Revising and editing: how to make it work for you
Last updated: July 2022
Revising and editing a manuscript. Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it? How many drafts do you need before considering your book to be ready enough to enter the world? I’m currently in the editing trenches with my debut novel — which I’m planning to query agents with — and I’ve already been through those revisions and edits with my first book so I know we can all survive this dreadful moment.
Many of you have completed at least one manuscript, right? So congratulations to all of you for writing the first draft, we can give ourselves a pat on the back for that ‘cause it’s already huge. But, sorry to be the party pooper here, the work doesn’t end there, not if you want to publish a quality book. You’ve poured your heart into your story, now is the time to polish it. And you’ve got to go through it whatever the publishing path you choose.
But first of all, and I think that’s super important: cut yourself some slacks. The first draft is already a marathon in itself, so you probably won’t start editing it right away. Don’t feel guilty for not tackling the revisions as soon as your draft is completed. It needs rest, and you need rest too. Now what I usually do is leaving the manuscript at least a good month in a drawer before putting it out again. I can then look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes I laugh at my own writing, sometimes I cringe, sometimes I think it’s pretty good but some other parts need more work. That’s normal.
But where do you start? And what’s a beta reader or a critique partner? Should you hire a freelance editor? Patience my friend! You need to go through your manuscript at least once or twice before even thinking about all that stuff.
Because, believe it or not: the one caring the most about your book is no other than yourself.
So take a step back, don’t think too much about spending money for a professional developmental edit or copy edits. You’ve got to do the work before showing your manuscript to anybody, because nobody will care about it as much as you do.
So let’s define what the different types of edits are before going further. And let me tell you it’s important to make the difference, because a few of us may think that revising and editing a novel is about proofreading the manuscript, getting rid of a few grammar and spelling mistakes and be done with it.
It’s more complicated than that. There’s developmental edits, copy edits, line edits and proofreading. I already see the smoke coming out of your ears.
But Estelle, how can we do all this stuff by ourselves?
That’s exactly what I’m gonna talk about today.
So here we go:
Draft #2: Developmental edits.
That one is all about your story at its core. It’s about your plot, characters, settings and more. It’s all about the beats that Jessica Brody describes in her Save the Cat Writes a Novel book. It’s about the flow, the pace, of your story. It’s everything that makes a story work and be enjoyable to the reader. It’s making sure everything is consistent.
Not everyone needs to go through these revisions, but a lot of us do. I’m no exception.
How do you objectively improve your manuscript from a story standpoint? By asking yourself a few questions.
1/ Is there anything unconvincing? You had this great idea to solve your plot but reading the first draft out loud, you’re thinking “shoot, it falls flat”. When reading my novel for the first time, I thought exactly that. I’m not convinced about how that story ends, I know deep down that it doesn’t work. So why would my readers be happy about it? That’s the bit you need to work on harder to get to the “wow effect” and throw some glitter at your readers.
2/ Does the story reflect the themes you intended? When you started writing the story, you had this great idea that it would have a family drama, talking about the relationship between your main character and a sibling they don’t like, or you wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues. Are all the themes you initially intended in your story? If not, then ask yourself why. Is it because you didn’t know how to implement it? Is it because actually it’s better without adding this extra layer? Are you happy with it? If not, maybe it would be good to see where you could implement the themes you initially intended to talk about but didn’t.
3/ Is there anything in the plot that could be simplified or better explained? I don’t know about you but I don’t like overcomplicating things. I’m an underwriter, I write to the point.
Anyway, is there anything that could be simplified? Do you think that something’s not that obvious? In my current work in progress, I’ve got this big reveal that one character is actually related to the main character, but there are details that make it a bit too complicated to explain — and at least two of my beta readers pointed that out to me, when I thought it made sense.
4/ Is there any missing information? When reading your manuscript, fresh from the drawer, you realise that a key point just appears out of the blue. That’s the type of things you want to fix because if that pops up when you’re reading it, it will certainly pop up when your reader goes through the story.
5/ And that’s probably the most important one: is there anything you don’t like? As I said earlier, the one caring the most about your book is yourself. If you don’t like something in your story, you will never be happy with it. So cut it, or add some words to make it better, or order scenes differently, or adjust the story so it doesn’t look as bad as you thought it was. You’re the creator, you can do anything.
So now that you’ve done the developmental edits on your manuscript, it’s time for…
Draft #3: Copy edits.
Now that’s the part about grammar and spelling. And I’ve got a few tips for you that aren’t just using a grammar checker like Grammarly or ProWritingAid:
1/ Choose between American English or British English. Yep, you heard that right. Actually, it makes all the difference. I’m no native speaker, French is my mother tongue. Maybe you’re also writing in your second or third language. And English has so many variables that it makes it difficult if you’re not set on which variable you’re using. Will you write Mom or Mum? Color or Colour? Lift or Elevator? Choose but be consistent.
2/ Remove crutch words. You know, those little pesky words you always use. Like, just, sighed, biting their lips, all the things that are repeatedly in your manuscript. Yep, my main character has bitten his lips so often that he may go through a surgical procedure to get them back. Fortunately, if you don’t know what your crutch words are, I know Scrivener has a tool that can tell you finding what they are. Just go on Projects > Statistics > and then click on word frequency. You can use that on the whole manuscript or on the selected chapter, it’s totally up to you.
3/ Be mindful of your apostrophes and quotation marks. It used to drive me crazy, but sometimes I had straight quotation marks instead of curly ones. For no obvious reason. I’d write on my phone and then copy/paste it to my main document on my computer. It’s actually my friend Kyra Gregory who pointed that out to me, and she kindly gave me a much quicker way to fix that rather than checking every single quotation mark in my manuscript. It saved me a lot of time, so I’m gonna share that tip with you. On Scrivener, go on Edit > Transformations > and then Convert quotes to smart quotes. Just make sure you select the whole manuscript and not just one chapter.
4/ Use the Hemingway App. If you don’t know it, the Hemingway App is a free tool you can find online. You simply copy/paste your manuscript in there and it will show you where your passive voices and adverbs are. But the part I find super useful is that it will also highlight the sentences that could be shorter. No one likes to read a sentence the length of a paragraph. But as the author you don’t necessarily see them when you read them. The Hemingway App can help you a ton with it.
So how many drafts does that make you? We’re at number three. So.
Draft #4: Ask your beta readers and/or critique partner.
Did you know you could partner up with another author to get feedback on what works and doesn’t work in your manuscript? Or did you know you could ask the community, who aren’t necessarily writers, to give you that much useful feedback? Just imagine that you could get your target reader reading your story and tell you what they think about it before it’s even published. That’s exactly what beta readers and critique partners are for.
I personally asked my youtube community for help when revising my manuscript for developmental edits. I also asked two of my author friends for their honest feedback and you know what? They pointed out things I didn’t even notice.
Sometimes, you’ve got your head so deep into your story that you don’t even notice when things are weird. So get help from someone you know or don’t know. They will tell you what they think of your story in no time. But be careful: not everyone is suited for the job. Don’t ask someone who never reads to give you feedback. It won’t be useful and could potentially damage your story instead of improving it.
Draft #5: Get professional help.
Now that’s the bit that some of us are skipping because… yeah it costs money to get professional help if you’re self-publishing (be mindful that, when going the traditional route, you won’t have to pay for anything). But would you rather have bad reviews and have no sales at all or spend a few bucks on a copy editor or proofreader? If I cringe when I see a spelling mistake in a book, I’m not the only one. So get what’s necessary, when it’s necessary and according to what you’re willing to spend of course.
So where do you find those editors?
I used Reedsy when editing my first book. The people on that platform are going through a validation before they can even advertise on Reedsy, so we know for sure they’re not fake. But Reedsy is a bit pricey sometimes.
For a cheaper solution, you could use Fiverr. However, be careful to choose your professional carefully as not everyone is good.
You could ask the community of authors if they recommend any editor. Or you could go to an authortuber who’s also an editor. I’ve got a list of authortubers that you can get when subscribing to my newsletter, among other perks.
Be mindful, whatever the way you find an editor, always ask for a sample edit. This way, you’ll know if the editor is good enough for your taste. It’s especially important when asking for developmental edits, because you don’t know for sure if the editor will give you the type of edits you’re looking for.
But more importantly:
Why do you need professional help?
Because you can’t do everything on your own. Those professionals know the industry, they know your genre and they know what type of books are selling like hot cakes out there. They hold valuable feedback so you can grow as a writer and make your story even better. They have the ultimate polisher for your diamond.
My books wouldn’t be half the version they are today if it weren’t for all those people who gave me a hand. Not only because my English is a bit too French sometimes, but also because there are definitely things that I missed from being too close to the story itself. So please, do not skip that phase in your editing process.
And guess what?
It only makes five drafts you need to go through. Not too bad, right?
If we summarise:
You’ve completed the first draft of your manuscript and left it in a drawer for at least a month.
You are reading through your manuscript yourself, answering a few questions like:
- Is there anything unconvincing?
- Does the story reflect the themes you intended?
- Is there anything in the plot that could be better explained?
- Is there any missing information?
- Is there anything you don’t like? And of course you’re fixing the issues you found.
You are reading through your manuscript a second time to hunt all grammar and spelling mistakes, any pesky quotation marks or apostrophes, or even crutch words. And at the end of it all, you’re using the Hemingway app to make it all clearer and smoother.
You’re asking beta readers and/or a critique partner for feedback on your manuscript, and implementing the changes if needed.
And finally, you’re getting the professional help you think you need so your book is the best it can be before publication.
I truly think that, with this timeline, you’ll feel less overwhelmed by all the revisions and edits you’ll need to make. Because you’ll know there are “only” four more drafts to go through before you can hit the publish button.
Be mindful that I’m only talking about the editing timeline here. I’m not talking about the book making process or the marketing before release. But in my own experience, I’d rather do all the revisions possible before even thinking about book interior formatting or marketing. But of course, everyone is different. So take everything I talked about here with a grain of salt and do what’s best for you and your book.