Should you use volunteers to proofread your book?

New authors often wonder why they can’t skip paying for a professional editor and crowdsource their editing instead among volunteer readers. Or what about using that neighbor who’s a retired English teacher? She says she’d only charge $200 to edit your entire book. Couldn’t you save big money with crowdsourced editing? You could—but you wouldn’t be getting the kind of professional results that turn out a professional product.

Volunteer proofreadingProfessional editors spend every day not only crossing t’s and dotting i’s but immersing themselves in style and usage trends, conventions and trends within genres, e-publishing processes and standards, book marketing and sales trends, changing fiction conventions, typographical issues and more.

Sure, your neighbor the retired English teacher will probably catch your typos—but what about usage and style that’s changed since they went to college, like the gender-neutral, singular “they” earlier in this sentence? And what about formatting standards for e-publishing? The problem is that someone who’s not a professional editor won’t even be aware of the things about editing they don’t know.

When I edit a book, I create book maps of the book’s plot and storytelling elements. I outline the characters’ motivations and conflicts. I create a stylesheet to document the style choices and peculiarities of the manuscript. I format the manuscript to industry standards. I run dedicated software (not just MS Word spellcheck—although I run that, too) designed to detect inconsistencies and sift through details of formatting, usage, and style. Even a basic copy edit involves so much more than marking misplaced commas. Read this intriguing play-by-play of an edit from editor Karen Ball.

Edit to reach your publishing goals

It’s the things you don’t know about editing—all types of editing, not just the kind that catches typos—that can hurt your book. In the old days, traditionally published books received rigorous shaping and developmental editing by agents and publishers, then traveled through a system of copyediting and proofreading before ever reaching print. When you self-publish your book, you take on the responsibility of managing all these processes yourself. Discerning readers will notice if you choose to skip steps along the way.

Understanding what kind of editing you need starts with understanding your publishing goals. Are you a hobbyist or an aspiring pro? If you’re self-publishing because you’ve always wanted to see that pet idea in print, your editing needs will be different than if you’re hoping to attract the attention of an agent or publisher.

Why you should avoid iterative releases

Some self-publishers today have adopted the startup paradigm of iterative releases. Their strategy is to publish first, then revise as reader complaints and reviews mount—at no cost to the business bottom line. But there is a cost: readership. Readers won’t be willing to spend their money on your book once they see it’s a substandard effort that’s not professionally produced.

To get your book get read and make money, you must produce and sell a quality product that can compete with traditionally published books. Self-publishing isn’t about being able to publish whatever you want for little to no money; it’s about assuming control and responsibility for the development and marketing processes that have traditionally been shouldered by publishers. Those processes—and their associated costs—don’t go away just because you’re a self-publisher. Readers still expect an attractive cover atop an entertaining story with solid writing in a professional presentation.

When crowdsourced editing can help

That’s not to say there are no ways you can draw on crowdsourced editing and money-saving strategies to reduce publishing costs. Proofreading could be a good time to pull in the friends and family who’ve promised to help. Allow plenty of time for the process, and try to recruit at least several volunteers.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to carefully vet their recommendations; their knowledge of current grammar, style, and usage or storytelling conventions will not always be on target. Both you and your proofreaders should understand what you’re looking for: not more editing, but help looking for typos and errors that slipped through.

Get the best of both worlds by setting your volunteer posse on the hunt, then asking your editor to review their findings. You may be able to have this done as part of your editing follow-up or for a very low rate.

Your best bet for saving money on editing is to work smart. Effective ways to save money on editing help you afford the services that benefit your book the most.

Updated from original published May 2016

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If you’re looking for an editor to accelerate your journey from new writer to emerging author, that editor could be me. Let’s work together: short-term coaching for story development, long-term coaching for honing your writing, or story or line editing (my editing specialties). Let’s talk.