How to Edit a Book: 6-Layer Guide for Meticulous Self-Editing

How to Edit a Book: 6-Layer Self-Editing Guide for a Novice Writer

Writers when they begin editing their first draft:

If I tell you it took me one year to write my book, and three to edit, would you laugh or would you laugh?

I remember spending hours on my script, researching my arguments thoroughly, and putting in my time in the chair.

But when I read through it (my vomit draft). I knew deep down it wasn’t good. The ideas I assumed were extraordinary didn’t quite hold up, the writing was miserable, and there were gaps in the research.

In my defence, I was writing a book for the first time, and I didn’t how to edit a book.  

Chances are, if you’re anything like me, you too have struggled with the same problem. Editing a novel can be painful, but it is a rewarding process.

In this article on ‘how to edit a book,’ I bring to you some of the best self-editing tips I’ve received over the last couple of years.

Layer #1: Before you start self-editing, take a Break

When you’ve focused on your first draft for so long, it’s almost impossible to switch gears. Your brain may not process errors in your writing. 

Hence, to produce your best work, you’ve to take breaks between creating, self-editing, and refining it. Stepping away from the script allows your work to mature in your mind. 

You become more analytical and less emotionally attached to it. As a result, your mind makes clear decisions. If improving overall quality requires rearranging paragraphs, justifying a metaphor, or deleting an entire chapter, you wouldn’t shy away from it. 

Stephen King, in his book titled, ‘On Writing’ mentions he takes a 6-week break after finishing the first draft of his book. He won’t start self-editing until that deadline has elapsed. 

You don’t have to follow the 6-week rule. If it’s a novel, you may opt for a three-month break. If it’s an article, 24-hours is enough. Your time-out period should be proportional to the length of the book/article you’ve written. 

During this break, I usually read masters from my niche and observe how they’ve nailed their scripts.

Layer #2: Spell Check for Basic Novel Editing

Once you’ve taken the break, you’re ready to tackle the self-editing phase.

Everybody makes typing mistakes, but not everyone is a writer. So, they don’t have the bad luck of having their errors broadcasted to the world. 

How to Edit a Book: 6-Layer Self-Editing Guide for a Novice Writer

Hence, start your novel editing with the basics and check for: 

  • Spelling
  • Double spaces
  • Punctuation  
  • Awkward phrasing
  • Grammar
  • Troubling Words 

You can run a spell/grammar check on tools like Grammarly, Hemmingway, and Ginger Software. 

For troubling words, here’s a good starting list, excerpted from the writer’s life‘s article on How to Edit a Book:

  • a lot/alot 
  • affect/effect 
  • then/than 
  • who/whom 
  • your/you’re
  • good/well 
  • i.e./e.g. 
  • can/may 
  • further/farther
  • lay/lie 
  • less/fewer 
  • into/in to 
  • it’s/its 
  • that/who
  • their/they’re/there 

Layer #3: Cut the Clutter

Believe me or not, your first draft has a clutter of needless words. They creep into your writing and make you less professional. 

Writers are often tempted to show off their vocabulary, and in that process, they choose obtuse words and fail to prioritize their readers. 

There are many strategies for cutting the clutter and untangling your words. I hope this ‘How to Edit a Book’ checklist will help:

1. Subtle redundancies 

She nods her head in affirmative.

He knelt down on his knees. 

She shrugged her shoulders.

She clapped her hands.

2. Remove the word that

Removing ‘that’ is the first habit ~that~ I tell writers to rid of. 

3. Up and Down 

Use up and down sparingly. 

She sat down on the couch.

He pulled up the lever.

4. Don’t tell what’s not happening. 

She didn’t reply. 

They didn’t say a word. 

If it didn’t happen, your readers wouldn’t assume it did.  

5. Limit the adverbs 

Good writers don’t describe a verb; they use a descriptive verb. And good writing is more about active verbs and nouns, than adjectives. 

So, anything that ends with -ly, cut it. 

6. Hedging words 

  • Frowned a bit
  • Smiled Slightly 
  • Almost laughed

7. Unnecessary words: 

  • Literally: Omit this word, forever.
  • Presently: Write now or soon.
  • Figuratively: Avoid it. 
  • Subsequently: Try ‘Later.;
  • Due to the fact that: Try ‘Because.’
  • In actual fact: Simply omit. 
  • In the affirmative, In the negative: Use ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

8. Less is more 

She was so mad. She pounded the table. 

9. Dialogue word other than “said” and ”ask”

Using colourful conversational indicators doesn’t make you sound like you have got a thesaurus. Stick with said and ask.

You’re going to do it! He said, encouraging her

Delete: Sang, queried, laughed, shouted, yelled, answered, chuckled, snorted, thundered, cried, screamed, etc. 

Keep: Said, asked.

  10. Repeated Words:

Check for overused words and phrases that make sentences boring: 

  • Amazing/Great/Awesome
  • Basically 
  • Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly 
  • Suddenly 
  • Kind of/Sort of 
  • Very, really, Quite
  • Only 

When you’re editing a novel, keep this ‘How to Edit a Book’ checklist with you. Excise these words. I absolutely think that It will greatly improve your writing.  

Layer #4: Tune the Pace

Pacing refers to the rhythm and flow of a story, the speed it which it unfolds. How slowly or quickly, events are happening, and the rise or falls of plot points. 

Well-controlled pacing is crucial; otherwise, your story will feel disjointed and uneven. Parts that are too slow bore the readers, while parts that are too fast lose impact. Let’s dive into a few quick tips on tuning the pace of your first draft:

While editing a novel, it’s crucial to strip it down to its essence. Keep checking if everything you’ve included is necessary. Does it contribute to character development, plot, or reader’s experience? Is there a character, prose, or a scene that you love, but it doesn’t serve a purpose and slows down the pace. If yes, you’ve to be brave and kill those sections.

Techniques to speed-up the story’s pace:

  • Use simple words, short sentences and shorter paragraphs to keep them flipping pages. Chop long sentences to keep the reader’s eyes flying over words. 
  • Use more dialogue instead of long-winded descriptions. Dialogues can be a great way of showing your character’s personalities. 
  • Limit or remove secondary subplots that slow the pace and take the reader away from the main story.
  • Increase urgency with exciting action scenes. A race against time. A fight scene. A chase.
  • Use active voice 
  • Remove unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. 

Techniques to slow down the story’s pace:

  • Heighten the attention to detail, allowing your readers to experience every single moment. 
  • Lengthen the sentences, add descriptions, and show how things happened. You can also be lyrical here, making readers linger over every word. 
  • Use Introspection to Control pace. Apart from describing a character’s actions, reveal what they are feeling or thinking.
  • Use backstory and flashbacks. This way, you can share more information context, and show your readers what happened in the past.
  • Use passive voice
  • Show, don’t tell   

Good pacing is not fast pacing. It’s a misconception. Good writing contains slower-paced sections, like backstory and introspection, as well as faster-paced parts, such as character action and dialogue, but in a balanced way. 

Layer #5: Character & Scene Development 

Character development editing is usually a thorough and in-depth process. It addresses the problematic characterization. 

As you know, your characters drive the story. They must be real people, flesh-and-blood, relatable, and three-sided. 

I suggest creating a character purpose sheet. Take a piece of paper, list every character, and their purpose in the story. When you are doing this, review your characters with an analytical mind and assess if you’ve breathed life into them. Are they compelling, intriguing, emotional? Do they have emotions, intelligence, features, flesh, background, and dimension?

Similarly, you can create a scene purpose sheet. Every scene in your story should serve a specific purpose in the overall story and plot, or it needs to be cut. 

Create a scene purpose sheet where you list every scene (use a key phrase describing the scene); it’s purpose, desire or conflict in the scene, and result. At the end of each scene, write a summary sentence that can help you decide whether to keep the scene or delete it. 

Layer #6: Read it out loud

Long before you start sending your manuscript to literary agents, before you submit your work to beta readers, you must read your script out loud. 

How to Edit a Book: 6-Layer Self-Editing Guide for a Novice Writer

Start from the prologue and read it out loud till the end. I am convinced that you’ll catch far more errors because when you are reading aloud reveals so much:

  • Spelling mistakes that spell check didn’t notice
  • Poorly written sentences
  • Unnecessary character ticks
  • Inconsistencies in dialogue
  • Bad blocking
  • A better sense of story pacing
  • Repeated words

Get comfortable before you start reading. It’s a lengthy, time-consuming process. But for the worth of it, your manuscript will be all the better. You can also record your reading and play it later to catch more errors and inconsistencies. 

How much Self-Editing is enough?

I get it. You’re probably envisioning an endless amount of self-editing, where you either go blind from fixing commas or faint from exhaustion. Yes, following all these novel-editing tips will be a grind, but the hard work will be all worth it.

And, in answer to the above question, your editing is enough when:

  • You’ve corrected grammar and spelling errors.
  • Your productivity is suffering
  • You’ve slept on it
  • You’ve read it out loud
  • You’ve got an outsider’s opinion about it
  • You’re not asking ‘How to Edit a Book’ anymore.

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