This is inspired by questions I often see in writing groups on Facebook. How do you know you’ve done as much as you can without outside help?
The truth is that there’s no definitive answer. But, there are some steps that everybody should take. Just remember, making your manuscript the best it can be is not a quick process. This is a general guideline, and everybody’s process is different.
- Make sure you have at least one alpha reader or critique partner reading your work as you write it. You don’t have to take all of their suggestions, but they can help you work through sticky points in your plot or improve whatever area of writing is your weakness (descriptions, dialogue, etc.).
- Once you’ve included the feedback from your alpha reader(s), put the manuscript aside for about a month while you do something else. This month will give you some temporal distance from your manuscript, making it easier to spot the problems. It’s a good time to read Self Editing for Fiction Writers.
- Do a round of self editing. Look for plot holes, awkward scenes, and grammar and punctuation mistakes.
- Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as needed.
- Do a round of beta reading. Try to have at least 3 beta readers who you don’t know. People in publishing will be your best beta readers because they understand the value of honest feedback.
- Incorporate your beta readers’ suggestions. Again, you don’t have to do everything they say, but at least think about it before rejecting their ideas. They are representing your future audience. If your beta readers are all saying something doesn’t work, your future readers will probably have the same problem.
- If you ended up doing a lot of rewriting, it’s a good idea to repeat Steps 2 through 6. The more improvement you do on your own, the cheaper your professional editing will be. Even the most basic beta reader should be able to point out big problems like plot holes or unbelievability, which will allow your editor to focus on subtler problems like character arcs or structural issues.
- This is the point to contract with a developmental editor. Not only will they tell you what is or is not working in your story, they’ll be able to give concrete advice on how to fix those problems. How much back and forth you’ll have with the editor will depend on the needs of the manuscript. Significant rewriting and revising is expected during and after developmental editing. An alternative to full developmental editing is a manuscript evaluation. It will be less expensive, but also less thorough, so really think about what your manuscript needs before choosing this option.
- Hire a copyeditor. Sometimes, this person will be the same as your developmental editor, sometimes it’s someone new. Make sure you’ve gone through your manuscript at the sentence and word level to make it as clean as you possibly can to save money on the copyediting.
- Hire a proofreader. Sometimes, this will be rolled into copyediting, but it’s important to clarify that before signing any contracts. I recommend a completely fresh set of eyes for this step. Ideally, your formatter is also a proofreader.
At this point, your manuscript is ready to be turned into a book. You’ll still need to get a cover designer and a formatter, but the manuscript itself is ready to go.
Editor and book coach Lisa Poisso has a fantastic flow chart with similar steps to those I outlined above that goes beyond the manuscript.