5 Ways to Improve Your Novel Before You Hire an Editor

There are two facts about hiring an editor which are equally true: a professional editor can substantially improve your book, and hiring a professional editor to do a full range of edits is a cost not every author can afford.

Sadly, too many authors think this means they can get away with hiring an amateur at cut-rate prices… or that they shouldn’t bother with editing at all. Both of those choices are worth what you’re paying for (very little).

If you’re willing to spend time, you can do several things to improve your novel before you hire an editor. Do all of them, and your book will be in better shape. You won’t need as much editing, which means you can buy fewer services, paying less overall.

Here are five ways to get a headstart on the process:

1. Read books which are like the book you wrote. There’s several reasons why you should seek out similar work after (not before) your draft is finished: you don’t want to repeat major characters or themes, you do want to know what’s been published recently because it affects the chance your book will sell, and you want to figure out the ways those books are better that what you’ve written so far. You can use what you read as guideposts on the road — some books will encourage you to stay on the path you started on, some will make you want to veer off to a lesser-known path, and others will warn you about possible dangers because they made those mistakes first. The more books you read that are like yours, the more information you’ll have to work from. 10 is good. 20 is better. If you don’t know what to read, ask for ideas. Let folks know what you’ve written, and what you’re looking for. If you’re not ready to share details about your novel yet, you can simply ask for reading suggestions. Be specific, though! You can tweet something like this: “I’m looking for novels/stories with female main characters that are: about ghosts, set in the US, have a strong sense of place. Suggestions?” (That’s 140 characters.)

2. Find and use “alpha” and “beta” readers. Alpha readers are people who read your first, rough, draft, and give you overall feedback that you can use when you revise. They’re not looking for line-level errors, and these often aren’t experienced readers. They’re your friends and family, other writers; people you trust to read all the way through and give you at least a few sentences worth of honest feedback. Beta readers get to see your work after you’ve already revised once, when you’re ready for more in-depth notes. When looking for beta readers, you’re better off seeking out other writers, especially if you know published authors who either write in the same genre that you do, or who read widely in your genre. From this second group of readers, you want people who aren’t afraid to give critiques. Offer to trade reads with them (they read yours, you read theirs), and remember who gave really useful notes so you can ask them again on the next book. And always be sure to thank everyone who reads your draft, whether they gave helpful notes or not — their time is valuable.

3. Research your targets. Is your goal to submit your novel to an agent, or straight to a publisher? Are you planning to self-publish? Pick a target, and find out what their guidelines are. Then, read what they’ve published or represent. Whether you dream of snagging an agent who specializes in YA novels about witches, or pray for a shot at being a bestseller in Amazon’s “Books About Sexy Hackers” category, you have a goal — and others have gotten there first. Do your research on the books or authors that are already living your dreams, and you’ll have a better idea of why they succeeded.

4. Figure out different ways to explain what your story is really about. Once you’ve had a chance to read other work in your genre, get feedback from your readers, and check out market trends/guidelines… sit down and write out a brief description of your novel’s most important parts. Can you describe your novel (accurately) in one sentence? In a tweet? In a paragraph? Make a 10-item list of the characters, settings, or plot points your novel can’t live without. Describe your main character as if they were a movie star and you needed to write their bio, or write a paragraph describing your world as if you’re a tourism director and you want people to visit. If you do all of that, you may realize the “important theme” in your novel is different from the one you thought you were writing. You might discover that your main character isn’t the character you really care about at all… Or, you’ll find that you know your story even better than you thought you did.

5. After you’ve done ALL of these things: revise, revise, revise. Once you’ve gotten notes from your readers, explored similar novels, and read your target’s guidelines… go back to your novel. Read that again. Revise it, using everything you’ve learned. If you do that, you’re sure to end up with a better book. You’ll be ready, then, to hire a professional to help you get the rest of the way to “done”.

If you don’t have anyone you can reach out to for an alpha- or beta-read of your work, or you’re not getting useful critiques from that process, I offer a manuscript evaluation at a very reasonable fee ($30 per 10,000 words, rounded down). I also take that fee off of any future work you schedule with me on the same project, so if you bring your novel back for a round of edits, your evaluation was free. I will read your project two or three times all the way through, looking for different elements and issues. I will then send you an “edit letter”: a chapter-by-chapter look at the novel with overall notes about what works, and what improvements I’d suggest.

We can either go from there into a full edit, or you can revise from my notes if I brought to light development problems you want to correct first — I’ll deduct the evaluation fee no matter how long it takes to finish your next draft. Contact me for more information:

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