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This one mistake costs authors hundreds of dollars

I was super excited to be working on my first private editing job – a memoir by a young woman who had succeeded despite a childhood marked by poverty and abuse. It should have been a winner! But by the time I was half way through I found myself sitting with my head in my hands, realising I was wasting my client’s money and pushing my sanity to breaking point. Her book was simply not ready for editing and had major structural flaws that couldn’t be ironed out just by tweaking the occasional paragraph. I soldiered on for a bit longer, knowing that the book had no chance of being published, and feeling more and more guilty about having taken on the job. So why had I?

It all boiled down to inexperience. This was my first editing job for an independent author rather than one who had come via a publishing house with its rigorous approval and selection processes. I hadn’t factored in that private clients wouldn’t have been through the same processes and that their manuscripts would need a lot more preparatory work. As I sat there with a large portion of the book still to plough through, I decided I simply couldn’t continue with the work. Instead, I began analysing the manuscript structure in detail and then sent the author a thorough feedback report on what she needed to do to get the text ready for editing.

Never copy-edit a first draft

The fact, as I discovered, is that a first draft of a novel or work of nonfiction is never ready for text editing. And yet text editing is what most independent authors ask for the moment they’ve written the last page. I want to be very clear and upfront about this – as an author, you are wasting your money on text editing if you haven’t first been through a thorough review and self-editing process. Here are four essential checks you can run to get your book edit-ready:

1. Objective feedback

Once you have a decent first or second draft, get objective feedback from impartial beta readers or a professional book coach. Even for very experienced authors, the first draft of a book is usually quite rough and contains material that just doesn’t fit or it has plot holes the author is not aware of. You need to fix these and prepare an improved draft.

2. Premise statement

If you haven’t already done so, write a premise statement. The premise statement in fiction is a paragraph-length formulation of your character, their problem situation, and what they must do to resolve it. In non-fiction, it is a brief summation of the problem and proposed solution (other forms are also possible). Publishers are going to ask you for the premise before they even pick up the manuscript. And if you don’t have a premise, chances are your book also doesn’t have a tight plot or a strong logical argument. So do not proceed to text editing without a strong premise.

3. Plot outline

Outline the plot structure (fiction) using any of the recognised plotting models (e.g., three-act structure, Hero’s Journey, Snowflake, Truby). For non-fiction structure, outline a clear logical argument or describe the structure you have used and why you’ve used it. If you can’t outline your plot, your book is flawed and will need structural work before it can be edited.

4. Starting point

Make sure your work of fiction starts with a hook or an inciting incident that introduces the main story conflict. This must happen within the first two pages. Far too many authors begin their stories with long exposition and backstory and don’t give their readers a compelling reason to carry on turning the pages to find out what happens. For nonfiction, have you begun with a strong statement of the problem you are going to solve or the thesis you are going to prove? Read more about strong opening lines.

5. Self-edit

Get the text as tidy and error-free as you can before asking an editor for a quote (or brace yourself for eye-watering expense). If you’ve written dialogue, make sure it’s properly formatted and punctuated. Look at your formatting and make sure it is neat and consistent (e.g., consistent fonts for headings, correctly spaced paragraphs). Run a spellcheck and preferably also used a text-improvement tool like Grammarly or ProWritingAid (the free version of Grammarly is brilliant).

OK, now you’re ready …

If you’ve got all these elements in place, you can ask an editor to quote you on a copy edit. However, if you have any remaining doubts about the readiness of your book, I recommend you first get an editorial appraisal. This is a high-level overview and critique of your work by an editor who specialises in story-level editing (as opposed to just copy editing or proofreading). The appraisal will point out the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in the text and outline any work that might still need to be done. Once your manuscript has been through the appraisal and you’ve implemented any suggested changes, you can go ahead and get your text editing quote, confident that your money will be well spent.

Find out about my editorial appraisal service. Or see my text editing rates.

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