The Ultimate Guide to Editing a Book Without Dying

We as people firmly believe that writing is just as much of an art as music, and no one ever plays a piece to the best of their ability their first run-through. Unless they were sight reading, which still means the level of the piece wasn’t the hardest it could be. Though, that’s a conversation for another day. This week, we’re delving into the art of editing.

A lot of times, writers will finish the first draft of their book, get so caught up in the celebration, and forget all about this essential step and go straight to publishing. That is a huge red flag because it’s a sure way to make sure you aren’t producing your best work. It’s a sure way to make sure your book is trash, because let’s face it, all first drafts are trash. It’s the later edits and revisions that make a book not-trash. But how do you edit a book without banging your head against a wall and dying?

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1. Let it Sit For a Long While Before You Look at it Again

You ever heard the phrase ‘seeing things with fresh eyes’? Well, that’s the term I’m going to apply to this step. As we’ve already said, after your first draft, your brain is going to be absolutely exhausted. During those first few days, weeks, or even months, writing more or just even thinking about writing more is counterproductive. It’ll probably urge you on to publish the book faster, if only to be rid of it. You’re not going to be able to produce your best quality editing right after the initial draft, that’s for sure.

Spend some time in nature! Hug a tree…or something.

What to do is take a break from all this writer-ly stuff. Spend time with your family and friends, people you have definitely neglected. Go outside and breathe in fresh air. Take your mind off your story, as hard as it may seem. Then, when you have forgotten most of the story (trust us, it’ll work this way), reread that trashy first draft. Marvel at how…bad it was. And then wonder how you ever thought you could publish it like that. Only when you think those things and can pinpoint obvious flaws in the draft are you ready to proceed onward with the next steps.

2. Rewrite the Draft…Yes, as in, the Whole Thing

If you did step one correctly, you should feel a bit embarrassed. You should want to rewrite the whole story word by word. That’s great. because that’s exactly what you have to do next. Firstly, pull up your plot and character outline again (it’s okay if you didn’t outline; just create one right now using what you did in the draft). There will probably be changes you feel you need to make. Go ahead and do that. Maybe you realize from your reread of draft one that there’s a plot hole that needs to be fixed. Fix that, too. Fine tune the character arcs, make the plot more engaging, tighten up your story in general.

Then open a blank document or get out a blank sheet of paper, depending on your writing style. Start writing the book again following your revised outline. This will sound daunting, and at first you might just want to rewrite a few scenes and be done with the whole thing. Don’t do that. Rewriting the entire story will force you to not only think about the plot and characters, but also the descriptions. It will force you to see all the terrible wording in your first draft and force you to write something better in draft to. It will force you to see things you never would have noticed had you rewritten by scene. Don’t rewrite by scene. Think in scenes. Rewrite by word.

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Your story will get better, word by word by word.

Common Mistakes People Fall Into, Wording-Wise

➼ They write the same sentence patterns over and over again, which makes the writing sound dull. They may also use the same sentence lengths over and over again, which does the same thing. Your job is to make the sentences flowing, not monotonous like you’re writing to a beat. That almost never works; just read this paragraph. You could rap to it.

➼ They use the same word many times in a short space, usually one of a voluminous amount of letters. This makes the writing sloppy and voluminously awkward—the opposite of flowing as you want your writing to be. You also come across as trying to appear smarter than you really are and voluminously dependent on the thesaurus.

➼ They put too many adjectives into their descriptions. A tall bearded man is easy to imagine, but though a sour-faced Irish man with a green shirt and a Fu Manchu paints a clearer picture in your head, you had to slow down to read it (RIP skimmers and speed readers), once again interrupting the flow of the story. Try to separate these adjectives into different sentences/paragraphs if you can and limit these info dumps.

Regarding Action Scenes

➼ They don’t use strong language—no, not curse words, but rather, verbs that are stimulating, impactful, and give the sense of movement. For example, shatter, slam, whipped, and hurtle are all are very forceful verbs that give you a sense of cinematic action. Break, close, speeded, and dash are still great choices, but pale in comparison to the first examples. When using these words, keep the sentences short and to the point. The previous tips till apply.

➼ They over or under choreograph their action scenes, making us fall asleep when it really counts. A good action scene should allow the reader to imagine in their own heads what is happening, but have the main parts and character actions emphasized so they aren’t completely lost. “She swung her legs into his lower stomach and he winced, falling to the ground gasping for breath” doesn’t have nearly as much force as “She kicked him in his stomach and he collapsed, gasping for breath.”

Don’t be afraid to write your action scenes with power.

3. Focus in on the Character Details

You have the plot pretty much down, in this draft, anyway, and your writing is shaping up to be something eloquent. One of the only things you need to do now is work on the characters, which may be the best or the worst part, depending on who you ask. If you did anything at all during draft one, you should have a general idea of a) what your characters want, b) why they want it, and c) why they don’t have it already. In this step, it’s time to add personality, or maybe just increase it. While writing draft two, always ask yourself two questions whenever a character does something, anything, from an important decision to a line of dialogue: Is this in character for them? And what does this say about them?

Most of the ground work for the characters were done during your outlining and planning stages even before draft one, but now with all the plot and tonal changes going on, many character motives, endings, and backstories will have to change as well. Try your best to diversify the lead cast members, otherwise we may get some of them confused. Other than that, characters are dynamic, not stiff as cardboard. What the characters do automatically sets the tone for the theme of the story, so do your best to get the two to connect. If your theme is about being selfless and in the end the character makes a big decision that is not selfless, it kind of defeats the theme’s whole purpose.

4. Flesh Out The Theme

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Theme is like the heart of you story. Image from Flickr.

Don’t you love books that teach you a life lesson at the end? Books that teach you something or leave you with a tough question to ponder on? Us too. That’s why having a strong sense of theme is one of the key ingredients of a good book. Theme is the one thing that connects everything. It’s just like a riddle. It starts the story and ends the story, it is the sum of all choices and motivations and tragedies and happiness. The one thing about theme that makes it so hard to execute is being too preachy. You’d know what I mean if you’ve ever read something that seemed so cheesy and the ‘life lesson’ so obvious you just wanted to vomit rainbows. Unless you’re writing a fable, your readers should never react like that.

To avoid this problem, everything needs to make sense. No one should burn alive just to get across the point of not playing with matches, because it’s usually not a satisfying character ending. Furthermore, you could have told me the exact same thing by almost dying. At least you didn’t outright state to not play with matches, did you? (“Bob knew he had his science project due on Monday, but we couldn’t use the matches when his Mom wasn’t home because he was a very smart boy and knew it was unsafe.”) C’mon, we readers are smarter than that!

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Congratulations for making it this far. You must be proud; your second draft is looking great! Good luck at NaNoWriMo if you are doing it this year, and have a happy weekend! ✨

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