Self-Editing For Self-Published Fiction

How do you go about editing your self-published novel? Are there some steps you can take to make sure your fiction is ready to go before you push the button to upload to the online retailers?

David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I saw your blog about knowing when your book is finished, and you seemed to gear your response towards those who are seeking to be published via the traditional route. But for those of us that are considering the self-pub route, how would you recommend we decide when our book is finished and ready for publishing?

Randy sez: Good question, David! As recently as three years ago, most professional authors felt that self-publishing didn’t make good financial success. (That was the advice I gave in my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. It was good advice at the time, but things have changed radically in three years.)

Today it can make all kinds of financial sense to self-publish a novel in e-book format, with one caveat.

A self-published novel should be just as well-written and well-edited as a traditionally-published novel.

There are actually two issues in your question, David. First, you have to decide if your level of craft is good enough to justify publishing anything yet. Second, you have to decide if the actual book you’ve written is ready to be published. Both of them have the same solution:

You need a second opinion from a qualified editor. I need to expand on this, because there are at least four major steps in editing a novel: the “macro edit”, the copy edit, the line-edit, and the proofreading.

I’m not saying that you need somebody to do the copyediting, line-editing, and proofreading. You might well be able to do these yourself. Some authors do these tasks for a living and many authors are competent to do them. (Some authors are incompetent in one of these areas, and if that’s you, then you know it and you should hire somebody to do these jobs.)

There’s one task no author is qualified to do. You can’t objectively do a “macro edit” on your own work. You’re too close to it. You are always going to see your novel subjectively. You need a qualified editor to read your novel and tell you whether the story is working–the concept, the story structure, the characters, the theme, the voice.

Here’s the procedure I’m using for a couple of novels that I’m working on which I plan to self-publish:

  1. Write the first draft.
  2. Pay a professional freelance editor to do a macro edit and produce an analysis of the story.
  3. Revise the manuscript, either following the advice of my editor or (on careful consideration) rejecting that advice.
  4. Copy edit, line-edit, and proofread the novel.
  5. Hire a graphic designer to do the cover art.
  6. Prepare the novel in the standard e-book formats. (To do this, I style the manuscript in Microsoft Word, export it to HTML, clean up Microsoft’s horrible HTML using my own custom software, and package the HTML in epub and Kindle formats using the free software Calibre.)
  7. Upload to the online retailers–Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Smashwords is also a distributor and they take care of getting my work into other online retailers, such as Kobo, Diesel, etc. Note that Smashwords does its own e-book conversion direct from Microsoft Word format, which is handy and can produce quite good results but you have to create the Table of Contents manually, which is a hassle.

Most of these steps are obvious ones that anybody would take, with the exception of Step 2. Amateurs don’t get their work macro edited. Professionals do.

And where do you get this magical macro editor?

You may get good results by having a writer friend do your macro edits. Some writers are brilliant analysts and can produce an excellent report for you, detailing the issues you have in your concept, your structure, your characters, your theme, your voice, and so on. But some writers are terrible at this, so don’t trust your macro edit to just anybody.

A good macro editor doesn’t have to be a writer. She doesn’t even have to be a professional in the industry. She just needs to get your writing, know how to tell you what’s right with your fiction, and know how to tell you what’s wrong. Each of those points is important.

Your editor must get your writing. I once had a professional editor at a major publisher who didn’t get my novel. He hated it, in fact. Thought it was drivel. (Another editor at that same publisher thought it was my best stuff ever, and other editors who’ve seen it agree. But this one editor just didn’t like it.) Fortunately, the project crashed and burned and neither I nor the editor had to suffer the injustice of him editing my work.

Your editor must know how to tell you what you’re doing right. She is going to give you a report detailing all the things wrong with your novel. If she doesn’t also point out the many things right with it, then she’s going to crush your ego and possibly kill your novel. Don’t let this happen. Make it clear that you desperately need to know what’s good in your work.

Your editor must know how to explain what’s wrong. She needs to be sensitive here, but firm. She does not need to know how to fix the problem. Fixing your fiction is your job. Pointing out what needs to be fixed is your editor’s problem. She may point out that your craft simply isn’t at a publishable level yet. If so, then get a third opinion to confirm that. If your craft really isn’t there yet, then go get some more training (that’s what this web site is for) and then rewrite your novel and have your macro editor look at it again.

Every writer is different. Every editor is different. When you find an editor who gets your work and who can distinguish the good from the bad in your work, hang on to her forever, because she’ll be gold for you. If an editor fails in any of these areas, never use her again. She may be great for somebody else, but if she’s not right for you, then that’s a showstopper.

A macro edit will generally cost you. If you’re very lucky, you might have a friend who will do it for free. Typically, it’s going to cost hundreds of dollars and sometimes as much as a few thousand dollars for a high-end professional editor. You don’t always get what you pay for, so be wary here.

I don’t do macro edits myself, so please nobody ask me for my rates. When I need macro editing, I work with Meredith Efken at FictionFixitShop.com. She gets what I’m trying to do with my fiction and she knows how to tell me what’s good and what’s bad. She may or may not be the right editor for you, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

As I noted above, after you make revisions in response to the report of your macro editor, you still need to copy edit, line-edit, and proofread your work. These are mechanical tasks that you can do yourself or hire out. It’s up to you.

When those tasks are done, you’re ready for cover art, file conversion, and uploading.

Don’t try to make it too complicated by spending forever on the editing.

Don’t try to make it too simple by skipping the macro edit stage.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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12 Comments

  1. David August 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    Randy,

    Thanks for answering my question so thoroughly. This might be my favorite blog post ever! It answers so many questions that you have answered in part many times before or skirted near in other blog posts. I have had meredith Efkin do a first-look edit of the first 3000 words of my first novel. She basically told me I had a ways to go. Her words stung. But she was right. So, I’ve been reading her recommended reading list and working on improving my craft. hopefully when I resubmit my work to her it will be something she’ll be interested in doing a macro edit on. We’ll see. I am currently revising and editing that first novel and have just finished writing the sequel. I have one more to write to complete the trilogy and will edit them all together intensely then publish them. Your pointers here will really help. Anyway, thanks a ton!

    -Dave

  2. Katie Hart August 1, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Finding a macro editor who gets you and your writing and is able to do all that – sounds like writers need the publishing world’s version of eHarmony! It’s interesting, though, how finding the right editor for a writer who wants to self-publish is a lot like finding the right agent for an author who wants to publish traditionally. Upside: it’s far easier to become the client of a good editor than that of a good agent. Downside: because you pay them upfront instead of on commission.

    Any authors out there have recommendations for macro editors? I know many publishing houses hire freelance editors, so even traditionally published authors may know several good ones.

    One way to help figure out if an editor is a good fit for you – see which books they’ve edited and whether the authors’ genres and styles of writing are similar to yours. While I love Randy’s books, I know my style of writing is much different, so that would be one thing I’d take into consideration before hiring Meredith (I’d also check out some of the other authors she’s edited to get a better picture). Of course, many editors offer a sample edit for a small fee, so you can get an idea that way as well.

  3. Miranda August 2, 2012 at 3:51 am #

    David, thanks for asking this question! It’s been on my mind too. And this post came just when I needed it

    Randy, thanks for the outlines and details! There’s nothing like knowing exactly what to do next. It’s just like Dave said, might be my best blog best ever!

    Thanks again

  4. Kristen August 2, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    Two organizations I belong to are good resources for finding editors: Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network, thechristianpen.com; and Editorial Freelancers Association, the-efa.org.

    Randy, I’m going to disagree with you about proofreading. I think it’s best if the proofreader is someone who has never read the manuscript before. This is the ideal way to find those crazy typos like an extra space before the period, or “from” that should be “form,” or the other way around. It needn’t be a professional; just a skilled reader who doesn’t already know what the words are supposed to say.

  5. Sally Bradley August 2, 2012 at 6:52 am #

    Randy, I love what you said about finding the right editor for you. As a freelance editor, I frequently turn potential clients down because either the manuscript is so far from being ready that I’d be stealing from them or because the project isn’t a good fit for me.

    I think this surprises writers. But a good editor won’t take every job that comes along. Nothing’s worse–for the editor or the writer–than working on a book you can’t stand.

    The organizations Kristen mentioned are good places to look for editors. I’m also a member of the Christian Editor Network and the new Christian Manuscript Critique Service. All the editors on these sites are vetted before being recommended so you know you’re getting someone who can do the work.

  6. Alicia August 3, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Just thought I’d mention that a Markdown editor may be a better way to get proper html formatting from a text document. LeanPub (a self publishing venue) uses markdown and will create a pdf, epub and mobi formats from your markdown documents, that you retain full rights to and can sell elsewhere including leanpub. There are several for Mac OSX and probably easily enough to do in Linux. Windows has a few, MarkdownPad seems to be the easiest in my opinion. Markdown was created for a clean writing style port to HTML

  7. K.B. Owen August 4, 2012 at 8:38 am #

    Wow, Randy, what a clear explanation, thanks so much! I have a related question:

    My son is entering the 6th grade (gifted program), and I know his teacher really well. She’s asked me in the past to give talks to her class about mystery writing, which I’ve been happy to do. This year, I was toying with the idea of working with her class during the year as they write short stories, and then work with them to epublish them in an anthology. I figured it would be a great learning experience, and a real kick for friends and family to maybe even buy the collection on Amazon.

    Would I be in over my head? Are there legal problems with this idea, since we’re talking minors here? Is this at all do-able?

    Thanks a lot!
    Kathy

  8. Nas Hedron October 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    This is a great post, and I couldn’t agree more with the recommendation to get a professional editor involved at step two. That said, most self-publishing authors can use help in becoming more effective at carrying out the other parts of the editing process themselves.

    I’m an editor and I work specifically with indie authors. I like to help my clients to become effective self-editors because it makes my life easier when I sit down with their manuscript and it also ensures that they get the most for their editing dollar because I’m not spending time fixing things that they could have fixed themselves.

    For anyone who’s interested, I’ve written a fairly detailed three-part series of articles (soon to have a part four) that emphasizes specific techniques writers can use when they sit down to edit their own work. People can find part one (and links to parts two and three) at http://www.indiebooklauncher.com/resources-diy/self-editing-part-1-self-editing-fundamentals.php.

    Thanks for a great article. I’ll add it to my list of recommended reads.

    Nas Hedron

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