Can’t afford a freelance editor? How to get the feedback you need without burning a hole in your pocket

A writer asked me recently how can she get her work edited if she can’t afford to hire an experienced freelance editor.

Affordability is a big issue for many writers who are serious about their work and prepared to do the revisions necessary to get closer to publication. In this post I’ll suggest some ways to get around the hole in your pocket.

Definitions
Let me be clear: I am not talking about careful copyediting. I’m astounded at how many queries I receive that cheerfully reassure me that their manuscript has been “edited for typos” when the manuscript itself is undercooked, simply too many drafts away from a submittable standard. In many cases it appears that the author is not aware of how much further development is required, or that apart from her  BFF cheering her on I’m the first person to have read any of the manuscript. In those cases I typically suggest that the author seeks out a writing group or an experienced independent editor to help her develop the work further. I never hear from 99% of these people again.

In this post I am referring to developmental editing or structural editing, which looks at the overall work to identify problems with characterization, plot, tone, point of view, pacing, transitions, the organization of material and so on. Wikipedia’s category definitions in this area are unhelpful, focusing on working with the authors of textbooks and academic articles. Here is a better definition of development editing.

Alternatives to hiring a freelance editor
Aside from cost, there are good reasons why you should not rely solely on the services of a freelance editor. Without a personal recommendation or word of mouth suggestion, it’s difficult to know how heavy-handed or light-of-touch any editor will be. If you’re looking for areas of weakness in your manuscript, you’ll be disappointed if you get back a manuscript only lightly dusted with the editor’s suggestions. Also often overlooked is how much experience the editor has in your genre.

Here are some suggestions for places where you can find cheaper alternatives to hiring a freelance editor to get the feedback you’re looking for.

  • Short-duration or one-off in-person classes that focus on a particular aspect of writing craft. This is a burgeoning industry, so depending on your location there’s bound to be something on offer. Meeting face to face is valuable for a range of other reasons – finding a new friend with whom you can exchange pages to edit; learning from the teacher’s informal discussions of writing and publishing; realizing that you’re not the only one struggling with a work in progress.
  • There is a proliferation of online classes available. I think the Writer’s Digest University has loads of useful resources. They’ve recently reduced to $25 a one-month all-access pass to their archived workshops, which I think is great value.
  • Post your work online to seek feedback. There are formal and informal channels by which to do this. I’ve dealt with authors who were writing in isolation until they tried posting a chapter of their work on one of the established forums such as YouWriteOn.com. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have a regular online presence then perhaps you could ask your Twitter followers or blog readers to give you feedback on a set number of pages.
  • There must be more — please share in the comments if you have a good suggestion — but you get my drift.

The trick is knowing what questions to ask to get the feedback you need
In editing, as in life, you need to know what to ask for in order to get what you want. It doesn’t matter if you seek feedback from a trusted friend or a total stranger: you must be clear on what you want to know.

Here are some questions to prompt you before you brief a reader on a novel (I’m assuming this reader has generously agreed to read the full manuscript):

  • What does not make sense or is not clear?
  • How do you feel about character X? Y?
  • What did you want to read more of?
  • What did you want to read less of? / Where does it get repetitive?
  • Does it begin in the right place or does it take too long to get started?
  • What (if anything) did you find amusing or downright funny?
  • What moved you?
  • What bored you?
  • Are there any threads/themes from early on in the work that disappear later or that you missed?
  • Was there anything about the story or characters or setting that did not ring true?
  • Does the title work for you?

Some additional/alternative questions for briefing a reader on a nonfiction manuscript (memoir or narrative nonfiction):

  • Is this the best possible arrangement/order of the material?
  • Is the story clear?
  • Are the characters alive on the page? Where are they static?
  • Where is there too much observation/analysis at the expense of scenes/dialogue in which the characters reveal themselves?
  • Is the difference clear between the narrator’s younger self and the older narrator looking back on her younger self (where relevant)?
  • Is the narrator’s point of view sufficiently established?

The result of a developmental edit is that the author usually has a lot of work to do. I speak from experience on this point and will write about that in a later post or posts.

Writer, edit thyself
I believe that the best writers learn to edit themselves. Becoming a tough editor of your own work — after the ghastly first draft is complete and not before  — is essential for a writing life that includes regular publication. (That’s also a subject for a separate post.)

If you’ve read this far, I have two things to say. First, thanks. Second, please share your thoughts and questions about editing in the comments. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a stupid question.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. Great, enormously useful post, Virginia, thank you. I think the best, and cheapish, way to edit your ms is to do it yourself but you need to develop skills (practice is free) and a tough attitude (One question I ask myself when stripping out chunks of material that I may have laboured over and feel quite precious about is: ‘Do you prefer to keep this in the ms OR do you prefer to give this thing a better shot at publication?’ That usually decides it. You know it in your guts when something must go.) There are lots of ways you can improve your skills; there are plenty of books around on how to write ‘better’ (maybe a post could be on those titles and commenters can add to the list?) and writing better means self-editing better. Ultimately, nothing can beat experience and sitting and working at the craft for a long time. Reading books that you know are good, using them to study how other people have done it. Having readers is helpful but as you’ve said, they have to be the right people. Not the ones whose default position is that your work is terrific (like family and friends), but people who have not got that emotional investment in you and people who are able to be honest with their feedback. (Of course, the writer needs to decide what they take on, and what they don’t. There are all types of readers and some not for your work. Other writers as readers can be good… and not so.)

    I think lots of people think that the first draft is it, and are disappointed or put off by the requirement for more work. IT’S HARD and it’s WORK. The idea that a book falls out of you, completely formed and polished – I don’t know about that. People may copy-edit as they go a bit, but that structural editing, reading to see whether a whole work tells an interesting story, whether it’s coherent as a whole, whether the characters work, is it balanced and are the scenes all necessary for the whole etc: these are the questions you can only really answer when there’s a complete manuscript that’s been worked over.

    Another question would be about over-editing, but maybe that’s not right for this post. Like with paintings, a piece can become overworked, the artist doesn’t stop at the right moment. That’s experience too.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that the ability to self-edit is crucial in any writer’s development, and that it takes discipline and the willingness to throw away a lot of material. I see a lot of partial manuscripts and many of them do read as if little work has been done after the initial draft. You are quite right that there is such a thing as too much editing, aka not knowing when or how to stop. Which is another reason why the careful employment of a tough but constructive reader can be very helpful.
      As for books about editing and revision, please feel free to send me some suggestions. If other readers/commenters contribute too, then I might develop a list worth a post of its own. My own craft-related library tends to skew towards memoir for obvious reasons. –Virginia

  2. I personally find it impossible to distance myself enough from my own writing in order to edit it properly. I find particular problems with repetition and/or omission, both of which are hard to spot (my book was non fiction) when you’re on your umpteenth draft!

    Ideally I’d suggest asking a trusted writer friend if you have one, and offer to edit their work in return. Failing that maybe us writers should create a forum or list of writers willing to edit in return for being edited. ? Difficult to monitor perhaps but not impossible. Maybe?

    1. Hi Patsy, thanks for reading and commenting. I agree it is very difficult sometimes to identify areas of repetition or lack of clarity in your own work, and a trusted reader is a potentially helpful editor. I’ve heard of situations where this kind of “quid pro quo” editing, in which two writers exchange pages, can become lopsided when one of the writers shares many more pages than the other anticipated, or the work of one needs a lot more than the other. I think an online forum of willing editor-readers sounds good, and suspect there must be a few out there already. If anyone else reading this knows of one, please share it! –Virgnia

  3. Thank you so much ,Virginia. It was very helpful to read the definition of developmental edit and also the list of suggested questions. I have just tonight printed out my sixth draft of The Grey Silk Purse. After my fifth draft, two people have read it and made some punctuation suggestions and also pointed out one or two confusing sections which I have fixed.
    I am now waiting to read another historical writer’s edit of my manuscript. I have already sent her mine of hers. I am also about to drop the sixth draft off to a retired editor who is happy to read the book for free which is a godsend! Another friend (who doesn’t read) is reading it now. I’m actually really looking forward to her comments. As Jenny said above it’s hard work!

    1. Thanks for letting me know you found this helpful. Good luck with your revisions. –Virginia

  4. I’ve written a post about useful books to help develop fiction writing skills at my blog, but here’s a list of explicit ‘how-to’ books that are good for people starting to submit their work to agents:

    On Writing – Stephen King (this is really really great)
    Dear Writer – Carmel Bird (Bird is working on a revised edition of this)
    The Little Red Writing Book – Mark Tredinnick
    Writing Fiction – Garry Disher

    1. Thanks so much Jenny, very helpful! Other commenters please feel free to add to this list.

  5. One more thing, as I was just doing another post on reviewing, I remembered that the better a writer can interrogate their own manuscript – ask critical questions of it, re logic, coherence, flow, characters, everything, the better. It’s this interrogation that often an editor or assessor will do. Finding holes in the work. This takes distance but you can do it, probably best after a break from it in the drawer.

    1. Thanks Jenny! More fodder to help me put together a post on learning to get that distance on your own work. To come … –Virginia

  6. Hi Virginia, thank you so much for your encouraging musings on editing! I’ve been working on my first novel for nine years, and have only just completed my first draft! I’ve asked a number of friends and acquaintances to read the script in its entirety, and they are all eager to do so, as I’ve been talking about the darn book for so long. I did approach a freelance editor, explaining that the manuscript is likely to be a thousand pages long – he turned me down flat, and he was my first cousin! I now feel as if I’ve done the right thing in asking interested people to review the manuscript, in exchange for the privilege of being the first people to read such a long-expected work.

    1. Hi Deborah,
      I think you’re very lucky to get anyone to agree to read 1,000 pages simply for the privilege of being first! I’m not sure on what your expectations are in terms of publication, but a debut novel of that length would most likely have to be self-published. Good luck with finishing it. –Virginia

  7. Hi Viginia and thanks again for your great blog. As someone completely isolated from readers let alone writers let alone ‘the bizz’ I took your suggestion about youwriteon.com, the sort of thing I would never know about unless you mention it. So far I’ve had seven reviews rating 4.5 out of 5, which is nice, but each review also pointed out things to fix, which I did. Also enjoying reading and reviewing others’ work – the standard is generally very high in all genres and I’ve yet to read anything that seemed like a bloated early draft. To know that someone, especially the well-informed as many here seem to be, have read your work and took it seriously is a wonderful thing.

    1. Thanks Shaun for letting me know about your experience. It’s essential for new authors to “test” their work with readers, and it seems increasingly that acquisitions editors and literary agents are paying attention (if intermittently) to some of these online channels. Good luck with your writing –Virginia

  8. Hello Virginia,
    Love your blogs. Very informative. Until recently I was also an ‘isolated’ writer. Quite by accident I stumbled across a site called WritersCafe.org
    It was a nervous moment, uploading a chapter or two, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It is an open forum where members (other starving writers) can read and then review your writing. True, not all the reviews are helpful, but many are – especially the ones that are brutally honest. At the very least I’m getting a good idea what the general consensus is from these complete strangers that are reading my work. The good thing is you also get the opportunity to ‘return the love’ and read their work, too. I’ve met a handful of people there that I’m regularly bouncing idea’s off. We give each other encouragement, but still tell it like it is. It’s liberating and I don’t know how I managed to stay isolated for so long.
    Cheers:)

    1. Hey Anthony, thank you for reading! And for your recommendation of Writers Cafe. It’s interesting that you find the ‘brutally honest’ reviews the most helpful. It’s so difficult to get the constructive feedback that is essential for improving your work. Too negative and it erodes confidence; overly positive and it masks or ignores potential problems with story, structure, plot, characterisation and so forth. I agree that the reciprocity of feedback is an important feature. And you don’t have the social pressure of sitting in a group responding to the work of someone you’ve known for ten years. I’m delighted to hear you feel less isolated as a writer because of Writers Cafe, and I wish you good luck with improving your writing. –Virginia

  9. Your comments on copy editing are extremely valid – newspapers used to be able to afford ‘copy tasters’ (ah, those brave days!) now we just plough on enlisting members of the writing group, call in favors from journo mates, etc. Cheers, Tina Faulk

    1. Hi Tina,
      Yes it’s true that we must enlist the support of friends and supporters. In my struggles with the second book, I finally found one person who has become a trusted first reader of draft sections. With her steely-eyed insight I have finally been able to have the breakthrough(s) I needed in order to finish it. At which time it will be only an approximation of what I had originally hoped it would be, but I think that’s inevitable for any writer. What I’m saying is that we only need one person who provides excellent feedback — the difficult lies in finding that person!

  10. Great post. I am working on my first book, a memoir, and am realizing that this is far more difficult than I imagined it would be. I definitely will need the assistance of a good editor and your post has helped me to frame how I should search (what I should look for in feedback). Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Nicole, and good luck with your book project. — Virginia

  11. Wow, what a delightful find you and your blog are Virginia after a less than awesome day! I have spend an hour here and absorbed so much helpful information (bit of a lone writer at the moment working on a few manuscripts in the not-so-early stage of their unfolding). You have supplied so much valuable information, constructive feedback on the inevitable author thinking processes – I thank you! And thanks too to the interesting authors who lurk here with you for obvious reasons, particularly the caring, sharing Jenny Ackland. I’m hooked I will be a regular now and hope you are still accepting when next ms of mine is ready in the New Year. And I would like to add a question – how important? / urgent? / essential? /necessary is it to have a developed writer’s platform when you are near to submitting an ms. A very grateful and appreciative visitor.

    1. Hi Samara — thanks for your lovely comment and feedback. The numbers tell me lots of people visit but I don’t get a lot of comments, for whatever reason(s). As for your question about platform, it depends on the subject of your manuscript. I see queries from authors with specialised expertise, but unless they have published articles or appeared on radio in relation to their specialty, there is little ‘proof’ of mainstream interest in that subject. For memoir it’s different, because it is clearly a personal story irrespective of the degree of third-party subject matter/research involved in the telling.
      Thank you for this great question, I realise there’s a whole blog for me to write on the topic. Good luck with your writing and I look forward to hearing from you when you are ready. — Virginia

  12. Hi Virginia,

    Excellent piece. It was brutally honest and it just might be the first step I’m looking for. I’m a starving author myself and a Senior in College at that! I’ve been working on a 500 page manuscript now for ten years, and it’s been such a struggle because I’ve been developing my craft. I’m on my third draft. Unfortunately it’s difficult to find beta writers because, well, no college student wants to read 500 pages of fiction when they’re nose deep in inorganic chemistry notes. I just feel, stuck, there’s no way to explain it. Should I wait a bit until my craft is completely developed or wait a bit? Is there any way to get Beta Writers motivated?

    1. Hi Tom, sorry to take some time to get back to you. Not even the most successful writers would claim that their ‘craft is completely developed’, so you shouldn’t wait any longer. Perhaps in the MFA program or the Literature department of your institution there are students who would be willing to take a look at your ms, but I should think at 500 pages long they should be paid something. You do need to connect with other fiction writers, whether in person or online. In the comments here there are a few suggested websites, and a search will reveal many more. Perhaps you could start with getting someone to review the first 20 or 50 or 200 pages? Typically if there are problems with a ms then they will be evident from first opening pages. Good luck with it — Virginia

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