Completing the first draft of a manuscript is no small feat. After hours upon hours of coming up with ideas, planning, and writing, you finally got to write those oh-so-satisfying final words. And now it’s time to start editing.
The editing process may seem daunting, both because the prospect of trimming down the body of work that you spent years crafting can be a sad one, and also because there are thousands of words that need to be refined and adjusted.
In this article, I’ll provide you with some top editing tips that will hopefully simplify the process for you, and give you a framework to work from.
Here are some key editing tips.
Consider your Editing Approach
Different people have different approaches when it comes to editing, and your preferences will affect the ways in which you edit. Some people edit as they write, while others don’t do any editing until they’ve finished a full first draft. Both approaches can work well, so opt for whichever works for you.
If you’re in the former camp, the bulk of your editing will probably focus on big-picture elements like your story arc, narrative voice, and style. If you’re in the latter group, you’ll also edit for things like typos, misspellings, and unclear sentences.
If you aren’t sure which method would work best for you, try them both and see which is the best fit. It may be that you’ve completely finished your first draft, so you can’t go back and edit as you write at this stage. But you could always try that with your next manuscript, or with a short story or poem you’re writing in the meantime.
Take a Break
The reasoning behind this tip is twofold.
You’ve spent so long working hard on your manuscript, and you deserve- and need- some rest! Take some time to go for a walk, read a book, watch your favorite TV show, or have a nap. Do something that you enjoy and that will rejuvenate you.
Since you’ve spent so much time writing your book, you’re very close to it. Cutting out sections of your book can be tricky, so if you spend some time apart from it, and get some literal distance from it, it’ll be easier for you to be more objective about your editing decisions.
Remember, editing is done to improve your work and enhance what’s already there.
Ideally, take at least a few weeks away from your book (preferably longer, like a couple of months) before you edit the bulk of your manuscript. You can use that time away to focus on your other responsibilities, go on a short holiday, find a new hobby, or start a new writing project. That way, you’ll return to your manuscript with fresh eyes, ready to edit.
Consider your Word Count
Before you start editing, take a minute to review your word count and decide if you’re happy with it.
For certain genres, word count is very important. If you’re writing middle-grade fiction, for instance, it’s essential that your book is long enough that it has a clear narrative, yet also not so long that it loses your readers’ attention.
Checking your word count early on in the process means that as you edit, in the back of your mind you’ll know roughly how much of your book you need to cut down, or how much you need to add to it, and you can adjust accordingly. Then when you spot sections that need to be developed or that can be removed, you’ll work on them knowing that you’re building towards your overall goal for the book.
If you’re aiming to be traditionally published, you’ll mention your word count when you query agents, so having an awareness of the average word counts for books in specific genres can be helpful later on too.
Tackle the Big Picture Elements First
Once you start editing, focus on the broader elements of your novel first. There’s no point in worrying about spelling or unwieldy sentences at this stage, as you don’t know which sections you’ll be keeping or what you might be reframing. Focus on your narrative structure, plot points, character development, themes, and any other major components of your book.
Things like your evaluation of the narrative structure will take the longest, as you’ll need to examine certain sections (like the inciting incident) as well as how the story builds and works as a whole, so you might want to start with that first. If you wrote a detailed plan for your novel, you could also look at that alongside your manuscript, see if there are any deviations between them, and decide if you want to make any tweaks in light of that.
At this stage, you’re not only checking to ensure that your plot is clear but also whether things seem plausible in the world you’ve created, and if not, whether you could make some alterations so that they do.
Do a Closer Edit
Once you’ve edited your book on a broader scale, it’s time to focus on the details. Check for misspellings, grammatical errors, overly long sentences, authentic dialogue, etc.
If you cover any historical/technical topics (a novel set in Medieval England, a book with a protagonist who’s a physicist), ensure that any details given are as accurate as possible, as inaccuracies can draw your reader’s attention away from the story and shatter the illusion of the world you’ve created.
If you’ve done any significant worldbuilding (think sci-fi and fantasy) it’s also good to check for consistencies within the rules you’ve created for your world.
Check your Opening Pages
Your opening pages/chapters are the ones that persuade your readers to keep reading.
There’s a delicate balance to strike between giving the reader enough information so that things make sense and they’re intrigued, and yet not overloading them with details to the point where they’re overwhelmed and disoriented.
If you’re planning to get your book traditionally published, these opening pages are even more important, as they’re the ones prospective literary agents will look at during the querying process. So, make sure your opening chapters are engaging, clear, and well-written, and will keep readers (and agents) turning the pages.
Get some Feedback from Readers
Once you’ve edited your book to the best of your ability, and your manuscript is as refined as possible, it’s time to get some feedback. Ask your friends, family, neighbors, etc (especially if any of them have any writing experience or have writing-heavy jobs like teachers or librarians) if they wouldn’t mind reading your book.
You could ask them for general feedback, or for notes on certain sections (the opening pages, chapter 12) or elements (the development of one of your secondary characters, the climax of the novel). You could also join writing communities and ask other writers to read your work (usually in exchange for reading their work in return).
You could also opt to utilize the expertise of sensitivity readers, who ensure that your book represents certain communities (such as people of color or those who have a disability), topics, and themes as accurately as possible. These are paid readers, and typically people you don’t know (to ensure objectivity), who help you add a level of authenticity to any elements of your book that you don’t have any personal experience with.
Once you’ve gotten your feedback, ensure that you collate it all, note any commonalities, and implement any changes that you think would enhance your book.
Get some Professional Editorial Feedback
At this stage, you will probably have lost track of the number of drafts you’ve done but remember that your book will be all the better for it. The next step is to look into some professional editing services.
These are available at different price points, and there are different types of services too, so ensure you do your research and decide which option is best for you. Make sure that the company/editor you choose to hire is reputable and that they have the right credentials.
Editors have lots of experience and will usually be able to give you advice based on their knowledge of the publishing industry and the genre you’re working on. This will, of course, likely result in further edits needing to be made, but it will all help you craft the best book you can.
The Next Step
Once you’ve finished your final round of edits, it’s time for the next step. Perhaps that means querying agents or beginning the self-publishing process, or maybe it means taking a pause while you decide what lies ahead for you and your book.
Either way, you’ve written, edited, and crafted a book that you can truly be proud of, and that’s a huge accomplishment!
Savannah Jackson is a Digital Content Assistant at Jericho Writers. She has a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick. In her free time, she writes poetry, practices yoga, and reads voraciously.