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

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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.

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