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 is 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. This is part of why we tell you to schedule two months for your editing—to give you a buffer to rest your mind and come back at your manuscript fresh.
In this guide, we will cover:
How To Approach Book Editing
As you start editing, there are two frames we recommend you use:
1. The book is not for you, it’s for your reader
2. 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 probably has a lot of your stories in it—in fact, it should. Yes, the book is going to create benefits for you.
But as we discussed in positioning, if you want the book to help you, then the book has to provide value to the reader. In essence, to get what you want, you must give them what they want.
That is much easier said than done. Here are some 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.
You can write the book without worrying about that fact, but once you start editing, it becomes very important.
The point is that as you write, you can think of yourself, but as you edit, you need to be thinking about your reader.
How do you think about them? This leads directly to the next frame.
2. Edit for a 12 year old
What’s the best selling book of the past three decades?
50 Shades of Grey.
Which is written at a teenage/young adult level.
What’s the best selling novel series of the past three decades?
Which is written at a teenage/young adult level.
Even though those books were written at the reading level of teenage audiences, 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 you? 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 think about this:
On the list of the 10 best selling business books of the past 30 years, there are three novels. I’m not kidding:
Who Moved My Cheese?
The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team
The One Minute Manager
What is the lesson for you here?
Telling simple and compelling stories to convey your point works.
In my experience, the best frame to use to get in the mindset of telling a simple and compelling story is to assume you are editing your book so that it is interesting to a curious, smart 12 year old.
If you do that—without being condescending in tone—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.
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.
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.
The problem is that so many people think good writing is complicated and difficult to read. That is not true. There are some fields, like academia, where writing in a needlessly complex way is given high status.
But outside of those fields, the more direct and simple the writing is, the more accessible your actual ideas will be, and the better the book will do with readers—which is how you get everything you want as well.
The Three Step Editing Method
We recommend a three step editing process:
- Make It Right Edit: Make sure everything is in there, in the right order, and it all makes sense.
- Line-by-Line Edit: Go deep into the chapters, paragraphs and sentences to make sure it says exactly what you want.
- 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.
Part 1: Make It Right Edit
This should be the easiest and simplest editing pass. There are three goals to the “make it right” edit. You want to ensure that:
- 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.
Part 2: 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:
1. As you read every sentence, ask yourself these six questions:
What point am I making?
Is it necessary?
Is it clear?
Is it as simple as possible?
Is it as short as possible?
Did I leave anything necessary out?
We mean this literally—ask yourself these questions, each time.
Yes, this is 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.]
Part 3: 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 was first writing I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I had teams of proofreaders working through the book. First I proofread it, then I had the help of professional editor friends, and finally the publishing company had their people do their copy-edits. I did not think that a single mistake would sneak by, and happily locked in the manuscript.
A few months later I recorded my audiobook, and as I read through the 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 your manuscript out loud, and mark changes as you go.
If the words roll off your tongue, they’ll also flow smoothly in readers’ heads. Because I waited until so late in the process to read it out loud, it was too late to make edits to the book.
Learn from my mistake—read your manuscript out loud and make your changes before you start the publishing process.
If you find taking the time to sit and read out loud difficult (and a lot of authors do), we recommend having a friend help you out. If someone is sitting in the room with you, listening as you read through the manuscript, it’ll create the social pressure you need to actually do it.
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. Paul Graham explains why:
Ok, so written and spoken language are different. Does that make written language worse?
If you want people to read and understand what you write, yes. Written language is more complex, which makes it more work to read. It’s also more formal and distant, which gives the reader’s attention permission to drift.
You don’t need complex sentences to express complex ideas. When specialists in some abstruse topic talk to one another about ideas in their field, they don’t use sentences any more complex than they do when talking about what to have for lunch. They use different words, certainly. But even those they use no more than necessary. And in my experience, the harder the subject, the more informally experts speak. Partly, I think, because they have less to prove, and partly because the harder the ideas you’re talking about, the less you can afford to let language get in the way.
If you simply manage to write in spoken language, you’ll be ahead of 95% of writers. And it’s so easy to do: just don’t let a sentence through unless it’s the way you’d say it to a friend.
The reason reading your manuscript out loud works so well is because you will catch dozens of things you would have otherwise missed. Like Paul says, 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.
Step 1: 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.
This is key to making this process work.
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.
Step 2: Edit by feel
As you read, you will naturally ask yourself:
“Does this sound the same way I’d say it to an actual person? Does it feel right to me?”
You (and the other person) will inevitably hear errors, phrasings you want to change, and sentences that sound off that you want corrected. As you read it out loud, correct your mistakes.
If you “feel” something is off, and aren’t sure how to change it, that’s fine—just mark it the first time through. The first time reading it, you want to hear the problems so you can go back and fix them on the page later.
“In general, what is written must be easy to read and easy to speak; which is the same.”
How many times should I edit?
We recommend that authors do each 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 will 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.
So for those authors, there are really five total rounds of edits. I did not list them here because many people can and do write their books by themselves with those editing rounds.
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.
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 prepare for it and 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, and I just need one more final push.
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 well, at least as far as first births go. We had midwives and did a home birth, it took about seven hours, and everything went smooth.
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 like 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 pleasant and wonderful.”
I went slack-jawed. “What?? Were you not there? You were in screaming agony the whole time—you yelled curses at me and at God!”
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.
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, such as perfectionism, fear of publishing, fear of success, or fear of failure. There will always be more to work on, more to change, more to improve. That thinking will kill your book. There are two aphorisms we use to help get authors past this point:
Perfect is the enemy of good; shipped is better than perfect.
[Books] are never truly finished, only abandoned.
-Leonardo Da Vinci
Pick your aphorism—they all mean the same thing: stop editing, get your book in print, or it doesn’t do anyone any good.
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, wants to learn what your book will teach them. You have an obligation to yourself and to your audience to stop editing and put the book out.
Give your knowledge to them, even if it’s not perfect. They want and need it.