How to Edit a Book: a 3-Step Guide to a Bestselling Novel
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 successfully completed a draft now face an even more important task: the edit of the manuscript. If your first draft has taught you what you want to say, this is the step that will craft it into a story that’s actually worth reading.
To help you learn how to edit a book, this guide will walk you through the process of self-editing. Feel free to click here to download our editing checklist as we dive in.
Do you really need to edit your book?
The short answer is: yes.
Editing is the act of refining a piece of written work. Contrary to popular belief, it’s a completely different skillset from writing — one that requires objectivity, keen insight into story mechanics, and a certain level of ruthlessness.
Here's the long answer: every book benefits from an edit, simply because no story is perfect from the get-go. As Stephen King said: “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt. Revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” Saying that your book doesn’t need editing is like walking outside without any clothes on: you might be able to get to the grocery store, but nobody's going to want to serve you.
With that said, you do have a number of people (and a support system) to whom you can turn when it comes to editing, which leads us to the next section.
Who can properly edit your book?
In a traditional publishing house, manuscripts generally go through three rounds of revisions: a developmental edit, a copy edit — which often includes line editing— and a proofread. Like the crafting of a diamond ring, this rigorous process turns out the polished books that you find in stores.
Self-publishers, while not always privy to in-house editors, have a number of options at their disposal. Here are three ways that writers can go about editing their bestseller-in-the-making.
👤 The Self-Edit
A self-edit is pretty self-explanatory: it’s a thorough edit of your manuscript that you conduct yourself. You’d take it upon yourself to trim your plot, expand character arcs, spot crutch words, and manage all of the other elements that go into editing a book.
This approach is challenging if you’re serious about editing, simply because it’s hard to be objective about your own work. If you choose to self-edit, we recommend that you read through your entire draft twice: once to resolve story snags, and the second time to proofread. (The editing checklist at the end of this post will help you out.)
A beta reader provides feedback from the perspective of a casual reader. Think of beta readers for your book as the equivalent of a focus group for a feature film: they anticipate the reading experience of your future audience.
A beta reader can point out concerns that you might not have caught by yourself. (Such as: “What happened to Alexandra? I thought she was the most interesting character,” or “The plot twist in this chapter was weird and confused me for the rest of the book.”) You can ask anyone to be your beta reader, whether it’s a friend, family member, or someone who you met through an online writing group. To dig deeper into this subject, check out our guide to beta readers and where to find them. And, if you're curious about what a sensitivity reader actually does, check out this guide on the topic.
Working with a professional editor on your book results in a professional edit. As a result of the rising freelance economy, experienced editors are much more accessible to the general public than before. (As an example, Reedsy’s marketplace is home to more than 1,000 professional editors — many of whom hail from the Big 5 publishers.)
Professional edits have become standard practice in self-publishing — and with good reason. There's no substitute for the depth of knowledge that a veteran editor brings to your story. You can learn about the kind of professional editor that would match your book’s needs in this post here. But if you’re set on self-editing, let’s see what you’ll need to be prepared to do.
How to edit a book
In short, we recommend editing a book in three phases:
- “Big Picture” stage. Identify and fix macro problems with your story. This includes plot, character development, narrative arc, and theme.
- “Scene Level” stage. Strengthen specific story elements within individual scenes.
- “Line-Edit” stage. Ensure the text is objectively correct. This covers typos, grammar, continuity, and syntax, among other things.
As a rule of thumb, set your manuscript aside for a few days before you begin editing. Neil Gaiman puts it this way: "The best advice I can give on this is, once it's done, to 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. If there are things you aren't satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that's revision."
When you’re ready to revisit your manuscript, feel free to use the points below to help you edit. Note that this checklist isn’t comprehensive (again, we stress that you need the eyes and experience of a professional editor to get a qualified edit). But it includes some key guiding questions to guide you through the process.
1. The “Big Picture” Stage
📖 Editing Checklist for: Story
Theme and conflict
__ Is a compelling dramatic question present throughout the book?
__ Is the theme well-developed? Clear and compelling?
__ Can you sufficiently state your story in a single sentence: [Character] must [do something] to achieve [story goal] or else [reason why the audience should care]?
__ Is the central conflict clear? Is it resolved by the time the denouement comes around?
__ Does the conflict escalate over the course of the book?
__ Do you have a strong beginning, middle, end?
__ Does your exposition effectively set the story? Introduce the cast of characters? Impart enough backstory?
__ Is your rising action triggered by a compelling inciting incident? Does it escalate the conflict and raise the tension?
__ Is your climax satisfying? Does it successfully combine both external and internal journeys?
__ Does your falling action effectively bridge the climax and the resolution?
__ Does the denouement wrap everything up?
__ Is the story structure clear and effective?
__ Is the pace of each act in the narrative arc appropriate?
📈 Editing Checklist for: Plot
__ Is the plot engaging? Believable?
__ Does the plot maintain forward movement in each chapter?
__ Are all major plot threads resolved by the denouement?
__ Are all subplots resolved by the denouement?
__ Are there too many subplots? Do the subplots make sense in the context of the story or do they distract from the main plotline?
__ Do the plot points flow logically?
__ Do the plot points sync with the narrative arc and theme that you want to convey?
__ Do the plot twists make sense? Are there plot holes in the story?
__ Does the plot match the conventions of your genre?
🗣️ Editing Checklist for: Characters
__ Does the protagonist have strengths and weaknesses? Does this interact with the story appropriately?
__ Does the protagonist have defining mannerisms? Clear character traits?
__ Does the protagonist have story motivation?
__ Does the protagonist have external and internal story goals? Are they visible throughout the story?
__ Are the stakes for the protagonist clear and substantial?
__ Does the protagonist act believably in each scene? Is the protagonist’s behavior consistent?
__ Chart the protagonist’s character arc over the course of the story. Is it clearly and compellingly conveyed in the story?
__ Does the antagonist have a story motivation?
__ Does the antagonist have a believable backstory?
__ Is the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist clearly defined?
__ Is the supporting cast fleshed out?
__ Do the secondary characters have a reason to be there? Do they reveal key details? Advance the plot? Motivate the protagonist? Help define the setting?
__ Are interactions between the secondary character and the protagonist believable and well-placed?
⛰️ Editing Checklist for: Setting
__ Does the setting make sense for the purposes of the story? Does it matter to the plot?
__ Are descriptions of the setting rendered effectively and appropriately?
__ Is a clear sense of place and time conveyed in each scene?
__ Is the worldbuilding unified? Consistent?
__ Does the setting impact the conflict and plot?
__ Fact-check each scene in relation to the setting. Are objects, props, mannerisms, and behaviors native to the time and place of the story?
2. The “Scene Level” Stage
🎬 Editing Checklist for: Scenes and Chapters
__ Is the opening scene effective?
__ Does it start in the right place?
__ Does it have a hook? Is the hook immediately gripping?
__ Are there are a sufficient number of scenes?
__ Are the scenes appropriately paced to grab the readers’ attention? Are the chapter lengths effective?
__ Does each scene serve a purpose in the story?
__ Is each scene oriented in terms of time and place?
__ Are scene transitions smooth?
💬 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?
__ Is the dialogue believable for the time and place of the story?
__ Is the word choice reflective of the time period?
__ Does the dialogue use action beats to control the pace of the scene?
__ Are there excess dialogue tags? Excess adverbs in the tags?
__ Search for words other than “said” and “asked” in your manuscript. Is their use absolutely necessary?
✍️ Editing Checklist for: Composition
Voice and Point of View
__ Is the narrator’s voice consistent?
__ Is the voice appropriate for the story?
__ Is foreshadowing used effectively, if applicable? Metaphors? Similes?
__ Is the viewpoint character always clear? Is it consistent between scenes?
__ Is the point of view suitable for each scene? Is there a better alternative for a viewpoint character in any given scene?
__ Is purple prose present in your story?
__ Does each sentence contribute something to the story?
__ Is the backstory of the world or characters efficiently woven into the story?
__ Do you “show, don’t tell” your dialogue, characters, and setting?
3. The “Line-Edit”
__ Check for the use of passive voice and replace with active voice, whenever appropriate.
❌ The ball was kicked.
✔️ She kicked the ball.
__ 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?”
__ Limit the use of weak verbs + adverbs in general.
❌ Leonard ran quickly to school.
✔️ Leonard sprinted to school.
__ Delete vague and subjective words.
❌ “could,” “might,” “maybe,” “more,” “poor,” “good,” “excellent,” “bad,” “some,” “multiple,” etc.
__ Delete crutch words.
❌ “really,” “literally,” “suddenly,” “simply,” “just,” “a little,” “almost,” etc.
__ Check for the use of other dialogue tags and replace with “said” and “asked,” unless absolutely necessary.
❌ “Did you just stab me with this thimble?” asserted Amber.
✔️ “Did you just stab me with this thimble?” asked Amber.
__ Replace all “hidden” verbs.
❌ Offer an explanation
__ Use “telling” words such as “felt,” “saw,” “knew,” “was,” and “seemed” sparingly.
❌ His head was in pain.
✔️ His head throbbed.
__ Delete all instances of clichés in the text.
❌ It was a dark and stormy night.
__ Check for excessive repetition (like so) in the text.
❌ Go to [do something]
❌ She shrugged [her shoulders].
__ Check for instances of overly complicated language.
❌ In close proximity
__ Check that all of your dialogue is formatted correctly.
❌ “I love you.” Said Pam.
✔️ “I love you,” said Pam.
How much editing is enough?
You might be visualizing 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 — maximum — generally should get you somewhere. But it depends on the book: some stories are structurally sound and could benefit more from a thorough copy-edit, while other stories will require multiple takes during the “big picture” stage.
However, a word of caution: resist the urge to over-edit. Since many authors are perfectionists, it can be tempting to edit until the book is flawless. But you should remember that “perfection” is actually unachievable. More importantly, you’ll risk stagnation if you over-edit. At some point, you will want to put a book out into the world. The only way to do that is to curb the impulse to keep editing and put your manuscript down — once and for all.
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 our Ultimate Self-Editing Checklist in PDF format!
On a last note, if you’re interested in learning more about the art of editing a book, we recommend digging into these resources to expand your knowledge base:
- 8 Types of Editing: A Guide for Authors
- 6 Things Almost All Writers Get Wrong When Self-Editing
- Understanding Developmental Fiction Editing
- Free course: How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript Like a Pro
Can you get away with editing a book by yourself? It’s possible, but it’s certainly not ideal. Most authors are too close to the source material to edit objectively. A better solution is to find another pair of critical eyes to honestly review your book, whether that’s a beta reader or a professional editor. The average cost of an editor is between $1,000 to $3,000 — an investment that just might make the difference between an average book and a bestseller.