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10 ways to self-edit your novel on a budget

Tips and tricks for editing success

Learn to be a self-editing ninja in 2017

Before I published my novel The Girl from Oto in September 2016,  I worked as a writer and editor of nonfiction for many years. To me, the main advantage that traditionally published authors have over indie authors is the stable of in-house editing professionals who fix, polish and hone manuscripts for writers. The luxury of having developmental editors, copyeditors and proofreaders going over my manuscript again and again is a dream that I’ll probably never see come true as long as I’m an indie author.

In the meantime, I did my best to publish an excellent, well-edited story on a limited budget. As a first-time novelist, I knew I needed help from an experienced writer and editor of historical fiction, so I spent my entire editing budget on a developmental editor. For copyediting and proofreading, I relied on my own professional experience plus a large group of beta-readers and friends/family who are writers and editors themselves. I hope what I learned can help you self-edit your own work.

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How I self-edited The Girl from Oto

  1. Use beta readers. I wrote a first draft and shared it with beta readers. Based on their feedback, I revised the draft.
  2. Put on your self-editor’s hat. Before I sent the manuscript to a developmental editor, I was extremely motivated to cut the length because the editor (and most editors do this) charged by the number of words. While I was hacking away, I used Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King to provide consistency to the entire manuscript.
  3. Revise, revise, revise. After developmental editing, I tore apart my manuscript and rebuilt it. I used advice from Shawn Coyne, an editor who wrote the book The Storygrid (which I highly recommend) and also co-hosts the Storygrid podcast with writer Tim Grahl. Two main takeaways from Coyne’s advice were to ensure each scene was consistent in length (no longer than about 2000 words) and contained value shifts (so if the scene starts on a positive note, it ends on a negative note or vice versa). This helped develop a cohesive style for my manuscript, controlled the pacing, and injected more urgency into the story.
  4. Use beta readers again, but add new ones for each draft. I passed my manuscript around to another group of beta readers. I made sure to include several people who had never read a previous version. Based on the group’s feedback, I made another series of major changes to the draft.
  5. Get experienced people to copyedit. At this point I was done. But first I had to copy-edit and proofread, and I’d spent all my editing dollars on developmental editing. Still, after all my years copyediting and proofreading for others, I had a head start. I also relied on the advice of Grammar Girl for “quick and dirty tips” on grammar usage. And my father, a journalist and editor for 40 years, went through the draft with his trusty pencil, while my mother, who got a journalism degree from Stanford University in the 1950s and went on to work in communications for decades, read through it with her own eagle eyes. If you can’t afford copyediting and don’t have experience doing it, try bartering. Offer to beta-read or help with social media or give advice on setting up ad campaigns in exchange for copyediting help from someone with experience—you will need it.
  6. Use a style sheet. In my days as an editor, I relied on a “style sheet” for each publication I edited, in order to ensure consistency of style. With The Girl from Oto, I used the Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition and made a custom alphabetical style sheet for both the historical and contemporary narratives. I can’t emphasize enough how important this was, despite the fact that it was incredibly tedious. If I hadn’t used the stylesheets I would have overlooked many small errors. Here’s an article about how to create your own custom style sheet.
  7. Have your computer read it out loud. I used my computer’s voice software to have it read me the entire manuscript out loud while I simultaneously read along. I found many errors this way. This is how you do it using a Mac.
  8. Read it out loud yourself. I read out loud the entire manuscript. And guess what—I found even more errors. It’s amazing how when our eyes look at small typos, our brains can auto-correct them and we don’t even consciously see them. Somehow reading it out loud forces your brain to admit that the mistakes really exist.
  9. Know that typos happen. Once the book went to the book designer, I crossed my fingers and hoped that I had found all the errors. But guess what? I hadn’t. When I did the final proofread, I found a lot of small changes that just HAD to be made. Finally, the proof copy of the book was ready. I checked it and found a few more typos. Argghh. My designer gamely made the changes (when you use a book designer, you have to pay a small fee each time they make a round of changes, so it’s pretty motivating to keep changes to a minimum.) After the next proof copy came back, I kicked myself. There was a glaring typo on the cast of characters page—the name of a person who actually existed, no less! If I spelled his name wrong, the historical fiction police would crucify me. We fixed it. Then, I hit the publish button. From my years as an editor, I know this routine is typical. Full disclosure: Despite all the rounds of proofing, there are two typos that I know of in The Girl from Oto. I wouldn’t be surprised if readers find a few more, and please let me know if you do. I’ll be fixing them in 2017. I comfort myself with the knowledge that many, many traditionally published books have several typos in them despite the stable of professionals that comb through the manuscripts multiple times prior to publication.
  10. Use editing software. I say this not because I did it, but because a lot of writers rely on editing software and I plan to try it for the sequel. There are a lot of options out there these days. I’m curious about them and plan to research them and pick at least one to use for my next manuscript. I’ll keep you posted.

Why is this so important?

It’s no secret that the traditional publishing industry has shown contempt toward self-publishing in the past. Once upon a time, self-publishing was synonymous with vanity publishing. In other words, people who couldn’t get traditional publishers to notice them went ahead and published a few thousand copies of their books anyway. The assumption was that these audacious souls were all bad writers who didn’t deserve to be published. I’m not going to lie—that stigma stings. And it’s not over yet: a recent Huffington Post article about the inferiority of self-publishers got quite a buzz going for a few days in the indie author community. But overall, I believe this is changing as more indie authors publish high-quality books that achieve great success in the marketplace. E-book self-publishing is now a $1 billion global industry, according to this December 2016 article in Fortune magazine. What’s exciting about the success of indie authors is they are supplying the reading public with the kinds of books that people want to read, rather than the kinds of books that publishers think people should read.

There are definitely a lot of really bad self-published books. But I’ve read a lot of really bad traditionally published books too. In my view, the only major difference between a traditionally published writer and a self-published writer is the quality of support each writer gets behind the scenes. When I read a traditionally published writer’s acknowledgements section, I often see effusive thanks to their editors for the many rounds of insightful comments and changes they received along the way. Yes, I do feel envious. I wish I had that kind of support, but it’s too expensive right now.

Despite this, I feel strongly that all indie writers, no matter their budget, owe it to readers and to the entire indie author community to do the best editing and proofreading jobs they possibly can. Pay as much as you can afford for these services, and barter for them if you need to. Joanna Penn’s website The Creative Penn has many links to editing and proofreading services, as does the Alliance of Independent Authors website. I have read several indie-published novels that contain obvious and easily fixable typos. With e-versions, we can quickly fix all of them. With print versions, it’s a bit trickier but it can still be done. Let’s do it and keep improving the quality of indie publishing—there’s no downside, and it will benefit us all in the end.

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