4 low-cost ways to get writing tuition if you can’t afford an editor


I’ve just finished writing my first novel. I want to get published but I can’t pay for an editor. What can I do? Edith

Every week I get emails from writers who want help but can’t afford the cost of an editor. And I can see why. Good editors cost a big chunk of money and the job can’t be done cheaply. I don’t think seriously committed writers assume anything otherwise.

But sometimes, the writing world can seem like those schools where rich parents hothouse their kids by hiring personal tutors. If you don’t have the spare dollars, will you be left behind?

Not necessarily. Many of the writers I know never hired editors, yet we earned our spurs somehow. And you can still learn the way we did. It still works.

I probably sound like I’m doing myself out of a job here. Certainly a good editor will zoom in on your individual weaknesses (and strengths), and will improve all the novels you write, not just the one they assess. Also I’ll state that I’ve learned heaps from the agents and editors I’ve worked with. But the bulk of my learning came from elsewhere.

It wasn’t all free, but it was considerably cheaper than hiring an editor.

1 Find a good evening class

For two years I went to a novel-writing course at an adult education college. This was fantastic – an intensive two hours each week in which we’d critique a couple of works in progress, guided by a tutor who was also a literary agent. In case you’re in London, it was Morley College in Waterloo. Almost any well-populated area should have adult education facilities, and you can probably access them online too.

Intensive weekend courses are also useful (in the UK Arvon is well regarded), though the cost is getting on for the price of an editor, but there’s definitely something to be said for a regular dose of writing tuition every week to realign your awareness. Writing minds are trained gradually, so hothousing doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage.

Cost: Evening classes at Morley College about £130 per term

2 Find a critique group

Your evening class might fulfil this function, as mine did. But if it doesn’t, find a critique group or a clan of beta readers you can trust with your WIP. They may not be as expert as tutor-level critics, but can still be very valuable as they will react to your work as real readers.

Make sure you pick people who read your type of book (I hesitate to use the word ‘genre’ after last week’s discussion 🙂 ) and who come together with the intent to help each other improve. You don’t want a mutual stroking society, you want people who’ll stop you making mistakes.

How expert do they have to be? Almost anybody can tell you the places where the book bored them, interested them, confused them, stretched their credibility or kept them up well past their bedtime. If they give you solutions as well, ignore them (diplomatically) unless they have reason to know what they’re doing. You find your solutions from your other experts.

A word of caution: although the participants don’t have to be expert, you need to make sure the group is moderated by someone witcakeh nous who can recognise when personality clashes or personal issues are interfering with the group’s criticism.

If you can’t find a group in the corporeal world, there’s nothing to stop you assembling a brief email list of trusted early readers.

Cost: Wine, cake and other standard bribes

3 Read craft books

For years I mainlined writing craft books. I gobbled up so many I can’t remember all the titles, and I gave loads away to friends, but the ones I still have are by Robert McKee, Jordan Rosenfeld, Stephen King, Dianne Doubtfire , James Wood, David Lodge, Bob Shaw, Syd Field and Blake Snyder.

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compAnd of course, I’m now adding to the writers’ reading burden with tomes of my own, distilled into practical tutorials based on the advice I regularly give when I critique. Hence the characters book.

Cost: the price of a book (or several)

4 Read like a writer

This is what I have always done. Each time I read something that impresses me, I stop and examine how it was done. This means I dither through books, often trapped by a sentence, a description or a wrenching twist. This extreme predisposition to wonder is what made me write in the first place and it’s what inspires and teaches me still.

Cost: what price can you put on pleasure?

The long and the short

It can’t be denied that an editor is a fast track to proficiency. But some of the necessary lessons can’t be learned in a hurry. We need time for unfamiliar concepts to become habit, to make the knowledge our own and to put it to full imaginative use. That isn’t bought with money. It’s earned with time and dedication.

Thanks for the money-burning pic Jurvetson Just for the record, the lady in the pic is not a financially challenged – or blessed – writer, but an entrepreneur making a point about energy wastage. But we’re both talking about money that may not need to be spent 🙂

Where are you in your writing journey? How did you learn and how are you learning still? Is there anything you’d tell Edith?


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  1. #1 by Leslie Miller on July 14, 2013 - 2:57 pm

    Roz, I really love this post! As an independent editor, my passion is newbies and my heart goes out to all the aspiring authors who cannot afford my services.

    There is one other option I’d like to add to your list, which is to have a professional critique or edit of a book’s first three or four chapters. This is substantially cheaper, and the writing issues an editor will find there likely extend throughout the book. It’s so helpful to see the mistakes and the fixes for them in your own writing, as opposed to just reading craft books. Many of a new author’s problems show up immediately in the first couple of chapters, such as not starting the book in the right place, too much setup/background, telling not showing, passive voice, etc. I offer this service.

    I believe a motivated author could learn a huge amount and do wonders with improving their craft just based on a partial edit, if they take what they learn from it and look for those same type of errors throughout the manuscript.

    Another inexpensive idea I’ve heard of which sounds good (but I’ve never done it), is for an author to have what’s called a “plot edit.” This requires the author to outline their book, summarizing each chapter and supplying a word count. Then an editor can look through it and see if the plot hangs together, follows a good story arc, etc. As I said, I have never done this, but I think it could be useful for certain issues.

    I have been considering putting a post on my blog on this very subject, so thanks for paving the way!

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 14, 2013 - 6:29 pm

      Cheers, Leslie. You’re right about the mini-critique. In fact, I even offer that service myself and it slipped my mind. Must be the heat. I also offer a plot brainstorm via Skype to help writers sort out a solid outline, either before or after writing. Doh, I really had my modest head on when I wrote that post.
      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. #3 by Andy Szpuk on July 14, 2013 - 9:37 pm

    What about an online critique site such as You Write On, where users review chapters to get credits, and then cam get their own reviewed? It’s possible to join anonymously too. WARNING: it’s probably advisable to steer clear of the message boards which can become toxic at times.

    • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 15, 2013 - 8:08 am

      Andy, I was hoping someone would come along who could introduce us to the online sites in more detail. And yes, I’ve heard that some of them can have toxic elements, even more so than real-life ones because people can be uninhibited when they never have to meet your eye.
      Online critique sites might be good places to meet genuine, likeminded souls and then you can arrange your own group separately if the public one is too disruptive.
      Thanks for dropping by!

  3. #5 by Tahlia Newland on July 15, 2013 - 12:04 am

    And there’s this, http://tahlianewland.com/ms-appraisals/ Even experienced writers are finding it very helpful.

  4. #7 by ED Martin on July 15, 2013 - 3:18 am

    I joined Scribophile, an online writing site. It’s a karma-based system, where you earn points to post your works by critiquing others’. It has members of all levels, from beginners to editors and published authors. It also has forums where you can discuss all aspects of writing. It’s been really helpful for me, and I know I wouldn’t have gotten my publishing deal without the help I received from the site.

    There are tons of writing sites out there – Authonomy, Wattpad, Writing.com, Critique Circle – and all can cheaply provide feedback for your writing.

    • #8 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 15, 2013 - 8:19 am

      Thanks, ED. It’s great to have an example of a crit group that worked so well. As I said to Andy above, I’ve heard some worrying things about online groups, so an endorsement like yours is very useful.
      And in a good critique circle you learn from other people’s work as well as what’s said about your own. It really builds an awareness of how fiction works and the mistakes writers make when they’re aiming for particular effects.

  5. #9 by cydmadsen on July 15, 2013 - 3:55 am

    Thank you for this post, Roz. It’s a subject that’s in desperate need of discussion. The cost of a good editor is keeping many gifted writers out of the market and opening doors for some who buy their way in. What I tell those thinking of spending $1,200 USD on their first round of edits is to go back to school for a semester, full time, and read another 200 books. There are no shortcuts, nor are there shortcuts that can be bought. The script consultant I work with has many mantras. The most important one is: Do the work. She has us reading like crazy.

    That said, there’s nothing more undervalued than a good editor. I’d tell Edith to save a nickel, save a dime, save it all up over time and make that investment. But only after she’s done as much work on her own or with groups as she possibly can. There are also ways writers can make money by writing for what are commonly called content mills. It is possible to find good content sites that help you earn as you learn, and they’re not always the villain. Seth Godin’s Squidoo is a content mill at its base, but people do earn money posting articles on that site, as well as meeting up with other writers eager to help each other. I’m still making pennies here and there off articles I wrote for a content mill over a decade ago. I like it.

    And read. Read until you think you can’t see straight. Read across a wide range of subjects to internalize different styles and voices and pacings and structures, read until the rhythms of story are part of your DNA. I’ve tried catching up on the books I want to read with audio books, but I’ve got to see those words and how the writer has placed them, made them dance, fiddled their grammar and punctuation to make them unique.

    Hang tough, Edith. For every page you write as an exercise or a WIP, pay yourself a dime. You’re worth it.

    • #10 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 15, 2013 - 8:28 am

      Hi Cyd! Always great to see you here.
      Do content mills still exists? I have to say I’m not entirely clear what they are, but it’s interesting to meet someone who’s done well from them. Anyway, that’s an aside.
      Yep, yep and yep, you provide wise counsel as always. Writing isn’t something you can learn quickly. It’s a bit like becoming a Jedi master. You do the work mostly on your own and find the people you need to learn from along the way.
      And actually when I do assess a client’s manuscript, they’re usually busy with revisions for months afterwards. I can be a shock for them; some are expecting an MOT, a tweak or two and then a pass certificate.
      Dave and I are always reading. Reading, then dissecting the books to discover why they worked. We do that with films too. Story is our main leisure activity 🙂

  6. #11 by Edith Mertz on July 15, 2013 - 10:11 am

    (Just lost my very long reply to the ether because of bad internet connectivity. Stupid #@% techo-demons! Anyway…)

    Thank you all for the great response! I have lots of great leads to follow up on now.

    One note: I joined critters.org and I HIGHLY recommend it! It has done me nothing but good and the more I take part critiquing and getting critiqued the better my own writing becomes. The head honcho (Captain Aburt as he is affectionately called) is very fastidious and he quickly weeds out anybody that misbehaves. There are multiple workshops for writers to join and I have gotten perspectives on my work from inexperienced writers all the way through to a successful professional author.

    I think in the end the future success of my work will hinge on my own initiative, determination and marketing skills. I also might still save up for a professional critique in the end.

    Thanks again all!

    • #12 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 17, 2013 - 7:15 am

      Hi Edith – glad it was helpful. It was a rewarding subject to tackle because I think we’ve become so caught up in the culture of hiring editors that we’re in danger of forgetting the other, long-term ways we learn to write. Professional critiques have their place – a very important one – but we can spend our hard-earned $$ wisely.

      Your Critters group sounds excellent. Thanks for mentioning it by name so that others can seek them out too. Best of luck!

  7. #13 by J. Conrad Guest on July 15, 2013 - 1:51 pm

    All good advice.

    I’d like to add that a good editor is as difficult to find as a good hairstylist. I once paid an editor to edit my fourth novel (second one published) and she did a poor job. Fortunately, I didn’t pay her an arm and a leg. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

    My publisher now provides editing, at no cost to me (stay clear of any publisher who charges for editing; it’s a conflict of interest).

    As an editor myself, I’ve gotten better at editing my own work, at least where typos are concerned. As for the rest of it, i.e., content, dialogue, story, etc., a writers group can be invaluable, but a good group can be as difficult to find as a good editor. It’s best if you can find a group with one or more writers who’ve been published. Then you can take what’s helpful and leave the rest (comments from those who have never completed a novel and often provide few good comments) on the table.

    • #14 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 17, 2013 - 7:20 am

      Hi J! A publisher charging for editing? I’m glad you brought that up. I can’t imagine a bona fide publisher could get away with that. Be extremely suspicious if a publisher starts asking for money. They are meant to fund the production and finishing. You as the writer have funded the writing.
      And you’re right: some editors are more proficient than others. I used to get rather annoyed at the standard of editing in some of my ghosted books. I hadn’t left many mistakes in them, but because they were written at hurricane speed they needed tidying up. But I always found far more slips than the editors did. And these books, I might add, were published by the Big 6 .. ouch…

      Good point about the writers’ group. A breadth of experience is best – some newbies, some old hands. Also, a spirit of generosity. You don’t want the old hands basking on their laurels.

  8. #15 by My Inner Chick on July 15, 2013 - 2:22 pm

    Great Tips. Thank you.

    … But I still need an editor baaaaaaaaaadly! X

  9. #17 by ejrunyon on July 16, 2013 - 7:49 am

    I agree with all your listed points. Especially the one about reading as a writer. I can’t agree more.
    And though I’m often told I need to charge more for my services, I work for a client’s dream more than for my own pocket, so there are editors out here who are charging less for newer writers.

    That being said, keying in Writing, Editing, How to write, Writing fiction, or any other like tags into WordPress’ Reader page will get you a long, long list of blogs to read. Many of them, if you comment and network, can lead you to other new writers. If you are someone with absolutely no way to pay for coaching or editing, try this http://www.bridgetostory.com, 52 free lessons. One for each week of the year.

  10. #19 by Jonathan Moore on July 16, 2013 - 12:39 pm

    Hi Roz, never thought of the online options – will give the ones recommended a look. Seems to me there’s a balance to be struck when spending money on an editor – spend ages getting it as good as possible only to start again, or get it in early when you could improve it with a bit more hard work of your own. Tricky.

    Can I add to your list of good writing books: The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield. A recent find that really explains things like action beats, conflict and tension really well, and uses lots of examples of credibe writers putting these things into practice. Can’t recommend it highly enough.


    • #20 by Moore, Jonathan on July 16, 2013 - 12:56 pm

      And by “credibe” I mean credible. Soz.

      • #21 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 17, 2013 - 7:40 am

        Hi Jonathan! Yes, that’s the conundrum with hiring an editor. They probably will give you so much that you have to completely unravel the book – which is why I had to write Nail Your Novel to reassure writers that such things were possible to those of us who don’t have a super-brain 🙂 So it might seem that you’re wasting a lot of work.
        On the other hand, if you have your hand held all along the way, and only write with training wheels, will you ever develop independence as an artist? There is no easy answer.
        Ah, The Scene Book! Yes, I know it. I can picture its cover – my edition was rather attractively packaged like a notebook from the 1950s. What on earth happened to my copy? More to the point, what on earth happened to my memory of its insides? (See earlier point about super-brain, or lack of…)

  11. #22 by ceejaedevine on July 16, 2013 - 4:43 pm

    Have been wondering a lot about whether or not I need editing help. I often edit other documents for the freelance work I do, I read voraciously and have been writing for about 15 years (no pub credits yet since I haven’t felt my work has been good enough). Two things I’ve done: I got a writer friend to read the complete MS and she didn’t find any big issues (she just shared some feelings that I found helpful and will consider as I do one more walk through) and I took a course on the 1st 10 pages that I found helpful. I think I’ll try to submit without an extra edit, at least at first to see what kind of responses I get. Your thoughts on the subject are greatly appreciated and have helped me make a decision on it.

    • #23 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 17, 2013 - 7:42 am

      Hi CeeJae – thanks for stopping by! If you’ve been honing your craft for that long, it’s certainly time to see what happens if you submit. Go for it – and good luck.

  12. #24 by annerallen on July 17, 2013 - 4:14 pm

    Lots of great advice here, Roz. So many newbie writers hire editors when they’re not close to ready to publish. They need to learn to write first. Take those classes. Join critique groups. Go to writers conferences. (Critiquecircle.com is great for online crtique) Write two or three books. Then when you hire an editor to give a final proofing and polishing, you’ll be spending your money wisely. And it will cost a whole lot less. (I also strongly agree with Leslie Miller’s suggestion above–get a mini-critique first. It might be all you need.)

    • #25 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 18, 2013 - 8:14 am

      Thanks, Anne! There is so much you can absorb without spending a huge whack of money. And then when you do hire an editor, their suggestions will make a lot more sense to you.

  13. #26 by Travis Ford on July 23, 2013 - 6:12 am

    As a writer I am considered a newbie(aspiring author). I cannot afford an editor. I cannot afford attending the local writing groups. I can’t afford the online writing sites as Fanstory. I’m unemployed. Heck, I don’t own a computer. In high school my poorest subjects included English and here(today) I write. I learned from taking time, having patience and put for effort to write better grammer. There are stories where when I began that were poor in grammer. As I continued my pursuit as a writer, I gradually get better.
    I read books on learning how to write. Reading instructional literature does help.
    When I think of editing & hiring an editor I say to myself “What am I think? I wrote x amount of shorter works and now recieving 4 Stars & 5 Star reviews without hiring an editor.” I can always benifit from an editor don’t get it twisted. But I had patience and dedication an a passion to take my time and want to perfect my creations of art.
    And wither I do have works with 5 star ratings or 4 star ratings, it doesn’t make the books sell any quicker.
    I also have books where readers review & rate 1 star. They still buy the book because they’re interested.
    The books(my experience) with the 1 Star reviews sell more & make more money. $$$
    Thanks for the post.

  14. #27 by Cherese Vines on August 1, 2013 - 11:07 pm

    Reblogged this on Cherese Vines Charming Words and commented:
    Great thoughts for sharing

  15. #28 by Alexander M Zoltai on February 21, 2017 - 10:55 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Very Important Bonus Re-blog…

    If you’re not a writer, find one to share this with 🙂

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