Editing: From Alphas to Betas and Beyond

Writing, it’s said, is a lonely profession. Images of writers sequestering themselves away for the purpose of finishing their novel abound. Some novelist are so overconfident, they believe they don’t need help. Others avoid seeking help, paralyzed by the secret fear that their writing simply isn’t good enough. But, behind every successful author is a slew of people who have left their mark on the manuscript.

Self-publishers, eager to see their books in print, often ignore the undervalued topics of manuscript evaluation, revision, and editing, instead focusing their attention on buying ISBNs, contracting print-on-demand services, and marketing. They do this at their peril. These are the essential steps that makes a manuscript worth reading. Flawed plot lines and inadequate character development are impossible to salvage after the book is published. To catch (and resolve) problematic aspects early in the writing process, the manuscript must be read by others, starting with its earliest draft forms.

Revision Resources

Alpha Readers
Completing a first draft is a huge accomplishment, but let’s be honest, first drafts are crap. Revision is the key to a well written document. It’s common for writers to want feedback at this stage, but showing a messy first draft to anyone is terrifying. Alpha readers are the trusted first readers of a manuscript.

A good relationship with alpha readers is a must. In addition to being supportive cheerleaders, alphas need to provide useful feedback and let an author know if the story is believable. Someone who will withhold judgement out of fear that they might crush an author’s spirit and ruin a friendship does a disservice to the writer. Quality alpha readers assist in deciding how much revision is necessary to make the novel clearer and easier to read. These early opinions may spot missed opportunities, provide differing motivations for a character’s actions, and encourage the writer to get back the keyboard.

Before contacting alpha readers, consider if the manuscript truly ready for feedback. It’s fine to seek general impressions, but if you can’t identify a specific area for feedback, then it’s premature to seek an alpha reader.

Critique Partners
Once you have a complete second draft, it’s time to seek critique partners and begin refining your prose. These are fellow writers who scrutinize manuscripts to help identify writing craft shortcomings and give feedback on character development, continuity, pacing, plotting mistakes, point-of-view problems, underdeveloped subplots, and story structure. Critique partners point out areas where information needs expanded upon, identify what needs tossed, and raise questions not previously considered.

A great way to meet critique partners is to join a writers group or workshop. Look for a group that has experience with your genre, can help develop your craft, challenge your narrative, and ultimately improve the quality of the story.

See my post on Finding the Right Group.
Here are 20 Questions to Ask Writing Groups.

Fact Checkers
No matter how thoroughly a book is researched, it can still end up with informational inconsistencies. Developmental and copy editors can help with this, but it’s not their responsibility to fact-check. Fact checkers have specific knowledge on topics relevant to the book.

Fact checking is essential for non-fiction works. However, many works of fiction also contain a lot of niche information that needs checked and verified. Getting an extra set of trained eyes on a manuscript can be very helpful for works of historical fiction, science fiction, and period novels. Fact checkers note all the factual references in the book, then carefully confirm them via external sources and alert the author to any inaccuracies they’ve found. They also verify quotes to ensure concise articulation, correct attribution, and consistency.

Beta Readers
Selected with the book’s target audience in mind, these folks review a clean copy of the manuscript from the point of view of a casual reader. The purpose of a beta reader is to identify reader stumbling blocks and work out any remaining kinks before publication.

Beta readers may be friends or family members who are not writers themselves, but who regularly read books in the same genre. The best beta readers will be somehow tied to the reading and writing community. Librarians, teachers, and book group members can easily compare an unpublished manuscript to the vast numbers of published works they have already read. GoodReads is a mecca for bibliophiles and is a valuable resources for writers looking to connect with beta readers.

Regardless of the type help an author is seeking, it’s important to establish deadlines. This ensures they don’t end up waiting forever on a procrastinating reader. Similarly, issues may arise that prevent volunteers from completing the assignment. A wise writer can plan on having roughly 30% of their readers abandon the project. Treat reliable readers like the amazing people they are and never take them for granted.

Sensitivity Readers
Many good-faith efforts to include diverse characters in published literature have met with mixed receptions because they were written by white authors. Thus, using sensitivity readers has become a controversial topic, drawing attention from media outlets ranging from Literary Hub to the New York Times.

Sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts to ensure sensitive topics are given the respect necessary. Their express purpose is for spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language. They help improve the manuscript by pointing out unintentionally insensitive or incorrect portrayals of race, sexuality, religion, and physical disabilities.

Detractors to the concept of using sensitivity readers are concerned that these readers police expression of thought, resulting in homogeneous stories that avoid complex topics and present a sterilized world where controversial language is avoided at all costs. Detractors argue that this is antithetical to what creative writing should be about.

Proponents to using sensitivity readers insist all writers lack a real-world context for writing cultures other than their own. They argue that sensitivity readers improve a manuscript in the following ways:

  • Guaranteeing that minorities get better representation on the page by ensuring that characters are represented accurately, without perpetuating stereotypes.
  • Improving the quality of the book by creating a multidimensional, rich, and nuanced cast of characters.
  • Preempting harsh backlash online and averting the embarrassing predicament of canceling a book launch and the need for a public apology.

Sensitivity readers must match the needs of the book. Ideally, the reader will be familiar with the genre and quirks of the industry, come from a similar background and culture as the characters, and understand the nuances of writing from such a perspective.

When the reader has finished reviewing the manuscript, they compile a detailed letter regarding their feedback and return it to the author along with the manuscript which may contain notes in the margins. Much of the feedback will pinpoint things the author might not have considered, point out blind spots, and raise delicate tonal questions. Depending on the reader, a follow-up phone consultation may occur to resolve any lingering questions.

Professional Editing

Self-editing, or revision, is the furthest authors can take their manuscript, either on their own or with feedback from fellow writers. This is a monumental first step towards finishing a manuscript. The majority of time spent writing a book is consumed in revision and authors should never rush the process just to crank out a book.

Many would-be-authors new to the publishing industry fool themselves into believing that they and a team of friends can successfully edit the book into shape. To those people I ask, what do Neil Gaiman, Isabel Allende, and Joyce Carol Oates have in common? Answer: They all work with professional editors.

The greatest gift self-publishers can give themselves is the gift of professional editing. Before hitting “publish” on a book, independent editing is essential. It is not uncommon for traditionally published books to pass through no fewer than four separate editors. Self-publishers wishing to compete in the book market skimp on editing at their peril.

That said, there are times to skip the expense and spend some time self-editing:

  • When it’s still just a first draft and hasn’t been revised yet.
  • When cleaning up a manuscript to send to beta readers.
  • If the author hasn’t reviewed the manuscript several times themselves first.
  • And if the project hasn’t been set aside for a month or two, so the author can come back with fresh eyes.

That doesn’t mean a book must be complete before hiring an editor. There are many levels of editing that occur throughout the process of writing a book.

Editorial Assessment
When an author wants early feedback, but isn’t ready for a developmental edit it’s possible to request an editorial assessment or manuscript evaluation.  Editorial assessments provide less detail than an editorial report, but should provide some concrete ideas on how to construct the story.

In place of comments and example rewrites, the author receive a letter focusing on the broad strokes and big picture issues that involve the plot and sub plots. A general manuscript evaluation may include comments on character development, dialogue, overall structure, and point-of-view related issues, but this isn’t always the case and depends on the editor. While an editorial assessment is cheaper that a developmental edit, it is unwise to rely on an assessment alone to perfect the manuscript because the edit letters often overlook smaller issues involving grammar, spelling, style inconsistencies, and syntax.

Structural Editing
Structural editing is an approach to improving the book’s structure in order to enhance the narrative and keep the reader engaged. Questions considered with this type of edit include: would a flashback structure increase suspense more than a typical linear chronology? Should chapters alternate point-of-view between characters? Are dream sequences necessary? Structural editing also helps determine if the book should be split into more chapters or if chapters should be combined. It also considers scene organization, content flow, what content might be deleted or expanded, and general coherence.

Developmental Editing
No one wants to end up copy editing work that ends up being thrown out. For this reason developmental editing occurs early in the editing process, while the author is still actively engaged in revision. The time to consider hiring a developmental editor is after working with alpha readers and critique partners.

A developmental edit (also called a content or substantive edit) is a comprehensive review of manuscript. It provides valuable insights into the manuscript’s content and structure, in addition to addressing overall style, technical, and mechanical issues. Chapters may be moved around and whole segments might be added or deleted. The goal is to refine ideas, shape the narrative, and help fix major plot and character inconsistencies.

Developmental editing is often the most expensive, but it’s also the most worthwhile and absolutely essential for a self-published novel. Developmental editors look at every element of the story to figure out what works and what doesn’t, including:

  • Characterization
  • Flow of Ideas
  • Organization
  • Pacing
  • Plot
  • Presentation
  • Rhetorical Concerns
  • Setting
  • Story Structure
  • Story Timeline

Once the edit is complete the editor will provide two pieces of information: an editorial report and an annotated manuscript. The editorial report is a general critique detailing what the editor thinks should be changed, along with possible solutions. It will also include commentary on what works well and should remain in the book. The annotated manuscript is a marked-up version of the manuscript itself. Think of the annotated manuscript as the editor’s raw feedback and the editorial report as a summary of that feedback. The nitty-gritty work of actually making the editorial changes is left to the authors themselves.

Content Editing
Content editors analyze the existing content in the book with a focus on readability. It takes the document’s overall development and makes it better by focusing on accuracy, clarification, paragraph flow, tense, transitions, and voice.

Line Editing
People often use line editing and copy editing interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Line editing (sometimes called stylistic editing) falls under the general umbrella of copy editing, but concentrates on style rather than mechanics. Only when an author has been through several rewrites and is completely satisfied with the plot, story structure, characterization, settings, etc. is the manuscript ready for copy and line editing. There is absolutely no reason to hire these types of editors until after book is back from the beta readers and all the necessary changes have been made.

Line editing is a paragraph-level edit that focuses on the finer points of language, creative content, and flow of the prose. During a line edit, key aspects of the manuscript, such as descriptive inconsistencies, narrative, structure, tense, tone, transitional elements, style, and vocabulary are reviewed to make sentences crisper. It provides detailed suggestions on how to strengthen the prose by fixing redundancy issues and recasting or moving awkward sentences to improve clarity without a full rewrite.

Features of a finished book that indicate it still needs a line edit include:

  • All the sentences are the same length.
  • There are a lot of adjectives.
  • The vocabulary isn’t suited for the intended audience.
  • There are too many big words or excessive amounts of jargon.
  • Paragraph transitions are awkward.

Those who are confident about the mechanics of their prose, but worry about style and flow might request that the copy editor focus their energy on line editing alone.

Copy Editing
A good copy editor serves as the first line of defense when it comes to quality control. Every book should be copy edited. Copy editors provide sentence level editing or a line-by-line basis and check for consistency issues. In addition to consistencies in spelling and punctuation, copy editors look for other errors such as making sure your character’s age and eye color are consistent throughout the book.

 A copy edit tightens the manuscript and eradicates mistakes by examining the following elements:

  • Capitalization
  • Descriptive inconsistencies (character descriptions, locations, etc.)
  • Dialogue tags
  • Grammar
  • Point-of-View/Tense (to fix any unintentional shifts)
  • Punctuation
  • Repetition
  • Spelling
  • Syntax
  • Typos
  • Usage of Numbers and/or Numerals
  • Word Choice

A copy editor’s job is to bring the author’s completed manuscript to a more professional level and help create the most readable version of a book. The goal is to bridge any remaining gaps between the author’s intent and the reader’s understanding by improving clarity and consistency.

 Proofreading
This is the last major stage of the editing process. Proofreaders comb through the manuscript searching for any remaining typographical errors and mistakes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. While they are extremely meticulous, completing a painstaking review of your manuscript, if the manuscript wasn’t copy edited first, the proofreader is unlikely to catch everything.

Before proofreading can begin, the manuscript must be configured to its official trim size and the text set into the book’s final format. This is because, in addition to checking punctuation and grammar, proofreaders watch for:

  • Confusing or awkward page and word breaks
  • Inconsistencies in spelling style
  • Inconsistencies in layout and typography
  • Incorrect captioning on any illustrations
  • Page numbers that don’t match the table of contents
  • Repeated words
  • Widows (single lines at the top of a page left over from the previous paragraph) and orphans (single lines at the bottom of a page that belongs to a paragraph on the next page.)

The object of proofreading is to scrutinize the text for anything that previous edits might have missed. Every book needs proofreading. It’s the final check before the book is published and sent to distributors.

When working with a proofreader, it is essential that they be provided a style sheet. The style sheet informs them of any unusual spellings or styles in the manuscript. For example, science fiction and fantasy novels may have invented words that must be applied consistently. Once they’re done, the proofreader will return a marked-up document highlighting necessary changes. After making changes, the manuscript is ready to publish.

Finding an Editor

It is important to find an editor that is a good fit, not only in terms of professionalism and experience in the genre, but is someone the author and self-publisher are comfortable working with long-term. Ideally, a self-publishers will collaborate with an editor for a package that includes content editing as well as line and copy editing. This means a manuscript will go back and forth between author and editor several times.

Peruse editors’ profiles at professional editing organizations, such as, the Editorial Freelancers Association and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Also, those who intend to publish via IngramSpark may wish to review their pro list. It’s completely reasonable to contact multiple editors before making a decision but don’t email every editor on the list. Narrow the field down to two or three by reviewing their online profiles first. If the editor is not taking new clients at this time, ask them to refer you to another editor who is accepting jobs.

Seasoned editors have professional accreditation that demonstrate their elevated abilities. These accredited editors are trained, vetted, and certified by industry organizations. They will charge more than novice editors, too. To save money when hiring an editor, consider hiring a college student. Grad students are notoriously short of cash. So are adjunct professors. These folks have a solid background in English, may have a passion for editing, and won’t be concerned about hurting your feelings.

When it comes time to actually choose an editor, trust your gut. If the editor is immediately available or their prices are too good to be true, they probably are. Good editors won’t over-promise and typically need to schedule clients months in advance. Only hire someone whose credentials you trust and whose style you like.

Before the editor agrees to work with an author or publisher they’ll want to know what they are getting themselves in to. Experienced editors can often assess a manuscript excerpt and estimate the amount of time and effort needed to edit the full manuscript. To so this, the editor will most likely ask for a 10-page sample and the table of contents.

The sample pages should come from the “messy middle” of the book. The middle is where most authors spend the least time so those pages provided a better sense of how much editing truly needs done, which correlates directly to cost. Providing the table of contents enables the editor to see how the book is arranged and whether their might be structural issues that need addressed first.

Editing Costs

Money changes everything. In the self-publishing world there are lots of expenses: book reviews, cover design, ISBNs and barcodes, marketing and website maintenance, printing and shipping ARCs, etc., so exhaust your free resources before hiring an editor. View editing as more than just another expense. Editing partly about quality control and partly about community building.

By the time a book is published it’s been read by a team of people, some of whom can be asked to give a review or blurb the book later. These are people who are vested in the book’s success. Editors often keep a list of published books they’ve worked on as part of their portfolio. This means the image of the book may appear on more than just the publisher’s website.

Because editing is such an essential part of publishing it is incumbent on the self-publisher to choose their editors wisely. Editing rates vary widely and not all editing is created equal. Developmental editing costs more than copy editing, and copy editing costs more than proofreading. How much an editor costs depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • Complexity of the Book
  • Editor’s Experience and Accreditation
  • Genre
  • Manuscript Quality
  • Word Count

The editorial needs of an astrophysics textbook are vastly different from those of a novella edited per the Chicago Manual of Style. A dense manuscript that must adhere to a particular style guide and includes hundreds of footnotes and citations will be costly to edit. Most editors base their rates off manuscript length, so the longer the work is, the more it will cost. Genre affects editing costs, particularly in niche markets where work needs assessed in context. Non-fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction require extensive fact-checking. Science fiction and fantasy require a style sheet. A genre specific editor will have more insight than a generalist. Also, the more grammatical mistakes, confusing structures, plot holes, and general inconsistencies a novel has, the longer it will take to edit. Reduce editing costs by sending the manuscript in its best possible condition.

Editors typically charge by the word. Expect to pay a premium for a fast turnaround. The more flexible a publisher or author can be with editing dates, the better rates they’ll get. Bear in mind that it is not uncommon to spend several thousand dollars editing a full-length book.

Below are rate ranges for several types of editing according to the 2021 Editorial Freelancers Association rate chart:

  • Sensitivity Readers: $0.01 to $0.02 per word
  • Fact Checking: $0.05 to $0.06 per word.
  • Developmental Editing: $0.03 to $0.07 per word.
  • Line Editing: $0.4 to $0.05 per word.
  • Copy Editing: $0.02 to $0.05 per word.
  • Proofreading: $0.02 to $0.05 per word.

When working with novice editors it may be possible to obtain book editing for a flat fee ranging from $300 to $500. Also, a revision should cost half the original price, provided you are working with the same editor.

The beauty of self-publishing is that the author has the final say in their own work. Self-publishing can be a glorious, life-affirming business. It’s not Facebook or Twitter. Commas and character development matter. In the publishing industry, end products literally have long shelf-lives. The content doesn’t disappear easily and neither do mistakes. Consider professional editing a business investment that will pay dividends well into the future.

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