Is Crowdsourced Editing Right for Your Book?

by | Oct 15, 2014

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Crowdsourced editing is a new term, but the concept has been around for a while. Writers have always shared their works-in-progress with other writers in exchange for criticism, in much the same way many writers now use beta readers for feedback. And there’s the practice—which we have only heard about and which is frowned upon by editors, obviously—in which a writer sends a different segment of a manuscript to a variety of editors with a request for a sample edit. With luck, the writer gets a full manuscript edited by the crowd.

Recently though, the term crowdsourced has become more clearly defined. Where in the past (and in the examples above), crowdsourced editing relied on the skills and expertise of writers and editors, now it is readers themselves who have become the crowd writers are turning to for advice.

What is Crowdsourced Editing?

Crowdsourced editing for a book looks something like crowdfunding for a book: each uses social media to invite interested readers to register their support for a book or to offer their opinions about its strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, the lines blur a little in some cases. For the UK crowdfunding site Unbound, for example, potential supporters read an author’s pitch and decide whether or not to back it, and in a sense they act as acquisitions editors in doing so.

More often, however, crowdsourced editing involves making editorial recommendations. Advance Editions—one publishing startup seeking to harness the talents of the crowd—outlines tips for its “reader-editors” this way:

[K]eep a note of anything you think could be improved. Have you spotted an error? Does something seem implausible? Do you know something about the subject that could help the author? Have you had a bright idea for something else the author could include?

With the broad use of beta readers, especially in the self-publishing community, it’s not surprising that the reader-editor might be similarly popular. Crowdsourced editing appeals to the indie do-it-yourself ethic. It’s collaborative and democratic, and it appears to thumb its nose at the status quo by giving readers a chance to be that last set of eyes on a manuscript.

Questions About Crowdsourced Editing

Who are the editors in the crowd? How is editing defined? What do the editors know about editing? Authors need to ask these important questions when seeking feedback on a book.

Beta Readers, Crowdsourced Editors and Professional Editors.
Who can edit a book? An ever increasing number of people can and do edit books. In this article, we’ll look at three kinds of editors:

  • crowdsourced editors
  • beta readers
  • professional editors

What are the differences between crowdsourced editors, beta readers and professional editors? Are there differences? We think there are, and we’ve laid it out for you in the table below.

Definitions
Let’s begin by defining the terms. “Professional editors” invoice authors and get paid for their work. Editing is an unregulated profession, so it’s up to an author to determine if an editor has the knowledge and skills to help improve their book. Does that sound risky? You will take similar risks with crowdsourced editors and beta readers.

Beta readers and crowdsourced editors are volunteers. They are self-selected. They offer feedback on your book because they want to. They don’t get paid for their feedback, at least not in the way that professional editors do. That doesn’t mean they don’t get compensated (see below).

Comparing “Editors”
Because we cannot speak for all editors, we’ve tried to stay away from sweeping pronouncements. The qualifiers used below reflect our understanding of what crowdsourced editors, beta readers and professional editors may know and do. (Click to enlarge table.)

Editor comparison tablex530

*Is there a difference between a crowdsourced editor and a beta reader? Does the difference lie in when in the process they come into the picture? Or is crowdsourced editor the new term for beta reader? Everything about publishing and self-publishing is in flux. This could be just one more instance of shifting ground.

Limitations of Crowdsourced Editing

Any method you choose to get your book edited will have limitations—things it can do, and things it can’t. What can crowdsourced editing best address? Content editing, fact checking, and big-picture editing might work best. This is where readers with knowledge of your subject or genre can quickly assess your information for clarity and accuracy or judge whether your novel is believable, credible and conforms to the conventions of the genre.

What kinds of editing may not work well when crowdsourced? Unless you can ensure that everyone is on the same page, copyediting and proofreading may not be the best or most efficient use of people’s editorial energies and time. In any manuscript there are countless details to keep track of, and a combination of knowledge, skills, tools and copyediting/proofreading experience produce the best results.

Tips for Successful Crowdsourced Editing

  1. Decide what kind of editing you can reasonably address. We think that content editing, fact checking and big-picture editing will work best for crowdsourced editing.
     
    Will you address copyediting and proofreading? We think it’s best to consult a professional editor or proofreader for these kinds of editing. However, if you disagree with us, be sure to create a style sheet. Decisions about how you punctuate or capitalize certain words, for example, aren’t always cut-and-dried. They’re often style choices instead of a hard-and-fast rules. To determine your style choices, choose a dictionary that everyone will consult and a style guide that everyone will follow. Good luck! (Don’t say we didn’t warn you).
  2. Don’t assign more than one task per person. If someone is reading for story structure and continuity, they shouldn’t also be looking for typos and formatting errors. They’ll perform all tasks badly.
  3. Decide what your standards will be. Everyone wants a book that’s professional and polished, but what exactly does that mean? Think about who will set these standards.
  4. Establish a system. Editing is more than a read-through. There are a lot of details to keep track of, and professional editors develop checklists to stay on track. Develop a checklist or list of questions to guide the editing process. Your crowdsourced editors will need to know what to look for and what to do when they find it.
  5. Decide how many editors you’ll use for the best outcome. There is a point at which too many cooks spoil the broth. Determine that number and stay beneath it. More input isn’t always better.
  6. Decide who will compile feedback and corrections and how feedback and corrections will be handled.
  7. Keep track of how much time it takes to produce a manuscript that meets your standard. Professional editors are always looking for ways to be more efficient while maintaining a high level of quality. They keep track of how much time it takes to do a job, and look for ways to spend less time on task without sacrificing quality.
  8. Think about how much work you are asking your crowd to perform. Is it reasonable to ask for this time commitment? What will you do in exchange, or how will you compensate them? Remember, too, that your chosen advisors are volunteers, and you can’t reasonably ask them to do more than they choose. (There might be instances when you want them to do less, too.)
  9. Prepare yourself mentally for the feedback you’ve asked for. Are you ready for the unvarnished truth? Decide what you’ll do with feedback you don’t agree with. Will you change your manuscript accordingly or discard the advice? You’ll then have to ask, why am I asking for opinions if I’m not prepared to implement suggestions?

What the Crowd Can Do For You

All this advice can force you to think more deeply about your writing, what you’re trying to say, and how well you’re expressing it. It might also point to harder questions: Whose book are you writing? Are you trying to please an audience or are you trying to be true to your own voice? It can be a fine line to walk.

Logic tells us that what the crowd produces might be a bit bland. In an effort to please everyone, you might end up with a book that’s pleasingly generic. So remember that this is your book, and that to stand out, it should have the stamp of your individual voice. Caution aside, the crowd can do a lot for a writer, if that writer is organized and informed, and has a system.

Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas
Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing are Contributing Writers for The Book Designer.
They are also authors, copyeditors and proofreaders who work with and instruct self-publishing authors.

You can learn more about Corina and Carla here.

 
Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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14 Comments

  1. Kristen Steele

    It’s always a risk when you team up with an editor (or a team of editors). That’s why it’s important to seek out recommendations from other authors.

    Reply
  2. Jeffrey Marcus Oshins

    The sharing or collaborative economy leverages internet connectivity to utilize and distribute excess capacity – rent a spare bedroom for the night, drive strangers to their destination in your car – access a worldwide pool of highly qualified, motivated readers willing and able to provide input at all stages of the publishing process.

    The rise of collaborative writing can be traced to open source coding and beta testing of software. Thus, the origin of the term beta reader – someone who reads and comments on a work-in-progress. Through sites like the one I started, BetaReader.us, writers of all stripes can find someone to bounce ideas, seek additional information, edit, or proofread their work.

    Walter Isaacson, the Steve Jobs biographer, recently wrote of “collaborating online and drawing upon the wisdom of crowds…to improve [his] drafts” for his new book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. He used various online resources to receive input and comments from people with direct experience in the subjects on which he was writing (e.g. Stewart Brand, of the Whole Earth Catalog). He said he got the best results on Medium – a combination magazine and blogging platform started by the founders of Twitter. The beauty of Medium is a simple, elegant layout where readers can write, and are encouraged to write comments beside each paragraph.

    The most immediate and glaring problems in the sharing economy is who gets and doesn’t get paid, regulated, or exploited. Taxi companies are at war with ride sharing companies, professional freelance editors are up in arms about beta readers. Proponents say the sharing economy provides more efficient distribution of resources. Critics say that beta readers are unqualified and exploited. Isaacson in an article in Medium envisioned, “micropayment and royalty-sharing systems so that participants can all get compensated based on how many people read or watched the material they contributed.” But for now beta readers do what they do for little or no money.

    And here is where the supply side comes into the economic argument – there are a lot of readers, English majors, and retired professors from Stanford like the one who reads for me willing to contribute to your work because they want to, not because it’s their profession upon which their livelihood rests. Professional editors surely offer services that most beta readers are not qualified to provide, but that leaves a lot of room for light editing and just plain reaction.

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Jeffrey,

      Thank you for this thoughtful and informative comment! I had always assumed that the term “beta reader” was borrowed from computing, but I hadn’t made the direct connection that you have to collaborative coding and testing.

      We’ve known of the wisdom for crowds for some time, of course, but only fairly recently have those crowds been allowed to gather so easily to create the sharing economy.

      As you say, it’s leaving some casualties in its wake. Winners and losers are often identified early in a disruption — I suppose in time a way to remunerate participants might develop — or not. It’s interesting to watch, though, isn’t it?

      Thanks again for contributing your thoughts,

      Carla

      Reply
  3. J Washburn

    I like how you paint this as a maverick’s way of doing things. : )

    Personally, I think readers deserve more credit for copy editing and proofing. For example, some of my readers have found typos in the Harry Potter books—mistakes you don’t necessarily have to be a professional to see, and that even a professional can miss.

    Also, one important angle is using live collaboration tools like Google Docs. This eliminates redundancy in proofing especially. So when the first person fixes a mistake, everyone else sees that updated version immediately. It’s a technological miracle I’m still super excited about. But it’s useful in global editing too. One reader makes a comment, and subsequent readers can agree or disagree. With enough readers, I get a pretty good sense of the general sentiment.

    I’ve written more about my method here:

    http://blog.jwashburn.com/2014/05/how-to-hire-best-book-editor-for-free.html

    Corina and Carla, you guys are awesome. Thanks for posting!

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hi J,

      Thanks for your comments, and for your very kind words! You raise a number of good points — and I agree — readers are very good at spotting errors like typos and inconsistencies. The truth is, it’s nearly impossible for editors and proofreaders to catch everything. Every book has at least a few typos. We want to identify as many as we can, though, because, as one editor pointed out recently, just one typo can turn a reader into a proofreader! :)

      The key to copyediting and proofreading is performing it in a consistent and systematic way, where errors are recorded and decisions are made for future reference. Training and practice helps with this, but that’s not to say a reader can’t become very good at it.

      I love Google Docs too — it’s good at keeping everyone on the same page, so to speak, and what you’re getting at here, I think, is that editors/proofreaders need a system if they’re going to work effectively.

      Tools like Google Docs are wonderful for collaboration, and other tools are great for performing tedious tasks quickly and efficiently. They’re game-changers.

      More and more, self-pubs are using skilled beta readers to perform traditional editorial tasks — I’m very interested to see where this will lead. We’re definitely in new territory, though!

      Thanks again for taking the time to tell us what you think,

      Carla

      Reply
    • Desiree

      J,

      Great method!

      And I totally hear you on the budget woes. I didn’t budget nearly enough for professional editing and so now I’m assembling a group of beta readers and crossing my fingers.

      Reply
      • Corina Koch MacLeod

        Desiree,
        I suspect that budget concerns are one of biggest barriers to hiring an editor. Here’s a tip:

        When looking for an copyeditor or proofreader, for example, ask if her or she uses editing tools to automate editing tasks. You want your editor’s answer to be “yes.” Why? Editors who charge by the hour can take longer if they’re doing everything without the assistance of accuracy and efficiency tools. And that can hit you right in the pocketbook.

        You can also learn to use some of these editing tools yourself, before you submit your book to an editor, and that can save money, too. We hope to write more about that in future, but for now, this blog describes a number of tools writers can use to write (and edit) more efficiently. You’ll also find posts at the Beyond Paper blog that describe editing tools in more depth.

        Best of luck!

        Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Great article, J. Thanks for sharing.

      I completely agree with you about the wonders of Google Docs’ real-time syncing capabilities. We didn’t even touch on the tools for collaborative/ crowdsourced editing (that’s a post for next time).

      In the interim, if you’d like to try crowdsourced editing in Google docs, check out J’s article and this article describing a free proofreading Add-on in Google docs.

      Just curious, J… what kinds of errors do your beta readers point out in your writing?

      Thanks for tracking with us!

      Reply
      • J Washburn

        I send my 4th draft to alphas for global/content feedback. Mid-level issues are covered when I send the 5th draft to beta readers. And the 6th draft, to gamma readers, is for proofing. When I get volunteers, I try to categorize them into one of these groups based on their strengths. There’s certainly overlap, but it’s never been a problem. And, luckily, the system seems to get better each time through. : )

        Reply
        • Corina Koch MacLeod

          J,

          It appears that you have things in the right order. You begin with big-picture editing and gradually move through the process until you have people tweaking punctuation. Getting things in the right order matters, so good on ya! You have a system!

          How long does it take one of your beta readers to read a book and offer feedback? Do you have a way of guiding them through a “read” so that the end product meets your expectations?

          Thanks for sharing your process with us!

          Reply
  4. Michael N. Marcus

    Whether you use a crowd of unpaid amateurs or one or more expensive professional experts, choose your checkers and advisors carefully.

    Sometimes an editor will assume that an author writing in a specialized field must know what’s right — and does not correct an author’s error.

    Sometimes an editor assumes the author was wrong, and then changes right into wrong. The author may not notice, or might assume the editor was right.

    In Orange County Choppers: the Tale of the Teutuls, there are several really stupid mistakes that were missed by five co-authors and the support army at Warner Books.

    “Paul Senior” said his parents charged people to park in their driveway on Cooper Street in Yonkers when they went to baseball games in Yankee stadium, which was within “walking distance.”

    The stadium is about 8.5 miles south. The 17 mile round trip is not “walking distance” for most people. I hope Paul calculates more precisely while building motorcycles.

    He mentioned his house in “Muncie,” New York. Muncie is in Indiana. The Teutuls lived in MONSEY (which is pronounced like Muncie). Someone besides me should have noticed.

    In Release Your Writing: Book Publishing, Your Way!, Helen Gallagher says that POD printer Lightning Source is owned by Amazon. It’s not. Maybe Helen’s editor assumed that Helen knows her subject better than she really does. Editors should not assume authors are experts.

    Authors should not assume that they are experts either. Back in 1976, I accused a co-author of BS-ing when he wrote about a “baobab” tree. I was sure that there was no such thing. There is.

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment and observations. I agree—fact checking is a separate activity that can happen during the editing process and it doesn’t get talked about much. And as you say, it seems like one party is assuming that the other has or will check the facts!

      So it’s a good idea to specify that you want fact checking when you’re hiring an editor. Some authors will seek out subject matter experts as well, and I’d recommend that, especially if the book has content that might need verification.

      The trouble is—and you’ve pointed this out, too—is that sometimes (often!) we don’t know what we don’t know. An author will be certain of his content, and the editor assumes this too. I’ve heard many stories from copyeditors who have chanced upon details and facts in a book that need to be carefully reviewed. Potentially embarrassing errors—like those you’ve mentioned—can be avoided! Another reason not to rush to publication.

      Thanks again for weighing in,

      Carla

      Reply

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