Let me tell you a secret. I don’t take on every writer who comes to me for editing. Why? The biggest reason is this: often, their book simply isn’t ready – because they haven’t yet sought appropriate feedback.
Before you send your manuscript to an editor for sentence-level editing, you need to make sure your book is as good as it can possibly be. You know that, right? Of course you do. There’s no point in polishing the prose if your story has pacing issues, plot holes or weak characters. At best, your book will fail to make an impression. At worst, you’ll have sunk a lot of money, time and effort into a product that doesn’t pay off – financially or emotionally.
I prefer not to line and copy-edit manuscripts that haven’t been through at least some form of macro editing for exactly these reasons. Quite frankly, it’s disheartening to edit a manuscript that you know could be dramatically improved – if only the author hadn’t skipped this crucial step.
Arguably, the strength of your story and writing style is more important than the correctness and flow of your sentences.
Of course, if your grammar is terrible and your sentences unreadable, you won’t be doing your book any favours. But your story and the way you present it (through structure, style, characterisation, pacing, etc.) is at the absolute heart of your novel’s potential for success.
But it’s not really that useful to just tell you to make sure your book is good before you hire an editor. Instead, let’s take a look at four different ways you can get big-picture feedback on your book – with or without spending money.
Essential: Self-edit your novel
This really should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many newbie authors believe hiring an editor is the next step after completing their first draft. (If I weren’t such a lovely person and I didn’t have the barrier of the internet between us, I’d be tempted to roll up their manuscript and smack them in the face with it. Kidding. Sort of.)
There are two main stages to the self-editing process: redrafting and editing.
It’s rare that a first draft doesn’t need significant revision.
If you’re an experienced and knowledgable writer, then you may have a good instinctual grasp of what makes a decent book. Alternatively, you may have meticulously planned your novel. Both strategies will likely reduce the amount of big-picture redrafting you’ll need to do.
Once you’ve got your overall draft in a satisfactory state (a clear premise, plot, structure and theme; well-crafted characters who follow strong arcs; tight and purposeful scenes, etc.) then you’ll need to go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and edit for grammar, punctuation, word choice, sentence structure and flow as best you can.
Download my free guide, Self-Editing Your Novel, to read some concrete tips on how to redraft your manuscript.
Your might also want to read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Recommended: Beta-reader feedback
Finding a clutch of brilliant beta-readers could be one of the best things you ever do in terms of helping you write better books. Beta readers read your manuscript after you’ve made it as good as you can by yourself (see above) and offer you big-picture feedback from a reader’s perspective.
Sending your novel to beta readers for review is not something only newbie authors do. In fact, all professional writers use beta readers in one way or another – even if those beta readers are their agent and publisher.
It’s worth taking the time to develop good relationships with other writers or intelligent and critical readers in your genre in order to have a group of go-to beta readers you can rely on throughout your writing career. To find potential beta readers, attend a local writers’ group, go to writing seminars and workshops, network on social media, blogs and online forums and so on. Be prepared to return the favour.
A few suggestions on places to look online for beta readers:
- Beta Reader Writers Club, Facebook
- The Circle, GoodReads
- First Readers, GoodReads
- BetaReader Group, GoodReads
- Find a Critique Partner, PublishingCrawl
Friends, family and significant others are rarely good beta-reader material because they are too emotionally close to you (or may not have the literary knowledge needed) to give you honest and constructive feedback.
How many beta readers should you send your book to? Ideally, more than one. Three to five is a good number, as it allows you to see a range of opinions without being too overwhelmed. Ask for honest, specific feedback, emotional reactions and reasons why they think what they do. Be prepared for criticism! (That’s the whole point!)
A group of excellent beta readers can replace the need for professional macro editing (manuscript critique, development/substantive editing) and therefore save you money! They can’t replace professional sentence-level editing (line and copy-editing), though, as that’s a very different specialist skill.
Possible option: Manuscript critique
If you’d rather focus on just your own manuscript without the need for quid-pro-quo beta reading, or if you haven’t yet built up a list of go-to beta readers, or if you’ve found a professional manuscript critiquing service you like the look of … paying for a professional manuscript critique is another good option.
The idea behind a manuscript critique is very similar to that of beta reading, only a paid professional may have a deeper level of knowledge and a more systematic approach and you’ll likely be dealing with a less informal relationship.
Different editors will approach critiques in different ways, so make sure you thoroughly read the information offered on the editor’s website and ask them questions so you know exactly what you’re getting.
Possible option: Developmental edit
This is another paid option – one that usually costs significantly more than a critique. In general, developmental (or substantive) editing is a much more intensive service. The editor will look at all the big-picture elements, but will also focus on specific moments within the manuscript that need attention and offer more specific advice on how to develop and redraft the manuscript.
Usually, a manuscript critique is presented as an editorial letter. Development or substantive editing may include an editorial letter as well as lots of comments on the manuscript itself. The manuscript might go back and forth between the editor and writer, through various drafts, depending on the arrangement made – whereas a critique is usually conducted in a single pass.
To sum up, you should most definitely redraft and self-edit your novel as a first step. Working with a small group of trusted beta readers is an excellent way to help you get critical reader feedback so you can develop your book further. However, if you don’t want to use this method or don’t yet have a group of beta readers to turn to, paying for a manuscript critique is your next best option. If you think you need much more intensive feedback, paying for development or substantive editing is the way to go.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re getting some level of decent big-picture/macro feedback on your novel. You (and your readers) will be glad you did.