How to self-publish step #3: Get your book professionally edited

This post is part of a series on self-publishing. You’ll find links to all posts in this series in the first post.

Imagine your doctor has written you a note recommending a course of treatment. It goes something like this:

U r going 2 b ok. Eat tree meels a day, and take tow tablets of this medecasion with each meal.

This doctor may have the best credentials in the world and may come highly recommended, but instinctively, you’re not going to trust them. Like it or not, typos, grammatical errors, and inappropriate use of text-speak give the impression of ignorance and a lack of intelligence.

Just as with this hypothetical doctor, you’ll lose credibility and your readers’ trust if your book has typos or grammatical errors in it. Enough errors, and you’ll lose all credibility and trust. You might be the greatest writer in the world, but that won’t matter.

Publishing secret: you’d be surprised at how many excellent writers have terrible spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Their editors make sure those errors never see the light of day.

You might plan to use your writing software’s spelling checker, but a spelling checker won’t tell you that you wrote “lightening” when you meant “lightning.” That’s one reason to hire an editor to read your material: to find the words that are spelled correctly but are the wrong words. A human eye can spot what a computer can’t. A good editor will also find all the other errors you’ve made, and, depending on what kind of editing you’ve asked them to do, will suggest some wordsmithing—that is, smoother and clearer ways to say something.

You might think you can edit your own writing, but it’s extremely rare that a person can edit themselves. One reason is that you are so familiar with what you wrote that your eyes will glide right over the mistakes—the typos, the missing words, the bad punctuation—because you know what you meant when you wrote it.

Having someone edit your work is one of the distinctions between a professional writer and an amateur. So if you want to be a professional writer (and be perceived as one), hire someone else to edit your work.

This post focuses on

  • what editors are and what they can do for you,
  • what a style guide is and why you should use it, and
  • if you are writing nonfiction or fiction based on facts (say, historical fiction), why you need a fact-checker or even a researcher.

I cite some resources throughout.

What editors do for you

Editors come in several flavors; here are four major types:

  • Developmental editor. A developmental editor helps you plan your manuscript from the start, gives you suggestions on organizing your material, gives guidance on storytelling (if you’re writing fiction), and (if your agreement allows for this) encourages you and does their best to keep you motivated. A developmental editor might also do everything an editor (described next) does, but that varies. You hire a developmental editor at the start of your writing project, and, assuming it’s a good match, you keep working with them until your book is done. If you feel you need help putting your ideas together, consult with a developmental editor. Even a one-time consultation when planning your book can save you a lot of time and trouble down the road.
  • Editor. An editor fixes typos, grammatical errors (including English as a Second Language errors), and unclear or awkwardly written sentences. They use your style guide and make sure your writing matches that style. An editor also digs deeply into your writing and makes suggestions on organizing your material. Your developmental editor might also edit your manuscript, but that’s separate from the developmental tasks. You hire an editor when your manuscript is almost done, then you make one last revision based on this editor’s suggestions. After that, your manuscript is ready for the copyeditor.
  • Copyeditor. A copyeditor (CE) does much of what an editor does except for the digging deeper part. A CE fixes typos, grammatical errors (including English as a Second Language errors), and unclear or awkwardly written sentences. CEs make sure your writing matches your chosen style guide. You hire a copyeditor when your manuscript is ready to be typeset.
  • Proofreader. After your manuscript has been typeset, a proofreader reads through your manuscript looking for typos and punctuation errors. They pay no attention to grammar or how you word things or whether anything you’ve written makes sense or is accurate, but they are ferocious on typos and punctuation errors.

When you look for an editor or developmental editor, look for someone who is familiar with the genre or topic of your book. And make sure you’re compatible; if you aren’t, it won’t be a productive relationship. Feel free to fire an editor and hire another if it isn’t working out (and make sure your written agreement—which you will have, right?—leaves room for either of you to exit the relationship).

I’m an editor and developmental editor, so you can hire me. And I can recommend a few excellent copyeditors and editors; just ask. You can also check the Bay Area Editors Forum to find an editor and to learn more about the different kinds of editors. These are just some resources; I’m sure you’ll find many more with a little Google fu.

How much should you expect to pay an editor?

Expect to pay a fair price for editing, though “fair price” is regional. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I charge 4¢ per word to edit a manuscript. For a 50,000-word manuscript (about the size of a small novel), that would be US$2,000. In other parts of the US, you can expect to pay a lot more. Though it’s surprisingly hard to find out what people charge upfront. Most of them want you to contact them to get their rates.

I and many other editors charge by the word. Some editors charge by the page or the hour.

Like charging by the word, charging by the page is straightforward: if your manuscript is 200 pages, and the editor’s rate is $20 a page, you’ll pay $4,000 to get your manuscript edited. There should be no surprises.

A “by the hour” rate tells you nothing about how much you will eventually pay. Excellent editors can be slower than other excellent editors (or much faster), so a “by the hour” rate is the least fair way to bill a client. For editors who are slow, the client ends up paying much more than if they had hired a faster editor. Conversely, the faster editors get paid much less than slower editors for the same amount of work.

If an editor wants to charge by the hour, ask them to instead quote you a per-page or per-word rate. If an editor balks at giving you a per-page or per-word quote, ask them to add a “not to exceed” amount. A “not to exceed” quote would look like this (where of course you negotiate the not-to-exceed amount with the editor):

Editor’s name will bill your name $20 per hour for a 200-page manuscript (about 50,000 words), with the total not to exceed $2,000.

But don’t abuse that “not to exceed” amount. If you hand your editor a 200-page manuscript, then add another 100 pages, you can’t expect them to do half again as much work for the original amount. Be fair and honest. It will serve you well in life.

Also in your written agreement, specify

  • how many passes the editor will make through the manuscript (usually one pass),
  • how they will bill for it (every two weeks? at the end of the job?),
  • if you want another pass, how you will pay for it (normally you pay for it as though it were a new pass, though possibly you can negotiate a reduced rate for a second pass),
  • how they will deliver their work (I like to use Dropbox to exchange files, though Box is also good), and
  • what happens if you write new material (normally, you add that new material as an addendum to your contract, and you pay additional for that work).

And spell out schedules and deadlines. You don’t want your editor to cause you to miss a deadline because they’re moving too slowly.

Cautionary tale about editors who charge by the hour

I once contracted as a technical writer with a major software manufacturer. As always, I familiarized myself with the company’s in-house style and followed their rules. After I wrote some material, the in-house publications department handed my work over to a contract editor who charged by the hour. She was unfamiliar with the house style, and she “corrected” everything I had done to things that were not to the house style or were even grammatically incorrect. When I pointed out to her that she’d introduced many errors per page, she laughed and said that she was paid by the hour. She said she’d just fix her errors and bill the company for the time she took to fix the errors she had introduced. In other words, she got paid to mess up a manuscript, and then she got paid to fix it. That seemed to be her modus operandi. It was unethical, of course (she should have fixed the problem without charging for it), but she didn’t care.

You don’t want that editor.

And sorry, no, I don’t remember her name, and I wouldn’t say it anyway. That was a long time ago, she was young, and she might have grown some ethics since then.

Cautionary tale about inexpensive editors

Tempting though they may be, those cheap, cut-rate editing houses aren’t going to do a good job. A few years ago, I designed and typeset the interior of an author’s book. He couldn’t afford my editing rate, so he paid a big-name self-publishing service to edit it for a bargain-basement price.

When he sent the edited pages to me for typesetting, I found an average of five errors on each page. In most cases, the errors had been in the original manuscript and the editor missed them (and so didn’t fix them, which is bad). But in too many cases, the editor introduced new errors. The author could have avoided this if he had realized that

if a quote for editing sounds too good to be true, it isn’t going to be worth the price

(As a special favor for that author, I fixed the errors as I typeset the book and didn’t charge him extra.)

Use a style guide

The English language is marvelous and strange. You can say things in many different ways, and punctuate them in many different ways, all of which are grammatically correct. A famous example is the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma) versus the open comma. People get quite emotional over which is “correct.”

I’m sure I’m going to catch flack for saying this, but they are both correct. It’s simply a matter of which style you prefer. (Though the serial comma is much better at clearing up ambiguities.)

The same goes for many other punctuation and word-related choices, so in order to be consistent, people use style guides. A style guide spells out a set of guidelines on which styles to use (serial versus open commas, for example). When you use a style guide, you follow its guidelines all the time. So, for example, if you use the serial comma once in a piece of writing, you use it every time.

Why do people care about being consistent? Consistency

  • shows that you know the field of writing,
  • builds trust in your readers, and
  • reduces the cognitive load on your readers (especially if you are writing nonfiction).

If none of those are convincing, here’s another reason why you should care about consistency:

Consistency is another mark of the professional.

To attain the goal of consistency, every professional group or company that produces written material uses a style guide as a basis, and usually has an in-house style as well. The most-used style manuals are

  • the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Most publishers and software companies, along with many academic communities, use CMOS. CMOS is firmly in the serial (Oxford) comma camp.
  • the AP Stylebook. Most periodicals (newspapers and magazines) use the AP Stylebook. The AP Stylebook is firmly in the open comma camp.
  • the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (usually referred to as the APA format or style). Many academic communities (especially the behavioral sciences and social sciences) use the APA. The APA is firmly in the serial comma camp. If you buy it for no other reason, the APA has excellent guidelines for non-biased writing on gender, race, disabilities, and so on.

I recommend you buy each of these. (I own all three, though the astute reader will have already figured out that CMOS is my preferred style guide.)

Instead of buying the book, you can subscribe to CMOS, and/or you might be able to find what you need from the Chicago Manual of Style at this site. (Mostly for fun, but also to learn a lot about tricky style questions, see the CMOS’s Q&Q site.)

When you hire an editor, copyeditor, and proofreader, tell them which style guide you use.

If your book is nonfiction, hire a fact checker

If you are writing a nonfiction book, you also need to check your facts. I don’t mean by doing a quick Google search and trusting the first source you find. And no, Wikipedia is not a reliable source either. I mean checking your facts with solid, reliable information sources. Depending on your topic, this might mean poring over some scientific research papers, or reading some reputable books on the topic. If your book has any possibility of influencing someone, especially in relation to their health and safety, you owe it to your readers to make sure your facts are impeccable.

When you hire an editor, you can also ask them to check your facts, but be prepared to pay more for that service. Fact-checking is a job in itself. When done right, fact-checking takes a lot of time and isn’t easy. You can also find a list of fact checkers at the Bay Area Editors Forum. Fact checkers usually charge by the hour.

Cautionary tale about fact checking

I once started reading a book on improving one’s health through dietary changes and fasting. The book was obviously self-published and unedited: the design was amateurishly done and the text was filled with typos and grammatical errors. I kept reading it because I know that typos don’t mean someone doesn’t know their stuff, and I thought I might learn something new.

However, when the author stated that humans only need to eat three ounces of protein a week, I closed the book and stopped reading. We need about two ounces each day, not per week. I knew that fact was wrong, but what about readers who didn’t know? I had been willing to put up with the typos, but if she had also neglected to fact-check herself, or to have someone else fact-check her book, then nothing she had to say could be trusted. Possibly some of what she had to say was correct, but I would have had to fact-check everything to find out which parts were correct.

It was supremely irresponsible of her to publish a book on health without checking her facts. If someone trusted her information, they could have seriously injured their health.

Don’t be that writer.

Using a researcher

In the step 1 post in this series, I said that if you need to research, you should research while writing (not before, except when you need the information in order to write). But what if you just don’t know how to research?

Depending on how much you need to look up, you can rely on your local reference librarian to look up some facts for you. Whether Vikings wore horned helmets, for example. But if you need more in-depth information, and you don’t have much confidence in your ability to do the research, you can hire someone to research for you. Again, this is going to cost you (by the hour), so it might be better to learn how to research yourself. And no, you can’t just Google it or rely on Wikipedia. Really.

Some resources for finding researchers (be sure to ask your researchers what sources they use)

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