Editing can make a mediocre book good, a good book great, and a great book a masterpiece. For every hour you spend writing, you should spend at least two or three editing. Readers can tell the difference between a book that was edited well and one that wasn’t. Nothing screams ‘amateur’ like a poorly edited book.
Most writers hate editing their own work. Here's how to self edit and actually enjoy it
Once you have finished your last chapter, the last thing you will feel like is to go through the material you are all too familiar with.
In the course of writing your book you would have edited it yourself, reading through the chapters over and over again. But this is not enough.
Here are some tips to make self editing easier and more enjoyable:
Give yourself a break
Stephen King famously takes a six week break from a book before looking at it again to self edit. Maybe you don't need that long, but you do need to look at it with fresh eyes to prevent author blindness. When you are over familiar with the material, you will start to overlook things.
Look at the big picture first
Don't make the mistake of diving into the nitty-gritty of grammar, punctuation and typos straight away. Your first read-through should only focus on the structure of your book, the pacing, the point of view and the narrative drive. It would be a total waste of time if you spend months proofreading your book, only to have to change large sections of the plot later.
Use proofreading tools to do the bulk of the work
Apps like Grammarly can really help to get the bulk of the work done by identifying all of the small, obvious mistakes. Grammarly is an excellent tool to identify spelling and grammar errors. Hemingway, on the other hand, will help you to simplify your work by highlighting lengthy, complicated sentences that can affect the flow of the text.
Make "show, don't tell" your mantra
Never patronize your readers by telling them what to think - let them draw their own conclusions. A good book sucks its readers into the story by allowing them to actively discover what is happening. When you go through your book, try to identify areas where the narrator is "dumping" the back story onto the reader. Rather cut these pieces and allow the characters to tell their own stories through conversation.
Narrator telling the story:
Mary has had a hard couple of weeks. A lack of sleep and way too many hours slaving away at her job have left her very irritable. If only she could get this project done, things may finally go back to normal.
Characters telling the story:
"You look pretty worn out today, are you getting enough sleep?" said Sue, eyeing the dark circles underneath Mary's eyes. Mary grimaced.
"Really? When I drove past the office block last night, your light was still burning."
"Yeah - I know, I had some work to finish off. Got home at 1:00 am. But I am used to it, so it's fine. I just need to get this project done, then everything can get back to normal"
There was a pause.
"You should really get some rest!" Sue insisted. "You are taking this whole thing way too seriously."
"I'm FINE!" Mary turned around, went into her office and slammed the door.
Although the second piece is longer than the first, it is much stronger.
Even non-fiction can benefit from showing instead of telling. Use examples or case studies to prove your point rather than trying to spoon-feed the information.
Line edit your work
This is a time consuming step, but also a very valuable one. Isolate each sentence from the rest to see whether it makes sense in context, as well as on its own. This allows you to closely look at your word choice and see if there are any awkward or unnecessary phrases you could cut. Do this on your computer, creating spaces between the sentence you are looking at and the rest of the paragraph.
When in doubt - look it up
Don’t fully rely on computer spell check programs; very few understand the difference between "your" and "you’re," or "their" and "there." As the old saying goes, grammar and punctuation make the difference between helping Uncle Jack off a horse, and helping uncle jack off a horse. Crack a dictionary; learn the rules. Get a style guide. Google it. If you’re not an English major, consider taking a class. Grammar is like driving a car; you don’t need to be an expert mechanic, but you should know the basics of how the thing works.
Look at your work in a different format
Change is as good as a holiday, they say. Just looking at your work in a different format will make you see it through fresh eyes. Print out your manuscript, grab a cup of coffee and a red pen and get comfortable. Getting away from your usual writing spot should also get you more motivated and inspired.
Another way to look at your work in a different format is to actually read it out loud. It just makes it much easier to identify phrases that don't flow. Yes, some of the best writers are the ones who whisper at their screens like crazy people. You could, however, also use software such as TextAloud (or Ghostreader for Mac users) to do the reading work for you. Close your eyes, lean back and really listen to what you wrote - now who wouldn't want to edit like that?
Having your work edited for free
As soon as you’ve edited as well as you can, let someone else have a go. Once you think there are no mistakes left, you’re probably down to your last hundred or so. Show it to someone you know who knows how language works.
This is where writer’s groups come in handy. Ask another author. Ask an English teacher. Ask your parents, your partner or a family member to look at it with a critical eye. If you are already a published author, or a blogger-turned-author, you can even ask some of your fans to scan your work. Don't be shy to reach out to the people you know - they are sometimes your best critics.
Finding an editing service you can trust - without breaking the bank
One you’ve pestered everyone in your life to help edit your book for free, and you’ve got it into shape as much as you can, it may be time to consider an editing service. Book editing services abound, and they vary wildly in both quality and price, though the two do not necessarily run together. This is especially important if you’re self-publishing.
If you’re going the traditional publishing route, most publishers, especially big ones, will have their own editors on staff. But even then, a well-edited book has far more chance of getting published in the first place than one full of poor spelling and plot holes. Bear that in mind.
Google ‘book editing services’ and you’ll quickly be swamped by around 23 million results. And that’s just one method of finding editing services. You’ll find editors advertising on Craigslist and in writing magazines, too.
All editors will claim to be experts. But you need to know what to look for
Here are some things to keep in mind when you are considering an editing service:
Who is doing the editing? What kind of experience do they have? Any legitimate editing service should be able to give examples of other projects that they’ve worked on in the past; if they can’t or won’t, look elsewhere.
Getting a good price. Many editors charge by the word, so keep a calculator handy. Two cents a word doesn’t sound like much, but for a 100,000 word book, that’s $2,000. In some cases it is cheaper to get a quote for the entire book, rather than a per-word or per-page figure.
Choose an editor who fits the project. If you’ve written a novel, try and find an editor who has experience with novels, rather than one who edits student’s essays for a living. Likewise, if you’ve written a self-help book, a fiction editor is probably not the best way to go.
Make sure you know what you’re getting for your money. There are many different ways to edit a piece of writing, and editing services like to make up their own names for them. Some are a simple edit to check spelling, grammar and punctuation; others are more substantive, involving a critique of plot, character development, style, etc. The more you ask from your editor, the more he’ll charge you. Your budget will determine what level of editing you choose, but always try to get the most thorough edit you can afford.
Ask for a sample. No legitimate book editing service should have a problem with editing a single page of your work in order to help you make a decision. If they won’t do that, it’s not a good sign. Look elsewhere.
A relationship with an editor can be a beautiful thing. It’s really astonishing how much a good editor can do for your book. As good as you are, or think you are, a good editor can make you better. But choose carefully. Like almost every aspect of publishing, the editing game is rife with sharks and scoundrels. Check credentials, get samples, Google names. Sort the wheat from the chaff, and your book will be far better for it.