Going Indie For Dummies — But I LIKE My Editor

And now we get into editing and the meaning of editing, what you pay for editing, IF you pay for editing, what types of edits are useful, which are just the equivalent of washing your hands in ditch water, and what you should do and avoid.

First let’s get into what most readers mean when they say “I liked this book, but it needed editing.”

Nine times out of ten when you get this review, it means they think you need copy editing.  That is they found one or nine typos in your book.

This is by the way one of those “not fair” things, since traditionally published books often have as many or more typos in the books.  The difference is that for whatever reason, if you’re even suspected of being indie or small press, readers go in looking for the mistakes.

So we’ll establish you need a good copy editor and go on from there.

We’ve done several posts here at MGC which cover this, but it’s also the information most asked-for, so it’s worth covering again.

What is copy editing: copy editing is going over your manuscript and making sure you don’t have ANY egregious mistakes.  These cover not only grammar, but also consistency, style (ask your first copy editor for a series to prepare a style sheet on things that are common only to that series.) and formatting.  If you’re still writing with underlines (I dropped it some time ago) they should make sure that all your underlines become italics.  If you’re fond of ellipses, they should not only make sure it’s not excessive, but that they are properly or at least consistently spaced.

As I mentioned before, copyeditors should follow a manual of style, and be able to tell you which.  Baen uses way more comas than Penguin, and neither uses as many as I was taught to use in my Oxford-English-based education.  Penguin eliminated the subjunctive, and Baen in its latest edit made an attempt.  (Which is why they got back a snarled comment on that one.  They can have my subjunctive when they pry it from my cold, dead brain.)

Before you hire a copy editor, make sure you’re on the same page.  Ask for references.  Look those references (and comments on them) up on Amazon.  Call at least two of them to make sure the copy editor is responsible for no “needs editing” comments, because the author might have had it re-copy edited.  I could tell you stories. BTW NEVER ask in public.  Often the copy-editor is the writers’ friend or someone they don’t wish to p*ss off.  Ask in private, preferably on the phone.

If the copy-editor checks out, you should pay around $200 TOPS for copy editing.  I’ve paid double that, but it was because the manuscript was an insane mess, having been created in Word Perfect and translated to Word, and…  But for normal manuscripts, for JUST copyediting, $200.

I trade it even-steven for a cover with friends.  I’d charge more for covers for non-friends, but you know how it goes.

However sometimes when people — like me — say “you need editing” what they actually mean is that… you need editing.

The level above that basic copy editing, I don’t quite know what to call.  We could call it “Fact checker.”  Yes, I know you’re writing fantasy and who needs a fact checker.  You’d be amazed.  There are facts in your book, unless it takes place completely among the squidloids of Oxon V.  And even then.  Someone will look at how Xio the squidloid moves through water and tell you that you’re violating physics, and she/he will be right.

Take the book I read last week (and by read, assume 11 eleven pages.)  It’s supposedly is a regency, but London is described as having a “Lowtown” and a ‘Hightown” where the low and high class live, respectively.  The wife of a baron AND HER DAUGHTERS go out every single morning to collect food from merchants, which they then give the servants to cook.  (Apparently butcher’s boys and grocer’s boys never crossed this person’s experience.)  The daughter of the family wonders why they need servants to cook “for a little family of four” demonstrating a total lack of understanding of both the complexities of Regency entertaining, and the work involved in cooking from scratch over coal or wood.  And by page eleven, the final insult, when a man refers to two other men as “those guys.”

A fact checking editor, familiar with the regency, or even with just regency romances could have “fixed” this.  Does it matter?  I don’t know.  She has 300 positive reviews.  So I’m going to assume either she bought them or a lot of people are reading this for something else.  I never read far enough to see if there’s sex in the book.

But if you’re writing something vaguely historical, and THINK that it’s going to be an issue to put your foot in your mouth that assiduously, I suggest you get a content checker.  This could just be your buddy who is a Jane Austen (or Tudor, or whatever) fanatic.  Or you could find someone you pay.

If you don’t know the person, I would check them as you’d check a copy editor.  Expertise, clients, etc.  The payment for this on its own will be around $300 but it might be more depending on how many times you stuck your foot in your mouth, or how obscure your area/time is.

After that you have what I’d call a “structural editor.”  And here I’m going to tell you “don’t.  Just don’t.”

Why?  Because structural editors, once upon a time called bookdoctors, are difficult to find.  Oh, you’ll find a million of them, but the problem is finding a GOOD one.  I’ve seen more books outright killed by a bad structural editor (or agent, or editor) than by any other cause.  Arguably my second Shakespeare book was a kill by an agent who was also an author and had a “bible” for how things should be written.  It didn’t at all mesh with my style of writing, which at the time was even more interior and emotional than it is now.  So a thriller plot was superimposed on the poor book.  It sold worst of that series and it still sells worst, as indie, partly I think because people who love the series find it odd.  It is.

But what if you know you have structural problems?

Well, first of all, how do you know?  And compared to what?

Look if the publisher you want to publish with tells you that you need to change to be more acceptable to them, and it won’t break you to do so, follow their instructions.

But if you’re indie, what is good structure?  My friends who are bestsellers follow all types of structures and beats.  One works for one and not for the other.

For the first fifteen years after I was published I was convinced I couldn’t plot.  This was not precisely true.  My plots tended to be interior and involuted, but they were there.  It’s just that I hadn’t made my plotting conscious, so I didn’t know what I knew yet, which made me vulnerable to agents who said I needed to change it completely because it didn’t have a plot.  (At 38 books under my belt the answer to that is to take a hike, because honestly, at this point some books are worse than others, but “unpublishable” doens’t happen.)

Take a tour of your favorite books, and see the structure they use.  There is no One Right Structure.

But what if your doesn’t work?  If it failed to gel?  If you’re not sure?


I’d first recommend beta readers.  Start with ten, though if you are looking online you might need twenty, because life happens to people.  If six come back and three of them agree you have a problem and that it’s the same problem, THEN consider what to do.

If you can’t find beta readers, find someone you trust to tell you the truth and whose judgement you respect, and have them look.  For me that’s my husband.  Yes, we have in the past told each other a book or story sucks or “isn’t up to it.”

Again, if there is a problem, consider what to do.

Why consider what to do?  Why not “fix it?”

Well because people who can tell you something is wrong don’t necessarily know what to do to fix it.  They might not even have the right problem.  For instance, my story, High Stakes, got everyone in my writers’ group saying it was too slow.  I boggled.  The story has a murder and hiding the body int he first five pages.  So I went to read it.  EVERY sentence was passive voice.  A problem, but not the one the readers’ found.

If it’s something like that, it’s easy enough to fix. But what if it’s more complex?  That’s where you have to consider what to do.  If you’re at a point you can’t “See” and feel the plot, you probably can’t fix it yet.  At that point you have to consider if it’s bad enough to warrant fixing or if it’s just “manque” but functional.  Because fixing can make it worse.  This is like having an appliance that works, sort of, but you are tired of it glitching, so you go in and take it apart and put it back together.  This is fine if you UNDERSTAND at an intimate level how this appliance works.  But if you’re going in blind on something someone told you, the chances is that once you’re done the thing is only good for the scrap heap.  I have at least five novels I killed that way, and which I NOW can fix.  Arguably this was the case with Darkship Thieves and the reason it sat for over 10 years in a drawer until I went back, looked at it, and realized what I’d done wrong (and went back to the original form.)

“BUT I like this structural editor, and my friend who uses him sells tons.”

Okay, then.  First, be aware you’ll pay a content editor anywhere from $500 to $1500.  Make sure you get that much improvement.

Second, make sure your content editor reads the genre.   There are conventions, short cuts and ways of doing things that are understood in the field but will raise flags on an outsider.  If you change those according to the content editor, you’re going to end up irking your fans and destroying your book. (aka what I did to DST after first round of rejections.)

If you’re following a particular writer’s style, make sure the content editor knows it.  For instance Heinlein has a lot more preaching in his books than anyone who read him long ago remembers.  If your editor only read Heinlein once in childhood, he’ll flag every time you stop to talk to the audience.  Removing this would kill the feel of your book.

Third, if your content and structural editor is a writer, make sure he doesn’t write anything like yours.  He reads it, yeas, but doesn’t write it.  Why?  Because the author who can stop himself making others’ books like his is very rare.  I’m fairly good at it because I “grew up” as a writer in a group that wrote many styles and genres.  Even I am not perfect.  If you were doing Space Opera In The Heinlein Mold, the close but not close would probably fry my brain and I’d end up editing as if I were editing for me.

Then talk to clients, check how books are doing, etc.  You’re shelling out a lot of money.  Make sure it’s worth it.

And now you’re up to 2k for the book that it will have to earn out. Look, this is why most of us have trading arrangements.  I do a lot of covers for people in exchange for first reads/proofreading, etc.  You probably have a skill that is highly valued and you can trade. Then there’s mining your contacts.  I have a friend who will do proof, content and structural in one pass for $500.  He does it because he likes me.  And he goes light on structural, usually just a query like “You already hit this emotional beat, on page x?”

I use him if a book has been monkeyed with before, and needs cleaning.  I don’t use structural editors otherwise.  If a book isn’t working I usually know halfway in, and a dinner out (or weekend out) with my husband, with much brainstorming, fixes it.  But that’s me.  You might be different.  I’m just telling you it’s a difficult trade and don’t do it if you can avoid it.

For years now, I’ve used this book to double check myself: Self editing for fiction writers by Browne and King.

It won’t proofread for you, but for my money, it will make you into a decent structural and content editor.  Give it a try.  It might work for you.

Next up: Ready, Set, Go. The final steps in getting your book published and why you really shouldn’t need approval (but probably do.)





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28 responses to “Going Indie For Dummies — But I LIKE My Editor

  1. Laura M

    Since I loved your recommendation of Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, I will get this. Thank you.

  2. I’ve done a bit of structural editing for one of the Tiny Bidness Clients – and what I did was to phrase it as very specific suggestions intended to improve the book (his writing was quite good, and only needed a little tweaking of plot elements.) The author already was working with a so-called editor at one of the POD houses, and he was finding it an unsatisfactory experience, because he kept getting nothing but vague generalities, which he found quite frustrating. So my list was along the lines of; have this scene take place in this chapter, establish this particular detail early on, establish this relationship here, how could this particular thing have happened …

    He fell on my suggestions quite happily, and finished the book – and it has only a few reviews, but all are good, and one in particular was very complimentary: “The plotting is amazing. The author must have drawn up a chart of all the clues and consequences before he even started the book. The logical order is airtight. In that sense it’s a well done mystery as well.”

    • B. Durbin

      I can see that working very well. There’s one book that I read a while back—a comedic Faust take that tried to do the same sort of thing as Good Omens—and the place where it failed structurally was in having a scene where a trapped person is shown to have escaped before the POV where he actually escapes.

      Thinking of some books as having a mystery setup when they are not, in fact, mysteries is a good way to look at it. Put your Chekov’s Gun in there early, and trail in your hints. Neil Gaiman had some interesting comments about his Sandman series—the comic produced over the better part of a decade, where some hints in the early issues came into fruition almost at the end. He said that he always puts lots of interesting extra details in early in a series like that, simply because they might inspire something later and make him look like a plotting genius.

      I’d suggest that if you have any inklings of things that are going to happen in subsequent books, it never hurts to hint around them as well, as long as they don’t interfere with the plot. Scenery or set design, if you will.

  3. freddie_mac

    But what if your doesn’t work? If it failed to gel? If you’re not sure?

    If you can, put it away in the drawer for a week or two (or longer, if possible). Then, come back and look at it again … those problems that you couldn’t see before will probably be wearing neon and dancing across the page.

  4. B. Durbin

    I’d also like to point out that for longer books or series, it doesn’t hurt to have a continuity editor*. Anne McCaffrey drove me particularly nuts with that. She’d change the names or relationships of secondary or tertiary characters without seeming to realize it. (As opposed to retcons like changing the color of Lytol’s dragon.)

    Still like her work, but oh my, I’d love to send a complete “fix it” list to her publishers.

    *If you find out you need a continuity editor, what you really need is a Dramatis Personae file, with appropriate spellings and descriptions. Then find your nitpick friend to track them all down. Feed them something nice.

    • I have discovered that GMing software is priceless for world continuity…

      • Reality Observer

        I don’t use the software (I was a DM way back when) – but I certainly use the process. (And, sigh, have a whole list of things to get around to after editing some chronology and characters.)

        One thing that I do “automate” – is that I hyperlink things like names and settings in my fiction text off to the background document I set up. Makes it easy to look up on the fly, at least…

      • Robin Munn

        Which GMing software do you like to use? I haven’t found any that I really like among the free ones that I’ve tried, and I’m VERY hesitant to shell out money for software until I know that I’ll like it. So recommendations are quite useful.

        I’d be using it for GMing, not writing, but the two are remarkably similar — GMing is basically writing when you’re not in control of your major characters. (Cue the chorus of authors saying, “As if I’m ever in control of my characters!” *grin*)

        • Right now, I’m using Realm Works. I’ve found nothing that crossreferences as well as it does. I’m less fond of its index, but it’s been very useful in untangling the mess I’ve made of this book so far. I haven’t found a lot of alternatives that aren’t overly focused on the stats rather than the world building. I could probably do some of the same stuff with Scrivener, but it would lack the automatic cross referencing. (Basically you used the name “Drayden” here, it shows up in 47 other places, do you want to link them all or go through one by one and pick which ones you want to link?)

          Thier side index can get clunky, but I haven’t played with some of the other internal ways they have of carving off portions of data and just displaying what you need so I can’t comment on it. I will say I would not have picked this one up if I had been looking for book bible software. I got it for gaming and discovered it was useful for books as well. It’s a bit pricey, but I was running roughly 8 campeigns when I picked it up and had a windfall of cash.

  5. Uncle Lar

    Sarah dear, given the importance you ascribe to editors I’m afraid that I’m going to have to double my fees for beta reads and triple those for copy edits. (inside joke, y’all)
    I have this curse, misused words, grammar failures, inappropriate tense changes, all literally fly off the page and smack be tween the eyes. So I’m a rather good copy editor, and I hates it I does!
    A proper copy edit is precisely a word by word scan through the entire book, examining each and every blessed one not only on its own, but in context with those around it. Sucks all the joy out of what might otherwise have been a delightful and entertaining read.
    I can beta while checking content and flow with little problem. If I must then copy edit I have to back away for at least several days and come back on a different slant entirely.

    • Uncle Lar

      And of course reading back I see that I wrote be for me, thus demonstrating the necessity for a second look.
      Hey, said they flew off the page, didn’t say I was above making them myself.

      • Reality Observer

        I liken them to stepping on a burr in the carpeting. Knowing full well that I track them into the house, too.

  6. Bjorn Hasseler


  7. I still dip into the old pulp magazines. (There are lots of full-issue scans on archive.org.) A lot of the old pulpsters got their ‘facts’ from other pulp fiction. Many a western adventure was written by someone who never got west of New York. (You can even find such in the second and third tier stf pulps.) I suspect your regency writer learned everything she knows about the period from other regency romances.

    • Heck – the premier German pulp writer of western adventure – one Karl May (Hitler was one of his fans, allegedly) who is still huuugely popular in Germany to this very day – only visited the US on one single occasion, and never went farther west than (IRRC) Chicago.
      I worked a deal with a freelance translator to do a German version of the first of the Adelsverein Trilogy in German, thinking that I would clean up from the Karl May fans. (Split the profits of the German language edition with him – which … sadly, didn’t come to anything much. Well – a venture on both of our sides.)

      • Texas Tech occasionally has a Karl May conference. His Indians are more symbols for the noble savage than real Indians, but that doesn’t stop people from devouring them.

  8. John in Philly

    I volunteered to be a Beta reader. The insider view of how the novel developed was a great experience, and I was able to contribute based on my work and hobbies.
    On typos, sometimes they don’t bother me, but other times they pull me out of the story. Break instead of brake was a recent instance.

    • and a common one for me, since when I’m tired I type phonetically. It’s also a normal one in traditionally published books.
      We all have pet annoying typos. My “favorite” is capitol instead of capital. When horses ride through the capitol I’m going “How, with all those stairs?”

      • snelson134

        Yeah, I’m pretty sure Baen doesn’t use (or induce ) more comas than any of the trad publishers… 😎

        If I could say one thing to anyone who writes anything, it’s that spellcheckers aren’t enough. Get another set of eyes to look at it.

  9. aacid14

    Admittedly great information as to defining what the terms you see bandied about. At this stage on revising and time is being the monster. I’ve gotten a bunch of feedback and it’s my early stuff so lots of rewrites early to smooth out pacing. I need to attack more of these articles.

  10. Kevin

    Typos don’t bother me much. Books that start with three characters talking on planet A and then next chapter (and 5 minutes later) characters 1 & 2 are talking about how they have to go pick up character 3 from planet B a month’s travel away – that bothers me.