Editing Your Own Book — The Top Ten Book Editing Tips

Book editing can be tough! Whenever I mention to writers that we run a book editing company, they are always keen to ask for book editing advice that will help improve their books… and I don’t blame them. At BubbleCow we help writers tackle the problem of book editing their own work on a daily basis. So, to help writers eager to learn more about book editing here’s a collection of the top tips for book editing, as suggested by our editors:

Book Editing Tip 1: Be Consistent

Writing a book is a long process that often spans over years. During this period it is easy for writers to lose track of some of the minor plot details. However, it is vital that a writer makes every effort to maintain consistency throughout the writing process. The problem is that readers will notice mistakes. If you tell your readers that a character has blue eyes in the opening chapter, and then six chapters later you say they are green, the reader will remember.

Our tip is to use character reference sheets. These are simply lists of the key aspects for all of your characters. On these sheets you should record all the key facts - age, description, eye color etc. Also include any details that might be important such as relationships with other characters, home address and other details you develop. One additional tip is to get into the habit of updating your sheets as you build the characters.

Book Editing Tip 2: Use Simple Grammar

Not all writers are grammar experts. In fact, the reality is that many writers struggle with grammar. Our tip is to keep it simple. The correct use of the period (full stop) and comma will get you out of most tough spots. Learning the rules of the correct use of the apostrophe is also crucial, as is the grammar of speech. However, beyond this you are getting onto dangerous ground. If you are unsure of the correct usage of the semi-colon, then don’t use it (even if Microsoft Word insists otherwise).

Book Editing Tip 3: Formatting

Consistent formatting is an important, but often overlooked, part of book editing. By this we are talking about titles, subtitles, indenting, text font etc. In fact, you need to pay attention to anything that appears on the page. One way to get around inconsistencies is to use the ‘style’ function of your word processing package. Another way is to simply pay attention each time you start a new section, type in a header or change font. Being aware is half the battle.

Book Editing Tip 4: Narrative Arc

Your story needs to have a clear start, middle and end. We are all aware of this but it doesn’t always come across in writer’s work. Our tip is to read your work with the three phase structure in mind. Can you pin point the three sections of your book clearly?

Here’s a couple of sites that explain the narrative arc well: here and here.

Book Editing Tip 5: Tense Usage

When talking to our editors the issue of tense was highlighted as a common problem. The switching of tenses (past to present/present to past) is something that happens to all writers. It is for this reason that you must pay particular attention to this problem. This is one of those things that readers tend to spot. This blog post might help.

Book Editing Tip 6: Read Out Aloud

This is a tip that I think every editor worth their salt will pass onto writers. Once your work is completed read it out aloud. Personally I use a software program called TextAloud. This allows me to follow the text as the computer reads it out (in a robot voice). Reading your work out aloud will help you to spot silly mistakes but also the sentences that don’t flow. Another tip is to print your work out and read it on paper. I am not sure why (something to do with screen resolution?) but this seems to help spot mistakes. (Update - We suggest Ghostreader for Mac)

Book Editing Tip 7: Let a Trusted Third Party Look at Your Book

The emphasis here is on the word ‘trusted’. The key is to find someone who will give you constructive feedback. You don’t want someone who will simply say the book is good or bad, you need critical and detailed feedback. It is also important that you TELL the reader that you want critical feedback. Make it clear that you can take the rough with the smooth. Give them guidance in what to look for when reading. They are looking for mistakes and inconsistency.

Book Editing Tip 8: Using Critical Feedback

This follows on from the point above. As a writer you must learn to implement the correct feedback. Typos and grammar errors should be corrected without any real questioning. However, big issues need to be considered carefully. Sometimes a reader will not like a section or suggest changes that go beyond simple sentence structure. In these cases you need to consider the feedback carefully and only make changes that you feel improve the book.

Book Editing Tip 9: Be Harsh - Cut The Dead Wood

All of our editors agreed that this is one area that many writers find very difficult. Cutting back is a vital and very powerful skill for writers to develop. The foundation to the exercise should be for the writer to look at each section and ask ‘do I need this?’ Over wordy sentences, extended paragraphs and repetition should all be removed. In addition, ANY section that fails to move the plot forward should be cut. I have seen novels where whole characters have been removed. Cutting back the work is painful but if done correctly will improve your book tenfold.

Book Editing Tip 10: Read Each Line as a Line, Then a Paragraph, Then a Section, Then a Chapter…

If you have carried out all the steps above, and you are happy with your novel, then it’s time to start again. This time you need to go through the novel on a line-by-line basis. You may find it helps to wait for a couple of weeks before you try to re-edit. This time around you need to scrutinize each sentence in turn, fine tuning as you go. Then, when finished, go back and look at the text paragraph-by-paragraph. Be critical. Next examine each section, then chapter and so on…

BONUS Book Editing Tip: Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell is a well-worn cliché, but is one of the more significant (and common) problems we encounter. The concept to grasp is that when telling a story it is essential that the reader is ‘active’ in the process. Your job, as a writer, is to leave clues for the reader to compile. This way the reader is sucked into the narrative as they ‘actively’ unfold the story.

The way this is done is to ensure that back story is never ‘dumped’ via the narrator and, instead, is drip fed to the reader via conversation. In fact, the narrator (unless first person) should ONLY be describing events, characters and conversations. The way characters react to events and the words they use in dialogue are your vehicle for plot development and back story.

If you want the reader to know your main character is an expert in hand-to-hand combat then you are presented with two options.

The first would be to TELL the reader. This is the wrong way to pass the information. For example…

John had grown up in a tough city, where survival was more important than education. School life had been problematic and fights were part of everyday life. However, after one fateful day, when he had returned home with a black eye, John’s father had insisted his son should toughen up. From that day on John attended the local karate dojo training each day until he was an expert.

The second would be to SHOW the reader. This is the correct way and leaves the reader engaged and active. For example…

’You look pretty good, do you keep in shape?’ said Paula, eyeing John’s well-formed torso under his tight t-shirt. John smiled.

‘Yeah, but I am not a gym rat,’ John replied.

‘No? You must pump weights or something; you don’t get a body like that eating pizza and watching TV.’

‘I think the whole pumping iron thing is a bit weird.’

There was a pause as Paula’s eye scanned John’s body.

‘So what’s your thing?’

‘Martial arts.’

‘Ohh,’ there was a tone of surprise in Paula’s voice. ‘You any good?’

‘Yeah. Pretty good…’

‘How long you been training?’

‘Since I was a kid…’ John shifted in his chair and stared at Paula for moment, his fingers subconsciously touching his face. When he spoke his voice was almost a whisper. ‘I grew up in a bad area, there were fights at school every day. One day a gang of lads jumped me. I didn’t stand a chance, I was a wimp at the time. I was beaten up pretty bad. When my old man saw the state of my face he didn’t say a word, he simply grabbed me by the hand and took me to the martial arts dojo on the corner of our street. I had never been in before. My old man took me inside, had a quick word with the guy who ran the place and left me there. For the next ten years I would go every day after school and train. I even started to enjoy it.’

‘Sounds… interesting.’

‘Well I never came home with a black eye again.’

This example contains more than the back story. The way John whispers the reply shows he is not comfortable with his past. I had decided John had been beaten by his father and John didn’t like talking about his past and admitting that his father had a positive impact on his life. I have added pauses to reflect John’s internal voice as he ‘filters’ what is said to Paula.

Any good story is made up of three elements:

  • 1. A character’s internal voice.
  • 2. A character’s external voice.
  • 3. A character’s reaction to events.

This means whilst you are SHOWING back story via dialogue and events, you can also build the character.

This means that a character’s internal voice will be providing a ‘dialogue’ that reflects the characters thoughts. A reader will never ‘hear’ these. The external voice is what is reflected in the dialogue. This is shaped by the internal voice. For example, above I had decided that John had an internal voice that said ‘people who pumped iron are self-indulgent and lacked self-confidence’. This was reflected in his words. The final aspect is the way a character reacts to events. In our example, if John was confronted by a mugger he would probably fight back.

The interest for a reader comes when the three elements (internal, external and actions), don’t match. In real life and in novels what people say, think and do are very different things.
So… if you short cut all of this and just TELL the reader you have missed all the elements that make novels such great tools for telling stories and examining human behavior.

BONUS Book Editing Tip: Don’t Short Cut Conversation

If you have grasped the importance of ‘show, don’t tell’, then this point will be obvious. Some writers have a tendency to do what I call ‘short cutting’ dialogue. This is when, rather than writing the dialogue out in full, they move it to the narrator and have the narrator summarize the dialogue.

This is a big mistake for two reasons.
The first is that it leaves the reader disengaged. The best example I can give is that it is like an actor in a movie turning to the camera and saying, ‘We then went home got changed and went to the restaurant’. Cut to the restaurant. It just doesn’t work. It breaks the magic and informs the reader that they are passively looking into the story. If this happens in your book the reader will just turn off.

The second is that you miss the chance to develop your characters. As we have said above the interaction between internal, external and actions is the meat of you story. It is what turns characters from people on paper to real people in the readers mind. Why would you NOT do this?

BONUS Book Editing Tip: Description

Description is an essential part of all novel writing. As I have stated the narrator should ONLY be passing description. Character development and plot development comes from dialogue.
So what should you be describing?

The first thing to describe is any new location in a scene. The way to think about this is that, as a writer, you are painting a picture in the mind of your reader. As your characters move around your world the reader will be visualizing them, their location and their actions.

This means that each time the characters move to a new location you must describe that location. The amount of description is down to you, your style and your genre. At the most basic level you should give enough description for the location to be clear. If the location contains unusual elements, these may need more description (think Sci Fi). If the location is essential to the plot, then more description is needed. I would also add that some genres are description heavy, others very sparse. Yet, no matter what your genre, you will need a basic structural description. If unsure what you need as a minimum I would suggest you read Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea as a master class in minimalism.

The second thing to describe is characters. Each new character needs a description. The more important the character, the more description you need to add. If the character is a fleeting part of the novel, then a line of description will be enough. However, if the character is a major character you will need much more description. One word of warning here, don’t add lots of character description in one go. Instead, spread it out, littering your prose with a line or two of detailed description. This way the reader can build up a picture as they read.

About the Author

By Gary Smailes - Co-founder at BubbleCow, helping writers to write, get published and sell more books. Google+ Twitter

  • Pingback: News You Can Use - Nov. 8, 2011 | The Steve Laube Agency

  • Ladygaugau1

    11: Pronouns. Please check to make sure you don’t mix plural and singular nouns/pronouns―a pet peeve of mine.  Another is the improper use of “onto.” You pass things on to others, not onto others.

    You stated above: “This is a tip that I think every editor worth their salt will pass onto writers.” “Editor” is singluar, “their” is plural. They need to agree. Either editors/their or editor/his or her. Correct: “This is a tip that I think every editor worth his or her salt will pass on to others.” 

    12: Get a proofreader. The creator of these Top Ten Tips should have done that. 

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    :-) I would argue that when writing a blog post it is essential to find a voice that is truthful. One way to do this is to write in a way that is as close to your speech pattern as possible. By enforcing ‘rules’ that restrict your style you are, in my view, risking developing a voice that is not true to yourself.

  • Pingback: Book Bits #69 - 2011 Okra Picks, Paolini’s Journey, ‘Higher Ground’ Dazzles | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/angiebaxter Angie

    11. Employ a professional proofreader. It will be money well spent. Think of it as quality control. :)

  • Pingback: Editing Your Own Book — The Top Ten Tips - BubbleCowBubbleCow « Oregonmike98

  • http://marlamadison.blogspot.com Marla Madison

    Great list of fundamental tips! I’m editing now and will take them to heart.
    Thanks for posting.

  • http://twitter.com/zguta Elisabeth Zguta

    Bravo!  This is a great post Gary.  I am definately guilty of #5 lol, but Caroline wil be glad to know I ‘ve turned things around based on her thorough, critical feedback.  Thanks again.

  • http://twitter.com/zguta Elisabeth Zguta

    Bravo!  This is a great post Gary.  I am definately guilty of #5 lol, but Caroline will be glad to know I ‘ve turned things around, based on her thorough, critical feedback.  Thanks again for the services of Bubblecow.

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    Thanks for the comment and the good news! Tense usage is always tough to master.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.galbraith Mark Galbraith

    I don’t agree. The dictionary also states “their” can be used after an indefinite singular antecedent in place of the definite masculine form “his” or the definite feminine form “her”. The author’s original statement is correct as written.

    However, I agree with the additional rule number 12. A proofreader is quite important.

  • Pingback: 4 Easy Ways Self-Publishing Authors Can Save Money on Professional Editing | change it up editing

  • http://www.beingtrulypresent.com/ Diane

    I think I’ll still consider employing a professional copy editor but these are great tips for me to get it in good shape before then. Thanks! (I’ll be sharing the link with my writing class)

  • Gary Smailes


  • Angie

    I wouldn’t advise writers to “consider” using a professional copy-editor/proofreader; I’d say it was essential. But I would agree that it should be in good shape before then. Get friends and family to give feedback about the work itself but don’t depend on them to spot errors or inconsistencies (such as “coexist” in one place but “co-exist” in another).

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    As a professional editor I would add this…

    When editing a book that needs ‘a lot of work’ the focus is on the basics (simple grammar for example). The result is that I am working hard to get the book into shape and therefore tend to focus less on the more subtle issues.

    However, when the book is in a good shape, the game changes. I can then focus on the wider issues. After all, we never know what we don’t know, if that makes sense. My real value comes in fixing the structure, flow and readability. I know how to lift a book to the next level. The problem is that is this more difficult when digging into the trenches to mend commas.

  • Angie

    I believe you can “mend commas” while fixing the structure, flow and readability. After all, how can you improve readability without ensuring that commas (and other punctuation) are used correctly? Of course, most manuscripts could benefit from a final proofread to ensure no gremlins snuck in! :)

  • Pingback: Book Editing: The Top Ten Tips | Just 4 My Books

  • Pingback: It Pays to be Vigilant when Editing… 30 | Mandyevebarnett's Blog

  • Pingback: Part One - will the revising and editing ever end? | Julie Stock - Aspiring Author

  • Pingback: Writer’s Corner: Editing Advice | Maxi Bransdale: Author