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.
It’s not fun, but in the end, learning how to edit a book is necessary for your writing to grow into an adult capable of standing on its own.
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 Your Book Editing Goal
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 sentences that barely make 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.
Where do you begin? At the beginning of course.
It doesn’t really matter where you start, but the beginning is never a bad choice. You generally want to start with the big picture and work your way down to the small stuff.
Your focus should be on story, character and flow first, then grammar and exact words later.
Think of editing like woodworking. The craftsman goes over their piece hundreds of times. First, they cut out the basic shape, then they shape it, add in the fine details, and finally come through with finer and finer sandpaper until they’re polishing up a beautifully finished work.
It’s the same thing with a book.
#2 – Break Your Book Up in 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.
A great way to do this is to break it up by Act, if you’re using a three-act story structure.
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.
#3 – Step Back and Define the Point of Your Book
I said we start at the beginning, but that’s not entirely true. Not yet. First, we need to step back from the manuscript entirely.
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. 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.
#4 – Focus on the Characters
This brings us to characters. Every major character should appear in your synopsis.
If they don’t then likely they aren’t really a major character. Ask yourself what purpose they serve and why they’re there.
If they don’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 should all have a purpose, from major to minor.
Make sure every character serves their purpose, and none of their arcs are left incomplete. If you leave them with open ends, it can make your character development weak and therefore, uninteresting.
#5 – 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 forward.
Ask these questions about each chapter:
Does this chapter have a purpose?
Does it move the plot forward?
Does it develop an important character?
Can I continue the story without it?
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.
#6 – Editing a Book for Pacing
While you’re going through the chapters, consider the pacing of the book as a whole.
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.
Above all, the story should never grind to a halt.
Don’t give your reader whiplash by slamming on the breaks 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
Will it be faster (think horror/thriller novels), or will it be slower (think contemporary or romance). This will determine how you write and finish chapters.
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:
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 writing 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 cliff-hanger, 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 may 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.
#7 – 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?
These are the kinds of questions you need to be asking about each and every sentence and paragraph in your book.
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 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, their ramble of dialogue 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.
Don’t tell the audience about the terrible PTSD your character 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.
#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.
#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 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, talked to a monk on top of a mountain, or you laid all the pages on your floor and changed 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!
Michael Aragon is a writer and marketer who is obsessed with stories and how they affect our world. He believes that everyone has an interesting story to tell, and wants to help other people learn how to tell theirs in a compelling way.