I write and self-publish my books. I am not a best-selling author, just one hoping to achieve the success every author wants. I believe good editing is fundamental to the success of a book. You will find successful books with poor editing, but they are rare. Having said this, I must also acknowledge that professional editing is beyond the means of the average indie author.
By professional editing, I mean the kind of editing the traditional publishing houses use. These editors have years of experience and command the high salaries traditional publishers can afford. In addition, a publishing house uses different kinds of editors, each with a different specialty. The manuscript gets edited several times.
In my early writing years, I hired editors I found on social networks. Their rates were affordable, a few hundred dollars per book. Their work sometimes improved my manuscript, but most of the time, it did not. Most of these editors did not have professional experience. They were avid readers and authors who believed they possessed above-average editing skills.
Often, they changed my author’s voice and the tone of my work. Never did they comment on tone, voice, point of view, story arc, paragraph organization, etc. I once had an editor suggest I use the word “orbs” instead of “eyes” and “azure” instead of “blue.” The words “Her lovely azure orbs” do not have the same effect as “Her lovely blue eyes.” She was, of course, trying to find synonyms without regard to the feel and tone of the work.
It seems that in the age of technology, texting, audiobooks, and middle-school reading levels, people expect all writing to be the same. It is not! One of the first things my ninth-grade English teacher taught me was the difference between expository writing and creative writing.
In writing a newspaper article, a report for your boss, a pamphlet for a sales campaign, or a speech, the writing must be factual, terse, and formal in both grammar and tone. Meticulous use of grammar rules will serve you well in such writing.
In writing fiction, especially dialogue, everything goes. Why? Because dialogue reflects the spoken word, and people do not speak like robots programmed by the grammar police. However, the choices you make must to enhance the readability of the work, the characters’ images, and the tone of the story.
Commas in speech do not always follow the writing rules. If you stopped using “that” in the real world, you would have to rethink and rearrange your sentences every time you opened your mouth! Real people seldom speak in complete sentences. And do not let me get started with the way we use adverbs to add degrees of meaning to our verbs and adjectives.
At the same time, I don’t want my work to be riddled with the overuse of commas, adverbs, passive voice, extraneous words, and faulty punctuation. I want to put out the best writing I can produce. I want a polished manuscript; however, I can’t afford a professional editor.
How do I solve the problem of editing on a budget? My only option is to edit my work myself. It’s tedious, time-consuming work, but it costs me nothing. In addition, I become better at my craft by learning things I should have learned in high school.
I use various tools to edit my work. My method works for me. No, it works “well” for me, compared to other methods, which just work. See, adverbs have their value when not overused.
To begin, I write using Microsoft Word. It does everything I need, and all the online publishers accept it. I use its Review Tab before I use any other editor. I also use the Grammarly Free Version, limited as it is. It checks for correctness, which means spelling and grammar.
My most thorough tool is ProWritingAid. Its free version is too limited, so I pay for a yearly subscription. There are several online sites that offer a 20% discount. I paid $96. for the annual subscription, which is a fraction of what a real editor would cost just for one book.
In addition, I have a small collection of reference books such as The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need by Susan Thurman. I also use online sites that give free grammar information such as https://grammarist.com and https://writingexplained.org/ and several others.
When the book is as perfect as I can make it, I send it to beta readers I can trust. This means those who have a proven talent for the job. Readers often join as beta readers to get the free books, having little or no capacity for the task.
I edit one chapter at a time. Editing an entire book at once is mentally draining, causing more errors than I fix. It is also inefficient since often I am forced to navigate back and forth over the manuscript.
I select the chapter I want to edit and cut it. It’s important to cut, not copy. I open a new Word blank page and paste the chapter into it. After I finish editing the chapter, I will cut it from this page and paste it back into my manuscript. This page will remain blank for the next chapter.
I start by re-reading the entire chapter. Here I change repeated words, blatant errors that jump out at me, paragraphs and sentences that need better organization, etc. When I finish, I go back to the top of the chapter. I click on Microsoft Word’s Review tab at the top menu and choose “Spelling and Grammar.” An editing panel will open to the right of the work screen.
On the panel, I see sections labeled Spelling, Grammar, Clarity, Conciseness, Formality, Inclusiveness, Punctuation Conventions, etc. I will start with spelling. I review each suggestion, considering the choices. The editing apps are not always right. The writer must always choose and do so correctly.
I also use the grammar function. Here, I am even more cautious. All editing apps make mistakes. The author must recognize the errors and make the correct choice. If the author has no idea what is correct, then he or she must research the issue to find the answer.
The Clarity and Conciseness tabs are tricky. Here, I must be ruthless about which entries to accept, as often they can change the style and flow of the work. These are very useful for expository writing, such as work reports, college papers, and written directions, but a little less for creative writing.
The Formality function wants me to replace all contractions. It wants to use “You are” instead of “You’re” and so on. This would be fine if my story took place at a university in Victorian times. However, my character Rose, from my Rose and the Vampires novel, uses contractions. She is a modern girl expressing herself in modern, colloquial English.
Once I am satisfied with the changes, I close out the Microsoft Word Reviewer panel. I have installed the free version of Grammarly. I open it by clicking on the icon that appears at the bottom of the page. The Grammarly panel opens. The free version offers limited function availability, but I can do spelling and grammar.
I like Grammarly, but I use it with care. Grammarly hates adverbs and loves hyphens. It tries to put hyphens in compound adjectives when they come after the noun.
Example: The girl was hot-blooded. (Incorrect)
The hot-blooded girl was beautiful. (Correct)
I run through all the suggested corrections as I did in the Microsoft Word reviewer. Sometimes, Grammarly and Word disagree. In those instances, I resort to my reference books, or I go to an online source for the answer. As you can see, no editing program is perfect. You, the writer, must be able to decide when an editing choice is correct or not.
When I finish with Grammarly, I go to ProWritingAid. The process is similar but deeper in scope.
This app is made for authors, and it takes practice to learn its use. It can be overwhelming in its scope. Once again, it is important to remember the app is sometimes wrong. I must be able to make the correct choice.
The best tool you can have is knowledge of your craft. If you don’t know that something is wrong, you can’t fix it. My advice to you as a writer is to buckle down and spend a few minutes each day learning the rules of grammar and studying the structure and elements of a novel.
Editing is not just about grammar and spelling. It is also about recognizing and fixing anything wrong with the manuscript. For example, did you switch from first-person to third-person omniscient when you did not mean to do so? Did you change from present tense to past and not realize it? Is the tone of the story consistent? Are there parts that confuse the reader? Are there parts that lag? Do you have a well-developed story arc?
These are the things that a good professional editor would catch. Beta readers are a great help with these issues if they have a decent grounding in literature. If you are lucky, you might find a beta reader who is a high-school English teacher or Lit teacher. If you do, treasure him or her. They are godsends.