Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to edit a book. “I have a 60,000 word manuscript,” people tell me, “but I don’t know how to know if it’s ready to publish.”
Some of these writers want to finish up the manuscripts they began during NaNoWriMo. Others are in the middle of their first draft and are enthusiastically thinking ahead to their next steps.
However, they’re all asking the same question: How do you know when your book is finished?
Writing Is Revision
Once you finish that last page, you will probably experience more pride than you ever have in your entire life, second only to giving birth. Go ahead and soak it up. Throw yourself a party. Take a few days off to celebrate.
Don’t read your draft though, because as soon as you do, the awful reality of just how bad your book is will almost certainly dampen your mood. I love this quote from Michael Crichton:
Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.
Your book isn’t finished until you revise it from beginning to end at least once (and almost always more than once). I could share a hundred quotes from celebrated writers that sound exactly like the one above, but instead, just trust me. When you finish your first draft, you have so much more work to do.
How the Editing Process Works
The editing process looks different for every writer, a few things seem to work well for everyone. The best book I’ve ever read about the revision process is Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop. If you want to learn more about this subject, I highly recommend picking up a copy.
Here are four suggestions on how to edit your book:
1. Read Your Book
After you finish your first draft, read your manuscript once by yourself. Don’t edit. Don’t cross out anything. The purpose of this step is not to revise but to get a fresh perspective on the book and see what holes need filling.
While I wouldn’t suggest doing any heavy duty editing, you’re welcome to take notes or jot down any ideas you have for the next step.
2. Write 10 Scenarios
This trick is especially great for fiction writers.
In my college art class, our first assignment was to draw a quick sketch of a tea cup 100 times. Yes, I was very familiar with that tea cup by the end of the assignment. The hard part was that each drawing had to be different. After I drew the teacup from a few normal perspectives, I was forced to get creative. I started drawing levitating tea cups, tea cups that were sawn in half, cubist tea cups, and even tea cup wallpaper.
Scenarios function the same way. They’re quick summaries of your entire book in just a few thousand words. By telling a summarized version of your story ten different ways, you get new ideas about your book’s core essentials, who the main important characters are, which ideas are most central, and how to structure your book in the most interesting way possible.
Scenarios shouldn’t take longer than a day to write, and can be as short as 2,000 to 3,000 words for a book and 300 to 500 words for a short story. The key is to have fun and be creative!
3. Three Drafts
While most professional writers write three drafts or more, there are quite a few single-drafters out there. However, single-drafters usually spend much longer on their first drafts than most writers, so that by the end, they probably rewrite more than multi-drafters.
After your first draft, your second draft is meant for major structural fixes. If you found any major holes in the reading stage, your second draft is a great time to write or rewrite chapters and scenes. After the discoveries you make in your scenarios, you may even decide to rewrite the whole book from the beginning.
I wouldn’t do much polishing until your third draft. That would be like sanding down the foundation of your house. Your final touches don’t come until your third draft. First drafts are for digging the book’s foundation, second drafts for framing the house, and third drafts for finish work.
4. Send it to Friends
How do you know when you’re book is finished? Leonard da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” However, there is a trick to knowing when to “abandon” your book and send it out into the world.
Whenever I finish any draft except for the first—which is for my eyes only—I send my manuscript to a group of up to 30 friends to give me feedback. Through these beta readers I’m able to get a sense of what my book really is, not what I think it is. When you edit your book, you get too close to the work to have any rational perspective. Beta readers bring fresh eyes, and by listening to them as they talk about your book, you’ll be able to see whether it’s ready for the world.
When to Hire an Editor
Self-published books have a bad rap for poor editing. However, this isn’t completely fair. If you buy a first printing of a traditionally published book, you will likely find two or three typos. By the time the publisher is in their second printing, these have all been fixed. Most people just don’t read first printings.
Typos happen. You can have a team of 20 people looking for errors in your book and still, when it’s finally published, your second cousin will call you to tell you there’s a typo on page 276.
That being said, if you want to self-publish, please hire a professional editor. Not only will you have a better book because of it, good editing is the best way to learn the writing craft.
If you can afford it, I recommend hiring an editor to critique your book after your second draft, giving a high level overview of your major problems. After your third draft, it’s essential that you hire a line editor or copy editor to go through your prose with a fine-tooth comb.
Give yourself the gift of the best book you could have written. The authors I work with are always so much happier after editing than before. You’ll be glad you invested in it.
What do you think? How do you edit your writing?
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