Positive Writer

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How To Edit Your Book Until It’s “Finished”

Note: This is a guest post by Joe Bunting. Joe is a professional ghostwriter and editor. He is the publisher of The Write Practice and the creator of Story Cartel.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to edit a book. “I have a 60,000 word manuscript,” people tell me, “but I don’t know how to know if it’s ready to publish.”

Some of these writers want to finish up the manuscripts they began during NaNoWriMo. Others are in the middle of their first draft and are enthusiastically thinking ahead to their next steps.

However, they’re all asking the same question: How do you know when your book is finished?

Writing Is Revision

Once you finish that last page, you will probably experience more pride than you ever have in your entire life, second only to giving birth. Go ahead and soak it up. Throw yourself a party. Take a few days off to celebrate.

Don’t read your draft though, because as soon as you do, the awful reality of just how bad your book is will almost certainly dampen your mood. I love this quote from Michael Crichton:

Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.

Your book isn’t finished until you revise it from beginning to end at least once (and almost always more than once). I could share a hundred quotes from celebrated writers that sound exactly like the one above, but instead, just trust me. When you finish your first draft, you have so much more work to do.

How the Editing Process Works

The editing process looks different for every writer, a few things seem to work well for everyone. The best book I’ve ever read about the revision process is Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop. If you want to learn more about this subject, I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Here are four suggestions on how to edit your book:

1. Read Your Book

After you finish your first draft, read your manuscript once by yourself. Don’t edit. Don’t cross out anything. The purpose of this step is not to revise but to get a fresh perspective on the book and see what holes need filling.

While I wouldn’t suggest doing any heavy duty editing, you’re welcome to take notes or jot down any ideas you have for the next step.

2. Write 10 Scenarios

This trick is especially great for fiction writers.

In my college art class, our first assignment was to draw a quick sketch of a tea cup 100 times. Yes, I was very familiar with that tea cup by the end of the assignment. The hard part was that each drawing had to be different. After I drew the teacup from a few normal perspectives, I was forced to get creative. I started drawing levitating tea cups, tea cups that were sawn in half, cubist tea cups, and even tea cup wallpaper.

Scenarios function the same way. They’re quick summaries of your entire book in just a few thousand words.  By telling a summarized version of your story ten different ways, you get new ideas about your book’s core essentials, who the main important characters are, which ideas are most central, and how to structure your book in the most interesting way possible.

Scenarios shouldn’t take longer than a day to write, and can be as short as 2,000 to 3,000 words for a book and 300 to 500 words for a short story. The key is to have fun and be creative!

3. Three Drafts

While most professional writers write three drafts or more, there are quite a few single-drafters out there. However, single-drafters usually spend much longer on their first drafts than most writers, so that by the end, they probably rewrite more than multi-drafters.

After your first draft, your second draft is meant for major structural fixes. If you found any major holes in the reading stage, your second draft is a great time to write or rewrite chapters and scenes. After the discoveries you make in your scenarios, you may even decide to rewrite the whole book from the beginning.

I wouldn’t do much polishing until your third draft. That would be like sanding down the foundation of your house. Your final touches don’t come until your third draft. First drafts are for digging the book’s foundation, second drafts for framing the house, and third drafts for finish work.

4. Send it to Friends

How do you know when you’re book is finished? Leonard da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” However, there is a trick to knowing when to “abandon” your book and send it out into the world.

Whenever I finish any draft except for the first—which is for my eyes only—I send my manuscript to a group of up to 30 friends to give me feedback. Through these beta readers I’m able to get a sense of what my book really is, not what I think it is. When you edit your book, you get too close to the work to have any rational perspective. Beta readers bring fresh eyes, and by listening to them as they talk about your book, you’ll be able to see whether it’s ready for the world.

When to Hire an Editor

Self-published books have a bad rap for poor editing. However, this isn’t completely fair. If you buy a first printing of a traditionally published book, you will likely find two or three typos. By the time the publisher is in their second printing, these have all been fixed. Most people just don’t read first printings.

Typos happen. You can have a team of 20 people looking for errors in your book and still, when it’s finally published, your second cousin will call you to tell you there’s a typo on page 276.

That being said, if you want to self-publish, please hire a professional editor. Not only will you have a better book because of it, good editing is the best way to learn the writing craft.

If you can afford it, I recommend hiring an editor to critique your book after your second draft, giving a high level overview of your major problems. After your third draft, it’s essential that you hire a line editor or copy editor to go through your prose with a fine-tooth comb.

Give yourself the gift of the best book you could have written. The authors I work with are always so much happier after editing than before. You’ll be glad you invested in it.

What about you? How do you edit your book? Would you add any tips?

Joe Bunting is a great guy and I want to give him a heartfelt and public thank you for editing my book, Writer’s Doubt: The #1 Enemy of Writing. Great job, Joe!

About Bryan Hutchinson

I’m a positive writer and when that doesn’t work, I eat chocolate. I help fellow writers overcome doubt and thrive! In my free time, I love visiting castles with my wife, Joan. Join me on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • Phodges

    Great article. Thank you Mr. Bunting for your wise council.

    • Your very welcome, Ms. Hodges. I’m always willing to dispense my wisdom for you. 😛

  • Great post Joe and thanks for allowing him to share this Bryan. Joe knows writing. I will be releasing my book in July lord willing and I plan on following this process. 

    • Thanks Ben. You’re going to kill it with your book.

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  • Great guest post Bryan!

    Joe, thank you for sharing your wisdom! As always you touch upon significant writing issues.

    I wish I knew this 2 years ago. Still, I was lucky since a year ago I dared give one of my early drafts to a friend editor who although very sensitive to my feelings, she  gave me great feedback that started a whole new process and a great deal of work for me. Later, Jeff and the Tribe Writers also played a big role in taking me and my writing to another level. Finally last week I submitted my manuscript. Although I could have kept it 2 more years, writing and rewrititng, I felt good enough to let it go.

    I am greateful for all the help and council I received!

    Blesssings Joe and Bryan!

    • Thanks Katina. Isn’t it great to have experienced editors as friends?

  • Themagicviolinist

     Thanks for the awesome post! 😀 I was very happy to learn that I already do some of those things. I often don’t know when to stop editing. If I edit TOO much then I start to lose the original story all together. Thanks again!

    • Good to see you over here MV. Thanks for commenting. 

  • So good. Thanks, Joe!

  • Morgan Pryce

    I let my first draft “sit” for at least 3-4 months, and start on something completely different. That helps me look at my own text with less attachment – and the less attachment the better, at least for me. Because that’s when I can really see that this once-brilliant sentence doesn’t really make any sense whatsoever, that that piece of backstory is about as necessary as a warthog on a cactuS etc etc etc. But boy would I insist on keeping that hog if started editing immediately after finishing my first draft…

    • Morgan Pryce

      Not to mention the typos that get through. QED.

    • That’s a great suggestion, Morgan. Did you know Dostoevsky set aside his novel The Idiot for something like 8 years? Giving yourself space so that you can come back with a fresh perspective is something I’ve done on a lot of stories.

    • Liz

      This comment/suggestion is by far the most helpful I’ve come across for my particular situation right now. I’m clearly a newbie, having just written my first draft of a short story, and I’ve completely lost all sense of perspective. I feel like I’m wasting my time trying to revise it since I can’t see what needs to be changed – I’m so relieved to know this is normal and my instinct to leave it for now and start on something new isn’t a symptom of laziness or being an inherently horrible writer. Thank you for your comment! Truly helpful 🙂

  • Some great tips here. I find it hard not to mark up my manuscript during the first read, but I’ll try to make an effort next time!

    • I know. It IS hard! I sometimes cheat.

      The key is to not spend too much time polishing, which just isn’t an efficient use of your time after the first draft when so much can change structurally.

  • Jeff Ellis

    Haha, I was just ruminating on this earlier today! I am months and months away from the completion of my first draft, but it occurred to me that I have never extensively edited anything before. 

    What I’m really curious about is how one measures one’s progress through the editing process. When writing, I try to write 350 or more words a day (yeah, I know, really loose schedule, but I’m a busy/lazy guy), but once I hit the editing process, how do I know what’s a good day’s work?

    Thanks for the tips, Joe! I somehow knew you’d have some good advice for me.

    • Good question, Jeff. (And yes, you are lazy!)

      I’d break it up. How many pages can you read in a day? That’s for the first step. For step 2, you’re back to the writing process: How many words of a scenario can you write (although I’d try to finish each of these as quickly as possible)? 

      The second draft is where I wouldn’t try to time it as much. Just work on it as much as you can. This could be really quick or exceedingly long. It just depends on what your book needs. I don’t think you’ll have too much of a motivation problem here though. You’re still in the middle, but you’re starting to see the end of the title.

      For the third draft, It’s mostly polishing. This could be really quick or really long, depending on how deep you want to go.

  • Thank you so much for this post Bryan. I’m a few thousand words away to being done with my first draft and this post really helps me know what to do after the first draft. All great points here.

    • Awesome, Dan. Keep moving forward. I’m grateful for Joe’s post as well. I’m relooking at a book I wrote and now have a few new ideas on how to make it better thanks to this post and Joe’s website.

      • I’m blushing, Bryan. Stop it.

      • I’ll defiantly be checking out Joe’s blog.

    • Congratulations, Dan. You’re so close!

  • Leanne Dyck

    I’d like to write that knowing the first draft will be…should be junk frees me up to write. But, in reality, the blank page still intimidates me–even after finishing three book-length manuscripts.

    How do you know you’ve completed your manuscript?

    Some times it’s hard to know.

    Should that comma go here or there?

    One way to know is that the questions I ask about the manuscript seem less severe–read previous sentence.

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  • Great guest post Bryan! Thank you! Just starting my first draft {book} and this was such good advice. Not that I’m anywhere near “the end”… but these were such positive, concrete points that I’m definitely going to save them!

  • Hanna Nilsen

    This is actually quite helpful. I managed to finish the first draft to my story a while back, but the editing has shoved me into a corner and locked me up there. It just seems like so bloody much work and while I’d like to hire an editor or something like it, I’m far too insecure about what I do… and I have absolutely no money. I suppose sending it to friends could be a good idea, even though I don’t have anywhere near 30 to go with, I guess having some fresh eyes look this over might be a good idea.

    • Thanks Hanna. The suggestion to hire an editor is more for your full length novel, not your story. In fact there aren’t many freelance editors who work with short stories. Anyway, sorry for the confusion, and best of luck with the editing. It’s hard, but so worth it!

      • Hanna Nilsen

        I suppose I’m more in the wrong here, calling it a story. It is quite a piece, I’d consider it a proper novel. Writing things in the middle of the night do tend to get me to mix up my terms a bit. And yeah, I suppose it is worth it. In the middle of this, it really doesn’t feel like it, though. I’ve never wanted to rip my hair out this much before in my life.

  • Jen

    I just found this post by searching for this topic. My problem is, I only have a handful of people who I trust to read my book. (I guess I’m a recluse… who knew??) Anyway, I probably jumped the gun on giving the manuscript to them to read and now I have no fresh eyes to read it with the edits. Do you advise using the same beta readers again or should I try to search out some new friends, as painful as it may be?

    • I’d do both! Send it to your original BETA readers and then scout for new ones. You might try to find a local writer’s group, or just post on your social media that you’re looking for help with your book. It’s vulnerable, but I think you’ll be surprised that people are willing to help.

  • Greg

    I just finished my first draft. The word count came out to 64,000 words and I think its just about done. I’m one of those people who take a lot longer to write books. I like to think about my book a lot, so I don’t have too many drafts. My only problem is that I’m in college and I can’t really afford a professional editor. I’m decent at editing, but I would like to get a professional editor, do you have any advice?

    • Ravi Nadesan

      More beta readers!

  • AmishAuthorSicilyYoder

    Editing is very expensive, and since I write full-time because of car wreck injuries, I have to get new books out monthly to survive. I hired a professional editor for White Christmas Fudge, and she said I needed to make it a novel instead of a novelette serial. I had to recoup the editing expenses back since I took it out of bill money, so that didn’t work for me. I decided to turn it into a novelette serial, but readers weren’t willing to pay $2.99 for such a short work. Therefore, I lost my $143.00. It’s the slowest-moving book out of my almost one-hundred books and volumes on Amazon.

    Readers want .99 cent books. Sad, but true, so they aren’t willing to pay the extra price for a majorly-edited book. I adjusted prices and have found this to be true. If the book is 80K, they will pay $2.99 to $4.99 for it, but sales will be VERY slow, and the over $1200 for editing the book will never be recouped. For example, I have sold 24 copies of Amish Blizzards, which is over 80K and sells for $4.99 to $7.99, depending on the sales channel. I have made close to $700 this month, so this is not a big portion of my sales. The 99 cent volumes make over 50% of my sales. I made over 60K last year, and over half of all sales was from .99 cent volume serials.

    The only solution I found was to have my son’s GF edit for me, and to keep each volume between 7K to 8K with a selling point of .99 cents. This way, I only have to sell 145 copies to break even on editing expenses, which will take one to two months in this slow economy. But this way still demands my revising at least two times before the editor gets hold of it. I can get rid of extra backstory, catch common errors, and add stronger verbs.

  • Loved As If

    This is excellent.

    I’m writing a fictionalized memoir & realized I could be forever stalled trying to make certain I covered everything & made it just right. Finally, I went unplugged for the 1st draft knowing there would be a rewrite. I didn’t consider a 3rd draft but will do that now & save polishing. A 3rd draft will allow me to take one last look before it goes to an editor.

    Thanks so much.

  • Sara Beth

    This article is fantastic. Stuff i learned the hard way when I could have read this instead. Great explanation and breakdown of the writing and editing process. I will keep this article for future reference, thank you!!

  • SignedCeeLee

    Great timing 🙂
    Thank you for the much needed info.
    I’m entering this stage now and have been at a loss as to where to even begin.

    • Natalie

      Hey there,

      I’m a remote editor looking to fill a few more slots for these next two months. If you haven’t found an editor yet, I’d be happy to take a look.

      I work with every genre except academic volumes.

      If you’re interested in doing a sample chapter together, let me know.

      nataliewestwriting.com (contact info and pricing is all there)

      – Natalie

  • Natalie

    Great article!

    My name’s Natalie West and I’m a remote editor willing to work with all genres excluding academic volumes.

    I cover basic developmental and copyediting (proofreading, checking for inconsistencies, thematic and plot development), but I’m willing to specify to fit an author’s specific needs.

    My specialty is working with first time writers looking for Indie publishers.

    If you haven’t found an editor yet, I’d love to take a look at your book. We can do a sample chapter together, and if you like what you read, we can arrange a rate for the
    entire book.


    – Natalie

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  • Natalie T.

    Thanks, I thought I just had really low self esteem.

  • Maxwell

    Thanks for the Article, It was really helpful and insightful, i’m glad I found it. I just finished or at least as far I as I can go on my own, after one major revamp and seven self-edits. it’s 166,897 words and I just registered it for copyright so I’m a little more willing to share it now. I do not quite have a large pool of people I can depend on to look through it for me, nor can I afford an editor, though I did allow the computer to read it back to me twice, and that helped with some parts.

    Also the first part of this article rings so true with me, the Original draft of my finished book is terrible and I refuse to let anyone read it, only the important parts of it’s skeleton remain in the revamp version. The original dialogue is all but gone and the characters are vastly different then their original counterparts, they have more dimension now and there is an actual history within the book itself, which is based off of other books i’m working on.

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  • Julia

    I’d love to see some examples of what a scenario might look like. I’m hopelessly lost in my editing process, and while that sounds like a really cool idea, I don’t know how I’d go about writing one scenario, let alone ten.

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  • Freddi Bateman

    This is why it is critical to keep writing. Not only will writing more books make you a better writer, but once people discover they love your writing, they have a number of titles to purchase. Being able to offer multiple titles is how we make money at self-publishing. It also helps us maximize the whole FREE! tactic. Even I am putting my nose to the grindstone to come out with more books in the next six months. I don’t tell you guys to do anything that, I myself, am unwilling to do.

  • Aray Brown

    Great article Brian! I’m on my 4th third draft of my second book, a YA thriller series which has two pars. I’m second book and still waiting for my beta reader to provide feedback. While hiring an editor would be beneficial, it’s also expense. so I rely on me and like minded writers (fb friends who are also writers and goodreads beta reading group)

  • I just asked this questions less than 48 hours ago. Perfect timing.

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  • Jacqueline Kwan

    Great post, thanks!

    As for beta readers, I only have a small group of people and was wondering how to find more readers.

    Also, what guidelines do you provide your readers so they have an idea of what they’re expected to provide as feedback?

    • Kansas Marie Friedman

      Tablo.io is a great site for building a reading base.

  • And now am done (With the first draft) , and am even more scared than when i started writing. I hate HATE rejections. I guess i will just take this thing a step a t a time. One rejection at a time.

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  • Jc

    Great article Joe. Spending time in the editing process is a must and as I recommend in this Comprehensive Guide On How To Self Publish an eBook, formatting your eBook manuscript properly increases the probability of success. Many thanks!

  • yes, yes, yes, and yes!!! is a book truly ever “done?” i’ve always said my book would be “done” and published in its 10th edition with a dozen more after, and i’ll see something (or some random thing will come niggling at me) and i’ll want to go edit it!! i AM indie so it COULD happen! great post,Joe, thanks for sharing!

  • Teresa Colón

    This one gets bookmarked! I have one book in progress and a second one noted for the future. I’m not reading for editing yet, but I’m close enough jay I’ve started wondering about the process. Thank you for this clear path to walk through; I know it will help me

  • I am saving this link. It just answered so many questions. #NowICanBreathe

  • I hate your blog

    Who has 30 friends??????????? You mean 30 facetard followers who are gonna steal your work?? No one can possibly have 30 friends they trust as close friends. NO ONE! Unless you’re H. Weinstein and you pay them off to shut up. Hire an editor? I’m the editor! No one sees my book till it’s publish. What is this blog? A covert manual to help plagiarists find new work to steal? Please! If you can’t edit you’re no writer. If you hire an editor to rewrite you book, you’re not a writer, merely a story teller. Tell it to your mother, pal!