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How to Edit a Book: Your Ultimate 21-Part Checklist

Written by Jerry Jenkins

So you want to get published?

If you want people to actually read what you’ve written, you must master the art of ferociously self-editing your book.

These days, anyone can get anything printed.

It doesn’t even have to be good. If you have the money, you can find someone who will print whatever you submit, as is.

That’s not necessarily underhanded. Almost any independent publisher would be happy to offer all the services you’re willing to pay for to make your manuscript as publishable as possible.

But you’re the boss.

So if you want them to print your unedited book in the exact form you give it to them, they’ll say, “As you wish.” And if they wont, you can easily find someone who will.

On the Other Hand

Ideally, you’d rather be discovered by a traditional publisher who takes all the risks and pays you an advance against royalties and then royalties on your sales. But the odds of landing a traditional publishing contract are slim.

So you must separate yourself from the competition by ensuring your manuscript is the absolute best it can be.

Yes, a traditional publisher will have its own editors and proofreaders. But to get that far, your manuscript has to be better than a thousand other submissions.

And if you’re self-publishing, the only way to stand out against even more competition is by ferociously editing your own book until it’s as crisp and clean as possible.

There’s little worse than an independently published book that looks like one.

So, You Must Learn How to Edit a Book

Whether you’re going to hire an editor, or be assigned one by a traditional publisher, your responsibility is to get your book manuscript to the highest level it can be before you pass it on.

Never settle for, “That’s the best I can do; now fix it for me.”

Why?

Because sadly, if you attempt the traditional publishing route, could pour your whole life into a manuscript and get just five minutes of an editor’s time before your book is rejected.

Sounds unfair, doesn’t it?

But as one who has been on both sides of the desk for more than four decades, let me tell you there are reasons for it:

Why Publishers Reject Your Manuscript After Reading Just Two Pages

  • Editors can tell within a page or two how much editing would be required to make a manuscript publishable; if it would take a lot of work in every sentence, the labor cost alone would disqualify it.
  • An editor can tell immediately whether a writer understands what it means to grab a reader by the throat and not let go.
  • Have too many characters been introduced too quickly?
  • Do we have a sense of where the story is headed, or is there too much throat clearing? (See below for an explanation.)
  • Is the story subtle and evocative, or is it on-the-nose?

Yes, a professional editor can determine all this with a quick read of the first two to three pages.

If you find yourself saying, “But they didn’t even get to the good stuff,” then you need to put the good stuff earlier in your manuscript.

So today, I want to zero in on tight writing and self-editing.

Author Francine Prose says:

For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, or especially cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.

If you’re ready to learn how to edit a book, here’s what you need to do:

The Ultimate Checklist for Editing a Book

1. Develop a thick skin.

Or at least to pretend to. It’s not easy. But we writers need to listen to our editors—even if that means listening to ourselves!

2. Avoid throat-clearing.

This is a literary term for a story or chapter that finally begins after a page or two of scene setting and background. Get on with it.

3. Choose the normal word over the obtuse.

When you’re tempted to show off your vocabulary or a fancy turn of phrase, think reader-first and keep your content king. Don’t intrude. Get out of the way of your message.

4. Omit needless words.

A rule that follows its own advice. This should be the hallmark of every writer.

5. Avoid subtle redundancies.

“She nodded her head in agreement.” Those last four words could be deleted. What else would she nod but her head? And when she nods, we need not be told she’s in agreement.

“He clapped his hands.” What else would he clap?

“She shrugged her shoulders.” What else?

“He blinked his eyes.” Same question.

“They heard the sound of a train whistle.” The sound of could be deleted.

6. Avoid the words up and down…

…unless they’re really needed. He rigged [up] the device. She sat [down] on the couch.

7. Usually delete the word that.

Use it only for clarity.

8. Give the reader credit.

Once you’ve established something, you don’t need to repeat it.

Example: “They walked through the open door and sat down across from each other in chairs.”

If they walked in and sat, we can assume the door was open, the direction was down, and—unless told otherwise—there were chairs. So you can write: “They walked in and sat across from each other.”

And avoid quotation marks around words used in another context, as if the reader wouldn’t “get it” otherwise. (Notice how subtly insulting that is.)

9. Avoid telling what’s not happening.

“He didn’t respond.”

“She didn’t say anything.”

“The crowded room never got quiet.”

If you don’t say these things happened, we’ll assume they didn’t.

10. Avoid being an adjectival maniac.

Good writing is a thing of strong nouns and verbs, not adjectives. Use them sparingly.

Novelist and editor Sol Stein says one plus one equals one-half (1+1=1/2), meaning the power of your words is diminished by not picking just the better one. “He proved a scrappy, active fighter,” is more powerful if you settle on the stronger of those two adjectives. Less is more. Which would you choose?

11. Avoid hedging verbs…

…like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc.

12. Avoid the term literally—when you mean figuratively.

“I literally died when I heard that.” R.I.P.

“My eyes literally fell out of my head.” There’s a story I’d like to read.

“I was literally climbing the walls.” You have a future in horror films.

13. Avoid too much stage direction.

You don’t need to tell every action of every character in each scene, what they’re doing with each hand, etc.

14. Maintain a single Point of View (POV) for every scene.

Failing to do so is one of the most common errors beginning writers make. Amateurs often defend themselves against this criticism by citing classics by famous authors who violated this. Times change. Readers’ tastes change. This is the rule for today, and it’s true of what sells.

15. Avoid clichés.

And not just words and phrases. There are also clichéd situations, like starting your story with the main character waking to an alarm clock; having a character describe herself while looking in a full-length mirror; having future love interests literally bump into each other upon first meeting, etc.

16. Resist the urge to explain (RUE).

Marian was mad. She pounded the table. “George, you’re going to drive me crazy,” she said, angrily.

“You can do it!” George encouraged said.

17. Show, don’t tell.

If Marian pounds the table and chooses those words, we don’t need to be told she’s mad. If George says she can do it, we know he was encouraging.

18. Avoid mannerisms of attribution.

People say things; they don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, snort, reply, retort, exclaim, or declare them.

John dropped onto the couch. “I’m beat.”

Not: John was exhausted. He dropped onto the couch and exclaimed tiredly, “I’m beat.”

“I hate you,” Jill said, narrowing her eyes.

Not: “I hate you,” Jill blurted ferociously.

Sometimes people whisper or shout or mumble, but let your choice of words imply whether they are grumbling, etc. If it’s important that they sigh or laugh, separate the action from the dialogue:

Jim sighed. “I just can’t take any more,” he said. [Usually you can even drop the attribution he said if you have described his action first. We know who’s speaking.]

19. Specifics add the ring of truth.

Yes, even to fiction.

20. Avoid similar character names.

In fact, avoid even the same first initials.

21. Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, type styles, and sizes.

“He…was…DEAD! doesn’t make a character any more dramatically expired than “He was dead.”

Related Posts:

41 Writing Tips Experts Wish They’d Known as Beginners

How to Overcome Writer’s Block Once and For All: My Surprising Solution

How to Write a Novel: A 12-Step Guide

Overcoming Writer’s Block with Automatic Transcription

If you’re a writer—of books, essays, scripts, blog posts, whatever—you’re familiar with the phenomenon: the blank screen, a looming deadline, and a sinking feeling in your gut that pairs poorly with the jug of coffee you drank earlier.

If you know that rumble all too well: this post is for you. Maybe it’ll help you get out of a rut; at the very least, it’s good for a few minutes of procrastination.

Here’s the core idea: thinking out loud is often less arduous than writing. And it’s now easier than ever to combine the two, thanks to recent advances in speech recognition technology.

Of course, dictation is nothing new—and plenty of writers have taken advantage of it. Carl Sagan’s voluminous output was facilitated by his process of speaking into an audio recorder, to be transcribed later by an assistant (you can listen to some of his dictations in the Library of Congress!) And software like Dragon’s Naturally Speaking has offered automated transcription for people with the patience and budget to pursue it.

But it’s only in the last couple of years that automated transcription has reached a sweet spot—of convenience, affordability and accuracy—that makes it practical to use it more casually. And I’ve found it increasingly useful for generating a sort of proto-first draft: an alternative approach to the painful process of converting the nebulous wisps inside your head into something you can actually work with.

I call this process idea extraction (though these ideas may be more accurately dubbed brain droppings).

Part I: Extraction

Here’s how my process works. Borrow what works for you and forget the rest — and let me know how it goes!

  • Pick a voice recorder. Start talking. Try it with a topic you’ve been chewing on for weeks—or when an idea flits your head. Don’t over think it. Just start blabbing.
  • The goal is to tug on as many threads as you come across, and to follow them as far as they go. These threads may lead to meandering tangents— and you may discover new ideas along the way.
  • A lot of those new ideas will probably be embarrassingly bad. That’s fine. You’re already talking about the next thing! And unlike with text, your bad ideas aren’t staring you in the face.
  • Consider leaving comments to yourself as you go—e.g. “Maybe that’d work for the intro”. These will come in handy later.
  • For me, these recordings run anywhere from 20–80 minutes. Sometimes they’re much shorter, in quick succession. Whatever works.

Part II: Transcription

Once I’ve finished recording, it’s time to harness The Power of Technology.

A little background: over the last couple of years there’s been an explosion of tools related to automatic speech recognition (ASR) thanks to huge steps forward in the underlying technologies.

Here’s how ASR works: you import your audio into the software, the software uses state-of-the-art machine learning to spit back a text transcript a few minutes later. That transcript won’t be perfect—the robots are currently in the ‘Write drunk’ phase of their careers. But for our purposes that’s fine: you just need it to be accurate enough that you can recognize your ideas.

Once you have your text transcript, your next step is up to you: maybe you’re exporting your transcript as a Word doc and revising from there. Maybe you’re firing up your voice recorder again to dictate a more polished take. Maybe only a few words in your audio journey are worth keeping—but that’s fine too. It probably didn’t cost you much (and good news: the price for this tech will continue to fall in the years ahead).

A few more tips:

  • Use a recorder/app that you trust. Losing a recording is painful—and the anxiety of losing another can derail your most exciting creative moments (“I hope this recorder is working. Good, it is… @#*! where was I?”)
  • Audio quality matters when it comes to automatic transcription. If your recording has a lot of background noise or you’re speaking far away from the mic, the accuracy is going to drop. Consider using ear buds (better yet: Airpods) so you can worry less about where you’re holding the recorder.
  • Find a comfortable space. Eventually you may get used to having people overhear your musings, but it’s a lot easier to let your mind “go for a walk” when you’re comfortable in your environment.
  • Speaking of walking: why not go for a stroll? The pains of writing can have just as much to do with being stationary and hunched over. Walking gets your blood flowing—and your ideas too.
  • I have a lot of ideas, good and bad, while I’m thinking out loud and playing music at the same time (in my case, guitar—but I suspect it applies more broadly). There’s something about playing the same four-chord song on auto pilot for the thousandth time that keeps my hands busy and leaves my mind free to wander.

The old ways of doing things—whether it’s with a keyboard or pen—still have their advantages. Putting words to a page can force a sort of linear thinking that is otherwise difficult to maintain. And when it comes to editing, it’s no contest: QWERTY or bust.

But for getting those first crucial paragraphs down (and maybe a few keystone ideas to build towards)? Consider talking to yourself. Even if you wind up with a transcript full of nothing but profanity—well, have you ever seen a transcript full of profanity? You could do a lot worse.

This article is originally published by Descript.

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