It is a rare feat to be able to write a perfect story. It’s even rarer to do so with the first draft. Hubris blinds the writer who considers the first draft of their writing to be perfect. Some writers might fall into the trap of crafting every single word of their first draft, thereby almost ensuring that the first draft will never be complete. On the other end of the spectrum from the “perfect first draft,” we have writers who will continue to polish a story forever, never settling for “good enough.” While no story can be “perfect,” editing will help to get it close enough for publication. In my experience, editing takes up the majority of the writing process, and for good reason.
While some authors may continually iterate the editing process, I have found that there are four types of edits every writer should use when revising their work. These four types range from simple spot checks to thorough reworking. Each has a purpose, and each will have some amount of overlap so that errors missed in one editing pass will likely be caught during later iterations. Without further ado, let’s explore the four types of edits and why writers should do all four of them.
Let’s say you’ve just written the first draft of a novel. The first thing you should do, before any one of these revisions is to let it sit for a couple of weeks. If you can spare a month to allow your mind forget the details, that’s great! When you come back to do your revisions, I would suggest opening up the original manuscript and placing a blank document right next to it. In this empty document, you will re-type the entirety of your manuscript. This may sound extreme, but there’s a reason why this type of edit is a useful part of a writer’s toolbox.
Maybe you’ve spent years getting your manuscript written. During that time, some of the details of the first part of your story might not coalesce with the details of the ending. Since you’ve already “read” your story once in the process of writing it, you know what’s going to happen. You know the plot twists, and you know what eventually leads the reader from the first chapter to the inevitable final words of “the end.” While re-writing the entire manuscript may take the most time of any of these editing techniques, it allows the writer the most flexibility to change the story. If there are known plot holes or inconsistencies, it’s easier to fix them as the writer puts them back on a fresh page.
Some might consider a “continuity edit” to be a separate revision, but I would argue that the best way to fix continuity errors is to re-write the whole manuscript. After all, the ending is usually the most recent memory in the author’s mind, so by re-writing the story from the beginning, they’ll have a better idea of how to get there in a consistent manner. Plus, with the daunting task of re-typing everything, the writer will often be able to identify the redundant and repetitive sections and choose to leave them out during this revision. This is also a good chance to cut out any “fluff” that doesn’t add to the story. It might seem extreme, but the re-write is a useful tool that accomplishes some brute-force and big-picture changes to a manuscript that usually cannot be achieved in more detailed edits.
2. Beta Reader Feedback
One of the most useful revisions a writer can make is incorporating feedback from beta readers. When someone else has the chance to read a story, they’ll find the blind spots in the author’s writing. Whether it’s repetitive word usage or clunky exposition, these beta readers are essentially a writer’s first interaction with their audience. If something is annoying to the beta readers, it’ll likely be irritating to the general public. This edit is vital for any author who wants to sell their book, as it ensures the ideas presented in the manuscript are accurately communicated to the reader. I usually tell my beta readers to focus on the A, B, C’s: Is it annoying/awkward? Is it boring? Is it confusing? Don’t forget to remind your beta readers to let you know what works and what they enjoy, as those little gems in your story can encourage you to keep polishing it into a better version of itself.
Depending on how stable the story is to begin with, beta reader feedback might need to come before the full re-write of the story. If some aspects of the plot require significant revisions because they don’t make sense to the reader, it can be easier to start from scratch and rework the manuscript from the beginning. However, if the story only needs a few spots of polishing to explain misunderstood ideas and concepts, then a beta reader revision can be a simple act of addition and subtraction to reach the right balance. If the writer already knows what glaring problems exist in the manuscript, they should fix them before sending it to beta readers. After all, the beta readers should find the problems the writer wouldn’t notice, not the ones the writer already knows need to be fixed.
Not only do beta readers answer the question, “Does it make sense?” but they will usually find a lot of proofreading errors as well. Even if you tell the beta readers that you’ll do proofreading later, they’ll still find these errors and tell you about them. Just like the “continuity edit” can be included in the re-write revision, the “proofreading edit” can be included in the beta reader feedback. Heck, you might even tell your beta readers to point out all the spots they noticed typos or errors so you don’t have to spend nearly as much time tracking down the minor faults that your brain might gloss over. When it comes right down to it, an author’s mind will subconsciously ignore these errors. This is why having other people read the manuscript is vital: they’ll fill in the gaps a writer’s mind won’t recognize.
While it might not take as long as a full re-write, reading the manuscript out loud is a vital editing technique. This revision should take place later on in the process, as it won’t necessarily identify any glaring plot holes or areas that need considerable work. What the out-loud revision does is answer the question, “Does it sound right?” There’s a particular cadence and rhythm to an author’s writing that might not be obvious on the page but becomes clear when our ears hear it out loud. Common problems identified in the out-loud revision are repetitive words, awkward wording, and run-on/rambling sentences.
The out-loud revision is essential for anyone looking to have their book made into an audiobook, as these errors in writing style become apparent when spoken out loud. Even for those writers who want their words to remain on the page, an out-loud revision helps make the manuscript “readable.” Often, as a writer puts their thoughts down on paper, the ideas and structure of the sentences make sense at the time. However, when it comes time to read these sentences, it soon becomes apparent that the transfer from the brain to the page became muddled along the way. A writer might not be able to identify the specific problem with a sentence that “sounds wrong,” but at least they’ll know it needs revision.
Despite the fact that an out-loud read-through covers every word in the manuscript, it often takes less time than a full re-write. I have found it to be useful to record the out-loud revision, whether as a podcast or a live video. If you’re recording it, then there’s less temptation to be distracted after finishing each chapter. After all, you don’t want anyone else who comes across the recording to lose interest at the points where the author became distracted and started surfing the internet. Plus, if you’ve recorded yourself reading your writing, then you can go back and listen to it and identify any other areas that might sound incorrect. The one key to keeping the momentum of an out-loud revision is to highlight the portions that need work and make the changes after the reading is complete.
4. Professional Editor
So far, the author can complete all the previous revisions. Sure, the author still needs other people to look over the manuscript during the beta reader phase, but the corrections that result from this feedback are usually “big picture” and might not fix the underlying structure that could be faulty. Essentially, the author can accomplish each of the previous revision types. Because of this, the author does not need to expend any resources other than their time in order to accomplish these edits. For some, these three revisions are enough for them to consider the work “complete” and ready for publication. However, there is a big difference between these manuscripts and the ones who have been revised by a professional editor.
For the self-published author, money is often a limiting factor. A professional editor working at industry rates might cost upward of $1,000 for a manuscript of 100,000 words or more. The tricky part of committing this amount of money is ensuring the results will be worth it. It can be incredibly discouraging to have paid this much money for a book that doesn’t sell. Despite this hefty price tag, there is a significantly noticeable difference between the books that have been author-edited and the ones that have had the touch of a professional editor. Granted, people make mistakes, and some professional editors are not worth the money you paid them. This is why most editors will do a few thousand words for free, so the writer gets an idea of how good they are.
I would consider the professional editor to be the last phase of the writing process. Up until this point, the author has caught and fixed many of the smaller and more distracting errors in their manuscript. The professional editor will help identify and correct the broader problems with the story. If the professional editor is brought in too early, they might end up spending most of their time fixing small errors that could have been caught earlier in the process. If they’re continually finding these minor problems, they might not be able to see the underlying issues in the story itself. In the end, it is still up to the author to be well versed enough in editing and revising to know if an editor is providing useful feedback. I have run across some books where the author swears they paid a professional editor, but the book is still riddled with typos and errors. A professional editor should help polish an author’s writing, but it’s still ultimately up to the author to ensure that the manuscript is of the highest quality.
As you can see, these four revisions can potentially take up a lot of an author’s time. An author can choose to perform these revisions multiple times over different iterations of their work, depending on how much the story changes from one revision to another. Depending on an author’s revision style, they can choose to do any of these revisions in any order they want. The order I’ve presented here is what I prefer, but you can choose what works best for you. Each of these four edits takes a different approach to the revisions of a manuscript in order to hit the errors from multiple angles. Whether it’s a different set of eyes, a fresh perspective on a blank page, or engaging the auditory senses, each of these revisions helps polish a written work into something better than what it once was. It won’t be perfect, but after using all four of these revisions, your manuscript will be as close to perfect as it can get.