If you want to be a great writer, and create a best-selling novel or memoir, you must learn how to edit your own book.
Now, I’m a huge fan of Star Trek. Doctor McCoy would often say, “Damn it, Jim. I’m a doctor, not a _______!” (fill in the blank with brick layer, engineer, etc.) I have the feeling that some writers might identify with that sentiment. I can just imagine them saying, “Damn it, Laura. I’m a writer, not an editor!”
I hear you.
I get it.
However, I beg to differ. There’s no getting around the fact that you need to know how to edit your own book.
While you are a writer and can magically weave words together to create worlds and entice your readers, you are also in charge of making sure your words communicate. The editing process will help you accomplish that.
When you learn to edit your own book, you will become a stronger writer. Your first drafts will become better and better with each subsequent book, because you will spot your weak points and correct them. Not only will you improve your ability to structure plot, create characters and highlight themes, but you will probably reduce the number of spelling and grammatical errors.
Edit your own book before you publish it
It’s important to note that after you edit, and before you publish, you will need to hire outside editors to make sure everything works. Most authors hire at least a developmental editor and a copy editor. If you have questions about this area, please check out my article about the different kinds of editors available to you.
However, before you turn over your work to a professional editor, you will need to make sure it is the best you can make it. That way the editor can do a better job for you.
The editing process begins with you
Think about it.
Your editor can do a much better job if he doesn’t need to wade through a super rough draft. It’s a little like hiring someone to clean your home after a party where litter and lampshades are strewn around the floor. While some may feel it is silly to clean up for the cleaner, it actually makes sense.
With the obvious mess out of the way, he can spend his time doing a detailed cleaning. It’s the same with your manuscript. When you clean it up, it will save your editor time, which will save you money.
The editing process ends with you
When you hire a professional editor, she will give you a lot of comments. Some will be elements that you must change, while others will be an opinion. You need to recognize the difference and act accordingly.
If you misspelled a word or misused a comma, you’ll need to make those corrections. However, sometimes the editor might not quite get your voice, your style, or your meaning. In those cases, you need to know not to make those changes. If you plan to develop a long-term relationship with an editor, communicate directly with her about those points so that she can understand how to better edit your work. If she is defensive, find another editor. There are many good ones out there.
While it’s true that traditional publishers provide in-house editors for all the books they have under contract, you still need to get in the front door. It’s vital to present the best draft you can. Otherwise, they will ignore your manuscript and reach for one of the many thousands that grace their inbox.
Most authors opt to self-publish. Although you can self-publish anything these days, the last thing you want is to publish a book full of plot holes and riddled with typos and errors.
You can never erase the bad reviews you’ll get.
Proper editing will go a long way to encouraging a slew of five-star reviews, which will help you to develop a following.
Edit your own book with the big picture in mind
It’s a mistake to focus on grammar and editing when you sit down to edit your own book. This isn’t a good place to start. Instead, begin by looking at the overall structure and flow of your book. Later you can work your way down to the fine details. When you tackle the big picture first, many of your words and sentences will change, thereby possibly eliminating the need to correct spelling and grammatical errors.
To get a sense of the big picture, I find it helps to find a one-line answer to the question, “What is my story about?” The answer you come up with will help you align your book around that central concept.
For instance, let’s say you determine that your book is about how you struggled through adversity to become a successful business owner. Skip the late-night stress-baking scenes or the irrelevant tiffs with in-laws. Unless the scene directly relates to the purpose and thrust of your book, delete it.
Let’s examine various key elements of the big picture.
When you first start to edit your own book, I suggest that you examine the plot. Make sure it hits all the areas you need it to hit:
- Have you followed the three-act structure?
- Does the story flow logically?
- Is there a good level of conflict and tension?
If you haven’t outlined your book, now might be a good time to analyze the purpose of each incident within your story. If you can’t find a purpose for the scene, delete it.
The next step is to scrutinize your characters carefully from a big picture viewpoint. Do they each have a purpose in the novel or memoir? If not, cut them out. This can be the hardest part of editing for an author, I know. Writers tend to get attached to the people they created.
While you are sharpening your editing sheers, keep in mind that a character’s role can be small, yet significant. For instance, the barista who serves Joe a cup of joe every day might be a sounding board for his new ideas. Or Clarissa’s strict piano teacher might help the reader understand why she is such a perfectionist as an adult.
The main characters should all follow character arcs. In other words, they need to have some sort of transformation through the incidents of the story. Look over a few of your favorite books. Can you identify the character arcs within the stories?
If you’re writing a memoir, keep in mind that you are the main character of your story.
Themes are the main ideas that tie your story together. Universal themes deal with ideas about Love, Friendship, War, Faith and the like. More specifically, you can have themes such as “Persistence always wins in the end,” “Family is important,” or “Being true to oneself has rewards.” For more information about themes, read my article, Great Memoir Themes.
Your book should explore one or more themes. I like to think of it like weaving gold thread through tapestry to make it shimmer. You never want to hit your reader over the head with a theme. Instead, you want to suggest it and have the readers recognize the concept for themselves. Or not. Readers never like to be told what to think. I mean, who does?
As you edit, make sure your story aligns with your theme. For instance, if you want to promote the idea that kindness wins in the end, you might not want your lead character to succeed by gleefully hurting others around him with no consequence.
Zoom in to edit your scenes
Now that you have all the big picture elements the way you want them, it’s time to closely examine your individual scenes one by one.
In the opening scene you want to grab the reader by the scruff of his neck and (hopefully) never let go. One way to do this is to drop him in the middle of the ocean and demand that he treads water to keep up. This is the make-break point of your book. The opening scene can be the most challenging to write, so some authors rewrite that first crucial scene after they complete their first draft. It can be easier to edit after the book is completed because you know exactly where the story winds up and you have all the story elements worked out.
As you review each scene, make sure it has a strong purpose in your story. It should move the story forward or illuminate an important aspect of your characters.
Also, determine if the scenes flow well the way you have them organized. You might need to switch them around. If you do, be aware that you may need to create new transitions.
If you’re a writer who writes by the seat of his pants rather than outlining ahead of time, this is a good time to sprinkle in a few foreshadowing elements. If you’re a plotter, these may be covered. However, while editing, you might have brilliant insights that inspire you to add in a few more.
This is also a good time to review your transitions. If they are too jarring, your reader will be flung out of your book and might never find his way back. Ideally, you want one scene to flow into the next like a long river.
Characters, a closer look
When you examine your characters, make sure they are believable and three-dimensional. Even if a character is secondary, she needs to have proper development and realistic motivations for her actions. Of course, a bank teller who appears once on page fifty-nine doesn’t need a back story, but consider that the third-grade teacher, who is featured in a quarter of the book, will need more than a mere physical description.
Continuity is something to look at in this phase. In the big picture you’ve gone over the character arc and made sure each main character has hit the highs and the lows that he or she should. But now it’s time to make sure each character is consistent in his speech and actions. If Matilda was angry and sullen in the first part of the book, but suddenly becomes cheerful halfway through, there needs to be a reason. Likewise, if you established that Terry wasn’t very bright, it wouldn’t make sense if you later have him wax intellectual about a scientific discovery.
Point of View
You can write your book from different points of view:
- First person – The protagonist is telling the story. He is part of the story and shares his experiences directly.
- Second person (rare) – The narrator is telling the story of “you,” so that it seems like the action is happening to you (the reader).
- Third person limited – The narrator shares some of the thoughts and experiences of the characters, usually just one character.
- Third person multiple – The narrator shares the thoughts and experiences of several characters.
- Third Person omniscient – The narrator shares the thoughts and experiences of all characters.
Make sure you are keeping the point of view consistent throughout the story. For instance, if you’ve chosen third person limited and are writing from Mary’s point of view, you can’t suddenly switch over to James’ in the middle of a scene. Find a way to show how he is feeling from Mary’s viewpoint.
For instance, you wouldn’t say:
James couldn’t believe his ears. How could she have said that?
Instead, you might say:
Mary took a step back as James advanced on her saying, “How could you say something like that to me?”
Dialogue should have a purpose. It should move the story forward by providing information, advancing the plot or giving insight into your characters. Dialogue can be a wonderfully subtle way to reveal your characters’ motivations, as well as their overall moral compass and viewpoints.
Each character should have his or her own way of speaking. For instance, someone who is angry at the world will speak in shorter sentences, whereas someone with a flair for the dramatic might wax poetic with long, flowery prose. In addition, people in the real world sometimes make up their own words or phrases.
As you edit your own book, read your dialogue out loud or maybe have a friend read it to you. Listen carefully to the words and see if they sound real. Bad dialogue stands out like a leech on your leg.
Make sure each character has a distinct voice which is consistent and predictable. Pay close attention to your main character’s voice, especially if he or she is the narrator.
Edit your own book line by line
Now it’s time to zero in on each line of your book. Again, you shouldn’t focus on this task until you have completed the big picture and the scene analyses. Here you’ll focus on the word choice and look for errors.
Line editing is an art and there are many, many ways to edit your words so that they communicate effectively and efficiently. There are too many areas to discuss in this article, but I wanted to highlight a few key ones.
Show, don’t tell
This is a writer’s mantra.
When you edit your own book and see that you’re explaining something such as an emotion or a thought, consider how you might show it. This allows the reader to see it and draw his own conclusions, making him an active part of the story.
For example, you wouldn’t say:
Susie thought of the way Barry broke up with her. This made her feel sad. She missed him so much.
However, you might write:
Susie saw Barry across the room. She turned with a sigh and blinked away a tear as she fingered the silver chain he’d given her the previous month.
For a more detailed explanation of this concept of show, don’t tell, please check out my article on the subject.
Minimize your use of adverbs
Adverbs can weaken your writing. They also tell the reader something rather than allowing him to experience it. So, it’s good to use adverbs sparingly. Instead, use strong verbs to show the reader what is happening.
“I’ll do it later,” he said tiredly.
Instead, use something like this:
John yawned and closed his eyes. “I’ll do it later,” he murmured.
Keep your language real
Never try to impress your reader with fancy vocabulary. Instead, focus on words that best communicate your ideas.
For example, please don’t say:
Katie was stultified as the lecturer pontificated.
Katie found the lecture boring.
Take out needless words
When you write your first draft, the emphasis is on getting your ideas on paper. You should just let your ideas flow. To do that, you’ll probably use a lot of words to give them form. Now it’s time to delete the filler words.
For example, you may have written:
Smith took over the empty pilot seat in order to navigate around the mountain peak.
You can tighten it like this:
Smith took over the pilot seat to navigate the mountain peak.
After all, we can guess that no one was in the seat when he sat down and of course you’d go around the mountain peak.
When you write your first draft, you may find that you’ve repeated yourself. This is the time to edit out those redundancies.
For example, it is not uncommon for writers to write:
…he thought to himself.
You can simply say:
You can only think to yourself.
Or if you wrote:
She kicked him with her foot.
You can edit it down to:
She kicked him.
We know it was with her foot.
Check your “trouble words”
These are words that give you difficulty. Maybe you just can’t remember the spelling or the grammar rule. No worries, everyone has them.
For instance, some people struggle with the difference between “your” and “you’re”. Or they have trouble remembering when to use “it’s” and “its.”
Luckily, there are plenty of online resources and tools to help you with trouble words. But nothing beats finding these errors for yourself. So, keep a list of your trouble words handy and look out for them as you line edit your own book.
You’ve made it through the editing phase of your book project. Now you can turn over your manuscript to one or two professional editors. Then it’s off to the printing presses, virtual or otherwise.
If you have any questions or need help as you edit your book, please feel free to comment below or write me directly.