How to Publish an Indie Book, Part 2 of 6: How to Edit and Proofread Your Book

Joshua Fields Millburn
Posted on July 22, 2013

Times They Are a-Changing

Historically, one of biggest advantages Traditional Publishing had over Indie Publishing was the rigorous work that went into editing a Book. Published Authors had at their beck and call talented Editors, Line-Editors, Copyeditors, and even proofreading Interns. These folks—pros, the lot of them—were all integral parts of a Book’s maturation toward print. Were being the key word here.

But today, as Caleb Pirtle points out in Where Have All the Editors Gone, and Why Are Publishers Making You Pay for Editing?, “[E]ditors have become an endangered species.”

It’s not that the Big Six don’t want the work to be good; they do. And it’s not like they want to publish unedited Books; they don’t. They simply want you, the Author, to—ahem—Do It Yourself. That is, they expect their authors to self-edit, just like—ahem, ahem—Indie Authors. In other words, unless you’re a Bestselling Author with a track record, don’t expect a publisher to take your work, work it over, and polish it till it shines. It simply doesn’t work that way anymore.

Here’s the Deal, Kids

An Author without an Editor is a hot mess, coffee without a coffee cup. And but so the way Big Publishers used to publish Books, a Process fraught with overzealous Editors donning pocketprotectors brimming with red pens, was actually a great way to produce great art. A good Editor not only improves a Writer’s work, s/he improves a Writer’s future work, too. In addition to regular copyediting—fishing for typos and grammatical/syntactical errors—an Editor helps his/her Author shape his/her voice, strengthening the Book and the Author.

The other day, Colin said to me, “A good Editor makes you feel like you’ve been beaten with a hammer, only to realize afterward you look better with bruises and fewer teeth. That’s the role they play in your life—they help you carve away the excess, even when some of what needs to be removed is hair and skin and bone. At the end of the day, it will be worth it.”

Among Colin, Ryan, and me, we’ve independently published 22 Books and have learned a ton about editing in the Process, losing a lot of hair and several teeth with each Book. A few years ago, though, when each of us started publishing Books, we approached the Editing Process haphazardly, timidly. We didn’t know much about editing. We didn’t know the difference between proofreading and editing, between content editing and copyediting, between Final Draft and First Edition.

Over time, we learned from our mistakes. Each time we published a Book, it got better, tighter, stronger. Eventually an Editing Process formed, which we recently formalized for our Authors, as well as our own Books. We’d like to share it with you…

Asymmetrical’s Editing Process

We developed a 10-step editorial checklist to guide us through the Editing Process for each Book we publish. It looks like this:

1. Author Completes Manuscript. This means write the Book. Go back to Part 1 if you missed this step.

2. Author Sends Manuscript to 5–10 Alpha-Readers. Once you’ve written your Book, you’ll want half-a-dozen to a dozen clean pairs of eyes to look it over, provide honest feedback, and point out obvious mistakes. Solicit friends and colleagues you trust. You can also find eager folks who’re willing to help in the Asym Community (just make sure you’re willing to return the favor).

3. Author Incorporates Alpha-Readers’ Feedback. Don’t be so married to an idea that you’re not willing to take constructive feedback from Step 2 and incorporate it into your Manuscript. You needn’t use every critical comment provided, but it’s best to approach this first round of critiques with an open mind. I’ve seen authors re-write entire chapters, and even entire Books, during this step. That’s all right, though: if re-writing your Book is what it takes to make it the best it can be, then so be it. You want to be proud of your Book a year from now, ten years from now, don’t you?

4. Author Sends Manuscript to Content Editor. Generally, the Content Editor is what most people think of when they think of Editors. Content Editors are the big-picture guys/gals who fine-tooth-comb your Manuscript for major errors, incongruities, and mistakes. They provide notes for how to make the Book better, how to make the story tighter, and how to improve things like plot, character development, structure, and dramatic arc. A solid Content Editor will save your Book from a stillbirth. If you’re going to spend money on just one thing during the entire Publishing Process, it should be on a Content Editor. Find one you trust. (N.B. Asymmetrical offers inexpensive access to Professional Content Editors in our Studio.)

5. Author Incorporates Content Editor’s Feedback. See #3. You want your Book to be great; thus, be willing to at least consider every suggestion.  You may not use them all, but at least consider them. That way you know you’ve done your due diligence.

6. Author Sends Manuscript to Copyeditor. A quality Copyeditor (or two) will help the Author with the little stuff: grammatical errors, syntactical snafus, punctuation, stylistic quirks. For most intents and purposes, a Copyeditor is a Professional Proofreader, which is sort of like a Mall Cop who’s allowed carry a gun; s/he’s not as serious as the real thing, but can kill the bad guys when necessary. (N.B. Asymmetrical offers inexpensive access to Professional Proofreaders in our Studio.)

7. Author Incorporates Copyedits. By now you’re probably tired of reading your own book. We know. But remember: before you release it to the world you want it to be right, right? Right! Thankfully, the copyedits, though there will likely be many, are fairly objective (e.g., correcting spelling and punctuation and typos) and thus easy to incorporate into your Manuscript. Go slow. Take the time to fix your mistakes. Better now than after your Book is in print.

8. Author Sends Manuscript to Final Proofreaders. Remember those folks—family, friends, benevolent enemies—with whom you originally shared your Manuscript in Step 2? Well, it’s time to ask them, or similar people you trust, to give your Book another once-over, a close look to find those handful of errors that inevitably remain. This’s your final line of defense.

9. Author Corrects Typos from Proofreaders. Umm, Author corrects typos proofreaders bring to their attention. We all hat typos.

10. Author Reads Manuscript One More Time. No matter what, one or two typos’ll always sneak by. The point isn’t to product a perfect, error-free Book; even first drafts of masterpieces have a couple errors in their First Editions. The point, then, is to do the best you can do, to properly use all available resources so you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you owned every step of the Process. So go ahead—read that book one more time, fix whatever you can before you’re ready to move to the next Part of the Process.

Summary: Yes, this is our actual Process. I didn’t make it up just to write this essay; we really use it. Each step of the Process will have its own nuances: e.g., some Editors/Proofreaders will email you e-comments, while others prefer old-fashion pen and paper. Etc. Etc. But the Process itself is a solid one, a proven one that has led to professional-quality Books for us time and again, books that are indistinguishable in quality from the Big Boys (commonly better than theirs, actually).

To put it bluntly, your Book, no matter how wonderful you think it is, needs to be thoroughly edited. More than anything else—more than even a Big Six logo on the dust jacket—editing will separate your work from the amateurs. Editing illuminates your Book’s flaws so you can correct them before readers get a chance to sneer at them.

Whether you use our Process or some occult process you’ve devised on your own, make sure you don’t skimp on this step. I am not fucking with you: don’t skimp. I want you to be successful; friends don’t let friends edit their own work.

About This Series

Over the course of six essays and six podcasts, Colin Wright and I want to show you, based on our own experience as successful Independent Authors, how to publish an Indie Book (hence the title). This series includes six parts (listed below).

Each essay also contains a short podcast in which we expound on the contents of the essay, using our own personal experience and opinions as a beacon to guide the conversation.

We welcome your feedback and questions in the comments below, which we’ll use to append our teachings herein.

Podcast: How to Edit Your Book

Now, before you move on, you ought to listen to Colin and me wax poetic about editing:

Move on to other segments in the series:

Subscribe to our free Newsletter so you don’t miss any parts of this series.

(Photo by Megan Jae Riggs)