How to Edit a Book: The Ultimate 3-step Process to Perfect Your Novel

Editing is an essential part of crafting any story, whether you like it or not. However, there are countless ways to go about it, and you will need to find what works for you.

That said, we have three essential steps that you should take, regardless of your approach to editing.

Wherever you are in your editing needs, we hope the information on this site will help. This is only one of a series of posts about editing. Enjoy!

In this article, you will learn:
  1. Why you should edit your book
  2. Who should edit your book
  3. How to edit a book in three steps

Should You Edit Your Book?

The short answer is, yes, however, this is often a question that many authors (especially indie authors) secretly ask.

After all, editing can be a huge expense, and if you get the wrong editor, it can do you little good. Many authors (myself included) have wondered if there was a way to just…get by without breaking the bank to hire an editor, especially when just starting out.

We’ll talk more about when and who should edit your book below, but understand that, while editing a book is essential, the question of “should you hire an editor” is a completely different matter.

Regardless, editing is still an essential process, even for those who hate it, but every author is different, and your most important task is to find what works best for you.

Let’s talk about some ways to identify what kind of an edit/editor you need.

Outliners vs. Pantsers

In my experience, you can often tell if someone is an outliner or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) based on whether they prefer the outlining or the editing process.

If you are an outliner, chances are you likewise find editing to be a chore. That is certainly true for me. I am an outliner through and through.

Well the good news is that outliners often don’t need as much editing. Critical elements of a book like plot structure, pacing, character development, and worldbuilding are all largely taken care of during the outlining stage. An edit will still be necessary, but it often deals with more superficial issues, and not deeply embedded plot problems.

If you are a pantser, on the other hand, there’s a good chance that you enjoy the editing process, because that’s when you get to see your story really come together.

For pantsers, additional edits are often required to make the piece feel more cohesive. Large rewrites might be necessary. But hey, you get to skip the outlining and dive right into the writing!

Authors tend to lean one way or the other, and their inclinations often correspond with their writing process. Outliners spend more time at the start of their book, and less time in the edit. Likewise, pantsers spend less time at the beginning, and more at the end. It depends on your personal preference.

Why You Should Edit Your Book

Even if you are a hardcore outliner, your book will still need significant edits if you want to impress readers and publishers.

Let’s talk about why that is:

Publishers can often tell within the first few pages if a manuscript is unpolished. Here are some things they will reject you for:

  • Your book doesn’t have a clear hook
  • Your setting and tone are undefined or in conflict
  • Your point of view or tense are inconsistent
  • You start with too much exposition

If you’re self-publishing, you might not feel like you need to impress a publisher, but readers will pick up on these things as well, though they might not be able to articulate why.

Even if they read past the first few pages of your book, the following will also turn them off, and can lead to poor readership and bad reviews.

  • Your book is full of redundancies
  • Your paragraphs are laced with punctuation errors and typos
  • You are overly wordy
  • Your characters feel “flat”
  • Your plot confuses the reader

Any of these things will result in a poor reader experience, the exact thing you want to avoid. Editing is one great way to deliver the best possible experience to your reader.

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Who Edits Your Book?

We’ve established that editing your book is important. Now the question becomes, who does it?

Generally speaking, there are three main options:

  1. Yourself
  2. Your beta readers
  3. A professional editor

The Self-edit

For a self-edit, you simply read through your own manuscript and make corrections and adjustments as you go along.

Most of the time, you should be doing at least some self-editing for every book, no matter what approach you take.

If you are editing the book yourself, with no input from beta readers or professional editors, you need to make sure you do a thorough job. If you’re by yourself, we would recommend revising at least 5-6 times, editing for a different element of your novel each time, and that suggested number is a minimum.

If you are using a professional editor and/or beta readers, you may still need to run through your manuscript 1-3 times, but their involvement can significantly reduce the number of edits you will need to make.

Beta Readers

Beta readers can be a valuable asset to your editing process, because (unlike yourself or your editor) they are members of your target audience.

Beta readers can help you find a lot of issues that you might have missed or ignored. They’re particularly good for identifying problems with characters, plot inconsistencies, dialogue, etc.

The downside to beta readers is that they can’t always articulate why there is a problem, and many of the comments they make might be based on a personal preference. But, if more than one beta reader tells you that they don’t like a particular character or scene, it’s worth looking very closely at that part of your story.

Professional Editors

The gold standard for book editing is, of course, a professional book editor. Finding a good book editing service can be a task unto itself, but they usually fall under one of three categories:

  1. Development Editors: These are editors that will look at the overall structure of your story. They will tackle big problems with your plot, characters, setting, etc. They usually don’t deal with the nitty-gritty details or the specific wording of your paragraphs. Developmental editing can be really effective for pantsers, or for outliners who really want to do a thorough polish of their story.
  2. Line Editors: These editors will look at your manuscript on a more sentence by sentence level, ensuring that your text avoids redundancies, overly flowery language, repetitive words, etc.
  3. Copy editors/Proofreaders: You will often see these two terms refer to the same thing, though they are different, but the general idea is that this person(s) reviews your manuscript for grammar, typos, special formatting, and other smaller details. By the time you've completed your copy editing, your manuscript should be mostly finished already.

Some editors will do more than one of these edits for you, usually for an additional price. Or you could find a separate editor for each step.

Additionally, if you’re editing the book yourself, it’s worth noting that these three types of edits correspond with our three-step process to edit your book.

Before You Start

Whether you plan to edit your book yourself or have help, there are a few steps I recommend you take to help you out.

Take a Break

Let’s face it, you just finished a book, you’re tired, you’ve been immersed in this world for a long time. If you edit immediately, you will not have the fresh perspective that you need to edit efficiently.

How long should you leave your manuscript?

That depends on you and your goals. Some authors, like Stephen King, will wait a good six weeks or more before returning to the manuscript. I know some authors that will go ahead and write another book while they wait.

For others, you might need only a day or two. But the point is, you need some time to unwind and, in the words of Master Yoda, “unlearn what you have learned.”

Taking a break will help you come back to the story with fresh eyes. We guarantee that you will discover new things about your story that you would not have found otherwise.

Steel Yourself

Editing can sometimes require a thick skin, especially when you’re working with editors and beta readers.

When you’ve worked with a story long enough to write a book, it’s completely normal to build up an attachment to it. All so an editor can tear it to shreds.

It can hurt. A lot. But remember one thing:

An editor’s job is to make your book better.

Once more for those in the back…

Their comments are not a reflection of you, quite the opposite. They are there to help you be a better version of yourself.

Beta readers are the same way. Don’t take offense when one or more of them didn’t like a particular scene, but don’t shrug it off either. Chances are, if more than one beta reader made the same comment, you have a problem with your story that needs fixing.

Know Your Audience

It goes without saying that you should know the genre and its audience before you even start writing your book. However, sometimes things can change during the writing process, and you may decide it better suits a different audience.

By the time you start editing, you must know that audience inside and out, because many of the edits you make will depend on who you’re talking to.

Take Notes When Writing

One useful tip is to jot down, as you’re writing, anything you think you will need to go back and fix.

This helps a lot to keep your focus on the writing, so you’re not constantly going back and editing. It also keeps you from forgetting important elements of your story that might need editing.

Once you have these basic preparations squared away, it’s time to dig into the three-step process to a perfectly polished novel.

Step 1: The Development Edit

First up is the developmental pass. This is the edit that focuses primarily on big-picture issues. You’ll look at the structure of your plot, the development of your characters, the pacing of the novel, and other similar issues.

If you hire a developmental editor for you, they will do all of this in one pass, give you suggestions, and you can then make your edits based on those suggestions.

Thankfully, if you are an outliner, a lot of these problems will be minimal, reducing the need for heavy developmental editing. For pantsers, you will likely have a lot of work to do at this stage.

If you edit yourself, you’ll want at least one readthrough of your book that focuses on the developmental issues. However, if you want to go the extra mile, you can focus on even more specific issues with each edit.

I find that focusing on one specific type of issue helps me identify them better. You might want to focus on any of the following:

Plot

The plot is simply the events of your story. Some questions to ask yourself during your editing process include:

  • Does my plot flow naturally and “make sense.”
  • Does my plot follow a structure, such as the hero’s journey, the three-act structure, the seven-point structure, etc.?
  • Are all major plot threads addressed by the end?
  • Does the plot structure fit the genre?
  • Is the chronology consistent?

Plot is important because it provides the basic vehicle for the rest of your story, so we recommend ensuring the plot is airtight before moving on to other things.

However, if there was one element that was at least equally important as the plot, it would be…

Character

In almost all cases, you will want to have character development in your story. There are exceptions to this (Sherlock Holmes originally didn’t have much development), and these exceptions are usually more plot-based.

But for the majority of our stories, we want to master the art of character development.

It’s worth noting that the growth of the character is often intrinsically linked with the progression of the plot, with one feeding the other and vice versa. That is why we don’t really rank one above the other in importance.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when editing to improve character:

  • Do your characters have flaws?
  • Do the main characters change by the end of the novel?
  • Are the characters proactive and competent in at least one thing?
  • Do the secondary characters serve a story purpose?
  • Do your characters want something?
  • Are your characters' backstories fleshed out well enough to not feel cookie-cutter?

Pacing

Often when we are writing a novel, we can overlook issues of pacing, because the writing process is (usually) a lot slower than the reading process.

Once you begin the developmental edit, you will want to consider pacing. Depending on your genre, you may elect for a faster or slower pace.

Faster paced stories include horror, thriller, mystery, urban/paranormal fantasies, some romance subgenres, and comedies.

Slower paced stories include those in epic fantasy, dramas, and historical fiction.

But ultimately, you will have to know your specific niche, because some genres (like Fantasy, Sci-fi, and Romance) tend to vary in their pacing.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when pacing your novel:

  • How are your chapter and paragraph lengths on average? (longer for slower pacing, shorter for faster pacing)
  • Do you spend the right amount of time on description and worldbuilding?
  • Does each scene/chapter include a hook for the next one?
  • What are your character’s emotions surrounding what is happening in the plot? (Pro tip: the reader will often reflect what the character feels, so if they are feeling urgent, the reader will feel a sense of urgency, if they are feeling bored, so will the reader)

Your editor and/or beta readers will be a huge asset for identifying problems with your pacing. If several people mention that something feels “rushed” or “boring”, you need to take a close look at your pacing.

Setting/Description

The setting is the world in which your story resides, whether made up or real. Authors tend to either have too much, or too little description of their setting, and will need to bulk up or prune accordingly.

Here are some questions to ask yourself during the edit:

  • Are you using all five senses to describe the scene, whenever possible?
  • Does the setting in each scene contribute to the story?
  • Do you have too much exposition? Can you better weave the world’s description into the dialogue, action, character?

Conflict

The conflict is the fuel that drives your story. Without conflict, there would be no plot, no reason for a character to deviate from their day-to-day activities. That is why it is crucially important to make sure that every scene has some form of conflict.

Conflict can come from a variety of sources, and don’t always have to be associated with the driving plot, it can come from:

  • Characters having a disagreement
  • A harsh setting (blizzard, pouring rain, extreme heat, etc.)
  • The antagonist(s)
  • Internal, emotional/psychological struggles

And these are just a few examples. The point is, ask yourself with every scene you review, “are my characters coming across some kind of opposition?”

If you do that, you’ll create a story that no one will want to put down.

Theme

Whether you developed the theme before you began writing, or discovered it through the process of writing, you want to make sure it is consistent and explored throughout your book.

My favorite definition of theme comes from David Farland. He says:

“A theme is simply an intellectual argument-played out in the deeds, thoughts, and discussions of your characters-that throws light upon a topic that has real life implications for your characters.”

So as you’re editing, look for ways to examine your theme from a variety of angles. If your characters are well written, none of them will have the same opinion on the same “intellectual argument”, providing ample opportunities to explore your theme.

Step 2: The Line Edit

Once you are done with the developmental edit, it’s time to move on to a more paragraph-by-paragraph level of editing.

By this point, you should be done with any major plot/character/setting revisions, and you’re focusing a lot more on the actual language you use.

A line editor will be invaluable to you in this stage, as they will be able to find a lot more things to fix. Since you are used to your own writing style, you will likely have quirks and flaws in your style that you would not be able to identify without an outside perspective.

While beta-readers can help with this, it’s your line editor that will be able to help the most. That is why, if you can, we highly recommend a line editor.

Regardless, here are some areas to watch out for during your line editing.

  • “Balanced” paragraphs: Try to use paragraphs that have an appropriate mixture of long, short, and medium-length sentences, leaning shorter for fast-paced scenes, and longer for slower scenes.
  • Repetition: Don’t use the same word too many times.
  • Unrealistic dialogue: Keep your dialogue consistent with the speaker and the time period. It’s easy for dialogue to sound too modern for a historical setting, for example.
  • Passive voice: The subject of your sentence should almost always perform the action. “The ball hit George in the face,” sounds a lot better than “George was hit in the face by the ball.”
  • Redundancy: Check to make sure you don’t give the same information more than once in a scene.
  • Show, don’t tell: This can be tricky for new writers, but overtime, and with practice, you’ll begin to pick up on it. Saying that “George felt tired,” is much less efficient when compared to, “George slumped in his chair, took off his glasses, and rubbed his eyes.”
  • Wordsmithing: Get your meaning across in as few words as possible. You can always trim more.
  • Tense and point of view (POV): Make sure you remain consistent with the tense (past tense, past participle, present, etc.) and your POV (third-person limited, third-person omniscient, first person, etc.). This is one of the biggest problems a line editor will uncover.
  • Adverbs: Not all adverbs are bad, but you want to watch out for them. Look at each one and ask if there’s a better way to say it.

The line edit can be one of the more meticulous parts of the editing process, as you have to look very closely at each individual paragraph. That is why it can often be more rewarding to hire a line editor to do the bulk of the work for you.

Step 3: The Proofreading Edit

This is sometimes called copyediting or proofreading, and sometimes the copy edit also overlaps with line editing. For simplicity’s sake, we will refer to this step as the proofreading stage from this point on.

The proofread is the stage when you look for small mistakes in the grammar, typos, spelling, etc. It’s the most technical of the edits, because it will have nothing to do with your story.

This is another stage where we highly recommend hiring an editor to help you, because by this time you’ve probably stared at your manuscript so much that your eyes glance over little mistakes.

In fact, if you can only afford to pay for one editor that I’ve mentioned, make it the proofreader. It doesn’t matter how good your story is, if it’s full of errors and typos, you will draw the reader out of it.

A reader might be willing to forgive you a small handful of mistakes, but if your manuscript is littered with them, it will almost certainly lead to bad reviews and poor sales.

However, if you can’t get an editor for whatever reason, we recommend using a software like Prowriting Aid or Grammarly to help out. They will be much more efficient at helping you proofread your novel than the standard spellcheck included with Word or other writing programs.

Additional Editing Tips

If our three-step process isn’t enough for you, here are some additional tips to perfect your editing process.

Read Your Book Out Loud

Taking the time to actually read the book out loud, or getting some software to do it for you, is a great way to identify errors, awkward sentences, and other inconsistencies that you might have missed.

Don’t Ask Friends/Family to Edit

Your friends can be a valuable resource for you, but not necessarily when it comes to editing your book. We only recommend that you lend your book to friends/family if A) they are a regular reader of that genre, or B) they are a professional author/editor. And if the latter is the case, you should probably pay them for their trouble.

In most cases, your parents, your best friend, even your high school English teacher will not give you the advice you need to make your story better.

Know When to Quit

It’s entirely possible to obsess about a book for months, or even years. If you struggle with this, we present you with this hard truth from Leonardo da Vinci:

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Eventually, you need to move on to the next adventure. That is why we don’t recommend more than 6-7 edits per book, and even that’s only if you are editing yourself.

Personally, I wouldn’t do more than three if I were hiring an editor. But I’m an outliner, so it may differ for you.

Self-edit vs. Hired Professional

So how to edit a book? Ultimately your budget, your experience, and the needs of your manuscript will determine who edits your novel.

Whenever possible, we recommend a professional. All the self-editing in the world will not make up for all the blind spots we authors have when it comes to our own work.

This is especially true if you are just starting out. I know I grew tremendously as a writer when I connected with a developmental editor. It was like having a writing coach.

That said, many of us authors start out with few funds to invest in an editor. If you simply can’t afford an editor, try your best to round up some quality beta-readers, and spend the extra time to thoroughly edit your book.

You will find that you can go from a decent writer to an amazing writer, simply by going the extra mile in your editing.

You can find additional resources to help with your editing here:



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