17 tips for editing your own book
So, you’ve done the hard work and finally made it to the last page of your draft.
It’s time to pop open the champagne and celebrate, right?
Not so fast.
The draft is just the first part of publishing your book. Now you have another equally important job.
Editing your book.
As an editor myself, I know what a professional book editor brings to the table. But I also know that we come with a potentially hefty price tag.
If you’re looking to save money, while getting your work ready for the world, this guide is for you.
I’ll take you through the different options you have available before diving into 17 super helpful tips you can use to edit your own book.
First, do you actually need to edit your book?
There are no two ways about it. It doesn’t matter how good you think the first draft of your manuscript is, no-one is perfect.
With editing, you can turn a good book into a great book, ready to take on readers around the world.
If you want a good comparison, think of book editing like housework. It simply goes unnoticed unless it’s not done.
Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, long-winded sentences, awkward phrasing… these all distract the reader from the story you’re trying to tell.
Picture that you’re a romance writer (the most popular genre out there), and you’re building up to an intensely, emotion-packed scene, drawing the reader in and having them sit on the edge of their seat when… the main character Andrew has been incorrectly spelled ‘Adrew’.
The reader briefly pauses, confused. And the moment is gone. All that beautiful writing in the build-up is lost.
One simple mistake can have long-lasting effects.
We can often be just a step too close to our work to be able to look at it objectively. It can be so hard to cut out parts of your hard-worked-for story and even get rid of plot points.
The great thing is, you don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of people who can help you out in the editing process – and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
From an editing professional to your best friend, here are all the options available to you when it comes to editing your own book.
Options for editing
We know the editing process is part of the lifeblood of your work, but how should you go about it?
There are plenty of options available when it comes to putting those finishing touches on your book. And they can make all the difference between a best-seller, and a missed opportunity.
Since this is the focus of this article, it’s natural we pop this one first. You are more than capable of editing your own work to a high level. But it will take time, patience, and dedication to get the final draft ready for print.
When it comes to a self-edit, it’s all in the name. It’s your job, not to just go through and look for any spelling or grammatical errors, but to tear your book apart to a degree.
To hunt for any gaping plot holes that were missed in the writing process. To change the style of the writing in places it doesn’t fit. To refine your characters to help them take on a life of their own. There are so many elements that go into editing your book, and it’s no easy task.
It’s a big job to take on, but you can do it.
The key is taking a step back from your book and being objective. The read through will take time. You want to grab a fine-tooth comb and go through every inch of your book and analyze it.
Think of beta readers as your audience.
They’re on hand to offer you objective feedback on your book from the perspective of a reader. They’re not professional editors. You want to make sure your book has had a thorough self-edit or professional edit before handing it off to beta readers.
Their job is to go through and pick up any glaringly obvious spelling and grammar mistakes, along with noticing any parts of the story that are confusing or don’t make sense.
You can choose whether or not you want to take on this beta feedback.
This is where you can bring in friends and family to take on the role. You have to ask them to be objective (let’s face it, Mum is going to love everything you write). So, maybe skip over Mum and find some friends who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings – if they need to.
After all, are you after honest feedback or just a boost in confidence? (Hint: the answer is honest feedback).
As you might expect, this is the costliest option available to you. But the good news is, thanks to the internet, and sites such as Freelancer.com and Upwork, freelance editors are getting more and more affordable. You can also go through a professional editing company, like us.
What should you be looking for when it comes to hiring a professional editor?
- Find someone experienced in the publishing industry. Sure, your best friend did well in English in high school, but a trained copy editor has years’ of experience and industry knowledge behind them
- Look for someone who has helped get books ready for the market before. They’ll know the process and help get your book in the best condition for print.
- Get a sample first. When it comes to hiring a professional editor, there’s nothing wrong with trying before buying. Most editors will be happy to edit a short sample for free.
17 tips for editing your own book
Self-editing your own book is a viable way to go if you can’t afford a professional editor. But it does require a lot of tough love from you.
Here are 17 tips for editing your own book to perfection.
1. Wait a few days
You read that right. The first step is actually pretty easy.
You need to put that finished manuscript down and walk away. Go out and have that celebratory champagne. After all, a finished book is something worth celebrating.
Author Neil Gaiman describes it best in his MasterClass: “Once it’s done, put it away until you can read it with new eyes. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before.”
By putting a few days between finishing your manuscript and starting on the edits, you can put a bit of distance between you and your words.
It means you can come back refreshed and ready to take an objective look at your work.
So, take that well-earned break, let your hair down, and unwind. Spend some time outdoors and away from the computer/book to truly give yourself some much-needed distance.
2. Check the plot
Before you even get into the in-depth editing process, you need to look at your story as a whole and check the main details are there.
Think of the plot as the crux of your book.
Your writing might be excellent, but one of the main reasons someone is reading your book is because of the plot. They’re eager to find out what happens. They want to know how it ends.
This, in essence, is the hook of your book.
The plot consists of a series of connected events, each of which leads the reader to another plot point.
Here are some things you need to ask yourself about your plot:
- Is it engaging and believable?
- Does it flow and gain, or at least maintain, momentum throughout the book?
- Has everything – big and small – been tied up by the end of the book? Think of your minor plot threads here as well.
- Are there any glaring holes in the plot that might turn the reader off?
It’s amazing what you can pick up on through a re-read. Make sure you pay attention to every aspect of the plot and it ticks all the boxes. If you don’t, your readers will.
3. Check your main characters
You want to make sure you have developed your main characters from start to finish in your book.
Here are some things to consider:
- Do the main characters have clear traits, strengths, and weaknesses?
- What are their motivations throughout the story (specifically your protagonist and antagonist)?
- What role are your minor characters playing in the story?
Tip: make sure none of your characters have similar names. This can make things confusing for the reader.
4. Have you introduced and resolved the conflict?
The conflict is the challenge that your main character/s need to solve in order to achieve their goals and bring your plot to a conclusion.
It’s such an important element because it introduces doubt with your reader about whether or not the goal will be achieved.
If there is nothing to overcome – no matter how minor – then you don’t have a story. It’s your conflict that will drive your plot forward.
Can you easily distinguish the conflict in your story? Does it play out the way you intended it to? Consider it with a fresh set of eyes and make sure it adds to the plot of your story.
5. Line edit your book
Now that you have the main elements of your book intact, the fun begins! The next task is to line edit your book. This means going through line by line and taking in every sentence.
For every single sentence, you need to ask yourself:
- What point am I making?
- Is it clear and simple?
- Is it short and succinct?
- Is it direct?
It’s tedious but necessary. You want to make sure each sentence in your book works and belongs. It’s a great way to also check for spelling and grammar issues in the process.
You can approach this in a manageable way, by breaking your book into sections. Read more on this in the next step.
6. Break your book into sections
To start off, you want to break the editing up into easy, manageable jobs.
The best way to do this is to break it off into sections.
One advantage you have self-editing your own work: no-one knows the piece like you do. Think about how the book flows:
- Is there a discernible beginning, middle, and end?
- Can you break each of these three sections into smaller sections?
- Is there a clear story structure? This is the map through the book that helps deliver the characters and the plot seamlessly through to a rewarding (most times) destination. It can often be broken down into the set-up, confrontation and resolution. Think about your own book and whether it can be broken up this way. This is a great way to approach your edits.
This is important, as it’s an act of self-control.
You can get a bit eager when editing your own work. After all, you know it inside and out, so you’re tempted to read it in the best light possible.
When we break up the book into small chunks to edit, it forces you to slow down and take your time. This is when you will pick up any mistakes or confusion.
You can also choose to edit your book in chapters, however, you don’t want to read them as standalones. Picking out bigger sections can help you work out whether the book flows from one chapter to the next, which is why it often works better.
You don’t want to rush this process.
Of course, once you have been through the book like this, you then need to read it as a whole again to make sure it all flows with all the sections back together.
7. Read it out loud
As mentioned above, you know your work inside out. This is both a blessing and a curse.
Reading your copy out loud is the best way to stop yourself from ‘reading what you think it says’.
What does this mean exactly?
You wrote the words, so when you reread them, you tend to skim – your brain skims through anticipated phrases and words. You don’t read every single word. This is a great way to miss any spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.
When you read out loud, you’re forced to read every single word.
Plus, hearing a word out loud can help to convey its nuance in a way that seeing it on screen or paper might not. It helps us suss out the flow and rhythm of our work, while determining if anything is a bit clunky or confusing.
Here are some benefits that come with reading your work aloud:
- Catch any clunky sentences or unnecessary phrases. It may sound good in your head, but when you say it out loud, you might be surprised to find the sentence doesn’t completely work. We also tend to add unnecessary fluff when we write what’s in our head. Hearing it out loud helps us cut down on this.
- Find your voice: there’s the voice in your head and the one on paper. These are two different voices. Reading out loud lets you find that voice on paper that the whole world will hear. You can hear how your sound to others and get a feel for whether your writing is being true to your style.
- You become a better writer: by reading out loud you will hear what improvements you need to make in your work, and it will give your invaluable practice at hearing your style and knowing when it does and doesn’t work.
8. Run a spell check
It may sound obvious, but basic book proofreading often gets overlooked.
Many writers simply get used to the squiggles and lines that appear under their words when typing away. You often choose to ignore them on purpose.
But doing so, you can actually miss spelling and grammar mistakes that need attention.
You won’t want to accept every recommendation (online grammar checkers are far from perfect), but you’ll find some things that you missed with the naked eye.
9. Change your font
This is a great way to catch out spelling mistakes and grammar issues. By reading your manuscript in a format your brain isn’t used to, it will process it differently.
As a result, different things will stand out on a read through.
Make sure you’re actually reading every single word when you do it.
Some people also like to print out their manuscript and read it on paper. This is another way to process the words in a different way to catch out any errors.
Choose a method that works for you, or try both together.
10. Look for overused words
We all have those words that we like to use far too much. Sometimes they are used in the correct context. Other times they are misused. Or they simply might just be overused. At the time, you probably don’t even notice you’re doing it.
When self-editing your work, it’s a chance to pick up on these details. In the words of Mark Twain, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words”.
Have a read through a couple of pages and start circling any words that are appearing too often. This might be:
- As well
While these are all grammatically correct, you don’t want to overuse them in your text. It can detract from your voice and what you’re trying to get across to the reader. There’s no harm in using the thesaurus function on your computer when you’re looking to find a new word with the same meaning.
You also want to look out for words that have been used incorrectly. Here’s a good list to start with:
- a lot/alot
- into/in to
If in doubt, look it up!
11. Avoid repetition
It’s important to give the reader credit and avoid repeating things you’ve already spelled out.
For example, if the main character has red hair, how many times have you mentioned this throughout the book?
At the same time, think about the detail you’re adding to your book. Is it necessary, or just creating fluff?
For example, “They walked through the open door”. If they walked through it, then we know the door is open, so this word isn’t needed.
You want to paint a picture for the reader, without treating them like they can’t keep up.
12. Avoid too much stage direction
On this note, you also want to make sure you aren’t overdoing it when it comes to setting a scene.
We don’t need to know what every character in the room at the time is up to, unless of course, it’s pivotal to the plot.
You don’t want to bore your reader. Even if your writing is superb! There’s only so much one wants to hear when it comes to those minor details. Too many stage directions, and you’ll take away from the drama and tension in your story. Too few, and your reader will miss out on important plot points.
You want to get the balance just right.
Think about each scene – have you gone into unnecessary details about characters that aren’t important? Hit that delete button!
13. Replace passive voice with active voice
There are so many advantages to writing in the active voice:
You use fewer words, making your sentences much more concise.
Helps the narrative move faster and is more engaging.
Creates cleaner sentences with fewer grammatical mistakes.
Put simply, the active voice reads better!
So, how do you go about it?
Instead of saying, “the ball was thrown”, change it to, “she threw the ball”. You simply need to change the structure of the sentence around to be subject, verb then object.
14. Check the dialogue
Dialogue helps a story to flow, but that doesn’t make it easy to write. One of the greatest skills of an excellent writer comes with their ability to create lifelike interactions on paper.
The best way to check your dialogue is to read it out loud. Put on different character voices, so you can switch between. The fact is, dialogue isn’t meant to sound exactly the same as if we speak it. At least not full conversations. Otherwise, our books would be far too long and boring.
Here are some things to consider:
- Does it sound natural, or is it forced?
- Is it too formal?
- Does it stay true to the character in question? Does each character have a distinct voice?
- Does it serve a purpose? What is the point of this conversation?
You also want to make sure the way you format the dialogue stays consistent throughout the book. Here are some tips:
- Give each speaker a new paragraph.
- Indent each new paragraph.
- Use punctuation.
- Use single quotes if the person is quoting someone.
15. Know when to stop
How do you know when your book is ready?
The truth is, you could keep editing it over and over and never be done.
There comes a point in time where you have to call it.
You can try the edit stop quiz to help you out:
Question 1: Is this the best book you can write, right now? If you answer yes, you’re done! If you answer no, head to question 2.
Question 2: What can you do right now to make it better? If you have an answer, go ahead and make those changes. If there’s nothing you can do in the moment, you’re done.
16. Format your manuscript
By now, you’ve carried out all your edits and want to get the copy ready for publishing. You need to make sure it’s formatted correctly.
By adhering to the industry standards, you’re demonstrating your professionalism – both to the agent and the reader.
If you’re not sure how a particular agent or publisher prefers a manuscript, use the industry-standard book formatting guidelines.
If you’re hiring an editor, this is a step they can help you out with – but it will cost you. It can help to format the book yourself before sending it off.
17. Develop a thick skin
Once you’re happy with your self-edits, it’s time to turn your book over to beta readers
You need to listen to them.
There’s no point getting their opinions and advice and ignoring it.
Having someone critique your work is never easy, but it’s a necessary step. Open your mind to their criticism and don’t take it personally. Like you, they want your book to be as good as possible.
Writing and publishing a book of your own is a huge commitment – and one you should be extremely proud of.
If you don’t want to go down the path of a professional editor, you need to develop your own skills as an editor.
There’s no reason you can’t self-edit your own book to a high standard, as long as you take the time to give it just as much attention as you did in the writing stage. These 17 tips will help you get your book into top shape.