Should you use volunteers to proofread your book?

What if you skipped paying for a professional editor and crowdsourced your editing instead? Or what about your neighbor who’s a retired English teacher? She says she’d only charge $200 to edit the entire book, and you know how sharp she is based on painful experience.

Couldn’t you save big money with crowdsourced editing? You could—but you wouldn’t be getting the kind of professional editing that turns out a professional-quality book.

Professional editors spend their days doing more than crossing t’s and dotting i’s. They’re immersed in publishing style and usage, conventions and trends within genres, e-publishing processes and standards, book marketing and sales trends, the shifting conventions of fiction, typographical issues, and more.

Sure, your former English teacher will probably catch your typos. But what will they make of usage and style that’s changed since they went to college themselves—for example, the gender-neutral, singular “they” in this sentence? What about formatting standards for e-publishing? What if she’s still proudly referring to her copy of 248 Alternatives to the Word “Said”? (Please don’t.)

The problem is that someone who’s not a professional editor isn’t even aware of the things about editing they don’t know.

When I edit, I create a book map of the book’s plot and storytelling elements. I outline and clarify the character arcs. I generate a stylesheet documenting the style and peculiarities of the manuscript. I format the manuscript to industry standards. I run dedicated software (not only Microsoft Word spellcheck, although I run that, too) designed to detect inconsistencies and sift 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 these processes yourself. Readers who are used to professionally-quality products will notice if you skip steps along the way.

Getting the right kind of editing 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 volunteer proofreaders 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 be clear what sort of help you’re asking for: not more editing, but finding typos and errors that slipped through. Set your volunteer posse on the hunt, then ask your editor to review the 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 October 2021

Lisa Poisso

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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 or story or line editing, my editing specialties. Let’s talk about your book.