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Editing a Book: Steps and Process

editing a book


Why is Editing a Book Important?

Let’s look at how some famous writers answered the question, why is editing a book impirtant.

Ernest Hemingway perhaps did so most concisely when he said: the first draft of anything is **** (You can guess his word of choice).

Alain de Boton commented: To become a proper writer, you have to forgive yourself the catastrophe of the first draft.

Terry Pratchett phrased it more gently when he said: The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

Neil Gaiman advised: get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.

For most writers, the first draft of a story is a far cry from the brilliant final published book we read.

Editing a book is how we take a manuscript from the mess – artistic mess though it may be – of a first draft, into a finely-crafted story. Or as the old writers’ adage goes: 90 percent of writing is rewriting.

How can we shape this mountainous task?

Steps to Editing a Book


There are no hard and fast rules that apply to editing a book for every writer and every story. There is, however, general guidance as to what works well for many.

Consider taking the following steps:

Carry out a self-edit, focusing first on structure

In general, there’s no point perfecting the prose of a scene you may end up cutting.

Of course, this advice doesn’t work for everyone.

Some writers find that the process of perfecting prose is necessary for them to truly understand what their story is about – in which case, you may choose to perfect your prose first. But you should only do this if you’re fully armed with the knowledge you may have to kill many of those darling sentences later on.

Allowing your beautiful sentences to drive your story risks putting the cart before the horse.

For advice on how to conduct a story edit on your own manuscript, see Kristina Stanley’s blog, Self-Edit and Create Powerful Stories.

When editing a book, a story edit looks, amongst other things, at:

  • Overall structure and scene placement
  • Whether each scene is necessary and doing its job
  • Whether character arcs work in a believable manner
  • Whether your story has a strong forward direction
  • Whether settings have been used to best effect

You may choose to revise your manuscript in stages, doing one structural edit of plot, then another of character and point-of-view, and a third of setting. It depends where your manuscripts main weaknesses are.

Self-editing at this stage is usually a time-consuming process which can often involve a near-complete rewrite as you move, revise, cut and add scenes.

Carry out another self-edit, looking next at your scenes

To understand the importance of Scene-by-Scene editing, see Jordan Rosenfeld’s blog, Scene-by-Scene Editing Makes a Story Come to Life. (I also highly recommend her book, Make a Scene.)

To scene edit, you’ll be looking at questions such as:

  • Does the scene fulfil its purpose?
  • Is the scene goal clear and does it contribute to the story?
  • Is the scene correctly structured?
  • Have you used the correct balance of action/thought/dialogue/description within the scene?

Fictionary software is designed to help make this easier; without the software, you’ll need to learn how to break down your story into smaller scene units and ensure each unit engages the reader. I’d recommend you structure these units around the point-of-view character’s scene goal, as this assists with the story’s forward movement.

Carry out another self-edit, focusing on prose

Once your story and scenes are strong, next edit your prose, looking at, for example:

  • Whether you’ve told too much and shown too little
  • How you can strengthen your writing voice
  • Whether you’ve used weak verbs, excessive adjectives and adverbs, excessive passive tense or overuse ant phrases (ProWriting Aid software can help here.)
  • Whether your sentence structures are varied
  • Whether your dialogue is tight, contains subtext, and coveys character voices well, and so on

Copy edit

Check for spelling/grammatical mistakes which could confuse and/or distract readers.

Send to Beta Readers, then amend

For further advice, see How to Work with Beta Readers.

Send to a Professional Editor, then amend

If you want to send your manuscript to a professional editor, this is the best time to do so, after you’ve corrected everything you can correct yourself. This way, they can focus their advice on the weaknesses of which you’re unaware, not the ones you can easily fix yourself.

For further advice, see Kristina Stanley’s blog, When to Self Edit in your Writing Journey.

Tips for Editing a Book

edit books

When self-editing, there are certain things you might be advised to take into account.

Write your story’s blurb

Before tackling your structural edit, write your story’s blurb – both the full blurb and the skeleton blurb. This will be an indispensable tool as you edit, and will first help you figure out if you have a story yet or not.

For more guidance, see What is a Book Blurb by Sherry Leclerc.

Any scene that does not relate to your story’s blurb may be a scene you need to consider removing. If your first draft lacks a clear protagonist, story goal, or stakes, you don’t yet have a story and will need to figure this out first.

Write a one page synopsis of your story

Write a one-page synopsis of your story’s structure. Use this while editing to ensure your story doesn’t drift.

Try to detach from your work

Finding the necessary detachment for a full structural self-edit is challenging. If you can’t bear the thought of moving or cutting scenes, or can’t see why your story isn’t working yet, consider using Fictionary software, which is designed to help you obtain that detachment.

Other options include:

  • Seeking beta reader opinions or a developmental edit at an earlier stage of the process (but be aware you may require further beta reads and/or professional edits later on.)
  • Putting your manuscript away for a period of time, and returning to it later. Hopefully, time away will provide distance and new perspectives.
  • Consider a Fictionary Quickstart Edit for specific feedback on your first scene and story blurb.
  • Read widely, especially other books in your chosen genre, as you edit your own. These may help provide inspiration as you struggle to resolve issues in your manuscript.
  • If you’re struggling to understand why your story doesn’t work yet, craft books may provide assistance. For a great selection of recommended craft book titles, check out the Craft Book Corner section of the online Fictionary Community.

Final Tip for Editing a Book

book editing tips

For general help and support on editing a book, the Fictionary Community provides myriad free resources, including genre focus groups, discussions, webinars, blurb clinics, specialist talks and example edits.

Article Written by Polly Watt

A former refugee lawyer in the UK, Polly Watt honed her skills working on cases where careful editing often really was a matter of life and death.

As a Fictionary StoryCoach Editor, she will apply the same care and attention to detail to your structural story edit. She’s passionate about stories and loves working on all different types of literary genres.

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