After hours (months? years?) of painstaking work, you’ve finally gotten to the last page of your manuscript and feel ready to show the world. Congratulations! You’ve made it further than a lot of other writers. Are you ready to self-publish or send it off to an agent? Not quite. There are still quite a few revisions needed for your book. Here are some tips to help you learn how to edit your book in stages by using five drafts.
Editing is defined as the process of arranging, revising, and preparing your book manuscript for publication materials. Every book can benefit from an edit as no book is perfect. However, many people have a limited understanding of the entire process.
Approaches to Editing
Many people have the idea that editing is merely looking for grammatical and typographical errors. That’s just one stage. Developmental editing, for example, includes looking for issues with plot structure, inconsistent characterization, and the tone.
The number of needed editing rounds varies by the publishing house and even subject. For example, non-fiction books will often have more revisions. A book editing stage may include fact-checking or technical verification of data. One company I worked for required seven rounds of editing per book (non-fiction technical). A fiction novel will typically involve fewer edits, with three to five rounds being the average.
Here is the cliff’s notes version of how to edit your book.
- Content Edit is where you edit the big picture, such as plot, theme, and setting.
- Line Edit is where you examine the language that you use. For example, are you verbose or wordy?
- Copy Edit is where you get down to the nitty-gritty of grammar, spelling, and syntax. You will see why this stage is last as you move along.
Trust me, you do not want to look for all of these in one sit-down session. You will miss more than you see. Sometimes it is easy to combine stages, such as looking at the plot and characterization, but it’s still important to go back and check that any changes you made still flow.
Your First Draft
Your first draft is going to be your roughest stage, your “Junk Draft.” You just finished pounding out a story; it is your baby. Save this draft. Make a copy and call it Draft 2. Start making any necessary editorial changes in draft #2 so that you don’t mess up this critical first edition. Here are a few other tips.
Get some distance from your work. Take a few days or weeks away from the manuscript. When you go back to start editing draft #2, you’ll have a fresh perspective of what’s working well and what needs changing. Think of it as reading a stranger’s book. What stands out to you?
Print out your work, at minimum the 4th (grammatical) draft. You’ll catch much more errors by printing it out and grabbing a red pen. It’s a pain, but it does help bring a new perspective on how you are reading it. You’re used to reading the manuscript on the computer screen; the perspective shift on paper makes it easier to “catch” errors or inconsistencies.
Read it out loud. It sounds strange, but reading your work aloud is a great way to catch areas with awkward phrasing. Change anything that you stumble over.
Okay, now we start learning how to edit your book. Draft #2 is when you begin fixing major plot holes and look at the story as a whole. It’s the “Big Picture” stage. This is where writers will often hire a content or developmental editor, who take the time to read for these issues and more.
- Have you established a clear big dramatic question?
- Does it fit well with the theme? Have you established a genre?
- Speaking of theme, is it well-established?
- Is the plot engaging and believable?
- If you use subplots, are they also resolved by the end and do the subplots make sense in the context of the story?
- Does the story flow? Do you have a strong beginning, middle, and end?
- Does the plot move forward in each chapter, or does it seem to stall?
- Can you quickly identify the central conflict? Is it resolved by the end of the book?
- Does your story properly introduce the cast of characters? Provide enough backstory and motivation for each character? (You’ll go into further study in your third draft.)
For this draft, focus on inconsistent characterization, setting, and voice. This stage can be combined with Draft #4 if you need to.
- Is the cast of characters fleshed out? Do the protagonist and antagonist have a clearly defined motivation and backstory?
- Does the protagonist have evident character traits, with both strengths and weaknesses? Are they consistent, even with character growth throughout the story?
- Does the protagonist have external and internal story goals? Are they visible throughout the story, and do they fit in with the character arc?
- Is the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist clearly defined?
- Are the secondary characters fleshed out and do they have a reason to be there? Do they advance the plot or reveal key details? For example, a waitress who delivers a meal does not need a considerable backstory, but one who hands the protagonist a note about potential poison may need more explanation.
- Does each character have a distinctive voice?
- Is the voice somewhat consistent with time and setting? (For example, valley girl slang in Victorian England may sound a bit off. Like whatever…)
- Is the word choice believable for the time and place of the story?
- Does the dialogue serve a purpose, such as providing information, advancing the scene, and helping to advance the plot?
- Does the setting make sense for the story, and does it matter to the plot? Is it unified and consistent?
- Be sure to fact check the scene in relation to the setting. For example, a story set in Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1800s shouldn’t have a radio sitting on the bar counter (unless you are writing a time-travel novel with some fantasy elements).
Think of this draft as the plastic surgery stage. You’ll need to do plenty of surgery to your manuscript to make it look pretty. Start cutting the content down to its most essential message. Remove distracting and unnecessary words, phrases, subplots, and even characters.
- Is the opening scene effective? Does it capture the reader? Have a hook?
- Are the scenes paced appropriately to grab the reader’s attention?
- How long are the chapters? Too short, too long? Too long? Cut it somewhere and make a new chapter. Too short? Maybe look at moving some scenes up or adding text where necessary.
- Does each scene serve a purpose in the story? If not, cut it.
- Do you how, don’t tell your setting, dialogue, action, and characters?
- Does the dialogue serve a purpose in the story? If not, cut it.
- Are there excess dialogue tags? He said, she said, they all said, after every single line? Are there any excess adverbs in the tags? Cut it.
- Are your words more precise rather than general? Does each sentence contribute something to the story?
- Is the information repeated more than once? (How many times have we been told about that same radio on the bar—is a third retelling of the backstory necessary?)
- Does the tone shift and is the phrasing natural?
- Is the narrator’s voice consistent and appropriate for the story?
- Is the point of view character always clear?
- Do you change viewpoints more than once per section? If so, make new ones or change it so that one perspective is consistent throughout an entire section or chapter. One viewpoint per chapter is the preferred norm.
I know, you’re probably thinking, there’s more? Luckily, this is probably close to, if not, your final draft. This stage involves what is called line editing—checking grammar, spelling, and syntax.
- Have you run the basic editor/spell checker in Microsoft Word or another program? Tried out the free version of Grammarly?
- Have you put it in the Hemingway App (free) to check for adverbs, use of passive voice, phrasing, sentence structures?
- Did you use the active voice when appropriate?
- Did you show, not tell by limiting the use of adverbs in your dialogue tags?
- Are there any weak verbs or adverbs in general or vague and subjective words?
- Do you overuse clichés in the text?
- Check for excessive repetition in the information?
- Did you use any overly complicated language?
- Is your dialogue formatted correctly?
- Do you have any repeated words in reasonably quick succession that could be replaced with a synonym?
- Are there any sentences that you can cut in two, such as comma-heavy sentences, like this one?
Yes! You’ve made it and learned how to edit your book. You have a final draft that has been cut, altered, revised, and changed so much that you’re not even sure it’s the same story. The final stage in how to edit your book is to go through and just read one more time.
Read it like you were the reader who has never read it before. Run through the book and see that it all flows together. The overall theme, characterizations, tone, dialogue, and plot should all fit well together.
You probably (hopefully) edited a lot in the previous drafts, so now you want to ensure that you didn’t cut too much. For example, let’s say you removed a subplot later in the book about the bartender behind the bar because it seemed like it wasn’t relevant to anything. However, as you start reading from the beginning, you remember that he bought that radio on the counter. Since you saved multiple copies of your draft (right?), you can quickly go back and replace what is needed to go back in.
It’s also a good idea to have others read your work as well. This step can also be done earlier if you choose. For first-time writers, it’s a great idea to hire editors from places like LinkedIn or Reedsy. I also offer editing or beta reading services, so feel free to reach out!
Most importantly, you’re finished. You’ve reached a milestone that not many people actually accomplish— a completed manuscript.
- Writer’s Guide to Writing a Fiction Novel
- Want to Write a Book? Here are 5 Tips for Getting Started
- Anatomy of a Book — 25 Parts of a Book that Every Writer Needs to Know
- Copyright, ISBN, and LCCN Basics for Writers
What’s your process for writing a book?