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Thursday, July 18, 2019

I Can't Afford A Developmental Editor (Mailbox)

What do you do if you can't afford a content editor but you know you need one?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer questions about once a week.  I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. We are back and now it is time to dig into.....dramatic music....The Backlog.]   
Emma asks:

Hey Mr. Chris,

I've only ever weathered peer reviews during a single Creative Writing course way back in high school, and have recently met up against a wall when it comes to polishing drafts on my lonesome.  Editors deserve payment for the professional service they could lend a 100k-200k+ manuscript (which I can't afford just now), and any willing audience can't quite pinpoint when or why a particular chapter can't keep their attention, though technical mistakes are easily resolved with their help.

So far I've applied font swapping to help catch wrong-footed phrasing, and reading out loud to better manage prose and wordflow.  I take breaks when I'm stuck to read some new authors for a refresher, but it feels like we're all suffering from the same 'character-driven' plot anemia, like maybe the introspective nature of writing has left modern storytelling open to a self-centered sort of rambling that can dull thematic impact.

I have a bad habit of skipping over chapters in published works that feel like filler or pointless exposition, like the author could have done with an editor's help - but when my readers express the same, it's always a different chapter per dissent, so.

I have "if you're bored, then you're boring" tattooed on the inside of my eyelids; but any tips for helping the hermits of the craft apply fresh perspective to swerve their own blind spots?  The Google results are too frenetic.

Thanks For Your Time!

My reply:
Have you tried the head itch test? I swear by it. I'm only sort of kidding, but let's get to that in a moment.

[We interrupt your regularly scheduled Mailbox to bring you a quick announcement that Mailbox posts will be returning as a weekly segment (on Thursdays) thanks to our new schedule and the Patrons who made quitting pet sitting possible. As I work my way back through what is truly the most epic of backlogs, with some questions literally going back as far as 2013, and the very realization that statistically speaking, someone out there has DIED waiting for my answer, I will be mixing in both new and old questions. However, if you want to jump from the back to the front of the queue with a question from before that I seem to have forgotten about across the sands of time, just reply to the email or ping me again or whatever it takes to show me that yours is not a new question but an old question that I lost track of, and I will bump it up the list.]

Ah editing. We all need it and it's such a tangled thicket. That mysterious and hard last part of the writing process. This reminds me, I really need to get on with my next series of articles about finding, getting, and giving feedback.

Yeah, Emma, there's a reason the content/development editors move slower and are MORE expensive than proofreaders. It's $50-$80 an hour and you're going to get about 2-5 pages an hour on average.

[By the way, that's the level of freelance editing I do––that and line editing (sometimes called "substantive" editing), which is more what you're getting when you try to change the font or read out loud to catch mistakes. (I'm crap at copyediting; I don't even bother pretending I can do that.)]

There's a lot of sticker shock when you say "My rate is $50 and just your first chapter clocks in at 20 pages so I'm guessing it'll take me around four hours." (And that is at the far low end of both averages--it wouldn't be uncommon to hear more like $80/10 hours, and if you don't think THAT adds up quick.....) People don't even really get developmental editing. They don't understand why it could possibly be that high.

Of course then they keep proofing and proofing their work over and over again and not understanding why it doesn't get published.

Proofreading is vital, of course, but it requires less direct engagement with the text, and understanding a grammar rule is a lot easier than understanding why a character arc isn't gelling with the setting. The first thing you need to do with a text, though, is the big fixes.

I've repaved the stone walkway!
Image description: house that has burnt down
Content (or development) editing is substantially harder than most people realize. They see the big stuff as exactly the shit they're good at, or should be, think their story is genius, and worry most about where the commas go. In reality it should work the other way and the job of a content editor reflects that. As a development/content editor, I read the piece two or three times. I get a real sense of what the writer is trying to say. And then I have to go back to someone whose soul is vested and poured out onto that page to tell them where it didn't work. And while there are some writers who are like "Tie my writing up, and smack it with this flogger, sir," most are like "This is my first time; please be gentle."

I have not yet NOT undercut myself on a freelance content editing gig. Usually it's because I read the thing four times and I'm almost out of allotted time, but I know how much they paid, so I want to offer some substantive written feedback, and I spend extra time on that, ending up running an hour or so over.

I get the "can't afford it thing," and that's where shit gets tricky. I firmly believe people should invest in every level of editing for the art they want to be remarkable. (And that almost certainly includes a sensitivity read as well.) If they just want to write some popcorn books and have a cult following that pays a few bills, maybe they don't have to worry so much about that super professional polish and just get some good peer review and crank the books out one a year. But if they want it to be something special, they've got to get the best editing they can. Although that doesn't necessarily HAVE to be low five figures in cash.

You're onto something in your last paragraph, Emma. You skip over boring parts. So does almost every other reader. But let me ask you this. Have you ever kept reading once things got interesting again? Have you ever thought a book with a boring part was overall good? I can't even remember the middle of Snow Crash where the guy was talking to the computer for huge chunks of text, but the beginning and ending play like an HD movie in my head even 20 years later. Have you ever bought the next book in the series or another by that author? Tad Williams slow bits make me pull my hair out, but I have to know what happens next in Otherland. Having a boring part isn't the end of the world. Lots of books that people love have bricks of exposition, even in the first chapter. *turns and glares right at Dune*

So how do you, a writer who can't afford to hire a professional development editor, find and expunge the most anemic, rambling parts of your own manuscript?


Get it as good as you can before you worry about editing. People who spend ungodly amounts of money on editing start tossing cash at their manuscripts by like the second or third draft. That's too soon. You are basically paying someone for the process of revision (and peer review) when you don't have to be. There's only so much an editor can do. Walk through as much of the process as you can. The further along you hand them something, the better they can make it (and work WITH your vision instead of just teaching you the basics). 


Then I would consider other means of getting that professional editor. Especially if you're talking about a novel. ESPECIALLY if you don't have peer review that is like a cadre of published authors who all have published a novel. You're going to want this to be the best you can. Don't cancel your health insurance or anything, but if there's any other way to save up the few thousand you'd need, I'd consider it an investment into your own writing. I know it's a tough economy and we're all working 37 side gigs to keep the lights on, but if there's any wiggle room in your budget, I'd try to save a little for that. Also do a sample chapter first and DON'T be afraid to fire an editor if you don't like what they're saying or it's not a good fit.

But if pulling down the cash could really never EVER happen, I'd try to work around straight capitalism. Editors are people. Maybe one of them will do an exchange. I've done content editing for home cooked meals, art exchanges, a massage, and even for copyediting help since that's what I'M crap at. I may even have once traded my skills to someone who happened to have some extra ecstasy-inducing party favors sitting around after their trip to Burning Man. Possibly. My point is, they know what they're worth, but you can probably do a deal.


Peer review should be used exhaustively (this is also a trade like above, but you're just always trading the same thing: their feedback for yours). However, even if you hooked up a professional editor, you are right, Emma, that you're going to get different feedback from different people. Their quality varies. Their experience varies. Their interest in what you're trying to do varies. And if you give your work to ten people, you're going to get ten different opinions on what to change.

If all ten of them agree on something, obvi that's a problem spot, but chances are they'll all have different ideas. Billy hates description. Marge hates internal monologue. Cecil hates dialog that isn't snappy. Those are what THEY want, so you have to pick the one who matches what YOU want.

Pick the peer (or peers) you trust. Pick the ones that give you feedback you find helpful. Not nice. Not doting. Not complimentary. Also not ruthless. Not vicious. Not merciless. HELPFUL––and that's not something I can define for you. Pick them and kind of stick to them.

Some people like online writing peer review sites like Scriblophile. Some like their writing groups. Some like their MFA cohort. I keep up with a couple of my old classmates and have a few people I know like my writing but won't be kind if they don't who I look to after I have cleaned something up as much as I can on my own. The main thing is that you, first, pick people whose feedback you trust as not trying to rewrite something they way THEY would, but rather help you be the best you writer you can be, and, secondly, who are on roughly YOUR writing level. An important part of peer review is that they be....well.....peers.


Read something that is the kind of writing you want to be doing right before you edit. I know it sounds weird, but it works. If you want a tight, pounding narrative that doesn't let go, read something for a half an hour by an author you think has done exactly that. Then go look at your own writing. That boring shit will jump out at you. It will leap off the page and grab you by the upper lip. Never did I ever find so much to cut from my character navel gazing as after I had chewed through some Steven Brust before sitting down to edit.


And also you can also use the head itch test (but be careful because it takes a needle-thread of self-confidence and self-criticism). When feedback is bullshit, we kind of know it. We dismiss it. We think "They don't get what I'm doing." or "Whatever they're just a first year." But when they start hitting a little close to home, it makes our head itch. We KNOW that's a part we had trouble writing or that felt a little stiff when we were gutting it out. We know we worried about whether people were going to get that thing. That's when we know they're probably on to something and it's time to try to rework it.

On the other hand you can't be like "You plebs don't know what I'm doing. You are all the riff raff. I am a genius and apparently no one knows it. MY HEAD NEVER ITCHES BECAUSE I'M PERFECT!" That just leads to self-indulgent bullshit and you self publish and can't figure out why your mom owns the only fifteen copies you ever sold. But my instinct given how hard you're looking for feedback is that this is not YOUR problem, Emma.

Think of it like insults. If someone told me I didn't know how to write a decent paragraph, I would roll my eyes (and have when some Rando incel or Nazi tried). If they called me a commie, I'd shrug. (I'm not, but people on the right can't tell the difference between a 3% tax cut on the wealthy and communism, so I'm also not too worried about what they think.) If they told me I lacked confidence in my own fiction or that I don't double check my sources for outright lies when I'm pissed off about bigotry...THAT would actually start to get under my skin. I know I can write, so that doesn't bother me. I'm a democratic socialist so *shrugs* to the "communist" label coming from a fascist. The other stuff....makes my head itch a little. That's when I know someone is kind of getting close.

Your FACE lacks confidence in its own fiction.

The combination of as much professional editing as you can scrimp, save, beg or barter for, peer review you trust, and confidence (but not OVERconfidence) in your vision should steer you pretty well.


And I'll let you in on a little trade secret, Emma, just so you feel like you're getting your money's worth from my blog. The harder you work, the more professional quality help you get under the auspices of "PEER" review. I can't make any promises, of course, and you'll basically never be able to find the one person who will do a pro-bono edit from your second draft to "publishable" no matter how grim and determined you look ––because we all need to survive capitalism. But this much I've seen merit out time and again.

The harder you work the more you're going to find the staircase kind of forms as you go up. A lot of people spend a LOT on editing because they sort of want to skip a step, either in their development as a writer or the writing process of their Work in Progress or something. But if you work as hard as you can, take what feedback you can get, and work as hard as you can to apply that, improve your prose, put yourself out there, then go looking for the next "tier" of help, chances are that you'll you're going to find serious people notice you and want to help. You give better feedback, and then you GET better feedback so your peer review quality goes up. Also as you really put in the time, editing becomes more and more like polishing silver instead of working the kinks out of dented brass. It takes less time. More than one is the author I've seen people volunteering to alpha and beta read for because they were solemn at each step about making their work as good as it could be.

I'd still recommend you find a professional if you're trying to publish the great american novel, but you've got some options to keep it reasonable.

We all need editing (all of us), and I sincerely believe that its value to a writer who wants to put good art in the world is worth even dropping some money, but if you are resourceful, like most things in life, a wily scrapper can find some workarounds.

1 comment:

  1. Several years ago I joined an online writers group called Scribophile. Most of the writers there think that line editing and copy editing are the only kinds of editing in existence, and when I joined, I did too. But then I found a good team of people inside that group (called Ubergroup) and I learned how to give developmental critiques from them.

    It's a process. If you learn how to give developmental edits, you can exchange them with other writers who know how to give developmental edits in a crit-group environment. That's the easiest way to get basic developmental editing for free.

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