Is Self-Publishing Becoming Elitist? Seven DIY Steps for Self-Editing

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On a blustery Sunday afternoon, a question on a discussion forum has caught my attention. How does a writer on a tight budget manage to self-publish with current advice demanding expensive editing services?

Do you notice how I purposefully say current advice? In the four years I’ve been at this game, I’ve seen the list of the things self-published authors must spend their money on alter many times. Trying to keep up with those dictates will have a would-be author whipping to and fro like an airport sock in the crosswinds of the landing strip.

As I read through the comment stream related to the above question, I was surprised by the number who rejected the idea that a tight budget or even no budget at all was worth consideration. The question was often answered with slavish adherence to the notion that there is no other option but to pay for editing services. No one says how. Perhaps robbing a bank is not out of the realm of possibility.

Let’s break this down. Editing services exist on a spectrum. Content editing will help the writer identify plot holes, structural issues, problems with continuity and believability. Line-by-line copy editing will examine the work for proper sentence structure, grammatical usage and consistent spellings across the manuscript. Proof-reading will catch typos, missing words and misplaced or missing punctuation.

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That is an expensive pack of editing services!

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Okay … before I am roasted at the stake for going against accepted wisdom, I admit to as much frustration as the next reader when I download a self-published book and the work is not up to scruff. But here’s the rub – poor editing doesn’t make me stop reading. If the story is good, I will stick with it to the end. I may rail and fume that it could have been so much better but I won’t stop reading.

I don’t want to see budding authors discouraged by the fact that the latest wisdom demands editing services which cost hundreds of dollars.

I’m going to make a few suggestions related to self-editing but first, a caveat. You must believe you have a good story in you to write. That is an absolute prerequisite. Time and hard work will tell if your belief is real. Without the willingness to work hard to write that story, no amount of money spent on an editor can help you!

If you are working on a shoe string and committed to producing the best book you can – don’t despair. Here is what I do.

1. I write, rewrite and rewrite until I feel sure I can’t make my work any better. Of course, I’ll be wrong but self-editing is an iterative process – always bending back and over itself. I will do a minimum of twelve drafts of a novel before that work ever reaches the stage of line-by-line editing. That represents a number of hours dedicated to rewriting and rereading. Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K.M. Weiland has been helpful to me as I do rewrites.

Structuring Your Novel Cover

2. I put what I’ve written under a microscope by asking questions of my story. Does it make sense? Are point-of-view shifts carried out with clarity? Is the story plausible? Do the characters act true to the way I created them? Does each three dimensional character have a defined story arc? Have I rooted out the repetition and the parts that do not move the story forward? Are the technical details correct? Are the loose ends tied up? A book that I find invaluable at this stage is, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. My copy of Browne and King is heavily underlined, highlighted and filled with post-it-notes.

Self-Editing Cover

3. I create a hardcopy and I read my work out loud – the whole book, every time. I don’t have an audience but I read aloud all the same. This process allows me to catch a number of issues. Redundancies become obvious in a stunning and disconcerting way.

4. I am fortunate to have a trusted other to read my work. (I must emphasize with the italics and my bracketed comment that this person must be someone who is in your corner but not afraid to be truthful.) We get so close to our work that it does take another pair of eyes to point out where things simply don’t make sense.

5. Early in my writing career, I purchased copies of a few basic grammar books. Strunk & White’s, The Elements of Style is worth its small weight in gold. I work at applying the basics line by line.

Elements of Style cover

6. I email my word document to my Kindle and I read it there. I catch more typos than I’d like to admit.

7. Finally, I urge you to get innovative – check out your local high school or community college. There may be a teacher or an upper level student with ability in editing who is willing to help on the cheap.

Though it is true that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, if you have started with the silk of a good story, I believe you can make a decent purse without spending a fortune. The key is hard, hard work. If you have a story worth telling, you will not be afraid to invest sweat equity in the endeavour.

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17 comments on “Is Self-Publishing Becoming Elitist? Seven DIY Steps for Self-Editing

  1. I love that Browne and King book. Thus far, it’s been the most useful to me. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

    • Browne and King was the first self-editing book I read and I remember having more than one cringe-worthy moment when I realized some of the things I had written would put me in the hack category. They say it gently but firmly and I needed that kind of guidance.

  2. Great info, Fran. I own all of the books you mentioned, they’re all wonderful resources.

  3. Along the lines of point 4 – critique groups can be great resources. It can be tricky to find CPs you “click” with, but once you do you have very valuable “other eyes” (and they have yours) for as long as you both need them.
    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes indeed, Allison – a critique group and beta-readers can fill an important role, providing those ‘other eyes’, most often free of charge, for the writer who just doesn’t have the resources to pay a content editor. As you say, clicking with the group is key.

  4. Jane Fritz says:

    I agree with every one of your points, Francis. Valuable advice, well said. Thank you.

    • You are most welcome, Jane. I’m not against anyone who has created a business providing editing services to self-published authors and I’m not saying those services aren’t important. I just don’t want lack of funds to hold writers back from the dream of telling their story.

  5. Excellent advice. Thanks fro sharing the tips and resource books.

  6. Breath of fresh air amongst a growing fog of self-publishings ‘musts’.

    • That is the thing I feel like ranting against – the ‘musts’ – especially when they become barriers. Rest assured, all that I can do on my own with my writing is not the finished product. I am fortunate to work with a very skilled editor. And even when we are done with our work on a book, I continue to tinker – often to my own determent. But that is a story for another post. What I want to stress is the number of things a writer can DIY to produce the best they are capable of.

  7. Roy McCarthy says:

    Agree with everything you say but I’m too impatient to do complete re-drafts. For better or worse I go with my first thoughts, modified only if I am really unhappy with them. I use a very good writing professional (and reasonable, being based in India) to either edit, critique, proof read, whatever is required.

    • That is the beauty of self-publishing, Roy. If you can afford such service, by all means go for it. If not, well … you can, on your own, invest a lot of time and energy into polishing. No one is an island and even the best writers will probably not achieve the gold standard on their own but lack of funds shouldn’t slam the door on the telling a good story.

  8. Andreas Meyer says:

    I find your blog very helpful. Right now I have one book. That I was told I should publish. Till I read your blog I had no real Idea what was out there. My mother suggest Friesenpress. Which you said clearly was a bad idea. The problem I have is that where I live there are no editors that I know of (Yellowknife). Well none that seem to have any experience. So any suggestions for finding a decent editor? Publisher? etc. Thank you for all your great insight.

    • Hi Andreas – thanks for stopping by my blog. And a big congrats on having a book you want to publish. The learning curve for self-publishing is steep but, thankfully, there are loads of resources available through blogs and internet articles. Friesenpress will produce a well formatted ebook, softcover and hardcover. But this service comes at a steep cost compared to what you can have done on your own or through contracting out the work to individual service providers. Editors don’t need to come from your area. So much can be done via email etc. A friend and fellow blogger – Kevin Brennan offers a reasonably priced editing service – here is a link to his blog – I wish you the best of luck. Do keep at it and keep researching. Feel free to email me with questions –

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