How to Edit Your Writing Until It’s Finished

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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  • staci troilo

    I’m guilty of editing as I go. I know I’m not supposed to. I know it slows me down. But I can’t help it. I have to fix things so I save myself bigger problems down the road. And I always read yesterday’s work today just to see what’s going on, but I end up spending time fixing that too. I am getting better at writing a decent chunk of material and then editing, but I’m still really bad about editing as I go. At some point I might just have to say that’s my process and accept it.

    • BernardT

      I can’t say I’ve worked this out yet, but here is what worked for me doing the first draft of my novel. Each day, before writing a new section, I would quickly run through the previous day’s work (but no more!) and give it a light dusting. Nothing major, just a quick run through and fix a few unfortunate words or typos. This served (1) to get me in the mood, and up to date with where I’d got to and (2) to satisfy the editing craving without spending too long on it (absolute maximum, 30 minutes, usually less). And never, ever, go back more than one day – that way you can be sure you don’t continually revisit the same text, which would obviously be a huge time-waster.

      • staci troilo

        That’s how it starts for me, Bernard, but it seems to escalate into more. If I get feedback from critique groups, instead of filing the comments for my rewrites, I do them immediately. If I get to chapter 10 and realize I have a new plot twist that needed to be foreshadowed in chapter 2 and mentioned again in chapter 4, instead of making a note to myself and handling it in rewrites, I do it right away. I just can’t stand to leave loose ends hanging. I’m not sure if that’s a flaw or just my technique. It may slow me down, but it also seems to work for me.

      • Erika Simone

        That sounds like the way I handle things. Not that I’ve ever written a novel. But I always edit as I go, and if I find something that needs to be changed, it takes what feels like a superhuman effort to make a note of it rather than fix it right then and there!

      • staci troilo

        Randy Ingermanson, author of Writing Fiction for Dummies and creator of the Snowflake Method, has this to say about editing: (Note his reference to Dean Koontz… not that I’m in the same league, but at least I don’t feel like I’m doing something “wrong” anymore.)

      • Mirelba

        I think that everyone works in different ways, but sometimes it pays to try different methods to see whether or not it works better for you. If it does, you’ve learned something new. If it doesn’t, back to the way you’re comfortable doing things.

  • Pamela Hodges

    I edit my writing with a sledgehammer and sometimes with a comb. I did the first draft in one sitting like you suggested. Now to write 10 possible scenarios.
    Does she take her mother to the beach or back to the airport? Will she let her mother buy her new clothes or will she keep the ones she bought at the thrift store?

  • Erika Simone

    Ok, my rough draft is done. Also, I’ve read it over and made notes of what should be changed. Now to tackle the scenarios.

  • Lisa Peers

    I like the scenarios idea. I also like the idea from the previous rule about editing the second draft with someone else in mind as the reader. That will help make the changes specific, rather than (yet another) whim.

  • Mirelba

    Joe, this seems to relate more to books than short stories. You just had us write a 1000 word short story. Are we really supposed to write 10 300 word scenarios for a story that’s only 1000 words long?!?

    • Joe Bunting

      Good point Mirel. But 10 scenarios for this size story shouldn’t take more tha a few hours. And I bet it will be a lot of fun!

      • Mirelba

        Ha, define fun! ;-)

  • Ann Stanley

    I wrote six scenarios, made up a few more in my head, and decided I like the first version best. This was an interesting exercise. I could definitely see writing a different story, or a similar story from a different POV. I could make the protagonist the antagonist, for example, but it would be a different story with a very different backstory. I also realized that I’m more comfortable with a female protagonist than a male one. I couldn’t quite get into the guy’s head when I tried making him the protagonist.
    I don’t know if I would do this again, unless a story just wasn’t working for me and I liked it enough to try to keep some of the ideas.

    And, I’m way, way behind in the lessons. I threw out my first story entirely. Or at least shelved it for now.

    • Joe Bunting

      It might be something you could do with a novel that’s grown too large, but you’re right, for a short story, you may not need it.

      Don’t worry about being behind. There’s lots of time to catch up. :)

  • Sunny Henderson

    How do you find editors? Any tips on this? I came across a very nice woman who edits, willing to do so for a reasonable price considering I have three completed manuscripts in hand, but this was only for copy editing. I don’t know how to find an editor for content and structure… and, honestly, it makes me very anxious to think of editing at all.

    • Ann Stanley

      I want help with this, too. I’ve seen a few structural editors advertise on the internet, but how do I know if they are any good?

      • Joe Bunting

        Ask for samples of their work and get references from their clients. It’s like any contractor really.

    • Joe Bunting

      Just saw this. Sorry!

      Fortunately, I know a bunch of editors. You have my email address, right? Just email me and I’ll try and connect you with someone good.

      • Sunny Henderson

        Yes, I have your e-mail address. I’ll e-mail you right now. Thanks!

  • disqus_uw8kXCNacZ

    I’m a 3 draft kinda guy. My first draft is always slow with lots of re-working of lines…etc. Second pass is to either embellish weak areas or tighten up places where I wander off the reservation. The third pass (and sometimes 4th) is for spelling and grammar, my two least favorite involvements. But it must be done. After this it’s time to have my close circle of friends take a read. Always a process. Curious about the multiple scenario approach. I can see where this would be a powerful tool. I may need to try this.

  • James Hall

    Hiring an editor is expensive. Not happening. Plus, I enjoy learning how to cut edits on my own.

    And what are friends for?

  • Kim

    I love revision. Writing the first draft is painful for me (very painful), but revision is a wonderful thing. I love being able to flesh out characters and tie up plot points.

    I use beta readers and critique partners to help me decide when a MS is finished. If I ever self-published, though, I’d hire a copy editor.