You’ve just finished your manuscript. Time to pop the champagne and celebrate—you’re an author!
… Not so fast. Yes, you’ve just made a major accomplishment, and one that’s worth celebrating. But the work of becoming a professional writer isn’t done yet.
That’s because professional writers know a secret that aspiring authors might not realize: editing is just as important as writing.
Maybe more so.
A finished manuscript is not a polished manuscript, and editors, agents, and readers want a polished manuscript—a finished product that lives up to the quality standards we’ve come to expect.
Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, a blog post, a magazine article, or any other piece of professional writing, you need to edit your work.
And you need to edit it multiple times!
Why Edit Multiple Times?
Writing evolves as we work on it.
When you first started work on your piece, it probably didn’t look too much like the final product you’ve just finished. New research, new inspirations, and the twists and turns of plot and character development may all have contributed to shaping how the final piece turned out.
Editing also shapes how your writing evolves—when you change one detail for continuity, you may have to change other parts of the manuscript, and that ripples through the whole work. In effect, each editing pass creates a new book or article that you’ll need to read again with fresh eyes!
This might seem intimidating—when does it all end?!
Don’t worry, though… there’s a point to all this. By following a multi-stage editing process, you can polish your work to the kind of shine that will impress the heck out of anyone who reads it—agents and editors included!
Let’s take a look.
The Stages of Editing
1. While You Write
The time to start editing is actually while you write the book!
Now, this seems like it goes against the often-cited rule that you shouldn’t self-edit while you write: you should just get the book on the page.
That’s a great principle, because it stops you from second-guessing yourself and losing momentum.
And what I mean here isn’t that you should edit the manuscript yourself for character development, continuity, or flow. Instead, you should enlist the help of a tech tool to help make your first draft as clean as it can be. Writing software like ProWritingAid can take care of grammar and spelling issues as they occur, freeing you up to let your ideas flow onto the page and making the next steps of the editing process much easier.
2. After the First Draft
Once you’ve finished your first draft, put it away for a while.
Go work on something else. Do marketing for your other books, plot your next manuscript, or do something completely different.
Just don’t touch this manuscript for at least two weeks.
You need that time and space to get some distance from it.
When you come back, you’ll have fresh eyes that might spot issues you wouldn’t have seen if you’d just jumped right into editing.
Read your book as though you were a reader who just discovered it at the store. Be critical—what’s working? What’s not? Make notes to yourself as you go through, but don’t change anything just yet.
Let those notes sit for a few days, then go back and read them.
What still rings true for you?
Those are the issues you have to tackle on your first revision.
3. With Someone Else
Got that first revision done? Are you happy with what you’ve written now that you’ve gone through and addressed the fact that your protagonist’s eyes change color halfway through, and suddenly they’re in Glasgow instead of London?
It’s time to take the leap: letting someone else read your work.
We’re all far too involved in our own writing to be our best editors. Instead, every writer needs to be able to hand their work off to someone else for constructive criticism. This person can be a paid professional editor, a trusted friend or colleague, or the wisdom of the crowd in the form of a few beta readers.
Personally, I recommend having two teams and two editorial rounds here: beta readers and a pro editor.
Beta readers are normal folks who love books. They may have a keener eye for details and grammatical mistakes than the average bear, but they’re not trained editors. They read a lot and they have strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t in a book.
These people are your front line for outside edits. Typically, they’re fans of your genre or possibly your personal work and they know a lot about it.
Send them your manuscript. Ask them to comment on it and tell you what works and what doesn’t for them. Some of them may even mark up the file with grammatical and continuity errors, which is great! But what you should expect overall is general comments on what works from a reader’s perspective.
Use these to critically evaluate your work through your audience’s eyes. Did you skip a key point because it’s like second nature to you? Did you explain something more thoroughly than you needed to? Is there a plot hole you totally missed?
Some comments you won’t find valid or actionable; some you’ll want to address immediately. So how do you tell the difference?
As a rule of thumb, if more than one beta reader points something out, you probably need to work on it in your edits.
Unlike beta readers, professional editors are trained to spot issues with continuity, flow, pacing, grammar, and so on. It costs money to work with them—experience and skill don’t come cheap—but this is an investment in the future of your book and your writing career that’s worth making.
Even if you plan to traditionally publish, you’ll want to invest in an editor: agents and editors expect to see polished manuscripts, not rough drafts.
Editors have different specialties—and not just in terms of genre. Some prefer to dig deep under the hood, helping you improve your characterization, structure, and plotting. Others prefer to tune things up closer to the surface, working on general mechanics. And still others act as proofreaders, giving you an objective set of eyes on your work as it nears completion.
Which do you need? Well, honestly, most authors need all of these at different points! Check out this article to learn more about the different types of editing and when each might be right for you.
4. After Revising
The next stage of editing happens after editing.
You heard me—after you edit, you need to edit some more.
Once you’ve worked with beta readers and/or a professional editor to revise your manuscript, you’ll need to go through it one more time. Remember what we said about writing evolving during the process?
You essentially have a whole new book after you’ve been through the revision process. You may have rewritten passages, scenes, or even entire chapters while addressing feedback from your beta readers or editor. Heck, I’ve worked with authors when we’ve done two or three rounds of editing, moving from deep developmental edits to light line edits over the course of several months.
When you finally have a draft you’re happy with, you need to edit it again.
Read the manuscript out loud. This lets you get a sense of pacing that doesn’t work or words that don’t flow. It’ll also make crystal clear if there’s any sections that were left over from an earlier draft that no longer work. When you’ve done this final quality check, you’re ready to proceed with the publishing process, whether that’s self-publishing or submitting to agents and editors.
5. After Layout
Once you’ve gotten a contract or prepped for self-publishing, there’s still one more stage of editing you’ll have to do!
After a book has been laid out, it should always be proofread one last time.
That’s because a lot of things can happen during the layout process.
A word can be broken between two lines. A “v” can be inserted when someone missed a key trying to use the Paste shortcut. Chunks of a sentence can get scrambled when someone is adjusting drop caps or images.
So, no matter what, whenever you have a laid out book that’s ready to upload to your digital or print service of choice: edit it again.
You shouldn’t be changing plot or structure at this point, just proofreading for typos, glitches, and errors. There will always be some mistakes left in a book—we’re human, after all!—but this final editing pass can really work wonders for producing a clean, professional end product.
Some Final Thoughts
Editing can seem tedious and boring compared to the thrilling work of creating a book in the first place. But believe me, it’s worth it. Readers know the difference between a professional production and a shoddy, slapdash amateur one—and they’ll let the world know in their reviews.
Taking the time to edit your work repeatedly, layering thought and care to trim away the fluff and leave only a polished gem behind, will set you apart from the hundreds of thousands of would-be authors who don’t.
Go forth and edit!