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“A book’s never gonna be perfect, but then the Romans believed perfection angered the gods.”  ~Melvyn Small

A quote commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway goes, “Write drunk, edit sober.” While there’s no evidence he ever said that (publicly anyway), it seems like something he would say, plus it makes for a catchy meme. The moral of the message is clear – make as much of a mess as you want with the early drafts, but when it comes to the final edit of your book, it’s time to buckle down and get serious.

The final version of your labor of love is the thing that other people will actually read – and judge. Believe it or not, armchair editors like the ones who gleefully point out Facebook post typos take their art form to a new level when it comes to spotting spelling and grammar errors in actual published books. Otherwise glowing Amazon reviews can instantly crumble under the weight of repeated typos throughout a book.

For those of us who produce books for a living, seeking out the “perfect copyedit” can easily become a Holy Grail situation. Candidly, we’ve seen edits on all points of the cost spectrum come up short, leaving the adage “you get what you pay for” holding little weight.

Fortunately, over our years (and years, and years) working with books, we’ve learned a few things about the most critical pieces of an airtight copyedit. Or to put it bluntly – when it comes to editing book manuscripts, we’ve become unyielding, slightly pissed off, perfectionists.

The key to our D-I-Y self-edit process (which you should always use in conjunction with some level of professional edit) is multiple rounds of edits designed to look at something different each time. This method helps organize your brain around specific tasks versus instructing it to see the forest AND the trees all at the same time. It also forces you to make multiple passes, dramatically decreasing the odds of a slew of Amazon reviews about your typos.

Sober up, it’s time to edit!

Round 1: The Non-Edit

That’s right, for this first round the key is to read without editing the actual manuscript. Instead, use a notebook to take detailed notes about your impressions as you read and mark up areas of your manuscript to revisit later. The goal for this round is to put yourself in your readers’ shoes and look for flaws in the big picture of your book. It’s difficult to stay zoomed out on the big picture if you’re stopping every other line to make adjustments. First see how the car runs and if you even like it – save the oil change for later.

  1. Note where your reading pace quickens or slows and make sure that’s how you intended to pace your book for the reader.
  2. Mark any areas of the manuscript that are confusing on first read.
  3. Note any stories or topics that need to be expanded on or tightened up. (Ex. you know those skits on Saturday Night Live that go on and on and on – uncomfortably?)
  4. Look for areas that don’t serve your core story or goals for the book and therefore should be deleted entirely. Don’t delete yet! Just make a note for the next round.
  5. If your book contains references, double check their accuracy and formatting in your footnotes and/or bibliography.
  6. Use your notebook to write down new thoughts, ideas, or even new chapters.
  7. When you’ve reached the end of the manuscript, immediately jot down all your impressions of your manuscript – good, bad, and ugly. Be as brutally honest as possible in your critique, knowing that your future readers will be even more so.

Round 2: Applying Your Notes

Now go through and address your notebook notes and marked up areas of the manuscript from Round 1, note by note. This is the time to complete any significant edits, rewrites, additions, tightening of content and wording, and cutting.

Round 3: Glaring Errors

With the big picture issues in your manuscript handled, it’s time to zoom in and begin your line-by-line copyedit. This goes exactly how it sounds; you read your manuscript line by line, scanning for blatant typos, grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. We recommend keeping the following resources at arm’s length during this round for quick reference (whether paper or online): dictionary, thesaurus, and some sort of grammar guide.

Round 4: Reading Out Loud

The human brain is a fascinating thing. We can read and read and read through our work, over and over again and truly believe we’ve caught all the errors, ignoring the blind spot lodged between our brain and our eyes. Why does this blind spot exist?

When you are the author of a work (or even a person who has been significantly involved in the book), when editing, your brain has a funny way of showing you what you think you wrote versus what’s actually on the page. Reading your manuscript out loud slices into the blind spot, forcing you to say the actual words on the page versus what you thought you wrote, thereby instantly spotting the errors.

Bonus Tip: Are you finding yourself on autopilot, reading a sentence or paragraph out loud over and over, trying to make sense of it? You’ve most likely come across a muddy or run-on sentence and that’s your brain kicking in, sending up the red flag to clean up the wording or phrasing.

Round 5: A Final Silent Pass

End your self-edit with one more silent read, looking for anything you might have missed in rounds 1-4. This is it and presumably you’re sending your manuscript off to print or to your publisher after this, so take your time.

Questions about this or any other area of developing, writing, editing, publishing, or promoting your book? Contact us to schedule a free strategy session so we can transform your “someday” dream into a “today” concrete goal!

2 Comments

  • Margena says:

    Thanks for all the info! I need to do the reading out loud part. I always skip that part.

  • Amy Stoehr says:

    Super useful article. Thank you! I edit a ton of copy, but I can honestly say I’ve never read one bit of it out loud. And the approach of editing to target a specific focus rather than “forest and trees”ing it makes a lot of sense. Appreciate your generous guidance!