When it comes to creating a great book, writing is only part of the equation. The other, arguably even more important part is the editing. And you can do a lot of this yourself, in a process known as “self-editing.”
That first draft you put together? It might have a decent story, and probably even a few amazing lines. But it’s not finished. Not by a long shot.
And if you’re a brand new writer, remember this advice above all: Your book is not ready to publish.
No, before you can even think about publishing, you need to do some editing. Even if you think what you have is amazing, it can always use some work. And that’s where the editing process comes into play.
But editing is expensive, right?
Yes, it can be. And that’s why it is recommended that all authors learn the art of self-editing. There’s a lot you can learn to do on your own that doesn’t require hiring an editor (or proofreader – the two are different).
Ready to dive in and edit? Here are seven tips you can follow right now to improve your self-editing skills:
Let Your Story Bake
We get excited about our stories. When they’re done, we want to get them out for the world to see. The quicker we write and edit, the quicker we can publish. Resist the temptation!
Shove your book in a drawer for at least a month and don’t touch it. If ideas come to you while it’s hidden away, write them down in a separate notebook for possible inclusion later. It’s okay to be thinking about your story while it bakes, but don’t start editing it yet.
Edit from Physical Printouts
Print your manuscript on your printer or at a print shop like Kinkos (ideally double-spaced!), stick it in a binder and buy a variety of pens and highlighters. Thought you may be tempted to jump in and making edits directly in the document when your waiting period is over, you’re better off not editing the document itself yet.
Now, read your manuscript and mark it up as you read through it. Highlight problem passages. Make notes of what to fix. If you want, rewrite sections by hand. Just remember, you don’t have to make it perfect with this readthrough and markup session. You’re just looking for things that aren’t quite right. Identifying them now makes them easier to work on when you get into rewrites.
Tip: Use a red pen for specific changes to implement, and a highlighter for any larger problem areas that might need deeper investigation to fix.
Implement Your Edits in Phases.
After you’ve read through and marked the up your draft until it’s it looks like a Jackson Pollack of multicolored pens and highlighter scribbles, you can start putting some changes in place.
Try not to be overwhelmed. There’s probably a lot to fix – and that’s okay. It’s all part of the process of making an awesome book. One way to make this easier, and to feel like you’re making progress is to go one chapter at a time, implementing the red markups (typos, grammar, moving around words, etc) first, then go through a second time to fix the larger areas (the ones you circled and marked as “needs a rewrite”).
Do it in chunks. You’re not going to edit the entire book in one sitting. Just try to have a clear, achievable goal when you sit down, then step away for a bit once that’s done..
Once you’ve gone through the entire book, it’s time to go through the first few steps again until you feel like your book is possibly “ready.”
Print a Paperback Proof
Before you do this, first make sure you’ve gone through several rounds of the previous steps. You don’t want to move to this step until you think you’re book is ready to publish. (Note: it is not ready to publish.)
But once you’ve got something you actually like, go to a service like Kindle Direct Publishing and have an actual printed version made. By this, I mean actually go through your document, lay it out for print (margins, spacing etc) first, then have it printed. Like a real book.
Doing this will a.) give you another break from your editing process to step away from the details of the writing, like your original draft in a drawer at the beginning, b.) get you a little bit on your way to figuring out how you want to lay out your book if you’re self-publishing, and c.) get you something to edit that’s really like what the real product looks like.
Read and Mark Up Your Paperback Proof
It may be hard to believe, but try this tip and you’ll see it’s true. Reading from a printed book is a completely different experience than reading from your computer screen or your binder full of printed pages.
There’s just something about reading a real book that makes you process your writing in a different way. It’s possible that reading a printed book allows you to distance yourself from your work, consuming it more as a reader than a writer, but regardless of the reason it does force you look at your writing from a different perspective.
Read Your Book Out Loud
At some point you’ll think your book is done. This is when I recommend printing a new draft (physical book) and then sitting down and reading it out loud to yourself. Yes. Like you’re reading it to someone else.
You’ll find phrases are awkward, other bits are unnecessary, and a lot can be cleaned up. At this stage you’ll likely find yourself cutting words or fixing the way your characters speak so it sounds more natural.
Other options include having someone read your book to you, or having text-to-speech software read it out loud (though I do think text-to-speech losing that human level of inferred emotion and cadence).
Hire Someone to Edit Your Work
Stop editing your own work. At some point you’ll be done editing. Your book will be done. When this happens, don’t publish, but instead go find an editor to work with. There are a ton of great editors who you can find online (I have some I can recommend), or you can work with a publisher who’ll help out with editing as part of the process.
No matter what though, don’t count on yourself, or even your friends, to be your final edit. You need someone disconnected from the project, who’s able to look at it with a completely new, unbiased set of eyes. Then work through the edits with them.
But also note there are different types of editors: developmental editors, copy editors, proofreaders, etc. – you’ll need help in all these areas. Some editors can do multiple things for you. Others may specialize in one area or the other. Know which kinds of edits you’re looking for and hire appropriately.
Tip: You can get around some of the developmental edit phases by reaching out to beta readers. Basically this means getting your book into the hands of real readers who will give you honest feedback on the story before you publish it for the world to see.
Remember though, after you implement any feedback you get from those beta readers, you are going to have to edit that too. Do not skip the follow-up edits!
Editing can be a daunting task, but it’s a necessary stage of creating a book. And even if you’re planning on working with a publisher, you’ll want to go through a lot of this process before you submit your manuscript, as it will help ensure you are sending over something of the highest quality.
Of course, there are many additional steps you can take in self-editing. A lot of it will come down to learning more about the actual craft of strong writing. You can learn some of that on your own simply by reading other books by writers you admire and really paying attention to what it is about their writing that engages you.
You can also pick up some books on editing and give them a read. Two I recommend are: The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Do you have any editing tips you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below.