Editing on a budget

This post is for all the new authors who are still trying to figure out how the heck they’re ever going to afford professional editing with no money behind them at the start of their career.

I’ve broken up the rest of this post into my top tips.

Beta Readers

A good beta reader is worth their weight in gold. If you find a fantastic beta reader who’s willing to read your less-polished drafts and provide insightful feedback, you should be doing everything in your power to keep yourself in their good books.

Beta readers are the first line of defence against a bad book. These people are often fans or other authors who are at roughly the same career level as you. Often times you might offer them loot for their services (like free ebooks or paperbacks) or beta read swaps in return. Swapping beta reads with other genre authors is a great way to do it and helps you both.

Keep in mind, beta reading is not editing. Some beta readers will go above and beyond, and these are the ones you want to keep very, very happy.

How do you find beta readers? There are many author groups out there on social media, and a lot of genre-specific reader-focused groups will have dedicated beta reader/ARC (advanced review copies) threads where you can view people who are happy to beta read, or request beta reads for your project.

Self-editing

Many of us self-edit while we’re writing. But going into it without a plan, without a focus and without the right knowledge is like applying for a job when you haven’t even read the job description.

You need to know your craft, including the pitfalls that you are prone to falling for when you’re writing your first draft.

I have a list of them myself that I look out for.

  • Filter words (eg, I saw, I felt, it looked like) – these slow down the narrative and pull readers out of the story. Why tell them the character saw something when you can just show it to them and remove that barrier between reader and character?
  • Sensory Input – Hitting the five senses is key to transporting your reader into your writing. I’ll go through and re-check my work to ensure all of those senses are accounted for. I’m notoriously poor at including smells, which I now focus on including.
  • Weasel words – those damn words that come out and clunk things up. Prime example? I originally wrote this sentence as ‘those damn words that just come out and clunk things up’. JUST is one of my weasel words. That bastard gets in everywhere. As an extension to this, weasel phrases. They do the same thing, but are phrases like ‘in order to’, and ‘the fact that’.
  • Name changes – sometimes when drafting I come up with a placeholder name for something until I find a better one. Keep note of these, then search and destroy. Other variations are spelling, such as Damien vs Damian.
  • Commas – I use far too many of them when writing and have to remove about a third of those I put in. Commas are useful but when overused make your text feel stilted and awkward.
  • Repetition – Avoid repeating the same word regularly in close proximity. It’ll smack the reader in the face and throw them out of the story.
  • Homonyms – Words that sound the same but are spelt differently, like your, you’re, and yore. These are especially prevalent when I’ve been dictating. They’ll annoy the shit out of book readers.
  • Wrong words or missing words – When I type with my fingers, I’ll often be thinking about where the sentence is going, so my fingers will just go ahead and skip words or meld two words into one. Sometimes I’ll think a sentence like ‘I need to go to the next room’ but my fingers will type ‘I need to go the next room’ and omit a word entirely. I know this is a weakness of mine, so I am very mindful of it when revising.
  • Style – Check that all my LitRPG styles have been applied correctly. Eg, with my EDGE Force series, I ensure all references to skill trees are bolded, and all references to items within the system are italicised if they’re being referred to as a proper noun. This could fall under formatting, but I like to do it at the same time as my first edit.

Writing Aids

With this bit, I’m talking about the innate spell and editing checks in programs like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Scrivener and the like, as well as paid software like Grammarly, ProWriting Aid, and a slew of other options.

I’ve personally used Grammarly Pro for three of my books now, but I’ll be looking at switching to ProWriting Aid very shortly. While Grammarly Pro has been good, I’ve been finding it less helpful as the quality of my writing improves.

It’s great for identifying grammar issues, wordy sentences, passive voice, repeated words and other things, but I find that I only accept about 50% (or less) of the suggestions it provides.

While you can use these programs, they absolutely will not pick up everything. If you have no budget, then these will likely be out of your reach anyway until you start making some money. They do have free versions, which are not entirely worthless. Try them out, see what works for you, then if you have the money, take the plunge for a month.

If you don’t like it, cancel the subscription and leave it at that.

Diversify the methods of your self-editing

Your brain can’t objectively analyse something it just put down on the page without forgetting about it first.

This is why the old advice of putting a finished manuscript in a drawer for three months before you edit it actually works. Most of the time, you don’t want to wait that long, because indies live and die on their release schedules.

So how do you get around it?

If your manuscript was written by tippy-tapping away at your keyboard, then the best thing that you can do is change the format of how you review it. Some examples are:

  • change the font of your manuscript and print the whole thing out
  • convert your first draft manuscript to an e-reader compatible format and read it on another device
  • have your computer’s accessibility software read your book aloud to you

I will almost 100% guarantee that each of these methods will provide different results. In a perfect world I’d recommend going through every single one of these options, but that is a huge time commitment that could be better served by writing your next book.

I can wholeheartedly recommend using the accessibility read aloud function of software to target awkward phrasing, missing words, and incorrect words. I use Microsoft Word’s Read Aloud function, and it has been so effective at identifying these problem areas that when I’ve published what I consider beta versions of books, I’ve had readers comment that it doesn’t feel like a beta. It feels like a finished version.

Finding cheap editors

As I mentioned earlier, every minute you spend self-editing your own work is a minute that you could have been using to write your next book. There is an equation to self-publishing success which weighs up the value of paying to outsource book production functions versus the time cost of learning and doing it yourself. I’ll be going into that at a later date in a more in-depth way.

Finding a good, reliable editor is one of the most important things that you can do as an independent author. However, unless you’ve been squirrelling away money from your day job before taking the leap into author land, you probably won’t have two thousand bucks to throw at a professional editor to do what needs to be done to a full length novel.

Editors are kind of like tattoo artists. A good editor isn’t cheap, and a cheap editor generally isn’t good. The same analogy can also be used for genre. You wouldn’t ask a new school colour tattoo artist to do a black and white realism portrait. You also wouldn’t ask a specialist Sweet Romance editor to take on an Epic Fantasy or LitRPG project. It’s just not their wheelhouse.

Or, maybe the specialist is trying to branch out and offers you a smashing deal for a great price. There are always exceptions to the rule.

So how do you go about finding a cheap editor who’ll do what you need them to do?

A lot of editors will provide a sample edit of a thousand words or so for free before taking on a client. This gives both editor and author the chance to see if they’re a good fit for each other. Groups and online freelancer websites are a great place to look for editors, but some are pricier than others. Some are fraught with danger.

Some editors may even make other deals, such as a lower price up front, but for a percentage of royalties from the sale of the books over a certain timeframe. While this might sound good in theory, it could end up costing you a lot more in the long run.

Only you can decide what’s right for you and your writing career.

Iterative improvement

Editing becomes less arduous over time. Your skill in your craft will also improve over time, which has a cumulative effect on the overall level of your first drafts.

There will come a time when you have enough faith in the quality of your narrative that beta readers may not be a priority for you.

The first book is always the hardest, but you have to write it. You absolutely need to get it out of your system and move onto the next book. Will your first book suck? Probably, though not always. Will it be publishable? If you put the work in, I have no doubt.

Your second book will be even better. But you’ll make whole new mistakes, which you’ll learn from again.

Your third book will be a chance to make even more mistakes you’ve never made before, and that’s a good thing.

Each mistake brings a chance to learn new things.

It’s all cumulative.

The more effort you put in to learning and improving your craft, the better your stories will be, and the less you will rely on others to get the content of your books ready for your readers.

End note

You need to find a system that works for you, doesn’t bust your budget, and gives you the results you need to keep publishing.

I’d love to hear from you about how you manage publishing on a budget. If you have any tips or tricks that I’ve missed, let me know!

Published by Matthew J. Barbeler

Matthew J. Barbeler writes dark fiction to die for.

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