So… you’ve written a book.
Congratulations! Those weeks, months, or even years of hard effort have finally paid off, and your new manuscript now sits complete.
But (sadly) the work doesn’t end there – because once that initial draft is done, it’s time for revision and those all-important book edits.
In this three-part series, we’ll lead you on a journey through the crucial core steps writers editing their own books should take – from start to finish. With a good process in place, editing a book doesn’t have to be a complete nightmare. It takes effort, for sure, but with a consistent and focused approach, you’ll soon have a final draft that makes your heart sing.
But where do you begin when editing a book? Grab your red pen and a notepad, because we’re jumping off with a high-level developmental overview of your story itself.
Editing a Book: Should Writers Do It Themselves?
One of the most common objections to self-editing is that the author is often too close to the work for them to perform efficient – or sufficient – editing, and there is some truth to that assertion.
A human editor is an important part of the writing and publishing process. After all, a great editor is not only a trained and experienced professional, but an invaluable extra set of eyes for your work. They know structure, form, and communication, and can point out overblown “darlings” in your turns of phrase, or point out where a specific story element feels out of place. There may need to be some concessions given between writer and editor to best serve the story and the writer’s own needs, naturally, but that’s nothing to be afraid of.
That said, it only makes sense to deliver the best self-made version of your story to a human editor. It’s both kinder to the editor themselves – since they don’t have to wade through mountains of grammatical errors, purple prose and rookie mistakes such as puffed up dialogue tags – and to your wallet, since early layers of polish helps ensure fewer rounds of more meaty changes recommended by your editor.
Fewer rounds of editing also means a quicker path to actually getting your book out into the world – so yes, it absolutely makes sense for authors to make their own book edits before heading further up the chain for additional help.
Here are our recommendations for where to begin.
1. Let It Rest
A clear mind makes for better decision-making. The writing process itself is often fraught with a constant stream of self-doubt, changes on the fly, frustration and fury, and allowing this to subside before jumping in with your editor’s hat on is what we might call a very good idea.
Before coming back to begin your edits, let the work rest for a while. The ideal length of time will vary from author to author, but a week or two should suffice. This doesn’t mean you can’t think about your manuscript during this time, but make sure not to constantly leaf through it or drag yourself into deep inner arguments about it for a while. Instead, move on to a different project or take some time for self care. Relax, do things you enjoy and take your mind away from the book for a while.
Editing a book is a much easier process when you can approach it with as clear a head as possible.
2. Restrain Your Inner Copy Editor
For this first editorial pass, you’re going to be looking at the story developmentally. This means you’re considering the bigger picture of the plot, structure, and characters within – not whether you’ve worded something correctly or whether a particular metaphor makes sense.
For these first few passes, restrain your inner copy editor. This is the side of you that wants to cut a word here, change a sentence there, or nix that wayward dialogue tag. All of those things will come later.
Instead, we’re staying at that thousand feet view – making sure the story itself, at its core, actually makes sense.
Important: Do these next things one at a time
A simple note here is that we recommend building systems into your self-editing process. When editing a book, it can be tempting to fix any problem, regardless of its nature, as you catch it when you read through. This, however, can often lead to “squirrel syndrome” – where you wind up bogged down in one section, going round and round in circles as you jump from one thing to the next.
This can have the cognitive effect of feeling like you’ve stalled. It feels like all forward momentum with your efforts has ceased and you’re stuck in a quagmire, struggling through molasses. This is where many authors – especially early in their career – come to despise the editing process.
To avoid this, stick firmly to one specific element through each pass of the manuscript. Consider your mind as a machine programmed to tackle one specific target from beginning to end. Once complete, you simply change the target and start again.
Once you become more experienced with editing a book, you can of course begin to tackle multiple things at the same time and switch up the order in which you do so. But for beginners, we highly recommend following the recommended order throughout this After the Draft series and sticking solely to one target at a time.
3. Focus on Plot
At this stage, you’re focusing on your story’s overall plot. Read through and map out, separately, how your story progresses from beginning to end. Keep this to a summary – essentially a bullet list – without digging into the minutiae of what happens in each scene.
What’s your opening? How are things set up? Who is your main character?
What is the story’s inciting incident – the event that sets the plot in motion – and in which chapter does it happen?
Who or what is the villain, and how do we know they are the villain?
How are you applying pressure to the main character throughout the story? Which events in particular see them clash with the villain? Where do these appear in terms of chapter numbers? Are you leaving readers hanging on for too long without any surprising or exciting events?
How does the plot evolve as the story progresses? To avoid a plot feeling too flat, the mid-point will often see your characters making a big course correction due to unexpected events or revelations – something that switches up the initial goal and demands a new approach.
How does it end? Do you have a clear solution (or failure) presented, and does it make sense? Does the conclusion actually wrap up the plot without leaving too many loose threads still hanging?
For help with this, check out our free AutoCrit Story Beat Sheet and handy breakdown article. Using the sheet, you can map your plot directly onto the core beats a reader would expect to see.
One thing to keep in mind is a chain of cause and effect that runs throughout your story beats. One event will likely have repercussions that point toward the next (even if indirectly), as everything links on the path to the finale. You’re looking at things from this angle to ensure that your plot feels fluid. It may be unpredictable, yes, but should come together smoothly in terms of setup, resolution, and the adventures in between.
4. Focus on Character and Arcs
Another great use of a beat sheet is when tracking character arcs. Just like a plot unfolds with specific beats, twists, and revelations, so too does the development and growth of your characters.
This time, map your character journey onto the beat sheet. At each beat, highlight what it is about the character that is revealed, reinforced, or changed as a result of this scene/beat.
When stepping back and looking at your completed sheet, can you see a clear trajectory for that character journey that ends with a different person than we met in the beginning? Can you track the lessons learned as a result of the events of the story, and how those lessons have affected the character’s mindset?
Remember the chain of cause and effect throughout. Changes in your character should be prompted or manifested by the events of the story; they don’t just come out of nowhere.
Tracking your character arcs by beat is a great to ensure you haven’t made the mistake of introducing an emotional change with no cause, or introduced a change that feels unearned – for example, and unbelievable overreaction to what appears to be a relatively mild event.
5. Focus on Conflict
One of the core facets of effective and enthralling drama is conflict. We want to see characters with problems. We want to see characters face obstacles. From the beginning, the path is always fraught with struggles – from the minor type to the major kind.
A scene that contains no sort of conflict whatsoever is usually a scene that lacks purpose. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s true enough to earn its place as a worthy focus for your developmental check-up.
For this pass, you’re going to break down your manuscript scene by scene and note the core conflict present within each. Is it an obvious physical conflict in an action scene, for example, or is it something more subtle – a disagreement that bubbles under the surface of a conversation between two characters?
This is a great method for discovering “dead weight” scenes that you’re only using to deliver a beat for a character arc without wrapping that beat in more effective dramatization. A scene like that can often be made more involving by the introduction of a conflict or obstacle, or the important character beat can be shifted into an existing scene that’s already teeming with conflict.
To help with tracking conflict along your major plot beats, grab a copy of our free After the Draft Story Structure worksheet right here.
6. Track Important Items
This is where your notepad – or a series of sticky note tabs and a printed manuscript – will come in handy.
At this stage, you’re going to read through your story carefully, looking out for where you’ve drawn attention to a specific item or detail – intentionally or unintentionally.
Drawing close attention to things helps anchor them in the mind of the reader, and they’ll often assume those details are relevant to something that’s going to happen later. Many readers pride themselves on identifying foreshadowing, and will become confused and annoyed if too many details or objects are bestowed an apparent importance that never manifests within the story.
A certain item within your story may be a plain “MacGuffin” in that it motivates the characters throughout, but ultimately doesn’t serve an important role in the story’s resolution. That is absolutely fine – you simply want to avoid that MacGuffin dropping out of the story entirely without reason.
Another example could be the likes of a photograph or a sealed letter, or even a character, which you present as a source of intrigue. Automatically, we assume the mystery of this object or person is going to be important – that there’s going to be a reveal associated with them later on.
It’s worth reiterating that objects, people, or details to which you’ve loaned an air of importance don’t actually have to be central to the plot’s resolution. They could simply be a red herring – but you do need to show the reader where they went or why they aren’t actually of paramount importance. Don’t leave them hanging as a loose end.
7. Final Checks: Order and Structure
Finally for your developmental run, you’re going to swing back around to the beginning and check the structure once more.
Does the new order of everything make sense? Can you follow the plot, as it now unfolds, in an easy manner, with new revelations arriving at exciting and unexpected points?
Are character beats – the parts of the story where we learn something important about the personality of the main characters as they grow and change – placed in a position that feels contextually relevant and believably organic?
If one of these elements feels better presented in a different position within the story, then a reshuffle will be necessary. Take that most important element of the scene and place it where it most makes sense – taking the time, of course, to massage and adjust so that particular plot point fits organically into its new position.
With your developmental checks complete and any relevant book edits made (perhaps you’ve switched a few scenes around, found a character decision that didn’t make sense, or caught an important item that just disappeared from the plot), it’s time to move on to the next stage of editing a book: the nuts and bolts of the words on the page.
So in Part II of After the Draft, we’ll tackle…
The Simple Line Edit.
See you there!