Learning how to edit a book is hard.
It just is, and editing your own stuff is even harder. It’s your baby, and it’s hard to cut and change the thing you’ve spent so long laboring over.
The fact that writing and publishing a book successfully is so important to you can make this even more difficult.
But your baby has to grow up.
That means growing pains, the terrible twos where nothing makes sense, and an angsty teenage phase where the words themselves rebel against you and you regret that drunken night so long ago when you thought you had the next great novel idea…
Thankfully, we have a step-by-step guide to make it a lot less painful.
Because all you’ve done so far is write the book, which we like to think of as building the frame of a house. Editing your book is adding walls, paint, fixtures, and everything else that makes a house a home (or a draft into a book).
Here are the steps for how to edit a book:
- Redefine the point of the book
- Do a readthrough
- Set editing goals
- Break it up to edit
- Dig into your characters and people
- How to edit chapters
- Editing for pacing
- Line editing your book
- Common book editing mistakes to avoid
- Next steps for editing your book
* click to jump to a specific section
Before we dive into the steps for editing a book (click here if you want to skip right down to that section), we wanted to cover some frequently asked questions about editing a book to set you up correctly right from the start:
Can anyone edit a book?
Technically, anyone can self-edit a book. That said, not everyone can be a professional editor, as that requires a specialized skillset, industry knowledge, and more advanced education in what it takes to edit a quality book.
What is the book editing process?
The book editing process requires several steps, and the process can be tailored to best suit what works for you and your book.
That said, this is a typical book editing process:
- Be clear on the overall point of your book or story
- Read through your book and make notes (and compile with notes from beta readers, friends, and writing partners)
- Set up goals for completing the editing of your book
- Break up your book into sections to edit
- Start at the beginning and work your way through for continuity
- Begin with developmental edits on the first round, then move onto punctuation, grammar, and line edits
- Focus on editing these elements separately: chapters, pacing, characters/people, and overall story structure
- Do a line edit of your book (punctuation, spelling, grammar, the little things)
- Finally, pass your book off to a professional editor with experience in your genre
We cover all of these steps in detail below.
Do I need a professional editor if I can edit a book myself?
Yes. You need a professional editor.
The reason for this is that no matter what, you will always be too close to your work to edit it well. Sometimes we absolutely need a different perspective to help us catch and fix mistakes that we’ve gone blind to.
And if you’re self-publishing your book, an editor is mandatory if you want a quality book.
How long does it take to edit a book?
This completely depends on the length of the book, your available time to edit, and how deeply you’ll edit the book. That said, we typically recommend a month to do a full, in-depth book edit by yourself (if you’re not doing this full-time). We explore how long different types of book edits take here.
How to Edit a Book: 8 Step Guide + Mistakes to Avoid
We’ll almost never be able to write our exact vision for our book in the first draft…or second, or maybe even third. But editing a book is when the real book comes to life.
The reality is: editing a book yourself will bring it to the highest quality you can make it, so when you do pass it off to an editor, it can become even better. After all, if you wash a car before waxing it, the wax shines even brighter than if you didnt.
You might want to just hand off your book to an editor and be done with it, and that still may be a good idea as a final step, but there are decisions that no editor can make for you.
Self-editing isn’t about just fixing some typos, it’s about turning a mess of ideas into a publishable book, and unless your editor can read your mind, it won’t be the same unless you self-edit first.
#1 – Define the point of your book
Before you put red pen to virgin paper, you need to know what your book is about.
“I know what my book is about, I wrote the fool thing,” I hear you shout at your screen.
Too often though, I find that it is remarkably easy to finish a piece and not really know what the main point is. We can become so bogged down with all the side plots and tangents that we forget what’s vital to the story.
What is the story really about if you trim all the fat? What is necessary to tell the story, and what isn’t?
You want a sleek, streamlined story or book. Not a bloated one, that’s so full of side plots that it’s impossible to tell what the main one is.
How do we know what the point of our book really is?
Write a short synopsis. Anywhere from 500-2000 words. Don’t just write one though. Write several synopses explaining it in different ways, from different points of view and perspectives. This will give you an extremely clear idea of what’s important and what’s not to tell your story.
This will help you focus on what’s important, and it tells you where you need to do more work.
#2 – Do a Readthrough with NO editing first (we’ll explain why)
One of the first things you should do when you’re ready to edit your book is read through it and don’t make ANY edits. This might sound confusing, but this is why…
Instead of editing right away, make notes of the edits you want to make—including feedback from others.
You can definitely add comments to the side of your book (if you’re using Google Docs or something that allows for this), but we’ve also found it really useful to have a different place to house notes in a bullet-list style or however you’ll understand it best.
From there, it’s much easier to dive in, chapter by chapter, to actually make those edits.
#3 – Set book editing goals
Just like you have to set up a schedule for writing a book, we also recommend you do the same thing for editing.
For this, there are a couple types of goals you can set: quality and timeline.
—Quality Book Editing Goals:
Your goal should always be for your writing to be clean, concise, and easily understood.
Just because you can write a grammatically correct sentence that goes on for 3 pages won’t make people want to read your book.
In fact, it will probably send them looking for anything else to do.
If your goal is to impress people with your technical skill and ability to write long beautiful prose that barely makes sense, then you’re not writing a book, you’re creating an art piece using a book as a medium. That’s fine if that’s your goal, but that’s not what we’re doing here.
If you want the story to be the art, not the words themselves, then clarity should be your number one priority.
If you write nonfiction, here are some questions to help you identify your editing goals:
- is this book clear and concise?
- is it also entertaining and well-written?
- does it solve a problem or fulfill the promised purpose (the promise in your subtitle)?
- am I proud to put my name on the quality of this book?
If you write fiction, your editing goal questions may look different:
- is my main character likeable, sympathetic, or capable (or at least 2 of the 3)?
- is my opening scene strong and captivating?
- are my chapters full-scenes themselves?
- are my beta readers confused by anything?
- is my climax or plot-twist too predictable?
Notice how none of those questions take into account grammar or spelling—the common things you’d expect when editing a book.
But that’s because your first round of edits should be focused on the book’s content (like when development editing) before you comb through for basic grammar issues.
—Timeline Book Editing Goals:
Next, you have to set up some timeline goals for when you want to finish editing your book. When you set up writing goals, you likely broke it down by word count. For editing, we typically recommend looking at each chapter by themselves and breaking it down that way.
For example: if you have 19 chapters in a book, and you want to edit a chapter a week, then you will have 19 weeks before your book is ready for your professional editor.
You can definitely increase the amount of chapters per week. To start, we recommend going through two chapters to get an average time it takes to edit per chapter and then set up the rest of your timeline goals from there.
#4 – Break your book up into sections to edit
If you’re starting at the beginning of a long book it can be helpful to break it up into manageable chunks. Split it into four or five pieces that you can edit one at a time—this is especially true for nonfiction.
Here’s how you can separate your book into sections for either fiction or nonfiction:
Nonfiction – break your book up by teaching sections, themes, or chapters
If you do this you need to be careful that you pay attention to the flow, and that all the pieces that you edited separately still fit together in the end.
One of your final edits should always be a top to bottom read-through for flow, and when editing in chunks, this step is even more important.
#5 – Focus on the characters or people
Oftentimes, the characters (even in nonfiction) will carry the book and be the main focus of entertainment. For nonfiction, your “characters” are just the people who appear in the stories, lessons, or research used to back up any teaching or education points.
That means focusing on making these strong, will help you edit your book along the way.
In every section, scene, or chapter, ask yourself:
- will a reader find this person/character interesting?
- will a reader think this person/character is annoying?
- is this the best person/character to showcase this area of the book?
If a person or character doesn’t have a purpose, you need to give them one, remove them, or trim their part down so they’re not distracting from the overall focus.
Your characters and people should all have a purpose, from major to minor.
#6 – Editing chapters
Now you know what your story is saying, you’ve synopsized it several different times from different angles, and your characters work. Now let’s go on a level.
Let’s look at all your chapters.
Just like your characters, every chapter needs a purpose that moves the main plot or teaching points forward.
Ask these questions about each chapter:
- Does this chapter have a purpose?
- Does it move the plot or teaching point forward?
- Does it develop an important character or person?
- Can I continue the story without it?
- Can this chapter stand alone outside of the overall book and still feel whole and complete?
If the chapter doesn’t do one of these things, either cut it or find a way to condense anything important into another chapter, it may not need to stand on its own.
#7 – Editing a book for pacing
While you’re going through the chapters, consider the pacing of the book as a whole. This is really important for writing a book that’s not boring to readers.
Pacing in a book is how quickly or slowly the book feels like it’s progressing.
This can be a hard thing to explain, as it is very much a feeling, but until the climax of your book, you shouldn’t have any big breaks in the action. Little breathers can be good to set up the next scene, but you shouldn’t have long stretches where the tension drops.
Different book genres do require different pacing, and you’ll find that if you’re editing a nonfiction book you have to work extra hard not to make it slow (which = boring).
Above all, the story should never grind to a halt.
Don’t give your reader whiplash by slamming on the brakes and then speeding off a second later.
Let your story breathe slowly. Slowly increasing and decreasing the pace like your book is taking a breath. All the while you are slowly ramping up the pace and tension until the climax.
Here are a few ways to pace your novel effectively…
Book’s Overall Pacing
You likely have a preference as an author for a fast or a slow-paced book. This is often the same as what we prefer to read.
Do you like your books to be the type you can’t put down and read in a couple of sittings or the type of book readers can pick up every night and read a chapter or two?
Certain book genres also predetermine your pacing, so keep this in mind.
Book genres with typically fast pacing:
- Action / Adventure
Book genres with slower pacing:
- Epic fantasy
- Historical Fiction
Book genres where pacing varies greatly:
Pacing Within Chapters
The pacing within a chapter is also very important, and there’s a great way to manage this with your writing.
A really great way to manage pacing within chapters is to use paragraphs wisely.
Now, there are grammatical rules to follow for paragraphs, but you can also use paragraph breaks and write chapters intentionally to slow down or increase the pacing.
If you want a fast-paced chapter: The key to faster pacing is shorter, more frequent paragraphs. Dialogue is also very useful for increasing pacing because it pulls readers farther down the page, quicker.
If you want a slow-paced chapter: Fewer paragraphs, written longer, will slow down the pacing significantly. This means more internal thoughts and more in-depth descriptions. Essentially, you’re creating more text on the page, which takes longer to read, which slows the pacing.
Putting these methods together: You can use these techniques to create a rhythm within your work. If you feel like an area is too slow, see where you can break up paragraphs or add bits of dialogue. And if a section is too fast, see where you can add more internal musings or setting/character descriptions.
Remember, if you end a chapter on a cliffhanger, this will make the pacing for this section seem faster.
Overall Book Pacing as a Whole
It’s important to step back and look at your book in terms of pacing as a whole. It can be easy to pace a few chapters in a row slowly, only to have that section of your book feel boring to readers.
While you may have reasons for keeping those chapters slower-paced, too many in a row can create that “rut” readers often complain about in the middle of a book.
Step back and look at your chapters next to each other. A great way to do this is with sticky notes.
Use one color for a slow pace, and another for faster-paced chapters.
Line them up along your wall and step back.
If you have too many slow-paced chapters next to each other, do some digging and figure out how you can add tension there—and realize that if you have several fast-paced chapters next to each other, your book will speed by, which can often cause information overload or confusion.
You control pacing on the large scale with plot and structure, and on the small scale with sentence and paragraph structure. Short punchy sentences speed the reader along, and long, complex sentences and paragraphs slow the reader down.
#8 – Line editing a book
Now we begin my least favorite part… the line-by-line edit.
There’s no shortcut here. You have to go through your book, line-by-line, word-by-word, and consider each paragraph, sentence, and word.
You’re looking for typos, grammatical mistakes, passive voice, but largely just, how can you make this more readable?
Ask yourself this when line editing a book:
- Would this sentence be more clear if I rearranged it?
- Is this sentence necessary?
- Does it add anything?
- Is this paragraph clear?
- If not, how can it be more clear?
- Is it obvious who’s speaking here? How do I fix that?
- If I read this aloud does it sound weird?
These are the kinds of questions you need to be asking about each and every sentence and paragraph in your book.
There’s no shortcut. You just have to force yourself to sit down and do it, then hire a professional book editor.
That being said, there are some common things to look for that I’ll show you in the next section, and it never hurts to have a copy of the Chicago Manual nearby as well.
Common Book Editing Mistakes to Avoid
Not everyone is perfect and can edit a book perfectly the first time. That’s what book editors are for, after all.
However, handing over a manuscript littered with these mistakes can not only make the editing more expensive, but it can also hinder your book’s final product because, well, the better version you send to the editor, the better the final product.
Here are a few things to avoid when editing your book.
#1 – “Keep it simple stupid”
KISS, the old Navy saying is a good one to live by when you’re editing. Shorter and simpler is almost always better.
If you can say it in fewer words, do it.
If a shorter word will work, use it.
If you can say that whole beautiful monologue in a sentence, guess what? Shorten it.
There are always exceptions to the rule. If you have a good reason, breaking this rule can make a section stand out. Exceptions can be for characterization, mostly. If you have a character who is long-winded and this serves a purpose, writing dialogue that’s long-winded and wordy can likely stay.
If you’re ever unsure, though, stick to simple.
#2 – Avoid redundancies
It’s very easy to do because it’s often how we talk. In writing though, it’s unnecessary, and it can actually make your point less clear as the audience tries to figure out why you just repeated yourself.
Don’t just say the same thing you did another way to make sure the point got across.
Don’t drone on and on because your words are too bountiful a crop to cull, and the audience should marvel at your use of words….
You see what I did there?
Don’t do it.
Your audience is smart, and will usually pick up what you mean the first time, Even if they don’t, guess what? It’s a book, not a Snapchat, they can go back and reread if they need to.
Give your audience credit, they’re often smarter than you think.
This brings me to my next point.
#3 – Don’t preach
It’s one of the things I struggle with the most. I’m just itching to have a character, the narrator, or some pretty prose spell out the fascinating philosophical implication of this character’s actions or thoughts.
Don’t do it. It’s cheap, and it comes across as flat and boring.
Find a way to show it with action instead.
Your audience is smart; if your writing is done well, they should come to the conclusion you wanted them to on their own. It will be far more powerful than if you simply told them because it’s an active experience for the reader.
They may also come to a different conclusion than you expected, and that can be even more fun.
#4 – Show, don’t tell.
This is very similar to the last point. If you have some piece of information you need the audience to know, show it with action instead of telling them, or have it come up in natural conversation between the characters.
This is the classic rule of “show don’t tell.“
Don’t tell the audience about the terrible PTSD your character or a person is suffering from. Don’t fill the page with beautiful prose about how the character feels.
Show them how the character is affected. Let your audience experience the emotions through the character.
Showing is always more powerful than telling, and powerful is what you want.
#5 – Don’t Overdo Styling
Don’t be cutesy or flowery with your word choice or styling.
“He wheezed an answer,”
“Don’t… goooo. DON’T!!!”
It’s distracting and silly. It’s like the literary equivalent of the over-the-top drama in a soap opera.
It’s comical, and not in a good way.
Simplicity can actually do more for you here. An exclamation point, when used correctly, is all you need to indicate a person shouted.
#6 – Watch for writing tics
Just like you have verbal tics that you fall back on when you’re speaking, like “umm,” we have writing tics as well.
They’re often unconscious and entirely unnecessary. They clutter up the page, and you need to excise them from your piece like little tumors.
These are words like:
- Basically (Many adverbs really)
- Great (most Adjectives)
For instance, I have a bad habit of using, “So,” and “which,” far too often.
I may say,
“So, because of that….”
“Which is why we need to…”
Be on the lookout for your common tic words. They’re almost always unnecessary and can rob your writing of power by making your sentences wordy and confusing.
Keep in mind that you likely have a word or phrase you use often as well. For example, you may use “pulled” or “snatched” or even “reluctantly” repeatedly and not even notice.
Keep an eye out and learn to recognize these words or phrases.
A quick hack for finding these is:
- if you notice a repeated phrase a few times in a chapter, do a “Command + F” on Mac or “CNTRL + F” on PC and search the phrase
- If it’s an excessive number, you may want to keep an eye out and create a separate task or goal to comb through your manuscript just for that phrase
#7 – Don’t over-edit
Generally, the more you edit the better your book, but there is such a thing as too much editing.
You don’t want your book to be stuck in perpetual editing hell.
It’s easy to get trapped by the feeling that your book has to be perfect, but perfection is often unattainable. Eventually, you need to publish it.
Get it as good as you can, but don’t obsess over it. Share it. You’re writing isn’t complete until you share it.
What’s next? Editors, beta readers, and more!
After you’ve done everything I’ve said so far it may still be a good idea to hire an editor.
Beta readers are a great choice if you can’t afford an editor, and even if you can, I still recommend it.
All a beta reader is, is someone, usually a family member or friend who you ask to read your book and give you feedback before you publish. The value you get from seeing what normal people think of your book is massive.
And this should be done before you send it to an editor, for obvious reasons (you wouldn’t want to pay for another editor after betas have pointed out major flaws you need to rewrite, would you?).
But you have to take their criticisms to heart. You don’t have to change everything they bring up, but seriously consider what your readers and editor say.
Try to avoid defending your piece too strongly. It’s easy to simply write off criticism as someone just not understanding what you were doing. Especially if it’s a phrase or section you like.
And a major tip for when you have beta readers: never explain or correct their assumptions. It can be tempting for you to dive in and tell a beta why they didn’t understand a section, but doing this risks their feedback being unbiased and fresh, and therefore, unusable.
The bottom line is that if someone misunderstands something you said then others may too. You may not be wrong, your friend may have been an idiot, but chances are there is a clearer way for you to say whatever it was they didn’t understand.
Remember, there’s no “right” way & this is YOUR process
In the end, there is no perfect way to edit a book.
If your finished project is clean, clear, and easily understandable, then you edited perfectly. Whether you follow this guide, talk to a monk on top of a mountain, or lay all the pages on your floor and change every sentence your cat stepped on, it doesn’t matter if the final product is good.
And ultimately, every writer has a different editing process. If you want to print your book to edit it, perfect! If you prefer to use Google Docs, great!
It’s all about whatever works best for you and allows you to create real progress and change in your manuscript.
What I’ve given you is a guide to get started. Take it, tweak it, make it your own, and go finish your book!