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How to Edit a Book: Self-Editing Tips that Every Writer Needs
How to edit a book. Find out here how to edit a book even if you are going to hire a professional editor.
Hey, everyone. First, I want to tell you that I am no professional editor. Even though I’d love to work as an agent or editor one day, right now I’m just a writer who had to edit her own novels for a long, long time. So I know a bit of self-editing.
Actually, my next book was edited so many times that I lost count.
I’ve rewritten it twice, first changing the whole story, then rewriting it from another point of view. It was first person then I made it third person.
Literally, I do these mistakes so you don’t have to do the same.
Then, I gave the book to a beta reader and I edited it again with their suggestions.
Editing is almost bigger than writing itself. And it’s more time-consuming. So, you have to know how to edit a book.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links to products. I may receive a small commission for purchases made through these links. However, I do use it and I love it, as you can notice below. I’ve also purchased it with my own money, it was not gifted to me. Now I’m passionate about sharing the products I love with my audience, that’s why I decided to go for their affiliate program. If you buy through this link, you help me keep making these articles for you without ANY extra cost for you. Thank you!
Why you will have to edit a book at some point even if you hire a professional editor:
You’ll have to edit it yourself at some point.
It doesn’t matter if you’ll eventually get a professional editor.
They won’t do everything for you. They’ll give it back full of things for you to change. This is editing.
So you better learn how to do it properly, right?
How to edit a book:
1. You wrote the manuscript. The first draft usually is a mess. Even if you outlined it. You have to make sure it makes sense before letting other human being reading it, otherwise, it will be so confusing that it will be impossible for a beta reader or for an editor to even start correcting it.
2. You’ll want to polish it enough so when other people read it to help you, they won’t have so much to change.
3. After you receive it back from a beta reader or professional editor, you’ll have to edit it again! Make all the changes! And it will probably have a lot to change.
Having said that, it’s better for you to learn how to edit a book.
Let’s go with a step by step, shall we?
Should you edit after everything is done or as you write?
I would say that this a style matter. Some people are great at editing after each chapter. They usually have them outlined. Some people go crazy and drop the project if they do that.
Either way, both will have to be edited after it’s finished it. It’s simply necessary.
So, you choose.
Get yourself a cup of coffee because it will be a long list on how to edit a book.
1. Step one: You have just finished writing the first draft. Now, it’s editing time. Fun! Where do I start?
First thing: Leave it alone.
You must do it.
You must do it.
For at least one week. Forget about it.
Every time you start thinking about it, don’t.
Absolutely forget that you’ve ever written a book.
You need fresh eyes. If you start editing right away, you won’t be able to do it.
I go as far as to say that it’s impossible to edit without this time because you’re so biased by the work. It is in your head, so you won’t be able to see it on paper.
But what will I be doing?
Read as much as you can. Other books, from other authors. Read ten books if you can before going back to editing your own.
Do this because your voice will change.
You’ll catch how other writers write.
When you come back, you won’t have the same narrative voice you had when you wrote. And this is important, it will change completely the way you write.
I do this with these blog articles as well. I find it impossible to finish writing it and starting editing.
You need time.
Can I start another project while I wait to edit it?
For me, the answer is absolutely! I think people could disagree here, but I think it would be great. Our narrative voices changes in every new piece of content we write.
We also evolve when writing, so when you come back to edit your first project, you’ll have trained further.
Also, it will make you forget even more of your to-edit draft, since this one is new, with new characters, new worlds.
Neil Gaiman’s tips on how to edit a book:
I always say this, but Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass helped me so much.
In the editing class, he tells us exactly that: he abandons his book after finishing the first draft.
When he goes back to it, he makes the effort of trying to see it as he never saw it before. He pretends he is a reader that never even knew about that story.
And then he asks himself about everything. Every paragraph, he tries to be his worse critic: do I need this? What was this writer thinking?
If you want to know more about Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass, I’ve done a review here, where I explain even more about this.
2. You’ve given it time. You have new eyes. You’ve even forgotten what characters are in your old story. Now it’s time for your first edit! How to edit a book?
Go in this order! Remember, order equals success
The most important thing to do now, the number 1 thing you must do, is to make sense of what you’ve written.
Most of firsts drafts doesn’t make sense even for the person who is writing it.
It doesn’t matter if you outlined it before or not. Now, you will have to do what I call
Literally, hear me out, please. This is the most important thing for editing: don’t start with grammar, punctuation, words, etc. DON’T print out now. You’ll waste paper.
Now it’s time to cut it.
You’ll do this:
1. Get a piece of paper and write all your chapters name’s;
2. Behind each chapter, you’ll write:
Chapter summary: What happened in the chapter. It can be detailed or not. A list of things that happened (this would be ideal) or simply a few words.
Why I NEED this chapter to advance my story?
What would happen if I removed it?
Please do bother to write this, even if only for a few words.
Like Neil Gaiman said: pretend that you have to pay 50 cents for each word. Would it be necessary?
(and actually, if you hire a professional editor later, you’ll be paying for each word)
Forget that idea that your manuscript has to be 90k words long, 100k words long. It doesn’t make sense. It can be however many words long. The number of words won’t make your story better. But this editing will!
You’ll also eliminate characters, location, dynamics, everything you need to change
3. After you’ve done that, rewrite the list of chapters.
See which chapters remained, which were eliminated and if you’ll have to add any chapter to make sense.
I can’t cut my unnecessary scenes, dialogues, digressions. I love them too much!
Save everything you cut in another document.
You can use it later for another book, you can write a spin-off with it, you can create a teaser. I like to think that I can create my own “fanfic”. It won’t be on the canon story, but I can put it out there on my blog, on my social media to excite my readers.
Very often, I’ve used deleted scenes to write other stories.
Think about it this way: you’re not getting rid of this scene you love, you are giving it a chance. It doesn’t fit your story, so it will hurt both the scene and the story. If you save it for later, you’re giving it the chance of becoming something big, great, getting the attention it deserves where it fits. The same thing goes for characters. If you love them, but they don’t fit the story, save them for their own story where they can shine!
Make a glossary and list of what you changed
Believe me, you don’t want to forget this. It would be fatal for your story.
WRITE IT DOWN WHAT YOU HAVE CHANGED.
Because in your final revision you’ll scan through it to see if you forget to change any important bits.
A glossary is for you to remember small details, like the magic’s name and if your characters have blue eyes or green eyes.
Imagine if in Harry Potter, JK Rowling called “wingardium leviosa” when she wanted to say “expecto patronum”. (If you are no Harry Potter fan, I’m sorry).
This can be the difference of a well-edited book to an amateur one. It can be literally fatal. Deadly. The difference between a reader abandoning your book or loving it. It can ruin your worldbuilding. Things must make sense, and when you get rid of some stuff, it can be hard for you to remember.
3. Cutting Paragraphs
You’ve done the big cutting, now it’s time for the detailed cutting. You’ll do the same you’ve done but in each paragraph.
You’ll ask yourself: do I need this paragraph?
If you need, write the goal of each paragraph.
Do I REALLY need this description? Will it hurt the reader? Can the reader imagine for themselves?
Does my character need to say this? Is it showing their personality, advancing the plot, or can I cut this saying?
Remember, you’ll be paying per word. You want only the absolutely necessary.
Get rid of the paragraphs. Cut entire paragraphs if you may.
Don’t pay attention to words yet.
Don’t waste time polishing something you’ll cut.
Don’t drag this for longer than the absolutely necessary.
Editing is tough, long, and very difficult. Don’t make it worse for yourself. Cut it now.
Assume you don’t need each paragraph. Go with this premise: I don’t need this. You need an absolutely great reason to leave it there.
I’m afraid that I’ll end up with nothing if I do this!
Don’t be. Remember the saying: quality over quantity. Do you want an absolutely gigantic manuscript that is badly edited, no one will read, no one will care about, or do you want a short story with absolute meaning that everybody loves?
Again, I don’t get this obsession some writers have to make the story a certain amount of words long.
If it’s unnecessary to the plot and you leave it there, it will only hurt you and make you a worse writer.
The reader literally doesn’t care if the story is 70k long or 120k long. They care if the story is propelling, if it makes sense, if it excites them, give them meaning. Think about yourself as a reader. Do you prefer a big boring book full of boring stuff, or a fast story well-condensed, that makes absolute sense?
You’ll need just the necessary for your story. Everything else won’t do you any favor at all. It will make you a worse writer.
Again, if you can’t cut it because you love it, do it even so, and save it in another document. Then, you’ll go back to what you love and give it a chance to strive! To become their own stories, so they will make sense and be brilliant. If you leave it in another story that doesn’t make sense, you are throwing the scene you love in the trash with the rest of your story.
If you need to add things, do it now, and repeat the process of asking yourself if the paragraphs are necessary.
Let’s repeat the editing mantra: don’t polish things you’ll cut off.
4. Cutting words
By now, your project will be much better. You’re getting closer to ending this process!
You’ll have to:
1. Cut filler words like: the, and, that, just, a bit, some, adverbs;
2. Look for passive voice and try to make it active so it becomes more dynamic: SOME passive voice is all right!
There are some people that don’t accept passive voice even when it’s necessary. For example: they were dismissed. How it would make sense in active voice? It dismissed them?
I would never remove ALL passive voice. But it’s better if you try to use active when you can.
Now, I advise you to use a software like Grammarly or ProWritingAid.
I usually write on Word and then do this stage on ProWritingAid.
I list all the reasons I like ProWritingAid here.
But it’s especially due to its resources that help you write.
It find passive voice, it helps you cut unnecessary words like “that”.
Here you can see an example of what it looks like from my own manuscript editing section:
See that it highlighted a passive voice there, and then “just”, a filler word that I could cut. You can also see all the resources that it has over there on the upper bar.
It really helps you to see things that you can’t see for yourself.
Again, I explain about all the resources here.
I wouldn’t know what to do without it.
There are some things that your eyes simply don’t see. It’s very hard to find filler words because your brain passes right through it without thinking.
It also examines a lot of other things, like sentence structure, sentence length, overused words.
I literally wouldn’t be able to edit without it!
I strongly believe that you need a software to help you with it. There are some things our eyes simply don’t catch.
It also corrects grammar, punctuation, and all these things!
If you’re an Oxford Comma hater, worry no longer.
After you’ve cut and added, we are approaching the final stages in how to edit a book! Yay!
Now that you’ve cut everything you don’t need (or at least most things), let’s use other software again.
Let’s make Word read it out loud for us.
It will read your entire text for you while highlighting the words so you can follow. You can even change its setting, the speed, the voice tone.
It really helps and since it’s a robot reading, you will find it strange and start to suspect about every word. If you do, go there and change it!
There is also other software online that will do this for you!
After Word has read it for you, it’s time for you to print it.
If you can, leave it for some time again!
You’ll need fresh eyes again.
Also, print it on different colored paper if you can. It will help you look at it differently.
Go with a ruler, phrase by phrase, and read it out loud, carefully.
You’ll want to examine every word.
You’ve already done the cutting, but remember you’re paying per word. Always ask yourself if you need it there.
Also, read the dialogues aloud to see if they are making sense. Would a seven-year-old really say things like these or are you trying to tell people stuff instead of showing them?
1. If you could, do it with another person, so they can tell you what they find odd.
2. Pretend you’re recording an audiobook. Pretend all your readers will listen to it the way you’re recording it. If it’s weird, change it.
Record yourself reading. And then listen to it
This time, only listen, without reading, like it would be an audiobook. If it’s odd, go there and change it.
If you had to read a sentence twice to figure it out, you must either change it or delete it.
6. Run it through ProWritingAid again
Again, I’ll stress you the need of having a software.
I would run through it again and see if I missed anything.
I would ask their final summary.
They analyze EVERYTHING in this summary, believe me.
And then, I would do my final changes.
7. Final Editing
Now, print it again in a book size on white paper. Don’t print it A4 format, change the layout on Word and print it like it would be your book.
(if you can’t do this, it’s fine, I just like to imagine that this is the final edition of my book before I print it to the world).
And do your final reading.
Now, go through the notes that I told you and see if you haven’t missed anything. If you eliminated all the traces of that character that didn’t make sense.
This has to be your final editing. You’ll look for the last missing words. the last things you can cut or add.
But then you must stop editing.
Now, you either send it to beta readers, a professional editor, or you publish it.
Don’t keep editing.
You must stop editing at some point
If you don’t, I’ll tell you: you will literally never finish that book.
There are some people that spend TEN YEARS (literally ten years or more) editing their books because they never think it’s perfect.
There are some people that go through all the stages I just said and then decide: it’s not good enough, I’ll change it entirely.
Please, I BEG YOU.
You MUST LET IT GO. You must pass it forward. Otherwise, you won’t ever finish it.
It’s hard to publish a book. It’s very hard to let it go to the world.
Your story doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the world. It belongs to people that will cry, will feel, will adore it.
Don’t trap it inside your drawer. Don’t think “it’s not ready yet” and keep editing.
About when is the right time to publish a book.
I know I’ve struggled so much with it. I told you, I’ve edited my book over and over for millions of times. Don’t.
Please, don’t fall into the trap of the forever editing process. Please, please, please.
You’ll never be entirely satisfied with it. It will ALWAYS have something for you to change.
Let. It. Go.
Let it live. Give your story a chance!
Personal story time
I am one of those people that could never the story go. I’ve spent the last years rewriting my first book. I would never think it was good enough. It didn’t matter if I outlined it or not. I would just delete everything and start over.
It hurts your mental health. It makes you think that you suck as a writer. It makes you think that you’ll never finish it.
Because if you keep doing it, you probably won’t ever finish it!
You must let it go. You must let it live.
Don’t make the same mistakes as I did. Don’t keep writing the same story forever until you think it’s perfect. It won’t ever be perfect enough and you’ll only make yourself sad, dread the process, think you’ll never be a “real writer”. It won’t EVER be perfect. It won’t.
Finish the final editing and let it live.
Final thoughts on how to edit a book
1. Take your time. It can be extremely hard to edit. Sometimes it is even longer than writing. Most of the times to me. I call myself a writer, but I’ve written a few stories. I’ve edited them for longer than I’ve been writing them.
2. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes you’ll think that you’ll never finish it. You will. Take one word at a time. Don’t think about the whole journey.
3. Keep your mental health. If you feel burned out, leave it for a while. Start writing something else. It’s normal. You can do this.
I hope I helped you learn how to edit a book.
If you want to know more about self-publishing, go to my article here.
And, after you’ve published it, it’s time to market it, so you can grab a free social media marketing guide for writers here or you can read more about marketing here.