Ah, the dreaded “e” word! Are you ready to learn how to edit your book as well as you possibly can? Hold on tight. Editing is one of those things that seems so simple, yet can be incredibly difficult to actually accomplish.
I promise it's worth the effort. If you learn to self-edit, your work will shine like the top of the Chrysler building (i.e. very shiny).
Seth Godin wrote a lovely post last year discussing the different kinds of editing. Of course, he was assuming someone else would be editing your work for you, and I have to emphasize that yes, you will need another pair of eyes.
However, before you send your writing to a paid editor, you need to be able to self-edit.
With that in mind, first we're going to explain the three phases to edit like a pro, then give you three final tips to make the most of your editing time.
Pros Edit In Three Passes
How do you self-edit, you wonder? Simple (though not easy): read your work slowly three times, and each time, read it with a different point of view.
First, Edit Like a Copyeditor
A copyeditor, in essence, makes sure that your work is written according to industry and current English-language standards. When you read your work in this mode, you don't focus on dialog or plot-points or character consistency. To read as a copyeditor is to focus on the picayune details — whether the punctuation is correct, whether the grammar is solid, and whether the spelling looks good.
Think of it as reading your manuscript with the highest magnification of your microscope. You're looking at apostrophes, not paragraphs.
Aside: Of course, in order to do this, you have to know punctuation, grammar, and spelling. That's a whole other post, but suffice it to say this is something adults can learn on their own outside of school. It just takes willingness to work at it, excellent online resources like this one, and the choice to read books that use it.
Pick up a few professionally edited novels and read them. Exposure will help your brain absorb the rules of our bizarre English language.
Then, Edit Like a Line-editor
To read as a line-editor means checking for sentence flow, readability, paragraph arrangement, and organization. You've pulled back the magnification to see your work one chunk at a time (note: still not as a whole).
I think these folks said it best:
[T]he purpose of a line edit is not to comb your manuscript for errors – rather, a line edit focuses on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader. Is your language clear, fluid, and pleasurable to read? Does it convey a sense of atmosphere, emotion, and tone? Do the words you’ve chosen convey a precise meaning, or are you using broad generalizations and clichés?
—NY Book Editors
Cool, right? So now you've (a) caught your typos, and (b) ensured your book is readable. Are you done?
Now comes the biggie: the content editor.
Last, Edit Like a Content Editor
To read like a content editor is actually closest to reading like a reader. While you will engage your brain heavily (I suggest sleeping well the night before), now you're also going to rely a whole lot on your gut.
This is stepping away from the microscope to view the whole portrait at once.
You're reading to grasp the meaning of the book. You're viewing characters like real people. You're looking at the big picture, and even checking whether chapter names fit their content.
Content editing is the most difficult kind of self-editing to do. In fact, it's almost impossible. No one can look at their work in full objectivity (which is why you'll need to hire an outside editor in the end; you won't be able to detach yourself from your work well enough to do this as thoroughly as it requires).
You still have to try. We all do. It's one of the weird parts of being a writer — trying to read as if you weren't the one writing it down.
I have a few tips to make this herculean effort go more smoothly. I learned them the hard way, stumbling through the world of self-publication.
Three More Tips To Edit Like a Pro
As you go through each of the three phases of editing above, here are three things to think about that will make your editing even more effective.
Editing Tip #1: Make sure you have enough time to put a few days (ideally two weeks or more) between each read.
I know, I know. You want it done today. I'm sure Romulus and Remus did, too.
This key sounds excruciating (and it is, unless you have another project to work on), but it's an incredibly powerful tool. Have you ever picked up something you wrote a long time ago and spotted all manner of things you'd never have let out in public if you'd caught them the first time? That is the power of time: you have NO idea what a difference it makes to come at your work with fresh eyes.
Editing Tip #2: Get some hot tea and cough drops, and read the whole thing out loud.
Your throat will not thank you for this, but your brain will. It's a funny thing that when we read out loud, we discover the dialog that doesn't work, or the thought-pattern that made a lot more sense in our heads. When we read out loud, it's more obvious which bits and pieces don't fit like we thought.
This one can take a while. Days, even. It's worth the investment. Read your work out loud and see what you find.
Editing Tip #3: Ask yourself THE QUESTION: If you cut this scene/line/character/chapter/paragraph, would anything change?
This is the heart of self-editing, and it is the most difficult. That scene — it may be cute, but is it needed? That conversation — it may seem like it builds character, but does it actually do anything beyond taking up space? Let me ask you again: if you cut that thing (paragraph, chapter, sentence, etc.), would anything change?
This is verging on Stephen King's ubiquitous quote: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” And this is so very HARD.
Why You Need to Edit (and Kill Your Darlings)
As a personal example, let me tell you a story. I wrote a book which was published in 2012. It involves insanely powerful aliens enslaved to the human race, and at one point, I wrote them a queen. She was awesome. Her skin was the color of eggplant, and she could manipulate matter with simple thought. She was utterly unafraid of anything. I loved her.
Unfortunately, her only reason for existence was being awesome, and that's not good enough.
I realized this on my third read-through. She was cool; but she didn't really have a natural entry point into the plot, regardless of where I shoe-horned her (and I tried in numerous places). Given that the aliens in question did not actually breed (or have royalty, or politics, or social systems of any kind), she didn't really have a point, either.
I really wrestled with this. I love strong female characters, and she was a doozy. But I had to ask myself the question, and you know what I realized? Cutting her made no difference at all.
The plot didn't change.
The characters didn't change.
The outcome of the story didn't change.
In fact, one of the other aliens (who DID have a plotty purpose) fit better in the scene I'd written her into. And so, though it broke my egocentric little scribbler's heart, I removed her from the book.
And the book read better.
She didn't even leave a her-shaped hole behind.
This really, genuinely is the hardest question to ask yourself, but it is worth it. If you want your entire story to matter, if you want every scene to count, you have to ask yourself the question: if you cut it, does anything change?
If the answer is no, cut it. Paste it into another file so you don't lose it, but keep it out of your primary work.
Your manuscript—and your readers—will thank you.
How about you? Have you edited your work lately? Let me know in the comments section.
For practice today, choose a piece you've written and ask yourself the question, if you cut this scene/line/character/chapter/paragraph, would anything change? Edit for fifteen minutes.
When your time is up, either post your cleaned-up scene in the comments section, or tell us what you've realized it needed. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.
Now go edit like a pro.
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.