5 Tried-and-True Editing Approaches That Will Actually Help You Revise Your Manuscript
(Guest Post: Jenn Gott)
So you’ve finally done it: you wrote an entire book, start to finish. That’s no small feat, but as any experienced writer will tell you, the work has only just begun.
After you’ve let your manuscript rest awhile, it’s time to take it back out and begin the long process of editing. There are as many ways to edit a book as there are to write one, but today I’ve compiled five of my most tried-and-true editing approaches — the ones that will become invaluable tools in your writer’s toolkit and get you unstuck from your slumps.
1. Print out your manuscript for a fresh perspective
Oh no, this tip again? I can hear you groaning. But this advice is a staple of good editing practices for a reason: it really, truly helps you see your book in a new way. There’s just something about reading your words on paper that shifts the way you look at it.
If you don’t have a good laser printer at home, consider using a print service like Staples or FedEx, which will also allow you to spiral bind your manuscript for that little bit of extra professionalism. After all, we all like to feel fancy, don’t we?
You can also transfer your manuscript onto your phone or tablet, or open it on a different computer, but I’d really recommend the old-fashioned paper approach. In addition to being able to mark it up as you go through the different editing stages, it will also help you spot issues that your eyes simply gloss over on a screen.
Just be prepared for all the typos to jump out at you. Seriously, you won’t believe how many typos you’ve made.
2. Read your book out loud to catch awkward phrasing
Like my first tip, reading aloud can easily help you spot issues you otherwise would have missed — but its main purpose is to help make your sentences truly sing.
Maybe you’ve written a tongue twister without realizing it, or maybe one of your character’s names is just a lot harder to pronounce than you thought. Reading aloud will help you spot all these issues and more. For that reason alone, this should definitely become a core part of your editing process.
But there are other benefits to reading your work out loud as well. It’s hard to read a whole book aloud without noticing all the times you and your characters repeat themselves (whether it’s a physical tic you didn’t realize you’d given someone or an authorial bad habit of overusing a phrase or metaphor).
Even beyond that, reading and hearing yourself read your book provides a new perspective. Like printing it out, it’s often the difference you need to spot problems you couldn’t see before.
3. Create a reverse outline to help you spot big-picture problems
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, most of us go “off script” at least a few times during the writing process. Inspiration will strike, we’ll discover a new writing tip we’re eager to try, or maybe we’re just stuck and writing ourselves in circles. But how do you know what impact that would have made on your big-picture plot?
To start, open your manuscript, and make a list of every scene you actually wrote. Not what you planned to write, but what’s on the page! Write a 1-2 sentence description of what happened in the scene. Which plot points were advanced, in what way? What information was uncovered?
It also helps to make note of which characters are in the scene, as well as whose perspective it’s from if you’re writing a multi-POV story. Tag or color-code the scenes based on character, plot, and theme, so that you can see at a glance what the scene is advancing.
Now it’s time to actually use the reverse outline. It’s very possible that you already started spotting the problems while you were creating it, but if not, take a step back and look at the book as a whole. Do all the plot threads have enough time to develop at a natural pace? Are there any characters who are being either ignored or overused?
4. Use notecards to rearrange plot points
If the previous exercise showed you that structural issues are seriously weakening your book, consider busting out a pack of notecards next. You can use your reverse outline to write down every scene of the book, or just make a card for each of the important elements you’re working with. Color code them according to character, theme, or plot thread so you can make sure you’re not ignoring or overusing each as you move things around.
Then all you’ll need to do is start playing! Don’t be afraid to get creative. After all, at this stage you’re not actually changing your book. Try shifting around character arcs, and see if they truly are playing out at the correct plot points. Consider moving up dramatic reveals — how does that change your characters’ reaction to future events?
Whatever you come up with, sit with it for a while, or even spin out a quick version of an outline to see the changes in action.
And if you’re truly stuck, consider shuffling the cards around at random. Odds are you won’t keep the scenes exactly as you’ve dealt them, but hey, you’ll never know what kind of wild combination will spark an idea.
5. Bring out the (metaphorical) knife
Whether it’s filter words, redundant characters, or meandering plot threads, just know that there is always a way to cut the cruft from your novel. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that you can generally cut about ten percent of your words. I know that sounds like a lot — believe me, I resisted this advice for a long time myself!
If, like me, you’re having trouble imagining what could possibly amount to that many extra words, consider running through your book for the following:
- Do you have any hesitant language, such as seemed to, sort of, basically, or almost?
- Have you cut out filler words such as that, then, really, very, or just?
- Are there any characters who can be combined into one?
- Do all your scenes advance the plot, character arcs, or theme (and ideally at least two of these things at once)?
- Have you replaced adverb/verb combinations with stronger verbs?
- Are all your dialogue tags necessary for the reader to understand who’s speaking?
- Have you searched for common phrases like in order to, which will, and all of the, and replaced them with more concise variations? (To, which, and all the, or even just all.)
- Do your characters’ actions — such as biting their lip, shrugging, or rolling their eyes — really add to the scene, or can they be cut?
- Are all your plot threads necessary to tell the story you’re really telling?
- Are your sentences rendered in active voice?
There’s plenty more where that came from, but this should give you a start. These tips are especially important for shorter works, such as poetry or children’s books, but even doorstopper novels should be as tight as you can make them for maximum emotional impact.
Of course, self-editing can only get you so far. Much as we’d all like to think we’re able to leap tall novels in a single bound, a fresh set of eyes is crucial if you’re going to really raise your book to the next level. Take your novel through some of the editing software options out there, and then get some trusted friends and writerly acquaintances to do a beta read for you. That way, by the time you’re ready for a professional edit, your book will truly be prepared to shine!
Jenn Gott is an author and a writer with Reedsy, so she basically spends all her time either writing books, or helping people learn how to write and self-publish their books. She firmly believes there is no writing skill you cannot learn with practice and the right guidance.