5 Steps to A Thorough Book Edit

5 Steps to a Thorough Book Edit

5 Steps to A Thorough Book Edit

Nothing can strike fear in the hearts of writers like editing. But if you’re going to improve your story, a thorough book edit is something that must happen. With the right tools, mindset, and preparation, it doesn’t have to be scary at all!

The fun thing about the writing and editing process is that everyone approaches it differently. Sometimes writers approach different books with different methods, since each new book is not the same as the last. You’ll take bits and pieces of what you’ve done in the past and mix it up with tips you’ve read in a book or blog, trying to find the magic that makes this book sparkle.

My own editing process continues to evolve as I grow as a writer, and as I learn more about the craft. Most recently, I tackled the edit on my just-released novel Omission, the fourth book in the Darby Shaw Chronicles. You’d think by now, I’d have my path mostly set in stone, but life has a tendency to force change, and this time was no different.

Inspired by my most recent round of editing, here’s how you can tackle a thorough book edit, based on suggestions made by your beta readers.

1. Read Through the Suggestions

I count myself blessed to have K.M. Weiland as one of my beta readers, and her suggestions are gold. That being said, there were a LOT of things to address, from simple word choice all the way to dramatic changes in structure, to scenes to remove, and chapters that needed relocation.

Over two days, I read through everything she’d sent me (and my book was huge, a little over 150,000 words at the time) and would sometimes verbalize my assent to what she’d said or ask a question aloud—“What did she mean by this?” Or, “Gosh, that’s really one of my weak areas, I’m going to need help with that.”

When I completed the read-through, I had a lot to mull over, especially since I was on a deadline.

2. Ask Preliminary Questions

I had a lot of questions, right off the bat, the most pressing of which I sent back to Katie. Other things needed to stew in my mind before I could tackle them.

I also have the tendency to want to talk things out. Why is this scene not working? If I did this, would it work better? Should I change POV?

I’ve been known to talk with beta readers for two or even three hours at the local Panera as we discuss a handful of chapters of our books. Not an option with Katie, since we live about 600 miles apart, but our e-mails back and forth were probably more on point anyway. Sometimes, the mere act of just asking a question would be enough to spur me into a possible answer, and at that point, I just waited for Katie to confirm my gut reaction.

3. Work the Problems

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13. One of the lesser quoted quotables is from flight director Gene Kranz. In it, he states,

Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make it worse by guessing.

Apollo 13 Work the Problem in Your Book Edit

Apollo 13 (1995), Universal Pictures.

I approach things the same way when I’m editing. Not only is my editing style peculiar, but I can be a bit neurotic. I desperately want to get things right. I’m sure this can drive my beta readers insane. 

Depending on the project and my time constraints, I might go through and tackle major issues first, then work down to minor things like word choice and punctuation.

Or, as I did with Omission, I might start at the beginning and work every problem as I come to it. This second approach is not one I’d recommend, but I was under time constraints both due to my own deadlines for publication, as well as personal goings on. (Side note: I do not recommend having a book deadline in the same time frame as you’re attempting to move. It makes for a very scatter-brained writer.) However, it did get the job done, even if it meant dealing with both small and large issues in the blink of an eye.

4. Ask Follow-Up Questions

Sometimes the initial questions you ask are all you need, especially if you’re thorough.

I’m not. Really.

I’m scatter-brained to begin with on most days, and after three or four issues, my brain gets muddled and I just can’t think beyond that. When you’re initially reading through suggested changes from your beta readers, a concept may seem straightforward enough, but when it comes to actually doing the edits, you can be staring at the page wondering “Wut r werds?”


Having a beta reader who is willing to answer questions days, even weeks after they sent you their thoughts is crucial. For at least three weeks, I would shoot Katie questions about scenes and issues, frequently with screenshots to jog her memory. I’m sure I drove her a bit nuts. One email thread alone had over 70 e-mails exchanged! When I could, I tried to tackle more than one issue, but sometimes it didn’t happen.

5. Polish

After an in-depth edit, the most important thing you can do is go back and make sure you didn’t accidentally cut out something critical to the story. Just as importantly, you need to clean up any new typos you’ve created. Since I write mysteries, I’m careful about making sure my clues stay in place, but as I was going through and cutting chapters out, I’d recognize I hadn’t kept an important element and that I’d have to go back and pull it from the trash bin. Working in Scrivener is tremendously helpful since it’s never truly gone.

Another tip: use a program that will read to you as you read through the file yourself. You’ll be amazed how many typos and missed words you’ll find!

Editing can be the most rewarding phase in the writing process. A lot of writers approach it grudgingly, but it’s really where we get to see our ideas shine. Whether you follow a process similar to what I’ve outlined above, or do something totally different, finding the right process for a thorough book edit will enhance your writing over the years. It should be a constantly evolving process, and no two edits will look the same. When in doubt, follow the writing and editing advice of Sean Platt:

Say it. Say what you mean. Say it well.

You can’t go wrong with that.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your process to achieve a thorough book edit? Tell me in the comments!

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About Liberty Speidel | @LibertySpeidel

Liberty Speidel has been a voracious reader since reading her first Nancy Drew book. But she was telling stories long before then with her figurines from Disney's Rescue Rangers. When she's not writing, she may be found gardening, baking, crocheting, or hiking (with lots of bug spray!). She is also the founder, producer, and co-host of Lasers, Dragons, and Keyboards, a podcast for lovers of and writers of speculative books. A lifelong Kansan, she now resides in the Kansas City metro area with her husband, children, and a spoiled rotten chocolate Labrador. Liberty is the author of The Darby Shaw Chronicles, featuring superhuman detective Darby Shaw.


  1. Thanks for having me today, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great to have you share with us again, Liberty!

    • Thanks, Liberty! This was very helpful!

      “I might go through and tackle major issues first, then work down to minor things like word choice and punctuation.” I know that this is the better way to solve issues in your book but I do the same thing you did with Omission.

      Thanks for your time!

  2. I enjoyed your post, Liberty. Thank you for it. 8o)

    I am wrapping up the revised draft (basically a rewrite of my first draft) for my first book and plan to have it in the hands of a beta reader or two in the next month, so this topic is timely for me. I’m not sure what my editing process will look like, (probably a molten pile of goo), but I really appreciate you sharing your experience with it.

    Your caution about accidentally cutting things out that are critical to the story is something I’ve gone through just working on my revised draft. Since I have an initial six book series planned I am laying the seeds for things to come in books 2, 3, 4, and all the way down the line, and there have been a few times I’ve edited something out only to realize later that it was one of those seeds.

    As I learn more of the craft I hope to become better organized to make editing (and writing) easier. And yes, even though I am a clueless user of Scrivener I still use it and it is very helpful for retrieving those mistaken cuts. Katie’s posts on this subject and everything else have also been tremendously helpful as I make my way through to the next milestone. And the fact that you edited your latest book while moving makes it seem like a less impossible task for me, so thank you for that as well.

    I hope you enjoy great success with your newest book and your entire series. And congratulations on getting it done…while moving!!!! 8o)

  3. Jim Griffith says

    I may sound as if I am happy with myself, (not intended) but it seems to me, if one does not read extensively for pleasure, training, and to learn, story content and scene setup may be a problem one would have to edit for. I know my books will need to be edited for punctuation and spelling. Spelling is usually for words that sound alike but spelled different with a different meaning. Because I am the writer and read and edit my own story, I have a tendency to read what is supposed to be there, not what actually is there. A big problem for me. So I have others point out those problems. As far as the story is concerned, that is why I am writing the book. The story is everything to me and work hard to get it the way it should sound and flow. I ask my readers to tell me about anything they do not understand, I will fix it. I always read what I wrote the day before, and several time read from the beginning down to where I am. I do this as a mind place keeper, and to spark new and better story ideas that did not make them selves known when first stating the book. Sometime this can be a true story line changer, or polish the story line considerably. Marry Christmas, Katie.

  4. I am currently writing a novel. For editing do you change stuff or make the sentence make sense. Then I will write three more novellas to be published. I love writing. I want this as my career.

    Merry Christmas, K.M. and Liberty

    I liked the article.

    • Good luck on your novel, Ms. Albina! I have the same frame of mind: I want this as my career. The first three entries in my Darby Shaw series are novellas/novellettes.

      I think there’s a question in your post. I think Sean Platt’s advice (which is at the end of the post) is the simplest theory on editing I’ve ever seen: Say it. (1st draft.) Say what you mean. (2nd draft/editing.) Say it well. (3rd draft/proofreading.)

      • Liberty,

        Thank you. I had revising to do too.

        • Liberty,

          I am also writing a novella that I want to be published. How long was it before you were published?

          • Who was your editor?

          • Sorry, just seeing these today. 🙂

            I’ve been writing since I was roughly 14, and wasn’t published until my early 30s. I did take some time off in there between school, getting married, and having babies. 😉

            My editor is Grace Bridges from Splashdown Books.

          • Liberty,

            How do you connect Grace Bridges your editor to send her an email so if she wants to read my novella?

          • Liberty,

            When I get my book ready to publish I need to write a synopsis, but I don’t know how to do that?

            Does it have to be a full page?

      • Ms. Albina says

        I am also revising a novella and another to and writing a book about leilani daughter Lotus. This will have three books total. How do you revise? Do you variey your sentence so? this book will be about 230 pages when it is done.

  5. Sally M. Chetwynd says

    All excellent points that should be followed religiously, along with any others that work particularly well for you. It is tedious and time-consuming, but if you’ve gone to the effort to spend years writing this tome, it deserves a few more weeks to polish it. Your readers will thank you!

    I’m working to complete my second novel, aiming for Spring 2017 publication (so far, I’m going with a self-publishing firm), and can tell you that beta readers are invaluable! (I like a half-&-half mix of writers and non-writers.) I’m ALWAYS fascinated by their take or interpretation of my story. Their comments tend to fall into three or four common categories, which are red flags for me to know what I need to work on. If there is any part of my story on which a beta reader stumbles or scratches his or her head, I want to know about it, so I can assess it and make appropriate adjustments. If a beta reader gets distracted by some inconsistency, so will a post-publication reader, and the last thing I want is for an inconsistency or error to draw my readers out of their involvement in the story.

    One non-writer might say, “Hey! Where’s the boyfriend? He starts off in Chapter 1, but then he’s gone until Chapter 15.” Then a writer tells me, “Hey! The boyfriend is AWOL for fifteen chapters. You need to build him into this story far more seriously, if he’s to have any credibility. Otherwise, why is he there? He needs face-time not only much more in the beginning chapters but sprinkled throughout the story, and he needs stronger ties to your heroine in the concluding chapters.” And then the writer might give some more specific suggestions to consider.

    I am also a huge advocate of reading my manuscript out loud when I am about to send it out to the publisher. On my published novel, I read it out loud three times between my initial submission and the time it finally went to print, checking the proofs for the edits during that stage. Because I took that part seriously and plodded my way tediously through, I’ve had nothing but kudos on the quality of the writing from post-publication readers (including English teachers), and in the finished product (131,000 words), I found that only seven typos got by me, all of which resulted from format transitions during the proofing process.

    By reading your work out loud, you have to look at each word, and pick up a lot of errors that the eye (all too familiar with the work) otherwise glosses over. Also, you have the opportunity to rework phrases that are hard to say out loud, and make your prose smoother and more lyrical. The sound of the language improves as well. This is a huge bonus when you need to read an excerpt at a reading.

    • Hey, Sally! Yes, having a process that works is important. I try not to do anything halfway, but do feel that my bones tend to be pretty solid when I’m working on my first and second drafts, which allows me to (typically) work through issues pretty quickly.

      I really admire anyone who can read an entire manuscript aloud, even if just for short periods of time. I can’t do it for more than 5 or 10 minutes–for any book, not just mine. Since my voice doesn’t last, I do find having my Kindle read to me is great. I miss yWriter’s read aloud function, actually! 🙂

      I do know that when I released my first books as an audiobook, I listened for things that sounded like my narrator was stumbling on, then I’d fix them and when we were all done, I redid the interiors of my books to reflect the updates. (That’s the nice thing about being with a hybrid press–Splashdown Books–I have total control over that kind of thing!)

  6. It’s so nice to have encouragement in these editing trenches. I’ve been stuck editing since July, but I’m trying to conquer “Say what you mean” and “Say it well” at once–partially because I’m better at saying things well than I am at saying what I mean. If the world decides to fall perfectly at my feet for the next few weeks, I’ll actually have a draft to my critique partners before 2017. But it will take, like, actual work! And setting aside time when I could be doing other things!

    Naturally, December is my busiest time for paid work, so trying to cram in editing the last hundred pages of my book and the minimum four new scenes I need to write isn’t easy. That said, I’ve banned myself from social media this week, and on this, my fifth day in, I’m amazed at what a difference it’s made in my attention span. I spent three solid hours typing up edits on Wednesday, and today I finally edited a scene that’s been bothering me for at least a week (the one I brain-vomited ideas for in the Wordplayers group last week or whenever), and I’ve been getting a ton done for paid work so i have time to concentrate on editing.

    My editing process itself loosely follows that suggested by Susan Dennard–read through, taking notes on what needs addressed. Index cards with each scene, then post-its for how to fix each of the problems attached to the scenes that need fixed. Then work through either chronologically or by issue (plot, character, etc.). I’m doing chronologically because despite the overhauling I’ve done, the story hasn’t actually changed much, and because my issues usually revolve around pacing, which is hard to fix willy-nilly. Unfortunately, it means that when I get stuck on a scene, I am actually stuck, because I need to create the scene I intended to before I know what will go after it and/or the tone in which the next scene should be written…

    • Wow, you sound more organized than me, Rochelle! I would say that I play pretty fast and loose with things. Probably personality differences. 😉 I’m amazed at anyone who is organized enough to use index cards! I can barely use the ones I have in Scrivener!!!

      • It’s organization by necessity. 🙂 I get completely overwhelmed if I can’t look at my editing in manageable chunks. The same is true with virtually everything else in my life: if my house gets too dirty, I don’t even know where to start cleaning it, so I break it into insanely small chunks.

        If you know your Meyers-Briggs, it’s probably a J/P difference. 🙂

  7. Great advice! I’d say # 2 (Ask Preliminary Questions) is the most important. So many times I’ll be asked to read something with a simple “Tell me what you think.”

    I feel like I can give much better feedback of a piece if I know what the author wants me to look for.

    • Jason,

      I do find I get better ideas on what needs to be done if I don’t ask story-specific questions until after the fact. Then we can have a conversation about “should I do this?” Or “would this approach work in theory?”

  8. robert easterbrook says

    Thanks for this Liberty. 😉 I appreciate what you said; editing has for me been a challenge to meet, since, like you (with your book Omission, at least), I’m doing the editing myself. I thank Katie for lots of inspiration here.

    Like you, I suspect, I have some general questions I start out with on the first edit. What I usually do is write a rough draft and then let it sit for about a month, and then come back to it with fresh eyes. I then do an edit and tidy things up. Then I let it sit again.

    When I go through it a third time, I go through it in Reading mode in Word and listen to the PDF reader reading it. Doing this, I find lots of interesting things that require fixing; things I might miss (and sometimes do) if I just go through it manually.

    The fourth time I go through the book, I look for consistency, and fix anything that seems out of place. And then I’m pretty much ready to throw it out to someone to read – if I can find anyone, which is another challenge for me I haven’t been able to solve.

    After several books and half-a-dozen years, I now feel very different or have a different mindset from when I wrote my first ‘serious’ novel. And between that book and the latest one, there seems a world of difference; not merely in my writing and editing, but in the way I tell a story. My first novel required an enormous amount of editing and re-writing, simply because I didn’t know what I was about then, and it was tiring.

    Now, I look forward to the editing because I know that this hard work will make the book better than it was when I first wrote it. This might seem obvious, but until you wring the book through the editing process, you won’t realise what a difference it can make to it. So thanks for sharing how you go about it.

  9. Sandy Stuckless says

    I’m in the middle of editing a novella-length piece after initial alpha reads so this is particularly helpful. Thanks for that.

    I did have a question about the following quote.
    ‘Or, as I did with Omission, I might start at the beginning and work every problem as I come to it. This second approach is not one I’d recommend’
    Can you elaborate a little on why you don’t recommend it? Is it because something that’s suggested later in the work might affect something at the beginning? That’s the only thing that comes to mind when I read that.

    • Normally, I like to tackle the biggest issues first. If there’s something that is REALLY not gelling for my betas, I like to go work on it. Like scenes that need to be totally rewritten, or changes that are made in one scene around the 20% point that directly affect seven scenes after that which I need to make sure I catch all the consistency issues because of said changes. My timeline was such, due to a variety of factors, that taking things hodge-podge like that was just not going to work because it took more time. So normally, I’ll hit items in order of importance such as:

      1. Rewriting scenes.
      2. Adding new scenes.
      3. Removing scenes.
      4. Addressing consistency issues from any/all of these.
      5. Minor structural issues within scenes.
      6. Tightening.
      7. Proofreading/fine tuning.

  10. Your name is fabulous Liberty Speidel! I love it! If it wasn’t already taken, I would use it for one of my characters. I’m more of a short story writer and I print out my work and mark it as if I were an English teacher. The funny thing is I used to be. I don’t know if novel writers ever edit with this method. Just try it, you’ll love it! Since we all are greener now, I turn the pages over reprint, recycle and build origami! Thank you for the fantastic post! Happy holidays to Kate, to you and your families.

  11. I have one basic rule for editing — write the first draft freely, let it sit for a day or two, get back to it, edit it, let it sit for a day or two, get back to it, edit. Repeat this process until you can’t improve what you’re writing anymore and when you can describe what you’ve written in 25 words or less. It usually takes me 3-4 drafts before I’ve got the story to where I want and need it to be, and where it wants and needs to be.

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