If you Google the phrase “the best writing is rewriting” you’ll find no agreement about who said it first. Hemingway, Robert Graves, and Truman Capote are just three of the famous candidates. But that doesn’t matter. What does count is the way this quote resonates. When it comes to the importance of book editing, there is near universal consensus. It’s an indispensable part of the writing process and it’s where much of the best work is done. This guide will help explain why editing is so important, how to edit effectively, and the ins and outs of editing a book for publishing – whether that be with a traditional publisher or self-publishing.
Why Is Editing Important?
Writing a book is one thing. Reading a book is something different. It’s manuscript editing that creates the bridge between those two processes. It’s in editing a book that you make sure you are actually saying what you want to say and saying it in the right way. It’s where you get to weigh your words, and make sure they all have the desired impact. It’s where you get to see and remove obstacles between those words and your readers. It’s where you get a chance to enable your book to become the best possible version of itself. It’s where you can turn a book from good to great.
Which all sounds wonderful. But let’s not pretend it’s always easy or straightforward. It’s also where you will make some of the most important and difficult decisions about your work. It is necessarily challenging, painstaking, time consuming and difficult.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to make this process easier and more effective. Let’s get to those now.
The Main Ways To Edit Your Book
The first thing to know is that there is more than one way to edit a book. Here are some of the best methods:
Editing With A Publisher Or Agent
If you’re lucky enough to be picked up by an agent or traditional publisher, you will hopefully get input from a professional who will help get your book ready for the commercial market. This is the gold standard, in many ways, when it comes to editing a book for publishing. It is a unique relationship because it’s between people who have a special stake in the work in question. However, it’s not the only way to produce results – and often quite a bit of editing goes into a book before it gets through to agents and publishers.
Sometimes a trusted friend or fellow writer can provide that second pair of eyes you need to help you see the things you are missing in your book – and also to give you that crucial insight into how it feels to read your book. It can be extremely helpful – although it can also get complicated and it’s important to find the mix of advice and support that works for you. (Try our guide for all the ins and outs of using beta readers, as well as some useful tips on how to approach the process.)
Editing With A Paid Industry Professional
Many writers find it extremely helpful to hire an independent industry professional to give them a detailed and honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses in their work via organisations like ours (access our editorial services here). The advantages of getting this kind of insight into your work speak for themselves. It can be difficult to decide which editorial service to use, which is where our article about the different types of editing and how to choose between them comes in handy. This article also makes the crucial point that “the right time for editorial input is generally: as late as possible.” You’ll get the most out of an external editor after you have taken your book as far as you can yourself. It’s really important that before you bring someone else in, you make sure you know your book inside out and have taken it as far as you can. Make sure, in short, that you have done the crucial work of self-editing first. The rest of this article will predominantly focus on this part of the process – but some tips will also apply to the other editing methods.
This – as the name suggests- is the part of the process that you can do for yourself. Let’s look at it in more detail now.
How To Edit Your Book
The truth is that there’s no one way to edit your book. If I were to tell you that you can map out every part of the process and systematically tick off every aspect of editing a book by following a simple formula, I would be lying. In fact, the very best guide to how do edit your book is very often your book itself. Which is to say, you have to try to tailor the work you do according to the needs of your manuscript. You need to look carefully at what’s in front of you and take it from there. But there are still several important steps that you can and should follow to make sure you maximise the potential of your writing.
Take Time Away From Your Book
The first thing to do is nothing. Set your book aside. Give yourself time away from the book so that you can come to it afresh and begin to be able to see the wood, as well as the trees. And perhaps even the path you will need to take through the forest… One of the key elements in editing a book is seeing it clearly. It’s hard to do that when you’re still in writing mode and still in the midst of all those thoughts that crowd around as you get down your first draft.
Format Your Manuscript
This feels like a very basic step, but it’s important. When you present your book to agents and editors you want it to be as clear and clean looking as possible. And this is also a good part of that process of helping you to see your words anew. If you have them laid out regularly, in a new font, newly double-spaced and with page numbers your own read through of your work will be more productive – and you will hopefully see your words with different clarity.
Fix Your Spelling And Grammar
Again, this is an important job for when it comes to presenting your book to other readers. You want them concentrating on what you want to say, rather than tripping over mistakes and falling into needless confusion. Reading through with an eye on spelling and grammar rather than all the other questions relating to how to edit a book will also again help you see and think about your work in a new way and spot things you might not otherwise have noticed.
Read Your Book
I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many people don’t carry out this part of the process. It is clearly a key part of how to edit your novel – but before we get too scornful of those who don’t carry it out, I actually understand why so many writers are reticent here. Much as hearing the sound of your own voice can be painful, reading your words on the page can be discomforting. Once you get to the end of a draft it’s also hard not to feel exhausted – and like you already know your book inside out. But you’ll be surprised at just how many surprises your work can contain. And how different a book can feel when you actually sit and read it from front to back. So do it. Try to put yourself in the position of an editor or first reader encountering your work for the first time and think about the things that will jump out at them. Resist the urge to dig in too deep at this stage. Save the big rewrites for later – although do make marks and comments and keep a list of things that jump out at you.
Attend To The Big Things: Voice, Structure, And Character
There are several, important basic questions you can ask yourself when you’re approaching the challenge of how to edit a novel. Of course, editing books is an art rather than a science so these won’t apply universally, but even if they don’t, it may be useful to think about why they don’t matter in your work and what that means about what you should be doing.
Think About Voice
There are certain questions you can ask yourself when thinking about your use of voice.
Do I know what I want to say, and am I saying it in the most precise, clear and evocative way? Am I using my narrative voice as fully as I can, and have I captured other people’s accurately? Have I got the right voice for the story I’m telling?
Think About Character
There are lots of things to consider in terms of your characters and how you’ve shaped and developed them in your book. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
Are my characters well drawn and convincing both to me and my readers? Do these characters have weight in the world? Can I recognise them as soon as they enter a scene? What about characters’ voices, either in dialogue or when looking at the world from their point of view? Do my characters all have unique voices?
Think About Structure
There are lots of questions you can ask yourself when you’re editing/examining the structure of your book, too.
Is my structure working properly, with a good beginning, middle and end? Does it all flow and add up to something? Is it told in the clearest way possible? Does the chronology make sense and is it easy to follow?
Get Down To The Nitty Gritty: Sentences
When you’re editing at the sentence level there are even more things to consider and questions you can ask yourself.
Are the words and images I’m using fresh and vibrant? Have I avoided cliché? Am I engaging my readers’ senses of smell, touch, taste, sound and vision in the right way? Am I tagging every verb with an adverb, and every noun with an adjective? (It may be that many are superfluous, and that with a bit more confidence you can cut them out and trust that your writing is evocative enough to get the point across without them.) Does every word, sentence, paragraph, every bit of dialogue serve a purpose?
Check Your Dialogue
Are you using prose to break up the dialogue with things like facial expressions, body language, incidental details, internal monologue and physical and emotional responses? Is that working? Are you using lots of emotive dialogue tags, eg gasped, roared, moaned, grumbled etc? Most of the time, you’ll find that it’s best to stick with s/he said which is almost invisible.
Read Another Article!
Here’s a really useful alternative article on editing. It gets into the nitty gritty of line editing, increasing the force of your sentences, closing your chapter with resonance, and getting your rhythm right. It’s full of food for thought for when you’re really polishing and improving your work.
Print Out Your Book
See how your work looks on paper. And then, that’s right, read it again. Editing a book is a slow, careful process. Sometimes it can be really helpful to have something tangible that you can feel and hold in your hands. And you can make it fun by experimenting with different highlighters and coloured pens, or physically cutting pages into sections and rearranging chapters or paragraphs.
The Art Of Editing
Before closing let me emphasise again that editing is more of an art than a science. The important things to do are to work with the manuscript you have and edit it according to its needs. Also always try to think of that reader you want to read your work. What do they know, want to know, need to know? What will amuse and entertain them? What will trip them up? What will keep them avidly reading until the end?
There are many different ways of answering those questions – and different ways of getting to the result you want. Self-editing will help you get a good bit of the way there – but do also keep an open mind about getting more help further down the line.
Finally, a bit more food for thought and a few articles that will also help you take your work further:
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