How to Make Your Book as Good as Possible With Self Editing

A few weeks ago, I posted my guide to getting started marketing your book, with a flowchart to help you identify how to get started depending on where you are in your book writing and marketing journey (yeah, journey, I know – sorry).

The first question was about how many books you’ve written, and why it helps a lot to write more than one book before you start investing your time and money into marketing.

In today’s post, I’ll be looking at the next question:

Have you had your books edited with a quality cover that’s on-genre?

Let’s focus on the editing part of that question – I’ll look at covers in a future post. I strongly believe that if you want your book to be successful, you need to get it properly edited.

Now if you’ve got a tight budget, you may be heaving a sigh of exasperation.

But I’ve been quoted $100 for editing my book: I can’t afford that!

Don’t worry. You don’t have to fork out huge wads of cash to get your book edited. You might not even have to pay for it. Plenty of authors bootstrap their first book, doing the editing themselves or finding a friend or fellow writer who’ll do it for free or cheap.

There is a risk with this: a professional editor, who you pay for their services, will be able to provide an input that a pal who’s an English teacher or a fellow writer won’t. But I’m not going to go into the costs and the options in detail in this post: that will be in my next post, as it’s a hefty topic.

Instead, in this post I’m going to look at the editing that you can do yourself, which will save you money and make you a better writer too. But first: why is editing necessary?

Why Is Editing So Important?

It’s tempting to finish the first draft of your book and consider it done.

It’s ready to upload to KDP for publication on Amazon, or maybe to send to an agent.

Stop.

A first draft isn’t a finished book. Sure, you hear stories about prolific and successful authors who would bang out a first draft and then move straight on to the next one, without ever revisiting that first draft (Barbara Cartland is an example, as is Ben Aaronovitch). But those writers had/have editors to polish and finalise the book for them, and probably only had the confidence and experience to consider the book ready once they’d written plenty of books.

If this is your first book, it won’t be ready after the first draft. Even if it’s your second, or third, or fourth book. I don’t believe I’ll ever write a book that’s done after its first draft, and I plan to write 100 books in my lifetime.

You want readers to love the book, right? Well, in that case you owe it to them to make the book as good as it can possibly be.

A well-edited book will be more cohesive, polished, and satisfying. It’ll have plot holes ironed out, subplots finessed, characters fleshed out. And of course, it’ll have any errors or clunky writing banished.

I challenge any writer not to improve their book by editing it, and having other people edit it too.

So you know you need to edit your book, and you’re resisting the temptation to send it winging out into the big wide world after typing The End. But what forms of self-editing are there, and which should you use?

Forms of Editing You Can Do

The first rounds of edits will be done by you, the author. It’s your job to get the book as good as possible before you send it to a professional.

If you’re looking for a publishing contract, an unpolished, unedited book is unlikely to be accepted by an agent or an editor (and if they rave about your unpolished first draft, beware: they may be a vanity press). If you’re self publishing, getting the book as good as you can will save you money on editing, as editors will quote not only by word count but by how much work they need to do to get the book up to scratch. And it’ll keep readers happy.

So what kinds of self-editing can you do to improve the book?

Story-level Editing

This consists of reading the book as a reader would and taking in the story as a whole.

Identify any areas where the story could be made more compelling. Find chapters where the story lags, and either rewrite them, or cut them.

Yes, cutting out sections you slaved over is hard. But it will make the book better.

Every single scene should do a job. It should forward the plot, expand on character development, or add tension, suspense or (maybe) comedy.

Be brutal. If you find yourself flagging as you read the book, it means that the section you’re on isn’t good enough. If you’re losing interest, you can guarantee that readers will. You want to grab their attention on the first page and hold onto it till the very last line.

Beta readers will be helpful with this. They can give you feedback on what parts of the story they enjoyed, which characters felt alive, and what didn’t work so well.

Always do a story-level edit. Refer back to your original plot outline, if you did one, or to a book on plot structure.

Scene-level Edits

So you’ve identified edits you can do at a story level. But how on earth do you translate this into edits?

The answer is the scene.

Every scene should have a purpose: you’ve already culled the ones that don’t. Now it’s time to edit your scenes so they come to life and are compelling.

There are two ways of looking at scenes that I find helpful. The first is the idea of the scene funnel, and the second is the concept of the scene and the sequel.

The Scene Funnel

Every scene starts at the top of a funnel. It’s full of possibility: the scene could go any one of a number of ways.

As you work through the scene, those options will narrow down. Your protagonist will achieve what they want, or (better) they’ll have obstacles put in their way.

There will be conflict and tension. There may be a reversal or a twist. And at the end of the scene, things will have gone one way or another. The possibilities will be narrowed to a point, and the characters (and the reader) will be spat out at the bottom of the funnel, ready to enter the top of the next scene’s funnel.

Effective scene funnelling is what gives stories pace and narrative drive. And forget about beautiful prose: it’s pace and drive that makes most readers love stories. Look at Dan Brown: we all bemoan his clunky paragraphs, but there’s no denying that his stories pull you along and are hard to put down. That’s why he sells books in the millions.

If you want to learn about scene funnels, read some thrillers. Authors like Dan Brown and Lee Child are excellent at this, and their books are massively popular as a result. Whatever genre you’re writing in, there are things you can learn from writers like them.

The Scene and the Sequel

Another useful concept is the idea of a scene and a sequel. In a scene, something happens, usually driven by your protagonist (or maybe by the antagonist). In a sequel, which normally follows a scene, your characters are reacting to the events of the previous scene and deciding what to do next. This decision will then drive their actions in the next scene.

A useful book to learn about scenes and sequels is How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. This takes you through the different stages of a scene and a sequel and shows you how to use the technique to write compelling scenes and sequels.

Here are the main stages of a scene and a sequel:

Scene:

  1. Goal – your protagonist wants to achieve something in this scene.
  2. Conflict – he or she comes up against conflict or obstacles.
  3. Disaster – he or she fails. Throwing failure and disaster at your characters is much more effective for narrative drive than having things go their way.

Sequel:

  1. Reaction – how does he/she react to the disaster at the end of the scene?
  2. Dilemma – what next? Having not achieved the goal, does the goal need to change, or does a new tactic need to be identified?
  3. Decision – deciding what to do in the next scene and how to pursue the altered goal.

Each scene or sequel can be a separate chapter or you might combine them both into one. Sometimes the sequel can be over in a flash, and we’re straight into a new scene. There are no hard and fast rules.

And the sequel to an individual scene doesn’t have to follow immediately after it in the book. If you have two or more plots woven together (something I like to do), you might have another scene before the reader gets to see your protagonist’s reaction to the last disaster – which will build suspense.

Character Edits

Just like scenes, every character should contribute to the book. If you have someone in there who’s just there because you enjoyed writing them, but they don’t have a role to play, you may need to get rid of them.

Yes, I know it’s hard. But every character should contribute something to the story. This might not be at a plot level: there might be a thematic purpose. But if a character doesn’t add something to the book, you have two choices: rewrite their scenes to give them more heft, or cut them out of the book. Alternatively, you could combine two characters to give you one more fully realised character.

If your characters all have a role to play, check that they feel like three-dimensional, living and breathing individuals.

If they don’t, find their scenes and edit them to bring the character to life. Spend some time away from the detail of the book thinking about this character and what makes them tick. Then find places you can work improvements into the story.

Don’t go too far: minor characters don’t need a fully fleshed-out back story, for example. But the big players need to feel real. And remember: show the reader what makes the character an individual, instead of telling them.

Polishing Your Prose

Your story is bold and compelling, your scenes have undeniable pulling powers, and your characters are so real you’re thinking of them as living and breathing people who you know in real life.

But your prose will probably still need polishing.

I’m not going to give any advice here on how exactly to edit your prose, as everyone’s style differs. But you’ll want to check for spelling and grammatical errors and ensure that your prose flows and doesn’t distract the reader from the story.

Work through your book in detail. Read every sentence, and polish it until it’s as good as it can be. And this doesn’t mean writing sentences that are flashy and draw attention to themselves: sometimes, removing the purple prose and keeping things simple can enhance your prose no end.

Like I say, this will depend on your writing style. To learn how to write great prose, I advise reading widely. Read lots of authors, in multiple genres (but especially your own). Don’t try to copy them, but let the words infiltrate your mind via osmosis. It will give you an instinctive understanding of what works, and what doesn’t.

The more you write, the better you will get at this. With every book I write, my editor makes fewer changes to the prose. I learn from his edits and his feedback each time, and do my best to incorporate them into the next book.

Your Book is Ready For The Next Stage

You’ve made your book as good as you possibly can. Now leave it alone. Resist the urge to keep tinkering. It’s ready to go out into the world.

What form that takes will depend on you. You might have no editing budget, so you’re going to self publish it as it is (although I always think you can find free support to get it even better). You may be sending it off to agents. Or you may be giving it to your editor.

My next post in this series will detail the types of editing you can source from other people. It’ll cover copy editing, line editing, proof reading and more. If you aren’t sure which is which, or which you need, it should help you proceed.

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