How to Edit a Book: 7 Steps For Becoming a Ferocious Self-Editor

How to edit a book

So you want to get published?

To give yourself the best chance, you need to learn how to edit your manuscript so a publisher will want to turn it into a book.

Whether you want to self-publish or land a traditional publishing deal (where they take all the financial risk and pay you, rather than the other way around), your manuscript must be the best it can be.

With self-publishing, anyone can get anything printed or turned into an ebook.

It doesn’t even have to be good. If you have the money, someone will print whatever you submit. Or you can create an ebook by simply uploading your manuscript to Amazon and other online stores.

But you’re not likely to impress readers if your book is full of typos or lacks proper formatting.

Admittedly, the odds of landing a traditional publishing contract are slim.

So you must separate yourself from the competition by ensuring your manuscript is the best you can imagine.

Yes, a traditional publisher will have its own editors and proofreaders. But to get that far, your manuscript has to be better than about a thousand other submissions.

And if you’re self-publishing, the way to stand out is by ferociously editing your manuscript until it’s as crisp and clean as possible and you’re happy with every word.

There’s little worse than a self-published book that looks like one.

Learning to Ferociously Self-Edit

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Whether you’re going to hire an editor, or be assigned one by a traditional publisher, your responsibility is to get your book manuscript to the highest level it can be before you pass it on.

Never settle for, “That’s the best I can do; now fix it for me.”

Why?

Because sadly, if you attempt the traditional publishing route, you could pour your whole life into a manuscript and get just five minutes of an editor’s time before your book is rejected.

Sounds unfair, doesn’t it?

But as one who has been on both sides of the desk for more half a century, let me tell you there are reasons for it:

Why Agents and Publishers Reject Some Manuscripts After Just Two Pages

Professionals can tell within a page or two how much editing would be required to make a manuscript publishable; if it would take a lot of work in every sentence, the labor cost alone would disqualify it.

They’ll consider:

  • Does the writer grab readers by the throat from the get-go?
  • Have too many characters been introduced too quickly?
  • Does the writer understand point of view?
  • Are the setting and tone compelling?
  • Is there too much throat clearing (explanation below)?
  • Is the story subtle and evocative, or is it on-the-nose (also clarified below)?

Yes, an agent or acquisitions editor often determines all this with a read of the first two to three pages.

If you’re thinking, But they didn’t even get to the good stuff, put the good stuff earlier in your manuscript.

So today, I want to zero in on tight writing and self-editing.

Author Francine Prose says:

For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, or especially cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.

Seven Steps to Self-Editing Your Book Manuscript

Click here to download your copy of the ultimate self-editing checklist.

Step 1. First, Separate Writing From Revising

I start every writing day by first conducting a heavy edit and rewrite of what I wrote the day before. Don’t try to edit as you write. That’s likely to slow you to a crawl.

Why?

Because rough draft writing is vastly different from revising. The latter accommodates our perfectionist tendencies. Writing needs to be done with our perfectionist caps off.

Step 2. Read Through Your Manuscript

For best results, read it out loud.

Have a notebook (or blank document) open to make notes as you spot pacing or character development issues, or even easily fixable issues like character names that are too similar.

Step 3. Start With the Big Picture

The editing process begins with big picture edits: major changes, like moving scenes, removing characters, or even changing the plot.

As you begin to self-edit:

  • Make sure you’ve introduced your main character early.
  • Ensure the reader understands what motivates your characters (including the villain)—both internally and externally, their goals, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • Remove scenes (or even chapters) that don’t move the story along.
  • Fix issues with the plot of your story, like gaps or inconsistencies. If you’re a Pantser, pay particular attention to the logic of your plot.
  • Be sure the structure of your story works.
  • Ensure you’ve established character empathy for your hero and supporting cast. You even want some degree of reader empathy for your villain.
  • Ensure your hero’s growth (character arc) is clear.
  • Rework any scenes that seem rushed—and trim scenes that drag.
  • Remember that conflict is the engine of fiction—both internal and external conflict.
  • Make sure each scene is told from a single point of view. Failing is a mistake made by too many beginning writers. You can switch between points of view (multiple main characters), but never within the same scene.
  • Conduct further research if necessary to strengthen your plot or make your novel more believable.

Step 4. Hone Each Scene

At this stage of editing a manuscript, you should be confident that each scene develops your story or reveals character.

As you refine each scene:

  • Avoid throat-clearing—a literary term for a story or chapter that finally begins after a page or two of scene setting and background. Get on with it.
  • Avoid too much stage direction. You don’t need to tell every action of every character in each scene, what they’re doing with each hand, etc.
  • Avoid cliches. This doesn’t just apply to words and phrases. There are also clichéd situations, like starting your story with the main character waking to an alarm clock; having a character describe herself while looking in a full-length mirror; having future love interests literally bump into each other upon first meeting, etc.
  • Use specifics. They add the ring of truth (even to fiction). Not tree, but oak. Not bird, but magpie.
  • Avoid telling what’s not happening, like “He didn’t respond,” “She didn’t say anything,” or “The crowded room never got quiet.” If you don’t say these things happened, the reader will assume they didn’t.
  • Give the reader credit. Example: “They walked through the open door and sat down across from each other in chairs.” If they walked in and sat, we can assume the door was open, the direction was down, and—unless told otherwise—there were chairs. Instead, try: “They walked in and sat across from each other.”
  • Resist the urge to explain. Marian was mad. She pounded the table. “George, you’re going to drive me crazy,” she said, angrily. We don’t need to be told Marian was mad, or that she spoke angrily. It’s clear how she feels from her pounding the table and from the words she chooses.
  • Show, don’t tell. As above, don’t tell us “Marian was mad.” Show us through her actions.
  • Cut on-the-nose writing—a Hollywood term for writing that mirrors real life but fails to propel the story. Don’t distract the reader with minutia; stick to what matters.
    Avoid passive voice. Eliminate as many state-of-being verbs as possible to make your writing more powerful.
  • Make sure your dialogue provides information, advances the plot, or reveals character. If it doesn’t, cut it.

Step 5. Root Out Weasel or Crutch Words

Words and phrases you overuse weaken your sentences and distract readers. You might already be aware of some of yours.

For instance, maybe you describe eyes as sparkling more than once, or you use really or very a lot. Watch out for these as you self-edit your book.

As you root out such words:

  • Choose the normal word over the obtuse. When you’re tempted to show off your vocabulary or a fancy turn of phrase, think reader-first and keep your content king. Don’t intrude. Get out of the way of your message.
  • Avoid the words up and down…unless they’re really needed. They can be cut from sentences like “He rigged [up] the device” and “She sat [down] on the couch.”
  • Usually, delete the word that. Use it only for clarity. “I told Joe that he needed to come home” is stronger as “I told Joe he needed to come home.”
  • Avoid hedging verbs like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc.
  • Refrain from using literally when you mean figuratively. “My eyes literally fell out of my head.” There’s a story I’d like to read.
  • Avoid mannerisms of attribution. People say things; they don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, snort, reply, retort, exclaim, or declare them. Such descriptors distract from the dialogue.
  • Where appropriate, drop the attribution and use actions instead. Jim sighed. “I just can’t take any more.” This doesn’t need a he said at the end: we know it’s Jim speaking from the action preceding the dialogue.

Step 6. Conduct a Final Run-Thorough

The final revision stage checks every word to be sure it’s as strong as possible. Also watch for typos or grammatical errors. Writing and editing tools like ProWritingAid can help.

When you copy edit:

  • Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes. “He…was…DEAD!” doesn’t make a character any more dramatically expired than “He was dead.”
  • Use adjectives sparingly. Good writing is a thing of strong nouns and verbs, not adjectives. Novelist and editor Sol Stein says one plus one equals one-half (1+1=1/2), meaning the power of your words is diminished by not picking just the better one. “He proved a scrappy, active fighter,” is more powerful if you settle on the stronger of those two adjectives. Where possible, use a strong verb in place of an adjective plus a weaker verb.
  • Omit needless words. This should be the hallmark of every writer.
  • Avoid subtle redundancies. “She nodded her head in agreement.” Those last four words could be deleted. What else would she nod but her head? And when she nods, we need not be told she’s in agreement.
  • Read your book aloud to spot sentences that are confusing, too long, or poorly constructed.
  • Look for typos, grammatical errors, and inconsistencies. You may want to keep a running list of how you spell specific words (e.g. ebook, eBook, or e-book).
  • Fix punctuation errors.
  • Remove double spaces at the ends of sentences: yes, you might’ve learned to use them in school, but the modern standard is a single space between sentences.

Step 7. Conduct a Final Proofread

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During this step, you’re simply checking for things like spelling mistakes, stray punctuation, or misformatted dialogue.

It can be tricky to spot your own mistakes,so you might want to ask someone to help.
Proofreading is particularly vital if you’re self-publishing. You may not notice your mistakes, but readers will.

Your Assignment

I’ve added a downloadable self-editing checklist below to help you master these seven steps. The more boxes you can check for your manuscript, the leaner, meaner, and more ready it will be for submission to an agent or publisher.

Click here to download your copy of the ultimate self-editing checklist.
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