How to Edit a Book: 5 Steps to a Bestseller
So you’ve finally gotten to the last page of your draft and have just typed, “The End.” Congratulations! Is it time to pop open the champagne? 🍾
Not quite. Authors who have completed a draft now face an equally (if not more) important task: editing their manuscript. To help you learn how to edit a book, this guide will walk you through the entire process of self-editing! Feel free to download this editing checklist before we dive in.
The first thing you're probably wondering is...
Do you need to edit your book?
The short answer is: yes.
The long answer is: every single manuscript benefits from an edit, simply because no story is perfect from the get-go. Also, if you're a first-time author, editing will not only help hone this particular book, but also your overall skills. What you learn during the editing process will be invaluable to future projects — especially if you can pinpoint your weak spots and work on them.
Of course, just because it's important to know how to edit a book, doesn't mean it's easy. Stephen King once famously compared editing a book to “murdering children” because it's so painful to cut into your hard-earned story, sometimes eliminating whole passages or plot points.
Fortunately, you don't have to go it alone! There are plenty of people who can assist you during the editing process, from experienced professionals to your close friends. This leads us into the next section, which covers all the different ways you can get an edit for your book, and who can help.
Who can edit your book?
In a traditional publishing house, in-house editors take on most of the work. Every manuscript goes through three rounds of revisions: an in-depth developmental edit, a copy edit or line edit, and a final proofread. This rigorous process turns out the polished books that you find in stores.
Self-publishers, while not privy to the resources of major publishers, still have various options at their disposal. Here are three possible routes you might take to edit your bestseller-in-the-making.
👤 The Self-Edit
A self-edit is pretty self-explanatory: it’s an edit of your manuscript that you conduct by yourself. If you choose to self-edit, it's your responsibility to trim your prose, spot any plot holes, refine your character arcs, and manage all of the other elements that go into editing a book.
This approach may not work if you're serious about editing your book to perfection. As much as we writers deny it, it's pretty hard to be objective about your own work. That said, if you do self-edit your book, you should read through your entire draft at least twice: once to resolve story snags, and the second time to proofread.
Also remember you always have the option of self-editing your book first, then handing it off to a third party to look over. This guarantees a thorough edit, and can even save you some money if you hire a professional — the more you do for them, the less you'll have to pay them to do.
👥 Beta Readers
Beta readers provide feedback on your book from an objective-yet-invested perspective. Think of beta readers as the literary equivalent of a film focus group: they anticipate the experience of your future audience, and suggest ways to improve it.
A beta reader can point out issues that you might not have noticed — or didn't want to address — in your self-edit. These issues may be as big as a lost character or subplot (“What happened to Alexandra? She was the most interesting character”) or as small as a descriptive inconsistency (“I thought Tony had blue eyes, not green.”) That doesn't mean a beta reader will notice every single error, but they're usually pretty good on big-picture stuff.
You can ask anyone to be your beta reader, whether it’s a friend, family member, or someone you meet through an online writing group. Or you can hire a professional beta reader, who will comb through the text more carefully and probably be more honest about it. To dig deeper into this subject, check out our all-inclusive guide to beta readers.
📝 Professional Edit
Finally, if you want a professional edit, you can hire someone who specializes in developmental editing and/or copy editing. Though you might be worries about pricing and availability, freelance editors are more accessible and affordable than ever — and if you're publishing your first book, we'd definitely recommend getting one.
Indeed, professional edits have become standard practice in self-publishing, for good reason. There's simply no substitute for the depth of knowledge and experience that a veteran editor brings to your book. If you're leaning toward hiring a professional editor, but you're not sure what your book needs, check out this post to learn more about the different types of editing — or sign up and start looking right away!
How to edit a book in 5 steps
Even if you decide to get a pro editor or beta reader, it never hurts to take a crack at self-editing first. And if you're determined to self-edit all the way through, you really need to know what you're doing! To that end, here's how to edit a book in 5 steps. We've included a mini-checklist with each section, but for the FULL checklist, download the infographic below.
1. Wait a few days
Didn't think the first step would be so easy, did you? But it's true — almost all authors agree that you should set your manuscript aside for a few days before you begin editing. Neil Gaiman puts it this way: “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.”
A few days will create the necessary distance to perceive your work as a reader, rather than a writer. So take that time, if not even more, between finishing your manuscript and going back to edit. It may not seem like much, but this can make all the difference.
2. Start with big picture stuff
Start your self-edit by looking at the big picture. Naturally, the big picture is more important than any mechanical or grammatical issues in your text — readers won't care about a couple of typos, but they will care if your story is bogus.
If you've already given a lot of thought to things like plot, characters, and narrative arc, this stage of editing — also called developmental editing — should be pretty quick. But if not, it might take weeks or even months. To help you stay focused and encouraged, we've broken down developmental editing into three essential parts!
a) Plot 📈
Plot consists of a story's connected events, each of which leads to another plot point. The most common formula for plot is the three-act structure, which basically means beginning, middle, and end. Your plot may be more or less complex than this, and the events may not be chronological, but your plot still needs to follow a fairly coherent structure. The plot also needs to be interesting and somewhat realistic.
Editing checklist for plot:
- Is the plot engaging and believable?
- Do the plot points flow logically and maintain momentum?
- Are all major and minor plot threads tied up by the ending?
- Do the plot twists make sense? Are there plot holes in the story?
- Does the plot match the conventions of your genre?
The bad news about plot problems is that they're notoriously difficult to solve. The good news is that if you catch a plot problem early, you can keep it from derailing your entire book!
While there's no one sweeping strategy to fix all plot issues, it always helps to return to your notes to see if something's gone awry, or to brainstorm ways to improve (cut a subplot, reduce description, add more buildup to the twist, and so on). Remember, if all else fails, you can always get a developmental editor on the case.
b) Characters 👯
Characters are, of course, the people (or animals or whatever) that populate your story and carry out the action. There are many different types of characters in stories, but at the very least you should have a protagonist and an antagonist — a lead character and their enemy. Every major character should also have a character arc in which something about them changes, and also motivations that drive them forward.
Editing checklist for characters:
- Do the main characters have clear traits, strengths, and weaknesses?
- What are the protagonist's and antagonist's motivations?
- Do characters act believably and consistently in each scene?
- How do the secondary characters serve the story?
- Chart each main character's overall arc. Is every arc clear and compelling?
As with your plot, one of the best ways to solve character problems is to return to the character profiles you've already created. If you don't have profiles for your main characters already, it's not too late to make them! These can really help flesh out their personalities and motivations, so you can figure out how best to utilize them in the story.
In other cases, you may need to add a few scenes for effective characterization, or take out a secondary character who doesn't serve a purpose. And while character issues are typically less thorny than plot issues, you still have to pay attention to them! Remember that the reader will experience the story through your main character's eyes, or in very close proximity — so if your characters fall flat, your story will too.
c) Conflict and themes 🤔
These might seem like unrelated elements, but the conflicts and themes of your story are actually deeply intertwined. Just think about any conflict in any story, ever: from Pride and Prejudice to The Hunger Games, the conflict always reflects the main themes. So as you power through this edit, remember to consider your conflict and themes in tandem!
Editing checklist for conflict and themes:
- Are your intended themes developed through conflict?
- Is the central conflict intriguing, yet clear? Is it resolved (at least for the time being) when the story ends?
- Does this conflict escalate gradually over the course of the book?
- What dramatic question(s) arise, and are they answered by the end?
- Can you summarize your story in a single sentence: [Character] must [do something] to achieve [goal] or else [reason why audience should care]?
Conflict ties in closely to both plot and characters, so if you encounter problems with your conflict, it's likely you have story problems overall. However, if your themes aren't coming across strongly enough, you probably just need to clearly define your protagonist's motivations and principles, especially in contrast to the antagonist (which may be another person, an external force, or even themselves). You might also consider combing through your manuscript for any natural motifs that would reinforce your themes.
3. Move onto scene-by-scene issues
Next comes scene-by-scene editing. At this stage, you'll ensure each individual scene contributes to the story, and that the details within are compelling. You may have already done some light scene editing in service of your big picture, but now's the time to examine each one carefully and confirm that it accomplishes its purpose — and if not, to change or cut it. Once again, we'll divide this stage into three parts.
a) Scenes and chapters 🎬
If you're fresh from editing your plot, then editing your scenes and chapters should come pretty naturally. This is where you look at your scenes, particularly the important ones (like the opening, the inciting incident, and the climax) and try to make them more connected to each other and more enticing to readers.
Editing checklist for scenes and chapters:
- Does the opening scene hook readers? Does it begin in the right place?
- Are there enough scenes, and does each one serve a concrete purpose?
- Are scenes paced well and are your chapter lengths appropriate?
- Is each scene clearly oriented in time and place?
- Is foreshadowing used effectively, if applicable?
- Are scene and chapter transitions smooth?
As you can probably tell, this phase of editing is about getting into the nitty-gritty. Don't be afraid to “micromanage” your scenes, so to speak: cut them, tweak them, and shift them around until you have them exactly right.
Also make sure your pacing isn't too slow (which can bore readers) or fast (which can confuse them). If you're unsure about your pacing, have a beta reader check it out — this is one flaw that's especially hard to diagnose in your own writing, so a pair of fresh eyes could be helpful.
b) Dialogue 💬
Time for everyone's favorite part of the story: dialogue. Of course, just because dialogue is fun to write, doesn't mean it's easy to do well. We actually have a comprehensive guide to dialogue right here on the blog, so if you're shaky on dialogue, glance over that post first. But if you're ready to dive into the edit, read on!
Editing checklist for dialogue:
- Does the dialogue serve a purpose in each scene? Does it provide information? Advance the plot? Help the pace of the story?
- Does each character have a distinct voice?
- Does the word choice accurately reflect the time and place?
- Is there a balance among dialogue tags, action beats, and implied tags?
- Have you mostly used "said," and only occasionally other words for said?
Some dialogue problems, like overusing fancy dialogue tags, are easy to fix. Others, like giving every character a distinct voice, may be harder. If you don't have much experience with dialogue, definitely check out the post above — it'll help you polish or even rewrite your dialogue to be better.
c) Prose and perspective ✍️
Here are another two elements you might not have thought were related: prose and perspective. We've grouped these together because stories are often told from a certain person's point of view, which naturally affects the prose style. It's also one of the last stages of editing because many of these issues will have been corrected or improved throughout the process! So while this part is mostly a safeguard, it's worth checking over just in case.
Editing checklist for POV and prose:
- Is the narrator’s voice clear and consistent?
- If the point of view character changes, how is that change marked? Could there be a better alternative viewpoint character in any given scene?
- Does the prose style more-or-less match the POV character's voice?
- Does each sentence contribute to the story — i.e. no purple prose?
- Do you “show, don’t tell” your dialogue, characters, and setting?
Again, if you've gotten this far, most of these issues have probably resolved themselves. But there are still a few easily missed points, such as clarifying when your POV character changes and tidying up patches of purple prose. So take a day to scout for these things, even if you think you've got it covered; better safe than sorry when it comes to editing.
4. Finish with a thorough copy edit
Now that you've finished that full developmental edit, you're probably feeling pretty relieved! The great thing about copy editing is that it's so cut-and-dried — if you spot a grammatical error, you know exactly how to fix it. So after you've taken a well-deserved break from developmental editing, sit down with our copy editing guidelines and knock 'em out.
Checklist for copy editing:
1. Replace passive voice with active voice where appropriate.
❌ The ball was kicked.
✅ She kicked the ball.
2. Limit the use of adverbs in your dialogue tags. (Show, don’t tell!)
❌ “Why did you eat my turkey sandwich?” said Harry angrily.
✅ Harry upended the table. “Why did you eat my turkey sandwich?”
3. Replace weak verbs + adverbs with stronger verbs.
❌ Leonard ran quickly to school.
✅ Leonard sprinted to school.
4. Replace all “hidden” verbs.
❌ Offer an explanation
5. Delete vague, subjective words and “crutch” words.
❌ “could,” “might,” “maybe,” “more,” “poor,” “some,” “multiple,” etc.
❌ “really,” “literally,” “suddenly,” “simply,” “just,” “a little,” “almost,” etc.
6. Check for instances of overly complicated language.
❌ In close proximity
7. Delete all instances of clichés in the text.
❌ It was a dark and stormy night.
8. Check that all of your dialogue is formatted correctly.
❌ “I love you.” Said Pam.
✅ “I love you,” said Pam.
9. Make sure the point of view doesn't accidentally shift.
❌ She was just settling down with a cup of coffee when the fire alarm went off. “Oh, perfect timing.” I grabbed my coffee and stood back up.
10. Look out for descriptive inconsistencies.
❌ Devon's blonde hair shone in the sunlight ... “Whatever you say, man,” replied Devon, flipping his brown hair away from his eyes.
5. Get a proofreader
Yes, this last tip comes right on heels of telling you to do a thorough copy edit... but the fact of the matter is, nobody's perfect, and you've inevitably missed typos here and there. This is why, even if you think you've edited your book to its final form, you should still get a proofreader at the end.
If hiring a proofreader isn't in the budget for you, a friend or fellow writer will do just fine. You can even get involved in critique circles, where writers trade pieces for feedback — though it may take awhile to find someone who'll trade you an entire manuscript. Still, persist until you can find someone to provide that final proof. It'll give you incredible peace of mind knowing that your book is typo-free when you finally publish it.
How much editing is enough?
You might be envisioning an endless amount of editing right now — or a future in which you either faint from exhaustion or go blind from fixating on commas. Needless to say, that wouldn’t do any author any good! So how many rounds of editing is enough?
Most editors will tell you as many rounds as the book needs. That said, three passes at the manuscript should get you pretty close to the finish line. But it also depends on the book! Some stories are structurally sound and just need a copy edit, while other stories require multiple tries during the “big picture” stage.
So truly, don't give yourself a hard limit or deadline — feel it out through the editing process, and spend as much time as you need on your problem areas. It might be a grind, but it'll all be worth it when you see that beautiful published book that you polished to perfection.
Download: The ultimate self-editing checklist
If you'd prefer to have a checklist right next to you as you edit your book, we've got you covered. Simply enter your email address below to download the ultimate self-editing checklist in PDF format!
If you didn't already realize, we hope you see now just how important editing is for your book — as important as actually writing the thing, if not more so. Your own editing route will depend on a few things: your budget, your time, and your desire to DIY. But whether you hire a whole ensemble of editors or muscle through the process all by yourself, you'll be much more prepared to publish than if you'd never given editing a second thought... and believe us, your readers will thank you.
If you have any questions about how to edit a book, please leave them in the comments!