How to Prepare for Self-Publishing: Editing

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

self-publishing, authors, indie publishing, writingThis is part one of a six-part series.

As a self-published author, it’s your responsibility to make sure your book is as high-quality as it can be, and an editor is an indispensable resource who can help make your book look professional instead of amateurish.

Getting off to a Good Start

Ask your peers—other writers—for their opinions. Join local writing groups. Meet writers online and ask them to have a look at one or two chapters for you. Don’t be shy about getting feedback from your fellow writers.

Every writer is focused on her own work, so make sure you give something back to the community by returning the favor for others.

Now is a good time to write a synopsis. This is a skill in itself, so practice is key. A synopsis is different from a blurb; it should be about one A4 page long, contain all the major plot points and describe what happens in your book. Don’t worry about spoilers! This is a great way to identify weaknesses or plot holes. Read it out loud. Does it ramble or sound boring? Do things seem to happen for no reason? Maybe you just need to tweak the synopsis, or maybe you need to go back to the book and make some changes.

When you feel happy with your book, that’s the right time to look for an editor. But wait! Do you know what you’re asking them to do, and does that match up with what you need?

Different Types of Editing

Think about what you expect an editor to do for you. For instance, you might envisage them:

• making sure the spelling is correct
• making the writing “flow”
• improving your style by, for example, removing excess adjectives or pointing out clichés

Or you might picture your editor:

• suggesting ways to make the dialogue less clunky
• helping to reveal the motives of the villain
• flagging areas where the timeline or chapter ordering makes the story unclear and suggesting solutions

These are all things an editor could do, but they are different types of requests and may need different types of editors.

A structural or developmental editor will look at “big picture” stuff like plot, characterization, themes, voice, dialogue, pace and flow. They’ll look at how everything fits together and pick up on major inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

A copy-editor will look at spelling, punctuation, grammar, style, consistency, wording and legal issues. Their job is to get your manuscript ready for typesetting. They’ll help you make sure your work is accurate and fit for purpose.

There may be some crossover between those types of editing—a copy-editor might query plot holes and a developmental editor might flag grammatical “tics”—but, in general, developmental editing looks at the big picture and copy-editing looks at the fine details.

If you choose one type of editing when you really needed the other, it’s frustrating for all involved. No editor wants to spend hours correcting your spelling only for you to rewrite or delete entire chapters. And you don’t get the result you wanted.

I’m a copy-editor, so naturally my advice would be not to skimp on the copy-edit. A lot of developmental work can be done in advance with feedback from other writers. That’s not to put down developmental editors—actually I think they have the hardest job!—but if you’re on a limited budget, you might only be able to afford one type of editing. No matter how great your book is, it will look terrible if it’s riddled with typos. If you can afford both types of editing, seize the opportunity!

How to Find the Right Editor for You

Look for someone who has worked on similar projects. Your country’s industry body for editors may have a directory you can use. Ask other self-published authors for their recommendations.

Don’t be put off if an editor doesn’t list prices on her website. Some charge per word or per thousand words; others base their charges on how long the job is likely to take, so they won’t be able to give you a quote until they’ve looked at your manuscript. Neither approach is “better” than the other; they each have their pros and cons, and both methods are used by professionals.

A good editor should respond to your inquiry within a reasonable length of time. She should be upfront about the likely cost and clear about what she can do for you. It’s important for both of you to be confident about the scope of the work.

She should send you a sample edit of part of your work to give you an idea of her approach. You can decide whether she’s a good fit for you and whether she respects your “tone of voice.”

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Prepare a list before you make an approach. You have every right to query anything you don’t understand. Most editors will have terms and conditions; ask to see them before work starts.

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8 thoughts on “How to Prepare for Self-Publishing: Editing

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Good article, but I’d take issue with this comment:
    That’s not to put down developmental editors—actually I think they have the hardest job!—but if you’re on a limited budget, you might only be able to afford one type of editing. No matter how great your book is, it will look terrible if it’s riddled with typos.
    For a new writer, that might be excellent advice. Unless unusually gifted, your first few books are unlikely to turn heads with their brillance, so focusing on simply not making glaring errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling will keep those books from being embarrasingly later and may win you a few initial fans.

    But if you’ve been writing seriously for more than a couple of years and still make mistakes such as \we is going,\ you’ve failed to grow as a writer. You should know the rules and all the tricks to self-edit for typos, so you can, if necessary, invest in a developmental editor who can turn a so-so book into something you can be proud of. Suggestions:

    1. Get guides that cover the rules of writing. If you’re writing for publication yourself and not just to pass it along to a publisher, also get a definitive guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style. The result will look much more professional.

    2. Listen to podcasts such as Grammar Girl. Don’t just learn the rules. Become zealous at following them, although remembering that the rules are tools not ends in themselves. For instance, the one about complete sentences can occasionally be broken for emphasis. Like this.

    3. Master the ‘spot typos’ mindset so completely that even when you’re busily editing for style and flow, you’ll still see typos. I used to work as a profession proofreader for Microsoft. It’s a dull grind, so if you can get much the same effect in others ways, do so. With practice, you can catch perhaps 90% of your errors that way.

    4. When you edit specifically for typos, make multiple passes, looking for particular errors in each. Make one pass just looking at punctuation, for instance. Being tiny, those sorts of errors are hard to catch. Ditto sound-alike words, a particular problem of mine (originally typed as \mind\), i.e. confusing \there\ and \their.\ Also, save the serious ‘nothing but typo-catching’ passes for the very last. I find that I make more typos while editing than in creating a draft. Wait until all the editing is done before making that last, serious pass at proofing.

    5. Try listening to your text using the text-to-speech feature in some apps. A mistake like \Paris in the the spring\ is hard to catch just by reading. Your brain will auto-correct that doubled word. Read aloud, a mistake like that is obvious. Mistakes that are hard to see can be easy to hear.

    6. Proof at all stages. I write in Scrivener on a laptop while standing, layout with InDesign on a desktop, sitting and with two large displays, and create finished books at PDFs and ePubs that I can view on a tablet almost anywhere. At each point in the process, the book will look different. Typos that I don’t see in one format tend to pop out in others. Take advantage of that, particularly near the end.

    I do that and routinely turn out 50,000 word books with either no typos that turn up later or only a single one or two. I’m not such a perfectionist that I will pay hundreds of dollars to catch a single comma-spliced pair of sentences. The books look professionally done because they are professionally done. It’s just that the professional is me.

    Early on, you make still need a proofreader to backup your efforts. But keep in mind that typo-catching is just rule following. You can learn the rules. They are mechanical. What’s much harder to spot are the higher level issues for which a development editor can be invaluable. You know the story you want to tell and may fail to see that you’ve failed to include a few necessary plot points or added a few unnecessary ones.
    Compare Harper Lee’s two books, Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. The first is a typical novelist’s first novel, apparently published from her draft without any editing. The second is the result of a talented developmental editor pushing, pushing and pushing—if I recall correctly over a two-year period. Lee was a genius at creating marvelous scenes and memorable characters. But it was a genius that only came out when she was made to do so.

    In short, would you rather be seen as the author of a typo-free Go Set a Watchman or a typo-riddled first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird? I’d choose the latter without hesitation. A work of genius can always have its typos fixed in later editions. (Tolkien was still fixing mistakes in The Lord of the Rings into the 1960s, over a decade after it came out.) A hum-drum novel will never get a chance at a second edition.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

  2. Catherine Dunn

    Hi Mike,

    Wow, you should have written the article! Or, maybe, a similar one. Your comment could be a companion piece! I think you’re particularly well-placed to proofread your own books, though, because you used to work in that profession so clearly you have the ability and lots of experience. Some fantastic tips there for helping people to spot their own errors (notoriously difficult to do!).

    Developmental editors and copy-editors do a completely different job really, and both of them are necessary for different reasons in my opinion. It is true that no amount of copy-editing is going to save a book with a major structural flaw. I’m biased, though – I like seeing a book emerge like a piece of topiary from a lush and healthy but overgrown hedge. The developmental editor is the one helping to water and fertilise the hedge so that it isn’t sparse and stringy to start off with.

    1. Constance Hale

      This is all excellent advice. Mike is absolutely right: if you are serious about writing a book and getting folks to read it (not to mention buy it) you must work on the craft. Load up on some of the excellent books on the craft of writing (I’ve written a couple myself). Many first-time authors forget just how hard it is to write well and how much work it takes.
      Connie Hale

  3. Andrew

    Maybe. Depends on your age and experience. If you’ve just completed your first book, keep writing and keep reading until you complete at least one and maybe two more. Then go back and read the first one, before you self-publish.

  4. Ernie Zelinski

    I wrote and self-published my first book in 1989. I did not use an editor. I have always operated with this motto in mind:


    What’s more, this piece of advice from a very successful author has served me well over the years.

    It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.\n— Robert J. Ringer

    For the record, Robert J. Ringer is the only person to the best of my knowledge to write, self-publish, and market three #1 New York Times bestsellers in print editions. His self-published books sold over 10 million copies in the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Not so long two of Ringer’s self-published books were listed by the New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

    True, I haven’t achieved that type of success myself. But as a self-published author whose books have sold over 925,000 copies worldwide, I know that a lot of ook experts and ook marketing experts out there have little understanding of the book business.

    Incidentally, my international bestseller The Joy of Not Working had over 150 spelling errors when I first self-published it in 1991. It wasn’t until three years later when the book sold over 30,000 copies and when I did a spell check that I discovered those spelling errors. Did this impact the sales to the book? Very little, near as I can tell. The book still sold over 5,000 copies in print last year, 24 years after it was released, and will still make me over $25,000 this year.

    Again, This has alwasy been my motto (Enjoy the typo):


    This approach has helped me be more successful than 99 percent of writers. As Jack Canfield says, Results don’t lie.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free\nAuthor of the Bestseller How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free\n(Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller The Joy of Not Working\n(Over 290,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)



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