It feels amazing to get through the first draft of your book. Reward yourself with some time to rest and relax. The hardest part is over. You now have a real book in your hands, even if it’s rough.
When I say take some time to rest and relax, I’m very serious. Set the entire thing aside for at least a week, ideally two. This will give you a valuable fresh perspective when you come back and begin editing.
It’s possible to begin editing immediately, but the result won’t be as good.
When you are ready, this is the comprehensive guide to editing your non-fiction book. I walk you through every step of editing, using the tested process we’ve used with 1400+ authors:
How To Mentally Approach Book / Manuscript Editing
As you start self-editing, there are two frames we recommend you use:
- The book is not for you, it’s for your reader
- Edit for a 12-year-old
They sound weird? Let me explain.
1. The Book Is Not For You, It’s For Your Reader
Yes of course the book is yours. Yes, it has a lot of your stories in it. Yes, the book is going to create benefits for you.
But if you want the book to help you, then it must provide value to the reader. In essence, to get what you want, you must give them what they want.
Here are some hard facts about readers. They are:
- Ignorant (about your subject)
I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just how all readers are (including you and me).
The reality is that, in a book you are buying the attention of the reader, one paragraph at a time and if you don’t understand that, then your book will suffer.
You must approach editing the book as if it’s entirely for the reader.
How exactly do you do this?
We have a way we recommend, it sounds weird at first, but it works: edit for a 12-year old.
2. Edit For A 12-Year-Old
What’s the best selling book of the past three decades?
50 Shades of Grey.
What’s the best selling novel series of the past three decades?
Both are written at a teenage/young adult level. 6th grade (like this blog post).
Yet, 80 percent of 50 Shades audience was adults, and 60 percent of the Harry Potter audience was adults.
Why am I telling you this? What does fiction have to do with editing a non-fiction book?
Because when you write for a smart, interested 12 year old, it forces you to be clear and direct—which in turn makes your book more appealing to older audiences. I know this might seem far-fetched, but consider this:
On the list of the 7 best selling business books of the past 30 years, there are three novels:
- Who Moved My Cheese?
- The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team
- The One Minute Manager
What’s the lesson for you here?
Telling simple, compelling stories works.
In my experience, the best way to tell simple and compelling stories is to assume you are editing your book so that it is interesting to a curious, smart 12 year old. It gets you out of your own head and forces you to be clear.
If you do that—without being condescending—the book will probably be as clear and direct as you need it to be.
I’m not saying to be simplistic. I’m not saying to leave out any important information. I’m not even telling you to dumb anything down—far from it. To be clear, that doesn’t mean your ideas themselves have to be simple; it just means your presentation of them is simple and direct.
I am telling you to write your ideas in a digestible, direct way such that a smart and interested 12 year old could understand them.
How To Edit A Book (The Three-Step Editing Method)
We recommend a three-step editing process:
- The “Make It Right” Edit: Make sure everything is in there, in the right order, and it all makes sense.
- The “Line-by-Line” Edit: Go deep into the chapters, paragraphs and sentences to make sure it says exactly what you want.
- The “Read Aloud” Edit: Read the manuscript out loud—preferably to a person—and make sure it sounds right to the ear.
I’ll explain these processes.
Step 1: The “Make It Right” Edit
This should be the easiest and simplest editing pass. There are three goals to the “make it right” edit:
- Make sure all content is in the book.
- In the right order.
- The structure and content all make sense.
This is basically just making sure the book has everything in it so you can actually begin the deep editing. All the writing and stories that need to be in, are in, and they are in the right order, and it all makes sense.
That’s pretty much it. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.
Step 2: The “Line-by-Line” Edit
This is the framework we use for line-by-line editing. It’s simple to understand, but powerful if you do it right. It gives you the exact questions to ask yourself at each level of editing:
As you read every sentence, ask yourself these four questions:
- What point am I making?
- Is it clear and simple as possible?
- Is it as short as possible?
- Is it as direct as possible?
We mean this literally—ask yourself these questions, each time.
Yes, it’s tedious. But if you do this exercise consistently, it becomes second nature.
Once that happens, you’ll find that you can not only cut the fluff out of your book, you can also make your book sharper and more refined, and you’ll be able to hone in on what you are trying to say, and nail it.
Do it for each sentence, then do it for each paragraph, then do it for each chapter. If you do this, you will have an excellent book.
(By the way, I adapted these instructions from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, which contains editing instructions from arguably the greatest writer of the twentieth century.)
And don’t be afraid to cut as much as possible. As Stephen King says,
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
Step 3: The “Read Aloud” Editing
This is an editing process that’s not commonly taught, but is a secret trick of numerous bestselling authors. Brene Brown, Neil Strauss, myself—we all do this.
When I wrote I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I had teams of beta readers working through the book editing, proofreading and copyediting.
First I edited it, then professional editor friends, and finally the publishing company had their book editor do their own work. I probably edited the whole book 10 different times. With that much editing and that many fresh eyes on it, not a single mistake or typo could sneak by, so I happily locked in the manuscript.
A few months later I recorded my audiobook, and as I read through the entire manuscript out loud…I was horrified.
There were 100 tiny little mistakes and changes I only heard once I said them out loud.
It drove me nuts.
Don’t make the mistake I made. Read your manuscript out loud and make your changes before you start the publishing process.
If the words roll off your tongue, they’ll also flow smoothly in readers’ heads.
If it’s something you would say out loud, then it reads clearly on the page. If it’s something you would never say to another person, it won’t read as clearly.
This sounds crazy, but it works.
The reason reading your manuscript out loud works so well is because you will catch dozens of things you would have otherwise missed. Hearing yourself speak forces you to notice bad or strange phrasings—even if you don’t know why it’s off, you know it’s off and you can fix it.
Read it out loud to a person (or a microphone)
If possible, read each chapter to a person. I know, that sounds awful and tedious, but reading to actual people forces you to really hear what is and is not working. It’s an incredible forcing function.
If you can’t do that, then set up a microphone and record yourself as you read aloud.
You can delete the recording afterwards. All that matters is that you are reading it out loud.
If you can’t do this, then there is another solution: use Natural Reader. It translates your text to speech, so it’s like someone else reading your manuscript to you.
When you listen to what your words are saying—you’ll hear the errors.
“In general, what is written must be easy to read and easy to speak; which is the same.”
How Many Times Should You Edit?
We recommend that authors do each editing phase one time. If you do them right, one time each is enough.
Now, it is important to note: we recommend this because the authors who work directly with us go from these three rounds of edits to then send their manuscript to us.
Our scribes do a full content edit, which would be a fourth round of edits, and then send back to the author. The author then reviews all of those edits and makes changes based on them. And then we have a copywriter do their edit, and then a proofreader checks their work. That is seven rounds of edits, three from professional editors.
(And yes, not to brag, but even though we are a self-publishing services firm, this is more comprehensive than most traditional publishing houses.)
Just know that if you want another set of eyes on your book after you finish the first three rounds, you can do that as well. I talk more about the different types of editing here, and the differences between copyeditors and proofreaders here.
When to Stop Editing
You’ll know you’re close to being done editing when you hate your book.
I’m joking, but only a little.
I’ve written 7 books, and I hated every single book in editing. It usually happens somewhere around the 70 to 80% mark. When I was close enough that I could see the end, but far enough that it still felt like it would be forever to get there, I hated everything and wanted to quit.
Now when I write a book, I know it’s coming, I can recognize it when it comes, and in a way, I actually welcome it. When I start hating my book, I know I’m close to being done.
Here’s what’s funny about this: by about the three month mark after your book is released, you will have totally forgotten about this.
I’m not joking at all. It reminds me of my wife and our children.
Her first childbirth went smooth, at least as far as first births go. But if you’ve had kids, you know smooth does not mean pleasant. She was in serious pain. It was seven hours of agony and suffering. She hated every minute of it.
Then, when our son was 9 months old, we were at dinner with some friends and talking about kids. She said, “I can’t wait to have our next one. The first birth was so wonderful.”
I went slack-jawed. “What?? Were you not there? You were in screaming agony the whole time—you yelled curses at me!”
She kind of looked at me funny, “Yeah, you know, I know you are right. I know that’s all true. But I don’t remember it that way at all.”
That is what writing a book is like. You hate it at the end, and love it once it’s out.
If you need a frame to help you decide when and if you are done editing, you can use what we call the Edit Stop Quiz. It’s two questions, and you can use it over and over again until you are done.
Edit Stop Quiz, Question #1: Is this the best book you can write, RIGHT NOW?
If the answer is yes, then send to publish.
If the answer is no, then go to question #2.
Edit Stop Quiz, Question #2: What can you do RIGHT NOW to make it better?
If there is an answer, something you can do now, do it.
If there is nothing you can do now—if the answer is something like, “Become a better writer”—then send to publish.
The point of this is to get you out of your spiral of “Well, if I did a little more research…” and then two years later your book is still stuck. That is bullshit, and procrastination to stop you from finishing your book.
If you want to become a better writer to eventually write a much better book, you can do that. But the path to that destination is publishing this book now.
A Final Note on Finishing Your Edits
Most first time authors fall into the “editing death spiral.” This is when they keep editing the same thing over and over and cannot stop.
We see this all the time. They will do the first three rounds of edits fine, then we finish our edits on the book, give it back to the author, and they spend six months with it.
Not because they are making substantive changes. Instead they get lost in details, fretting over small word choices, making tiny edits and obsessing over obscure details. We almost have to pry the book out of their hands so we can finish it, even though they don’t really have anything left to change.
This can be driven by many different forces, perfectionism, fear of publishing, fear of success, or fear of failure.
If you have reached this point and are editing too much, then you need to stop. We can write a whole different book about this subject, but we’re going to simply say this:
At least one person, and probably many more, needs what your book teaches them. Give your knowledge to them, even if it’s not perfect. They want and need it.