6 Things You Need To Edit Your Book

Scissors Truman Capote

Editing is my favourite part of writing. While I enjoy the free exploration and rush of creativity that comes with writing a first draft, it’s in the edit that I really earn my money. The edit can turn a promising idea into a great idea, can turn lumpen prose into gold. But in order to get the best out of editing, you need six important things.

1 Distance

Have you noticed how much easier it is to spot mistakes or areas for improvement in other people’s books? There’s a good reason for that. As a reader you’re coming to the story fresh, with no insight or foreknowledge of what’s taking place. You can only judge the book by it’s words. With your own book it’s very different. You know everything intimately, not just what is written but the back story, what you are trying to imply and what is left unsaid. You know what you mean to say but because of your knowledge you can’t see what you’ve actually written.

To overcome this you need to distance yourself from your work. The way most writers do this is to put the manuscript away for a month or more and get on with something else. By the time you read it through again, you’ll be able to see it through a reader’s eyes and spot the issues you would otherwise not have seen.

2 To put the story first

Nothing is more important than what’s best for your story. When you read your story back you may find passages of exquisite beauty, but if they don’t fit well into the overall narrative, they need to be cut. You may have included a particular subplot because you like the characters or because you want to explore a particular idea, but if they confuse or slow the overall story, they should be taken out.

The story is king, not you, your ego, your interests or desires. To produce the best work you need to remove yourself from the process. When you edit, always remember that you’re there to serve the story, not the other way around.

3 Knowledge of your market

If you are writing your book purely for yourself, you can skip this part. However, if you are hoping people will buy your book you need to have an understanding of your target market when you edit. This isn’t necessarily so you change the story to meet a generic market need, but you need to understand the implications of the choices you make.

The type of language you use can restrict the size of your audience. Scenes of violence or of a sexual nature will also restrict who will be interested in your work. I’m not suggesting for a minute that you should produce a bland, generic piece or try to please everyone – and as an author who writes for adults, I certainly don’t write that way – but you need to understand the types of boundaries that exist within your target audience before you start pushing them.

4 A process

Before you start editing you need to have a clear idea of the different steps of the editing process and your goals at each stage. Editing isn’t just about ensuring you have  no typos or grammatical errors. It’s about producing the best story possible, including the shape and flow of your story, characterisation, plot, prose, as well as those pesky typos.

I’ve written in the past about my editing process (I urge you to have a read. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back) and it’s one I plan to use again this time around. The one step I would add having learnt from my most recent book is to have a second full read through before sending it off for it’s final proof. It’s amazing the impact a thousand seemingly minor changes can have on the overall shape and flow of a story.

Whatever your thoughts on whether my process works for you or not, you need to have one of your own before you start.

5 People who aren’t afraid to give you an honest opinion

When you start out writing, the first people you ask for feedback tend to be family and friends. This is great if you have wife like mine who is more than happy to tell you their unvarnished thoughts on your work (and I wouldn’t have her any other way) but mostly the feedback you’ll receive will be encouraging. Your friends and family will either view your book as being ‘good for you’ or believe whatever you do is great. Then there are those who didn’t like your story but don’t want to hurt your feelings.

In order to write the best story possible you need open, honest feedback. You need people to tell you what worked for them and what didn’t – along with the all important ‘why’ – without fear of how you’ll react. Now, if you’ve already done points 1 & 2 of this list, your feelings shouldn’t come into it – OK, they will, but at least you’ll recognise the reaction for what it is and eventually put your anger or disappointment behind you – so you should be in a position to judge any critical comment on its merit.

If you can afford to, hire a developmental editor to help you define the best structure for your story. If this isn’t possible, identify people you trust and ask them to beta read for you. Remember, whatever the feedback, these people only have your story’s best interest at heart.

6 Professional help

Who is your favourite write? Whose prose to you find exhilarating, or characters spellbinding? Whoever you think of, they were only able to produce work to this level with the help of professionals. Whether they were developmental editors as I’ve mentioned above, line editors to help smooth prose or proofreaders to identify any typos or grammatical errors, all of the writers of the books you love had help along the way.

When I published Second Chance I had an editor friend give it a ‘quick once over’ before launch. I thought it was in good shape but he found hundreds of errors. I then published but was immediately told by other friends there were other errors. They kindly sent me a list of over fifty errors. I then sent it to my editor friend for a thorough edit. He found another 270 errors.

My process changed completely when it came to Absent souls, but even after going through many rounds of editing, I recently had another editor look through Second Chance and Absent Souls where they found a few more (thankfully small) things to correct. The good news is I’ve only had one review which marked me down because of typos, but I know of authors that have had their book trashed in reviews because of issues that a professional could have helped them resolve.

You cannot edit your book on your own. No author can. You need the help of professionals, people trained to get your manuscript into shape. While you may not have the resources of a major publisher to pick up every error in a manuscript, you owe it to your readers to produce the best work possible. At the very least, hire a proofreader to tidy your book. You’re readers, and your accountant, will thank you.


So these are my list of things you need for your edit, what are yours? Have I missed anything? Is there anything you disagree with? I’d love to hear from you.


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38 thoughts on “6 Things You Need To Edit Your Book

    • Thank you and thanks for the reblog. I think every part of writing has its challenges but for some reason I find it easier to play with something that’s there rather than creating from scratch. However, I’ve just finished my latest first draft. I’m sure I’ll have a different opinion by the time I’ve finished editing 🙂

  1. Having just completed the editing process on my third book – this post was a great read. I’m happy to say, I met most of the criteria! Yippee. It is so important to have a clear process in mind and stick to it.

    • I think most of us who have written a few books are a little more settled in our approach having gone through the process more than once. That said, there’s always something new to learn.

  2. You nailed it again, Dylan. As always. 🙂

    I think I strayed with #3 a bit on the book I’m shopping now. But I wanted to write what I wanted to write, so we’ll see. My current WIP is more mainstream medical thriller again, so that’s good. Well, with a little twist. I like to throw those in…

    I recently read through my ‘polished’ manuscript on my iPad Kindle. Amazing what little errors you’ll spot that you don’t in a Word document. I found out it wasn’t quite so ‘polished’ after all.

    • Thanks, Carrie! For me, the third point isn’t necessarily to radically change your story but to understand the implications of the choices you make. For example, if I’d changed some of the content or language of Second Chance, I would have been able to approach a much wider group of book reviewers. I didn’t because I wanted to stay true to the story I wanted to write, but I understood the consequences of my decision.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Peter. It’s the shaping and refining, the teasing out of themes and the drawing out of the characterisation that gives me a real buzz. My first drafts are always melodramatic, emotions see-sawing wildly, reactions over-the-top, but once I edit I can tone all this down to deliver something much more nuanced (at least I hope so).

  3. Reblogged this on Kentucky Mountain Girl News and commented:
    KMGN: Excellent! I do not enjoy editing after the second draft because I am afraid of destroying the story I’ve created. So, before I send something off of the longer-than-a-short-story length, I zap it to my sister who has a Master’s degree in English and hasn’t steered me wrong yet. Again, hope this article helps you. Let me know what you think about the process in this article. I’m very interested in knowing what you think.

    • It’s a tough balance. I over-edited my first book and ended up having to add many things I’d cut out. This is where the support of others (like your sister) comes in very handy. Thanks so much for reblogging this. 🙂

  4. I love this post as I am in the editing process. Unfortunately I am not as enthusiastic about it as you 😦 How much does a professional editor cost? Great Tips!! Great Post!

    • While some of us writers like the editing phase, the majority prefer writing the first draft, so you’re not alone. The cost of editing can vary greatly depending on the type of editing involved. I’ve linked to a post by Joanna Penn to give you an idea but I know a few editors follow my blog and they may be able to give you more information http://www.thecreativepenn.com/editors/

  5. Reblogged this on graemecummingdotnet and commented:
    Although it’s hard to tell from my recent output (next to zero), personally I find the best part of writing is getting the story down for the first time. My good friend Dylan (hey, we’ve actually met in person once – that’s like a friend for life in cyber terms!) enjoys the editing process more. It seems to me that, if I’m going to take advice on part of the process that I’m not so keen on, I need to take it from the enthusiast. Take note.

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  7. Time is probably your biggest friend when it comes to editing. You can see so much more when you let it sit for a bit. Take it off the computer and read it via paper copies also helps. See a lot there as well.

  8. I’m so jealous that you thrive in editing. It’s a struggle for me. I’d rather be writing something new, but I know I have to refine what’s already there. Thanks for sharing!

    • Editing is writing too! You may not be in a free-flowing creative frenzy but you’re still choosing words carefully, tweaking structure and drawing out character to tell the best story possible. The first draft is slapping a lump of clay onto a wheel, editing is turning it into a beautiful vase.

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  10. I’m late to the party, but got here at last! Your advice on editing is sound. I particularly value the feedback of people (ahem… like you) who aren’t afraid of telling it how it is. Also, whilst it’s hard to do, it’s absolutely essential to put that draft down, step away, leave the room and go do something else for a few weeks before commencing editing. I’d never have believed the difference it makes, until I did it.

    I was in the awkward position of writing and editing simultaneously on Singled Out for a while. I was around half way through, writing forward on my first draft, whilst reviewing my earlier chapters with a mentor. It did get a bit twisty in my head. Whilst her advice was certainly valuable, I wouldn’t recommend trying to do both things at once – it’s a bit like patting your stomach and rubbing your head!

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