Free Ways to Edit and Proofread Your Manuscript (Guest Post by Grace A. Johnson)
Updated: Apr 1
Whenever someone mentions editing and editors, y’all know what I see?
Dollar signs. Big, fat ones.
Because editing is expensive. Editors are expensive. Trust me, they can drain you slap dry—especially if you’re looking for line edits for a 200k novel.
But editing is also necessary. Without another pair of eyes looking over your book—whether it’s two pages long or 800 pages—you run the risk of having a poorly-written manuscript that you end up having to revise fifty times. (Been there, done that.) If you’re not self-publishing, chances are your unedited first draft might never get picked by an agent or published by a company. And even if you do self-publish, there will be myriads of negative reviews remarking on how many typos they found or how many sentences they had to reread because they made no sense.
So, for all us dirt-poor authors out there, how do you edit for free? How do you edit without ending up in the hole $1000?
I’m glad you asked! There are actually ways to edit and proofread your manuscript without spending a dime! Granted, these methods can’t take the place of a money-sucking professional editor. Most editors have been trained how to edit and have years of experience; naturally, they know what they’re doing (*cough* at least, they’re supposed to *cough*). But oftentimes, especially if you wredit like me (edit as you write and write as you edit), you can end up with a pretty polished manuscript for free!
Also, these methods all work best together. Doing just one or the other isn’t as effective as combining all of them for maximum editation! (Aaaand that’s not a word. *facepalm* How about editorial power? That better?)
Now, without further ado…
This is where things can get a little iffy. Self-editing isn’t meant to be taken lightly, nor is it a one-time thing. It’s a process all its own (which I’m planning on writing a full article series about, actually) that takes time and effort. That said, if you’re willing to put in the work, you can simply edit your story all by yourself!
My best advice for self-editing (which is what I do) is to start by editing as you write. If you’re like me and you write when you’re half asleep at midnight, it never hurts to go back over the last scene you wrote when you’re thinking clearly! If you change the plot or a detail about the character midway through the book, go ahead and fix it rather than moving forward and forgetting. If you write fast, make sure you edit after you finish. If you write slow (*raises hand*), take the time to ensure your punctuation is correct and that your sentences are clear.
Once that’s done, go through several rounds of editing.
(1) Developmental edits, which is when you’ll rearrange chapters, remove or revise scenes, add scenes, omit characters, add new subplots, etc. As you write, keep track of your chapters, scenes, characters, themes, and subplots so that way you’ll know what to add or remove!
(2) Line edits, which is where you rephrase sentences, omit paragraphs, clarify points, add dialogue tags and action beats, etc. I recommend waiting a month or two before jumping into this round—it helps to have grown in your writing so that you’ll be able to improve your older prose!
(3) Proofreads (or copy edits), which is where you skim through to pick out and correct any typos, punctuation errors, or grammar mistakes. I recommend doing this several times, and make sure that (if you’re self-publishing) you get a physical proof copy to read over and correct! Your eyes will catch a lot more when you look at the story in book form—and the same principle applies to changing your font, moving from one writing software to another (i.e., Word to Google Docs), and increasing the spaces between paragraphs. A slight change in your perception can make a world of difference!
These three specific rounds of editing (which I like to divide up into smaller steps) cover everything you’ll need to go over and make self-editing so much easier and more effective than just reading through it all one time!
Ask a Friend or Relative
My first book, Held Captive, was edited by my cousin (who was studying journalism at the time), and the sequel, Prisoner at Heart was edited by my grandfather! (He *coughs* did a much better job, as y’all can probably tell.)
Of course, they didn’t charge me a dime, and even though they didn’t catch everything (not even professional editors are perfect), they did give me a coveted extra pair of eyes! If you ask a friend or family member who’s a writer, reader, or is studying writing or actually teaches it (or is a grammar troll in their spare time), chances are you’ll end up with some quality editing assistance! I’m actually swapping novels with my fellow writer E.K. Seaver, so she’ll be line-editing Bound and Determined while I line-edit her second novel!
Don’t expect them to do everything, though. You’re still expected to edit your manuscript and to even get one or two other people to read over it. Sometimes, personal opinions or preferences (grammatical or otherwise) get in the way, so it’s always good to have a third pair of eyes to give you feedback!
Use an Editing Software
Software like Grammarly, Hemingway Editor, and After the Deadline are free to use and help tremendously with proofreading your writing! (Personally, I think Grammarly has a mind of its own and really only works best for blog posts, emails, articles, or shorter fiction pieces...but I know a lot of writers who like it. So take my opinions with a grain of salt, will ya? *winks*)
You can’t expect a software to perform developmental edits (what does Grammarly know about worldbuilding and romance?) or to fact-check your historical details...but it can do a decent proofread and help you rephrase your sentences and cut out passive voice! If you’re not interested in downloading software, Google Docs actually catches some grammar typos too, and it streamlines the editing process by providing you with a table of contents and the ability to comment/suggest directly on the document!
On the non-free side, there are more novelist-geared editing softwares/apps like AutoCrit, WordRake, and SmartEdit.
Call an Expert
Not every edit has to do with grammar and punctuation...a lot of it has to do with terminology, portrayals, and factual accuracy. So instead of relying on Google or your own knowledge (no offense to you or Google...y’all both have a lot of great resources, I’m sure), try getting in touch with an expert! Maybe a friend who speaks Spanish to help with your Spanish dialogue, your grandfather who served in the military, your Sunday School teacher who’s a nurse...or put out a call on social media for sensitivity readers to help you portray PTSD, loss of loved ones, or certain cultures! If you’re writing about a specific time or place, find a historian or someone from that place to help make sure you’re portraying your setting as authentically as possible and that all your facts are straight!
There’s a reason beta readers is in all-caps. Beta readers, which are simply readers who love your books and agree to read your upcoming project before it releases in exchange for their feedback, are one of the most invaluable tools writers have. Especially when those beta readers...are fellow writers! All of my betas for Bound and Determined are also writers, which means they can help me pick out big-picture problems like a regular reader would (i.e., is this interesting, does that make sense, do you like this character, is this scene necessary, etc.) AND more editorial problems like punctuation, sentence structure, pacing, and more!
All you need is three or four readers (or fifteen...but you might wanna divide that many into groups) and a semi-edited manuscript to share with them! Trust me, the feedback you get from beta readers is some of the best feedback you can get!
In the same vein, a critique group (which is always fellow writers) can help you whip your story into shape from the first time you put pen to paper! Since a critique group works alongside you throughout all of your writing journey (or at least the season during which you’re a part of said group), they’ll be there to brainstorm ideas, plot storylines, develop characters, etc., making your story even stronger before you call for betas at The End!
So, how can you edit/proofread for free? (Or at least stupid cheap...you may have to mail a finished copy of your book to your beta readers or treat your English teacher to ice cream one day. *winks*)
You self-edit, ask a friend, use editing software, call an expert, and invest in beta readers and a critique group! With this super team of editing methods, you’re sure to succeed!
What are some ways you edit for free? Is editing a struggle or strong suit? How have beta readers and critique groups benefited you and your work?
About the Author:
Grace A. Johnson is a teenage Christian fiction authoress, book reviewer, and avid reader. She lives in beautiful (but humid) South Georgia, surrounded by farmland and forestry, with her parents and six younger siblings. She has written four novels, three of which are published, and a smattering of short stories and novellas, which you can find on Amazon. She’s also a homeschooler who loves learning about history, linguistics, art, and the world around her. You can find her on Goodreads, Pinterest, BookBub, or blogging on her website at www.graceajohnson.com . Join her for a virtual cup of tea and a free sneak peek when you sign up for her e-newsletter.