I can’t afford an editor

This piece is, strictly speaking, aimed at authors eschewing the traditional publishing path and facing up to the parts that traditional publishing was supposed to add to your book or story, but sometimes didn’t.

Naturally, this piece is done without the benefit of an editor (I can’t afford it, and I don’t get paid for this) or even without the compensations I suggest. I don’t have time for them, if you want to read this today. It will be full of errors. Deal.

No matter what they tell you, the best training for writing novels is more writing. It’s no different in that sense from long distance running or long distance swimming.

Notice that I chose the long form of all three…

I don’t think any new writer ever starts without doubt about his basic skill in this profession (please think of it as that. It’s not a hobby, or catharsis. Not if you want to write enough good books. Hobbyists produce occasional books or stories, some very good, some good, mostly bad or average. Writing is no different to any other field in this respect, much as publishers might try to kid you otherwise. Hobbyists are cheap, unlike hobbits who are expensive and hairy footed.)

I take that back. No potentially competent writer starts without doubt. (I still have lots. If you would like some, I can spare it.) If you know that you are Heaven’s gift to the world of literature… you probably are. To modern literary fiction. And no amount of lack of sales despite the huge volume of marketing and display can change this. But if you are (or have the potential to become) the sort of story teller that many people love and remember the stories told by, and moreover part with money to read, you question yourself. Your direction, your skill.

And this, of course is the first stage of editing. Doubt.

If you have no doubt, you’ll never accept any editing, not from yourself or anyone else.

Of course where so many of us fall is that doubt overwhelms. Common sense, and self-confidence never get a look in.

But what if I really am rubbish? What if I am taking the wrong direction entirely? Surely the answer is that I need guidance, and that guidance is therefore beyond price.

(Sigh). There IS no wrong direction.

Repeat after me. There is no wrong direction in Independent Publishing. You want to write first person piano-dwarf sadomasochist erotica set in Weimar Germany, or a treatise on anti-Zorasteran tactics? It’s a big world and sooner or later the internet is going to put you in touch with others of like mind or interest. If you want to be popular and read by millions… well that’s a different matter. Don’t ask traditional editors, because they’re trying to pick (at the very worst) bestsellers, and based on the results they have a 99.9% failure rate. It’s something we (editors and the rest of us) lack the tools for, or the training for. All they have is instinct or the following the herd – and a lot of books to choose from. They can put you in the top 10%, but that’s still a lot of failing books for every great seller. An editor-for-hire is even less likely to be telling you that really, dwarf erotica, especially with pianos, is a limited market. And hell, I might be wrong. If it is bizarre or funny or even politically correct enough, millions of copies might get sold. (I spend a fair amount of time sneering at the ‘politically correct’ because I personally despise the unthinking mindless following of prescribed rules, many of which fail the most cursory extension of logic, but there seem to be a lot of people who like it and obey it slavishly. It might work for you.).

What there is, and you should worry about, is technique. Much though I disapprove of it, being nearly as gifted as Shakespeare at original usage of letters, spelling is a non-negotiable. Fortunately a spill-chucker can do the worst, although it does require you to know the difference between a beech, a beach, and a lady dog. The reason spelling is important is the same reason you need elementary grammar. (And I mean elementary. It will not matter to most of your audience if you decide to boldly go where no infinitive has been split before. Or, if you have sentence fragments.) Look, the grammar-grundies, who naturally love to emphasise their importance, forget the purpose of regular grammar and spelling. It is to make reading easier. That’s all. If your audience doesn’t know if they are an audience – “you’re audience” or whether they’re your readers – “your audience”, then they pause reading to think about it. And this really, truly, is a case of hesitate and they are lost. The purpose of grammar is to make communication between the writer and reader better. The grammar needs to be fairly consistent, and enhance your clarity. Anything else is pure vanity. It’s pretty, may make you look clever, but it’s not going to lose you thousands of readers if you split an infinitive. Grammar-grundies are relatively rare, along with dwarf-piano erotica fans. Most people read for the story.

The important parts of other techniques — and there are books full of them — are largely about not confusing the reader, and very often by following an accepted convention. People are used to them, so they work (which is what writers like Jeanette Winterson miss when they re-invent the wheel in sf). First, second, third person, omniscient POV. How change point of view. Tenses, correct capitalization, commas and quotes, not to mention ellipses… This is stuff you should have learned at school, and seriously, if you’re paying an editor rather than trying to learn them, you need a second job, and deserve to pay through the nose for it. Get a few books, study your favorite authors… and then work on picking up those communication issues.

The first, single most effective way you can do this…


………..Is to leave it be for a reasonable time.

Yes, really. Stories need to ferment. Well, it’s either ferment or get some distance from you, or you from them. I find immediate self-editing much, much less effective than hitting a story again after three months. That’s the period that works for small brains like mine. You may find weeks or years work better for you.

Secondly, if you really care, and can’t pay someone else to struggle… start at the back. Read each sentence, from the end of your manuscript. If you actually read the words backwards aloud, at double speed, it will tell you that Elvis is Satan and living in Poughkeepsie, but, while I am sure this is very valuable to you, reading the sentences the normal way around, but out of context lets you pick up many errors, in logic, and communication, plain old missing words and typos.

The next step is to get other readers involved. Unless you have a dedicated fan club… try trading favors. I’ll read yours, you read mine. And try getting at least three first readers. Five is better. Me, I always do odd numbers, and after applying logic, personal bias, and then looking things up (in that order) I still have doubts about a point… I go with the majority. Your system may differ.

At this point, if you can afford it, it’s worth getting someone who copy edits for a living to quote. The manuscript ought fairly clean and quick to do, and if their rates are based on time needed and suppressing the gag reflex, it ought to have helped a lot… and you will have learned a lot, which passing steps one and two and going straight to commerce won’t do (or will do much more slowly). If not, I’d advise repeat steps one and two.

Odds are your final product will be cleaner than most traditionally published stories, and the next piece you write will be better.

So: any tricks or ideas you have to achieve clean manuscripts?

Oh to pay for the sand in the arena – you might have a look in at my website, where SAVE THE DRAGONS is available – which has never seen a traditional editorial process, although some wonderfully talented people have edited it Or at one of the shorts

– edited as above, because the short will never make enough money to pay an editor.


  1. I probably could afford an editor if I wanted one – and may consider it seriously when the WIP is finished – but I am of such a difficult and persnickety turn of mind that it is going to be polished within an inch of its life BEFORE I look for an editor, and I may still bypass the process.


    Because I don’t trust someone else. Because I’ve been working for years on getting my writing to the point where it passes MY standards, and I LIKE those standards.

    And because I’ve found something that works for me: using a machine that has no pity.

    I use AutoCrit – there are others I haven’t tried, and programs you can buy, except I haven’t yet found one for the Mac.

    It catches all the dumb things I do – a tendency to use the same word over and over; a tendency to repeat 2, 3, and 4 word phrases; and a tendency to be too close to the pov character (which presents as using ‘it’ and ‘thing’ – as the character would in real life, but which, for a reader, really should be replaced with the right noun).

    By flagging all these things impersonally – it compares your fiction to a database created somehow from masses of published fiction that has been through real editors – machine editing helps me get over myself.

    I can’t argue with the tallies. There it is in black and white (and underlined in color): I used the phrase “she sounded” twice, in consecutive paragraphs.

    After the wince, I look at BOTH instances, rewrite both, end up with something much better at explaining how HE knew what SHE was feeling.

    The very mechanical-ness of it takes out any sting, any judgment. Any argument from me that “it’s just my STYLE.” Dispassionately I ask myself: now that it’s been flagged, will I let it stand?

    And I can use it again and again, without paying extra in anything but my time (AC is an online service, with a free option that does NOT show you the full power). Try THAT with a human editor. It doesn’t get tired of reading the same deathless prose over and over (I have a tendency to reintroduce the same types of errors in my corrections, if the corrections are extensive).

    I use Scrivener, which lets you easily take snapshots of the current version of your text. I always take one Before AC. Then I spend the time necessary to correct the ‘potential problems,’ and take an After AC snapshot. Letting Scrivener compare these two snapshots shows how much I needed to do the process: a LOT.

    My brain has its own little ruts. I rarely have trouble with spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but the editor – it is necessary. For me.

    1. Polishing first is the right attitude IMO. Also, multiple readers, rather than just one editor is a good idea, simply because that one editor can be as daft as a brush. I’m interested in this AutoCrit, and thank you for bringing it up. I’m, BTW, less than convinced stock phrases and word choices are a problem… in moderation. IMO In moderation readers actually LIKE them. They aid ease of reading, speed it up (the eye gets the word pattern and it is translated into meaning without going through the interpretive stage). Like ‘he said/she said’ speech tags they effectively invisible to the reader whose lips don’t move, or who isn’t editing (ergo, editors pick up problems which don’t exist – to readers). These ‘invisibles’ make the communication between the reader more clear, and while repetitive to an editor, changinging them, or removing them worstens that clarity.

      It’s a line which requires human judgement, and lot of skill. Mine is tepid, but my first first reader’s is excellent.

  2. I second AutoCrit as a mechanical editor. It catches things humans are bad at noticing, esp. repeated words and phrases.

    Doesn’t obviate the need for human eyes, too, of course.

    1. “repeated words and phrases” – As I said above, there is a fine line here, not one I’m too sure a mechanical editor — or a lot of live ones — can walk. Either I’m right and most readers don’t mind as as much as editors or the success of the ‘renowned Dan Browne’ is a figment of my imagination.

    2. I like that potential problems are merely pointed out – and it is up to me to decide if and how to deal with things, including just leaving everything as is.

      I’m not particularly good at accepting other human’s judgments of my work – but this doesn’t bother me at all.

      If I then hire a human editor, the input text will be as clean as I can make it – and I will be looking for editors who work by the hour. It should make that final process much less expensive.

      The advantage is that every time I correct MY bad habit, my writing gets better, and that particular bad habit tends to damp out.

  3. Fermentation time. I’ve just received the proofs for a CreateSpace POD . . . Haven’t just sat down and read it start to finish for _years_. I do _not_ believe the things I’m picking up. Things that got by readers and a copy edit. Oh, some are probably glitches in the conversion process–lots of stuff that ought to have been italicized, that isn’t. But plenty of other stuff as well. Yikes!

    1. Condolences. Fixing things you had already taken care of – especially losing your italics (which I’m sure you placed very carefully before the process) – must be extremely frustrating.

      OTOH, congratulations for getting to the proof stage.

      1. 🙂 At the moment I’m not sure it ought not be condolences! Darn it, it was epubbed a year and a half ago.

        And written years before that. I think a lot of my “problems” are just that I’m a better writer, now. I’m going to wind up fixing the ebook as well. One of those things that didn’t used to be practical, now it’s easy.

    2. Tell me -anyone out there – does the input format for createspace make any difference? -would i be better off in say .pdf or word?

  4. I’m nobody and certainly no writer, but for what it’s worth, please please please get your its/it’s/its’ and there/their/they’re right. If I see more than one of these mistakes in a book, it usually gets thrown across the room. Kindle versions get the long-form “delete from device” treatment. Sorry, pet peeve.

    1. We have our own pet peeves – mine is your/you’re. It’s a good thing to fix these issues, but the reality is if everybody was as sensitive about it as Nobody is… then the mistakes would not be made so often. Perhaps 5% of readers actually notice. That’s a loss of 5%, which may be worth it in some financial equations.

  5. I must admit, that the scariest part of writing for me is the EDITING. I glance over most mistakes since my brain auto-corrects so well, I don’t even notice mistakes like your pet peeve, Mr. Freer. The best trick I have found is get my first splat (can’t even call it a ‘draft’ really) on paper then do my scatter-brained best not to look or even think about my newest dribble. I wait at least a few days to a week (longer is better) so I can see the piece as it is, not as I meant it to say. Then I fix what I see before getting my 1st reader (who is a fantastic editor, but says he really doesn’t have the same creative ‘spark’ I do…) to be brutally honest. Anything he doesn’t ‘get’ or read the way I meant it gets more work. Then I hit up a few other betas (online or in person) before asking a acquaintance who happens to teach college English & creative writing. I’ve been published in two college-level literary magazines so far…Luck to all of us who “must get this story out” since most folks think we are nuts!

Comments are closed.