Edit Like A Pro: Guest Post by Harry Bingham

Last week, I spoke about the importance of getting the basics right. This week we are going to focus on editing, and in particular self-editing.

One of the more common criticisms self-publishers receive is with regard to editing (or proofing, which is part of the editorial process).

Sometimes the criticisms are misplaced, with readers confusing British English with a typo, or a stylistic choice (like whether to use the Oxford comma) with a rule. But oftentimes,  readers’ comments are on the mark.

Equally often, readers find flaws with the story that could have been addressed with a more rigorous edit. For example, if your readers felt nothing when a character died, perhaps you should have done more to establish an emotional connection. An editor could have pointed this out in advance, and suggested ways to resolve it.

This week, I have a series of guest posts from experienced editors who are accomplished authors themselves. First up is Harry Bingham:

Edit Like A Pro

David likes to quote Seth Godin’s maxim that it’s easier to design marketing into a product than to spend money on advertising a wrongly designed product after launch. Of course he’s right. How could he not be?

For writers, that mostly means that you yourself need to care enough about your book. You need to be a little obsessive, a tad perfectionist. If you haven’t yet managed to annoy your partner with the depth of your absorption in your book, then may I suggest you haven’t yet done enough work? Hemingway once told an interviewer that he had re-written the final page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. Oh, said the interviewer, was there some technical problem which caused you difficulty? Yes, said the Great Man, getting the words right. You need to be like that, and for the same reason.

On the other hand, you need to employ the right suite of professionals too. My forthcoming novel, which is being conventionally published, will have had several reads from my literary agent, a 6000 word editorial report from my editor at Orion, some further comments from my editor in the US, a professional copy-edit, my own revision of that copyedit, and then very careful proofreading, probably by two sets of eyes, as well as my own.

That’s a level of attentiveness to the manuscript which you couldn’t buy for less than, I’d guess, £3,000 (around $4,500). Perhaps the last proof-reading could be trimmed. Maybe one or two of those reads by my agent. But mostly, good quality publishing produces good quality books via a kind of obsessive perfectionism of its own.

Any self-publishing author, however, needs to strike a pragmatic balance between excellence and cost. If you’re a genius marketer (think John Locke), you can get away with a so-so product. (Indeed, even Locke doesn’t rate his authorial skills particularly highly.) If you’re a genius author, you can probably get away with so-so editing. But most of us aren’t in either of those categories. We need to be a pretty damn good writer for anyone to want to read our stuff. You’ll need to be a pretty damn good salesperson to get your work noticed in the deluge. But those things just buy you an entry ticket. They get you in the game. They’re not enough to transform your sales prospects.

For almost everyone, then, some kind of paid external editorial work will be essential. The questions is how do you approach that? And how much should you be looking to pay? Before I go on, I should also make it clear that, although I am a mostly full-time author, I do also help run The Writers’ Workshop, a company which offers everything from writing courses to editorial services. So although I have an expertise in these areas, I’m also potentially biased. You need to remember that as you read on.

First, I think any serious self-pub author needs a full editorial critique of their work. Every pro author gets that – indeed, as noted above, my work was looked at in detail by three editorial professionals (two editors and my agent). I don’t think you should need three rounds of assessment. But I do think you need one warts-and-all critique. That needs to be done by a pro – which means any professional novelist or any professional commissioning editor. English teachers don’t count. Academics don’t count. People who have written academic, business or professional texts don’t count. I know this because I’ve seen crits from all sorts, and the only ones which have ever impressed me are by authors or by editors. The rest are often worthless. (If you’re lucky: bad editorial advice will make a book worse, not better.)

Second, you need a copy-edit. That can’t be one and the same thing as the structural editorial critique, because they look at different things and require different skills. More than that, they pull in different directions. The editorial critique is all about pulling the manuscript apart. It’s about finding weaknesses in the manuscript and directing the author to correct them. A good author will do just that. Copyediting is the opposite. It assumes a settled manuscript and its aim is simply to bed the manuscript down even further. To give it its final form.

Depending on the length of your manuscript, the first type of critique will cost you around £400-500 (roughly $600-800). The copyedit about the same.

But what else? At the Writers’ Workshop, we often seen writers take a writing course, then come to us with a first draft manuscript for review, then some time later, they’re back again, then sometimes they come even a third time. The cost of all this can run into thousands of pounds.

Now, I’m not against people spending loads of money with us. Indeed, I rather like it. But does it make sense?

On the whole, I’ve realised that people sometimes use our editorial services as a way to build their own self-editing skills. Now that, in principle, makes sense. The more alive your own self-editing impulse, the better your work will be. The better your work is when you bring it to an external editor, the more value you’ll get from that editor. But if learning that essential editorial skill is what you’re after, then why not get there direct?

We run a fair few writing courses – everything from how to write a novel through to screenwriting – but the course which gives us our most impassioned positive feedback is our self-editing one. We get two author-editors to run this together and they teach writers how to look at their own novels. How to identify plot holes. How to test prose for soundness, characters for lifelikeness, everything for vibrancy. The actual week-to-week topics are almost exactly the same as those on our basic ‘How to Write a Novel’ course, but the approach is different. Because we’re dealing with people who have written a book and are now wrestling it into shape, their approach is different. We’ve had people tell us that the course has been transformative. Literally: that it’s taken them from one kind of writer (a stumbling amateur) to another (an emerging pro).

Now I don’t want to be too salesy about this. There are probably other good self-editing courses out there. You don’t have to buy them from the Writers’ Workshop. Indeed, you can go a long way just by recognising the issue, buying textbooks, reading carefully, and so on.

But the point remains. What do you need to make sure that your product has that Seth Godinish quality baked in from conception? I think you need three things, not two. You need an external editor. You need a good quality copyeditor. And you need a highly attuned self-editing faculty of your own. The more you have of number three, the less critical will be your reliance on numbers one and two.

As Hemingway hinted, the basic challenge is the same for every writer. Always has been, always will be. Getting the words right.


Harry Bingham is a bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers a range of writing courses including a How to Write a Novel course.


Thanks to Harry for kicking off the week. I’m sure his post will generate a good discussion.

Personally, I think self-publishers can be stronger than large publishers in a lot of areas: speed-to-market, formatting, marketing to readers, pricing, and covers (I often see books from large publishers with beautiful covers for print that don’t translate well to e-books), as well as creative thinking in terms of innovation and promotion.

However, I think we have some catching up to do on the editorial side. I see some self-publishers boasting that they only paid $200 for editing. They may well have gone through a rigorous editorial process in the hands of a competent, experienced professional for that price, but I seriously doubt it.

We don’t have to replicate the traditional editorial process exactly, and often some of the stages can be folded into each other as many freelance editors are capable of wearing several hats. For example, with my last release, my editor provided developmental (content) advice before the final draft, then after that was written we went through a couple of rounds of copy and line editing before I had it proofed. All of that took place well after I had cycled through several drafts, and several beta readers.

I haven’t used the services of The Writers’ Workshop but I have heard great things from those who have. I attended a conference they organized in 2010, and the workshops (some of which were taught by their editors) were of the highest quality and I learned a huge amount (not least that my novel needed another rewrite).

I think Harry made a very important point: developing your own self-editing skills will cut down on the amount you need to spend on professional help, and improve your writing.

Next up in this series is a two-part post from my own long-suffering editor on the common mistakes that writers make, and how they can learn to avoid them.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

43 Replies to “Edit Like A Pro: Guest Post by Harry Bingham”

  1. I think editing is essential to anyone whether they are INDIE or mainstream. I also beleive Indie writers should have a professional edit completed on their work. I thought I could get by without one for my first book, but I was so wrong.

  2. Excellent points all the way around, Harry. David, thank you for bringing him aboard.

    I’d like to point out two things. One, I keep running into writers who are, to put this nicely, editor resistant. All they want to do is fight editorial suggestions. Why? Because they have a “vision.” Or believe weaknesses or bizarre convolutions in plot or pacing somehow constitute style or voice. The attitude is, “I’m paying you, so we have to do things my way.” This isn’t to say the editor is always right. BUT the editor does have a viewpoint outside the story and can look at a piece objectively. Writers really need to get over the notion that their stories are precious darlings, perfect in every way.

    Two, always, always, ALWAYS use an outside proofreader. The writer might create clean copy, the editor might have a sharp eye, but when one is involved with a story, copy-blindness is inevitable. It takes a dispassionate eye to find all the little typos and inconsistencies the writer has missed, not because they don’t know better, but because the mind knows what SHOULD be there and very helpfully fills in the blanks.

    1. Copy-blindness is indeed inevitable when you’ve worked on a project too closely for too long. And sometimes things just slip through! I just had a proofreader send me a correction on a story that has been reprinted multiple times in other publications, all of which had the same error (scolding instead of scalding). 🙂

    2. Good points, Jaye. I think the first comes with a little experience (or at least, it did in my case). I remember the first time I had something beta read by an objective source who really gave it a thorough going over. I was in shock. They just didn’t get it! And who are they to criticize my work, etc. etc. I think most writers go through that at some point. And one silver lining in the query slog was that it toughened you up to criticism (or summary dismissal) of your work. I think I snapped out of that “precious” stage fairly quickly, but I think most writers will always be sensitive to some extent. When I get an MS back from my editor, I think agree with most suggestions. And if I don’t, or if I decided to do something I different way, I make damn sure I have a compelling argument to back up my position – and I will still flag it for my editor to look at again on the next pass.

      And yes, copy blindness is inevitable. When you work on the same text for long enough, your eye can skip over all kinds of glaring errors. And of course, errors will creep in while the author is incorporating the editorial suggestions, so independent proofing is essential. There are fine professional services a writer can use, or an eagle-eyed fellow author can fulfill that role.

      There is another phenomenon worth mentioning: story blindness. Writers carry the whole story in their head. They may or may not have gotten all of that down on the page. So when we read back over what we have written, we may not realize aspects of the plot that are confusing, or that one of the characters is a little two dimensional. Beta readers and editors will be able to point out such areas that need a bit more work – writers certainly can’t do that on their own. Another reason why editors (and beta readers) are essential.

  3. Hi Harry! Fancy meeting you here!
    I have a point about editing which I feel is quite important too – to find an editor who ‘gets’ you. My style is quite… well, ridiculous springs to mind. My subject demands this – I write travel. Most books in this genre bore the crap out of me and I fear I’m not alone in that. It’s subjective though – of course it is – and someone who loves a ‘classic’ travel book will almost certainly hate mine! If this is the editor I’ve chosen there is a fair chance I’ll get more red ink back than the black I sent. It’s really important to find eyes that are critical, whilst also appreciating the character of the book. For this reason it’s a good idea to have a decent chat (or a few of them) with any potential editors before you shell out your thousands.
    Good luck with the Festival of Writing 2012 – afraid I won’t be back this year as I’ve emigrated to Australia! But then, it’s not all bad… :0)

    1. Wot? You’re not coming to the Festival? But we’ve put radios in the aircon vents just for you! [NB: no one else except Tony will possibly understand that joke. Sorry.]

    2. Good point, Tony (and I first met you at the Festival of Writing in 2010, remember?). I think it’s *crucial* to get a sample edit from any editor you are thinking of working with. That, plus your email communications, should give you a sense of both the style of the editor (editors have styles of working just like writers), and the kind of relationship you would have. Just like in real-life interactions, there can be personality clashes or different ways of working, or whatever. A sample edit will show you if you can work well together, if your styles will mesh well together, and so on.

    3. Tony,

      I feel exactly the same about my book. I think most travel books are boring, so if people love reading that genre they’re probably going to hate my book with a passion!


  4. The issue is cost, isn’t it? A good editorial critique, plus copy-editing – that’s £1000, probably to do it right. And if your book is long or if you attempt the same kind of standards that an Orion or Random House would seek, you could certainly double that amount.

    Then again, your book is an advert. Get something out which is really strong and it’s an advert for ever. Get something out which is obviously slapdash … and, well, it’s an advert for ever too.

    1. There is a slight double standard which unfortunately applies here – the no.1 issue I see people complain about with a self published book is what we would call the editing (though readers call it spelling mistakes, lack of plot depth etc.). I can’t remember reading a professionally published book where I didn’t find at least a couple of typos or doubled-up words, but readers are much more forgiving of this – highly unlikely to give Stephen King a bad review for what they perceive as an error that occurs as part of the publishing process. Bugger! But, well, we have to live with it and be exemplary, so that if our work is scrutinized to a higher degree, it’s still holds up. Which is where it gets expensive… though at least we can correct any errors pointed out to us with a quick re-upload :0)
      As for radios in the vents… I told you Harry, you just need to regulate the number of hot women at the Festival! Even a slight reduction in the number of insatiable goddesses will lead to dramatically reduced time cowering in the air conditioning…

  5. As a fledgling young scribe I oft feel like a sodding sponge when I leave this place — and I love it! Thank you for taking the time to compile all this information for us, as it is worded intelligently and coherently, and, though the scope is sometimes maddening in it’s immensity, is rather helpful (Once i digest that is. Boy am i full).
    It’s truly appreciated 🙂

  6. Here’s my tuppence: Michael Arndt did approx. 100 revisions of his script for “Little Miss Sunshine”, and even the version that was used for shooting had to be re-written AGAIN.

    (Self-)Editing is not just part of the job, it’s part of the creative process. If you can’t make it work like that, you’ve got a problem, I think.

  7. Hi David (and Harry),
    Great article and great timing, I’m just drafting a blog post about my experiences of having my work critiqued by a professional editor. It’s your editor too, by the way, so I’m looking forward to your next post featuring her, although I hope she doesn’t use my work as a reference point!

      1. Yeah, but I might recognise some of them from my work, I made enough mistakes!
        Also, I was wondering whether or not to name her in my blog, as it will be a positive article, but not sure of the etiquette here. Might leave the name out and if someone directly asks I’ll reply to them individually…

        1. I *think* most editors don’t mind a mention (unless the writer ignored every single suggestion they made!). But I don’t want to speak for someone else – you could always ask…

  8. Thankfully I’m a bit of a perfectionist so hopefully I can manage to do a bit of self editing myself… after all I’ve been contemplating a professional edit prior to sumbiting my current WIP (after i”ve hacked at it a few s=time…lol) I’m probably being pretty obsessive though.

    Defiantely going to be looking into writing classes I think one on self editing might be useful.

    :} Cathryn

  9. Thank you, David and Harry, this is excellent advice. I had been pondering where to find an editor for my project. The idea of going without one reminds me of the adage: “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client”.

  10. Reading this post and the discussion brings to the fore an important point. As head of Editing For Writers on Facebook I have met quite a few authors who want easy answers to complex issues, such as grammar, spelling, story structure… how can they make these things be less important because they are not good at them? The short and only answer is they can’t. Fundamentals are as integral to the creative process as any words, characters, or plot. They often get discouraged at this, making me wonder what their actual intentions are. As writers we should WANT, in fact take pride, in an ability to follow conventions and produce a top quality book.

    Self Editing is the very beginning of the completion process, not the end, and it must be prefaced with writing basics and their proper execution.

  11. A little disclaimer here: I work as a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader; I’m also a self-published author. (Yes, I perform both editing and proofreading, for different clients.)

    First, your quote for copyediting + 3 rounds of proofreading is way more than it needs to be. I’ve seen a little work by some folks who charge that much, and I wouldn’t wish them on my enemy. (Not saying that everyone who charges that much is ripping their clients off, just that I’ve not wittingly seen work worth that.)

    There’s a service I work with where you could get 1 alpha read (content check) + 2 rounds of editing (content check & copyedit) + 3 rounds of proofreading for less than $1,500 US (and I’m assuming you’d warrant the top fees currently being charged by the group).

    Second, if nobody can adequately self-edit their own work, how can freelance writers consistently pull it off? When I write as a freelancer, I’ve mainly dealt with acquisitions editors, and I’m always expected to turn in adequately edited material on time. Same thing went for when I was a college student and having to write papers—and one college I attended would flunk you if they discovered that you got editorial help. You could even get expelled.

    While I agree that a lot more folks need an editor than admit it, it is possible to learn to adequately edit (and proofread!) your own work. There are even “tricks” to enable yourself to see what’s actually there, rather than what you thought you wrote.

    1. Carradee, if you are referring to the quote in the guest post, I believe Harry was placing a dollar value on the editing he received for his last book. With a publisher this could include an editorial report (on content issues), then both a copy and line edit (possibly more than round) and several rounds of proofing. Given that reputable editors (often those who have worked on a string of bestsellers and/or award winners) routinely charge anything up to $250 per hour, I don’t think the figure quoted is an impossibility.

      There are plenty of editors charging less of course – the vast majority of them in fact – and no shortage of great editors available for far lower prices. I don’t think the quoted figure was intended as a benchmark for what self-publishers should pay, but rather an assessment of what that kind of editing from those kind of editors might cost on an open market

      I certainly paid a good deal less for the rigorous process I outlined above and my editor’s fees would be more in line with the standard freelancer rate for an experienced editor. In case anyone else is interested, the Editorial Freelancer’s Association (USA) has a list of recommended rates here: http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php

      1. Hi David,

        You’re right, of course. I’m concerned that some folks might take that ballpark listed in the article as what their editing should charge, thus my comment.

        Also, in practice, the EFA rates generally refers to folks who work in the realm of business editing. Copyediting a brochure is quite a bit different from copyediting a novel (she says from experience).

        I know what some folks who work at small presses get paid, and it’s… sad.

        1. I’m all for people getting paid fairly. What I would hate to see is authors using their new-found freedom to force a race to the bottom on everyone else: cover designers, formatters, editors etc. That would be more than a little hypocritical, IMO.

      2. Oh, I agree that folks should be paid fairly, but a “fair” amount will differ from person to person, and where they live will be a factor.

        Then again, I recently saw someone on Craigslist wanting to hire someone to edit their X-page novel for <$200 US. I had to laugh, because otherwise I would've sent an e-mail explaining all the problems with that offer.

        (For readers who don't know, editing rates are based on 1) word counts and 2) writing samples. And even a short novel will probably cost at least $250 for an edit, because it'll be at least 8 hours of work—assuming your text is particularly clean and your editor is particularly quick. And in the US, independent contractors pay extra taxes, so we have to earn at least $10 per hour just to hit minimum wage. And that's not including the cost of health insurance.)

    2. Carradee,

      I completely agree with you that a writer can learn to adequately edit and proofread their own work. Many musicians produce their own records. artists frame their own paintings and curate their own shows and actors (Clint Eastwood) direct themselves in their own movies.

      For many writers it is a matter of wanting only to do the ‘creative’ stuff, leaving the finicky detail to other people. it would be the same impulse that require an agent or a critique group to ‘take care of you’.

      Tiger Woods does his own putting. Why can’t I learn to do the same with a book?

      1. I didn’t really want to get into the debate about whether a writer can effectively edit their own work – I was going to leave that for the editors to hash out among themselves. However, I will say this: the two editors that are guest posting this week are both accomplished authors themselves, and they *always* use editors other than themselves – the theory being that is very, very difficult for a writer to have the requisite distance from a text they have written themselves to view it objectively. Writers, in general, are terrible judges of their own work.

        Now, of course, there are exceptions. I know writers who edit their own work, and do so effectively. But they are the exception, and it’s not something I would ever recommend to a less experienced writer.

        Tiger Woods may do his own putting, but he still has a coach to work on his swing, because he can’t see the minor mistakes he is making – he doesn’t have the necessary perspective.

  12. I sent my manuscript twice to the Writers’ Workshop and I can wholeheartedly recommend this service. I learnt so so much from it. The Writers’ Workshop was great because the authors were respectful of my project, extremely encouraging and at the same time it was just what I needed – totally objective feedback with practical instructions on how to proceed!

    Authors for authors is the way forward so you don’t send out a first draft and end up on the ‘slushpile’ of the internet! The Writers’ Workshop is the best place on line you can spend your money, I think. (I had another experience with another company which was a total rip-off!)

    The third time round Harry just read the ms, free of charge, and wrote me a fantastic letter and although I decided to for forgo the query route, his letter gave me the confidence to continue on the writing journey. (That was 3 years ago).

    Thanks Harry! You, Rebecca Smith and Haydn Middleton are in the acknowledgements of my novel which is coming out after 7 years of hard work. (Yes, I revised it again)

    Who knows where I would have been without your team’s fantastic instructions? For sure not where I’m now 🙂
    You’re the best!

  13. This has been my life from the point I finished the shitty first draft. Finding the right editor is difficult to say the least. It is not just an investment of cash, but this person’s suggestions can add or take away from the book.

  14. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy reading, and learning from, your blog. Thank you so much for not only being open about your own process of becoming published, but expanding your posts out to help others in their quest.

    You rock.

  15. “Obsessive perfectionism?” I resemble that remark!

    Excellent post and comments. I’m a former newspaper copy editor, and I’m learning a lot here about fiction writing and editing. The best newspaper writers turn in clean copy, and maybe I should give them credit for “self editing.” But mostly, I think they’re blessed with natural talent, which they’ve developed to a high level through practice and attention. They have a strong and sometimes ferocious work ethic.

    A formula that works for me is: write it, read it, revise it, repeat.

  16. Finally! I think having a set of very critical parents may have done me some good at last. They have made an imprint on my mind that any work I do can be far better, even if it’s my greatest piece to date. So now I automatically assume that if I hand it to someone else, they will return an improved copy.

  17. Pingback: Self Publishing Roundup: January 27, 2012
  18. Nice article on editing which I am about to embark on with my 1st epub (have five others small pubbed). I cannot help commenting that the editing article needed to be edited – saw a glaring grammatical error which makes me see how important editing can be…

  19. Pingback: Editing: Do It, and Do It Right | The Fire In Our Heads

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