Every Word is a Nickel

October 8, 2020 § 22 Comments

Black and white vintage photo of man wearing a bankruptcy barrelPerhaps your manuscript is as good as you can make it…but you’d like a second opinion. Or maybe you know something isn’t quite clicking…but you’re not sure what. Maybe you’ve heard a fellow writer say, “My editor pointed out issue X and everything fell into place! I still have a lot of work to do, but I know where I’m going.” Maybe you’re getting rejections and you don’t know why your book isn’t landing with agents or publishers.

Most authors reach a draft where they can’t improve their manuscript further without high-level outside input. More thorough or more sophisticated critique than even your best writer friends have time to give. It’s time to call in a big favor…or spend money.

If your literary citizenship has included reading for friends and acquaintances, promoting and reviewing their books, and staying in touch with workshop colleagues and teachers, you may have a free or low-cost reader available. A writer you trust, whose work you believe is more polished than yours. Maybe the classmate who gave the best feedback to everyone else. Someone who doesn’t love everything you write—praise is not useful at this time.

Ask in a way that makes it easy to say no, and that suggests you’re prepared to compensate them appropriately for their expertise.

I don’t know what your schedule is like right now, but do you do manuscript reads? And if so, do you have a regular rate?

They might say, “I’d love to read your work, just send it along,” in which case you send a heartfelt thank-you note and review everything they ever write in as many online locations as you can. Or they’ll quote a price and you can decide if they’re within your budget.

A free or low-cost reader needs your request for feedback to be as specific as possible. You might ask 5-10 questions like, “Does the main character’s emotional journey pay off at the end?” or “Can you please highlight things you think I can cut?”

High-level critique also comes from professional editors. A good editor will help you make your book the best you can write, and much readier for querying, submissions or self-publishing. Unlike your friend doing you a favor, you’ll have a specific due date and a clear scope of work.

If you’ve explored hiring a professional editor, you may have noticed one key element: Good editors are EXPENSIVE. House payment-expensive. International airline ticket-expensive. Sometimes even refundable business class-expensive. Editing is skilled, high-level work that should dramatically increase the sellability of your book, and it costs accordingly.

Editors may bill a set project fee, hourly (with an estimate), or per-word. Some charge per page, but a “standard” page is 250 words so that’s functionally per-word. These prices are usually based on how much time your manuscript needs. Send the cleanest manuscript you can. Pages with fewer typos and grammatical errors take less time; you’ll also get more bang for your buck if the editor spends her time on issues you couldn’t see or fix yourself.

You can also save money on editing by reducing your word count. The more unnecessary words you remove on your own, the less a full edit will cost. Here’s how to slim down your story without losing what’s important:

1) Many memoirs (and novels!) start too late. Send pages 50-75 to someone who hasn’t read the book. Ask what they know about the story and the narrator. Cut those details out of the first 50 pages. Ask what they wish they knew. See if you can move those things out of the first 50 pages and put them in later, but smaller. I’ve had several editorial clients who cut their first 50 pages because the story hadn’t started yet. Especially if it was a big chunk of family history.

2) Send only the first 25 pages (now possibly your revised pages 50-75) for professional editing. Problems at the beginning are almost certainly problems through the whole book. Ask for a list of what to fix, then address those issues in the rest of the book before sending off your entire manuscript. If your memoir is over 85K words, ask specifically about reducing length. (If your manuscript is under 60K, ask what you’re missing that needs to be added in.)

3) Do a Word Cloud (I like Wordle) to see overused words. Remove/substitute as needed.

4) Search for that, very, really, beginning to/began to, starting to/started to, and continued and take out half to two-thirds of each.

Words add up. Developmental edit on an 85K manuscript at 4 cents/word? $3400. Cut 4000 words of extra subplot, 4800 words of excess description and 200 appearances of very and really? You just saved $400.

Before committing to working with a professional or other high-level reader, do as much as you can alone. Join a writing group, trade manuscripts with a writer buddy. Before you send your pages or manuscript, read through one more time. Knowing that feedback is imminent, more issues will stick out. It’s possible you’ll solve your own problem. It’s also possible you’ll still need an edit.

Editing is not a magic cure. Your book still may be unpublishable. Your writing may not be ready. But a good editor will not just polish this book—her feedback will teach you more about writing, and your next book will start at a higher level of craft.

And if what you’re struggling with is structure? Check out my webinar October 21st: Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s only $25—no matter what your word count is.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. October 21st, she’ll be teaching how to structure a memoir to engage readers, agents and publishers. What’s an “inciting incident” or a “climax” when you’re looking at real life? How to decide what events belong in your book? Suitable for those with an idea, a draft, or a terrifying pile of material, you’ll discover how to tell the right story about the story you need to tell. Sign up here.

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§ 22 Responses to Every Word is a Nickel

  • Smart advice. I would second asking specific questions. Knowing where there might be trouble (“Does the main character’s emotional journey pay off at the end?” or “Can you please highlight things you think I can cut?”) means you are already halfway there.

    The next step is accepting and acting on that advice. If the editor points out overuse of a word or even (shudder) poor grammar, fix that right off. If the editor warns that the story really begins on page 27, well . . .

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Such a good point, Jan! I think learning to ask specific questions about others’ work, too, is the first step to applying them to our own!

      • You always offer excellent advice! (Those friends willing to heed advice have gone on to publish. But it is wearying to read a later draft of a ms that still shows flaws pointed out weeks before.)

  • Beth Bates says:

    I love this so much. I’ve posted it on LinkedIn and RT’d it, and now I’m commenting. Thank you thank you thank you, Allison! Looking forward to your workshop.

  • joellefraser says:

    I posted this to my CNF memoir class (we’re in week 5). This offers such practical and astute advice. Thank you! I agree with you completely.

  • “Your book still may be unpublishable.” Well, you don’t sugarcoat things, do you?
    This post contains probably the best tips I have read in a while.
    Thank you!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re welcome! And yeah, there’s a reason I’m The Unkind Editor 🙂

      • “Tips are for waiters *&* waitresses not writers/authors!!”

        _-Van Prince

      • tip noun
        Definition of tip
        1 : a piece of advice or expert or authoritative information
        2 : a piece of advance or confidential information given by one thought to have access to special or inside sources

        tip verb
        tipped; tipping
        Definition of tip
        transitive verb
        1 : to impart a piece of information or advice about or to —often used with off
        2 chiefly British : to mention as a likely candidate, prospective winner, or profitable investment : TOUT sense 1

  • Hey Allison, I don’t know what your schedule is like right now, but do you do manuscript reads? And if so, do you have a regular rate?

  • stacyeholden says:

    Allison, you are a gem. I have so appreciated all the editing you have done on my work. I am a better writer due to your editing eye.

  • Encouragement and thoughtful reads – priceless.

  • I’m a writer, former creative writing professor, and developmental editor, and this post was helpful to all three of me! Signed up for your 10/21 seminar and am spreading the word to clients and students. Thank you.

  • Linda Gibson says:

    Loved the post and the glimpse into what’s to come with your book which I await eagerly. So pleased you are guest on webinar with Jane Friedman. The two of you keep me inspired and informed!

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