and suggest corrections. Keep in mind that just because this person may work in an environment where they need to be meticulous or work frequently with words (e.g. a secretary or a teacher) does not mean they are necessarily good at writing – they may be excellent at spotting typos but have no idea of how to notice an incorrectly-placed semicolon, or alternatively be an expert on grammar but have no experience of writing a romance and the dialogue and styles common to the genre. Nor should you expect them to be familiar with editorial style guides. It’s unfair to place the pressure of unrealistic expectations on someone who is giving you their time for free.
Look Stuff Up
During your self-editing, make it a point to look up anything you’re unsure about, even if it’s something you’re embarrassed to Google (we’ve all been there). Better to have an ‘Oh, duh’ moment than get something wrong. Look up word connotations, apostrophe placements and guides on using ‘said’ as a dialogue tag. I personally believe that the only way to truly bend the rules of grammar for stylistic effect (if that’s something you want to do) is to know them first – so make sure you do!
Again, this comes with the caveat that I a) do not have direct experience with any editing software and can’t tell you whether it’s actually any good, and b) distrust it on principle. I simply don’t believe that a program, no matter how advanced, can replace the nuance, experience and creativity of a person in a field that relies on nuance, experience and creativity. (As an example – what would a modern editing program make of some of our greatest classics in Literature?!) However, I know that some authors make use of software such as ProWritingAid in lieu of or before using a professional editor, and I’m sure that it can be helpful in such cases. (It’s worth noting, though, that often this software does come at a price – in which case you’d be much better off spending your money on an editor. A human one, I mean.) If it eliminates typos, common grammar errors and incorrectly-used punctuation, then it will certainly get you further down your editing journey – and if you do then go on to pay for editing, you should be charged less.
Read and Write More
This is a bit obvious, but the more you read and write, the more your own writing will improve. An excellent way to do this is to practice writing for an audience via an online forum such as Archive of Our Own – whether it’s original work or fanfiction, writing on a regular basis for people who will both encourage you and provide constructive criticism will teach you a huge amount. Looking back on my own online writing, it’s both cringeworthy and encouraging to see how far it has come from when I first began. Meanwhile, reading will teach you things about formatting, convention, and style that will be invaluable tools while you write and edit.
If you have any more tips, please do share them – I’d love to hear your thoughts. Meanwhile, if you’ve done all these things and are looking for a good editor who will actually charge a reasonable price, just drop me an email to ask for a personalised quote and receive some free feedback. Happy writing, and good luck!