How to Edit Your Book in 4 Steps

By: Zachary Petit

By Guest Columnist Mike Nappa

Mike Nappa is founder of Nappaland Literary Agency, and author of 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejectedavailable wherever books are sold.

The woman asked a sensible question; she deserved a practical answer.

I was sitting on an “Agents & Editors” panel at a writer’s conference when she took the microphone. “I’ve been working on revising my manuscript,” she said to all of us in the crowded ballroom, “and I think it’s getting better. But how do I know when I should stop revising and start sending it out? How do I know when my book is done?”

Good question, I thought. And one with an easy answer.

Then the experts around me started hemming and hawing and making these kinds of abstract noises in response:

“Well, a book is never REALLY finished, so you have to just choose a stopping point and hope for the best…”

“It’s like falling in love. When your book is ready, you just know.”

“When I wrote my last award-winning book [insert some random story about how great I am that has nothing to do with your question here]…”

Finally I could take it no longer, so I stole a microphone and said what I thought was obvious, and which is the process I’ve used to pen more than 50 books over the last 20 years:

You write a book four times.

When you’ve finished the fourth writing, you’re done—or at least ready to show your manuscript to an agent or editor.

Here, briefly, is how that process works:

1. The Close-In Writing
The basic method: You write a day’s worth of work (either fiction or nonfiction)—whatever that means for you. Next day, before you write anything new, you revise and edit the previous day’s work. This is the “close-in writing,” and becomes the first draft—the first time your write your book.

2. The Close-In Edit
When the entire first draft is complete, you go back through and, beginning with word one to the end, you revise and edit the entire manuscript on your computer. This is the “close-in edit,” and becomes your second draft: the second time you write your book.

3. The Distance (or “Hand”) Edit
Next, you print a hard copy of the second draft of your entire manuscript. Beginning with word one to the end, you hand-edit the hard copy, scrawling notes and profanities to yourself all the way through the margins. Then, using your hand-edit notes as a reference, you go back into your computer file and revise the manuscript as needed. This is the “distance edit,” and becomes your third draft: the third time you’ve written your book.

4. The Oral Edit
Finally, you print a new hard copy and read your entire manuscript aloud. Read it to the walls, to your spouse, to the patrons at Starbucks, to your dog, to the bowl of soggy Cocoa Puffs left over from breakfast. Doesn’t matter who’s in the room, only that you can hear yourself reading it. Start with word one and don’t stop until you read the last word. Yes, it may take you several days, but that’s OK. Keep reading every word out loud until you’re done.

As you read, note any places where the phrasing causes you to stumble, the wording feels confusing or out of place, or your mind seems to wander from the text in front of you. Those places need to be cut or rewritten, so as you’re reading aloud, pause to make notes as to what to do to improve them. When you’re done, incorporate your notes into the computer file of your manuscript. You’ve now finished the “oral edit”—and written your book four times.

At this point, you will be: a) extremely sick of your book, but b) finished.

Yes, this is a tedious, tiring process. But it works. If you write your book four times, chances are very good that when you’re done it will be a finely-crafted work of art … or at least undoubtedly something much better than when you started.

77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected

I thought writing a book four times was just common sense, and that most every writer/editor/agent already knew about it.

The reaction at that writer’s conference showed me otherwise.

The important thing, though, is that now you know how to tell when your book is finished. So if you’re thinking of pitching your latest masterwork to my agency or somewhere else in the industry, do us all a favor before you send it:

Write your book four times.

Then it should be ready.


You might also like:

12 Ways to Organize Your Book Ideas Before You Start to Write

Many WNFIN participants write a nonfiction book in a month–one reason Nawnfinimport chose this year to also call the event National Nonfiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo). So many nonfiction books get written in November in addition to articles, essays, book proposals, and more. To accomplish the task of completing a book in 30 days, however, it’s important to start your book project in an organized manner. Nawnfinimport didn’t know anyone better at finding creative systems for organizing just about any writing project–including books–than author and book coach Roger C. Parker. That’s why today’s WNFIN’s guest blog post is written by Roger and covers some remarkable ways to organize your book project to increase your chances of completing it before month’s end. NA

To write a nonfiction book as efficiently as possible, you need to start by organizing your ideas.

Starting to write a book without a content plan is an invitation to false starts and wasted effort. It’s as foolish as trying to drive from New Hampshire to San Diego without referring to road map, intending to navigate entirely by intuition. You may end up there, but you may have wasted a lot of time (and gasoline) on unnecessary detours and dead ends.

You don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to write about in each paragraph of every chapter. But, for maximum productivity, you do need to know:

  • The titles of each chapter.
  • The premise, or big idea, of each chapter.
  • The main points, supporting facts, or steps, you intend to write about in each chapter.

Likewise, if you’re intending to blog a book, with the help of Nina’s great How to Blog a Book, you need an editorial calendar for your blog posts to guide you and keep your blog posts on schedule so your book will appear on time.

Why you need a plan

If you start to write without a content plan, you’re likely to waste a lot of valuable time staring at a blank screen. This will be because you’re try to simultaneously figure out what you want to write while trying to write. The result? You’ll probably spend more time worrying and less time writing.

With a plan, however, even a loose plan, you’ll be more likely to be able to immediately start writing as you start to write each chapter.

Partly, this will be because planning engages your brain. As a result, while you were driving, sleeping, or relaxing, your brain will be thinking about your upcoming chapters, searching for ideas and making connections…preparing for your next writing session.

Planning tools

There is no, single “right way” for everyone to organize their ideas into a properly-sequenced series of chapters. What might be an invigorating, efficient process–or habit–for one person can be frustrating and nonproductive for another.

There are two types of planning tools you can use to organize your ideas; low-tech tools and computer-based tools. In the right hands, either approach can be very valuable for organizing your ideas into a writing plan for blogging your book.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with coming up with a your own approach that combines elements of both approaches.

Low-tech organizing tools

There’s a time and a place for “hands on” tools, even in the computer age!

  1. Sketches. An excellent starting point is to hand-drawn sketch showing of the sequence of the topics you want to include in your book. Authors owe a debt of gratitude to Dan Roam, for legitimizing the power of sketches to simplify complex idea in his ground-breaking book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Many of my articles and books begin as sketches on yellow legal paper, although you can also sketch on poster-sized sheets of paper or draw on white boards using dry markers.
  2. Lists & outlines. After sketching out the “big picture” of your book, the next step can be to expand your sketch listing the main idea and key supporting points for each chapter. There’s something satisfying about writing with a narrow felt-tip marker on a fresh page, fleshing out each topic with information and ideas I want to share.
  3. Index cards. Index cards are another time-proven writing tool. Index cards come in a variety of sizes, 3 by 5, 4 by 6, and 5 by 8 inches. Index cards are a favorite of authors like John McPhee, known for plastering the walls of his office with cards displaying the structure of his current projects. Each card contains a single idea which is then inserted into the right location. In a New Yorker article describing his writing process, John McPhee described how he doesn’t begin to write until he’s placed each card in its correct location. In your case, you simplify this technique by devoting a single index card to each blog post, so you can easily sort and resort the cards until the posts are in a logical order.
  4. Sticky notes. Sticky notes build on the idea of sketches by providing an easy way to identify and organize supporting ideas. Add just one idea or supporting detail to each sticky note, then attach the sticky notes to your “big picture” sketch or the index cards for each of your blog posts. An added benefit; you can use different-colored sticky notes to color code different categories of ideas.
  5. Hanging folders. A surprising number of the high productivity authors and writers I’ve interviewed continue to use low-tech tools like hanging-folders to organize and store ideas and sketches appearing in a variety of media, such as index cards, legal pads, photocopies, screen captures, and printed manuscript pages. (I, myself, like 3-ring binders with tabbed dividers.) Whether your folders are used for chapters in a book, different content marketing projects, or “unassigned” resources and ideas, it’s nice to have a simple, “high-touch” way of accessing and organizing ideas.
Software and Internet-based organizing tools

The primary advantage of the following software-based tools is that, after organizing your ideas, your can export your work to your word processing program. This saves you time, because you don’t have to enter, or re-type, the ideas in your sketches, index cards, or lists into your word processing programs.

  1. List and outlining tools. Using a word processing programs, like Microsoft Word, you can use their lists and outlining features to create a detailed action plan for your blog. For example, after creating a 2-column or 3-column table, you can use Word’s Table>Sort feature to sort the titles as well as the topics intended for each chapter. The advantage of using your word processing software for organizing your blog posts is that there’s no learning curve involved, and you can easily copy and paste the ideas associated with each topic into your blogging software program.
  2. Spreadsheets. Another option is to use a spreadsheet program, like Microsoft Excel, to plan your book. The process is similar; in the first column, enter the title for each blog post. In the second column, summarize the main idea associated with the title. In the third column, enter the ideas and examples you want to include. You can then sort your spreadsheet and copy and paste each topic’s ideas into your word processing software.
  3. Drawing programs. If the idea of sketching, described earlier, appeals to you, you’ll like the way that there are many low-cost drawing programs available that will allow you to sketch out your contents of your book and enter the ideas associated with each chapter. This idea is especially useful if you have a mobile device, like an iPhone, iPad, or Android device. Drawing programs for mobile applications are extremely inexpensive; often available for less than $5. For example, the example at the top of this post was created with Nosleep software’s IdeaSketch. Best of all, after creating a sketch of your blog-based book, you can output the graphic as an outline!
  4. Mind maps. Mind mapping software, like Mindjet’s MindManager, take the idea of sketching to the next level. Mind mapping has been used as creativity tool for over 25 years, and mind mapping software has been available for over 10 years. Mind mapping allows you to unprecedented power to create detailed maps of all of your writing projects, collapsing and expanding your maps to display as much, or as little, of the details associated with your projects as desired. Mindjet also allows you to enter start dates and deadlines for each of your chapters, helping you keep your writing on schedule.
  5. Storyboards.  Another software-based software option is to create storyboards for your chapters, using popular presentation programs like Microsoft PowerPoint. Create a separate slide, or presentation visual, for each of your chapters, adding the main ideas you want to include in each chapter as items in a bulleted list. By devoting one slide to each chapter, you can use PowerPoint’s SlideSorter feature to rearrange the order of the chapters, before exporting the presentation to your word processor.
  6. Transcription. Smartphones and handy dictation units makes it easy to capture ideas, even if you’re too busy to write them down. Several of the authors I’ve interviewed come up with their best ideas while driving or stopped at traffic lights. When an idea appears, they can immediately e-mail their idea to themselves, call their office and leave a message, or record their idea using today’s low-cost voice recognition systems.
  7. Cloud computing. Other options for organizing your book include organizing your ideas using remote file hosting services like Dropbox or Evernote. The advantage of these solutions is that you can immediately access your work from any online computer, from home, office, or while traveling. Evernote is an especially popular alternative, because you can tag and search items by keywords or attributes. You can also call-in your ideas and they will be translated and added to the files containing your blog post ideas.
Getting ready to write your book

Before you start to write your book, take the time to try out the various approaches to organizing your ideas.

Explore more than one option, and see what works best for you. The sooner you come up with your own efficient way of organizing your ideas before you begin writing, the sooner you can embark on your journey to writing your book!

About the Author

Before you start to write and blog your book, Roger C. Parker invites you to download his free 99 Questions to Ask Before You Write and Self-Publish a Brand-Building Book. This handy workbook will save you time and provide a new perspective on planning, writing, promoting, and profiting from your book. You can also preview answers to the first 25 questions, and ask Roger a question here.

Roger is a bestselling nonfiction author and book coach who has written 41 books, including #BookTitleTweet: Creating Compelling Titles for Articles, Books, and Events. Over 1.2 million copies of Roger’s books have been sold around the world in over 37 countries.