When you sit down to edit a book, you want to improve your story and your writing.
It’s a good idea to do a thorough grammar and spell check before you start. You have a choice of plenty of premium and free grammar checkers to help you.
But a grammar check can’t edit a story. The real editing process starts when you carefully read your manuscript, line by line.
If you don’t have a professional editor, you can learn how to self-edit your book by following my checklist of 20 areas to check.
Editing is polishing
When you write a book, it takes a long time.
It could be weeks or months between the chapters you’ve written. Because of this, you are likely to have some inconsistencies, mismatches, and style changes.
If you can’t afford a professional edit, you can still improve and polish your manuscript.
It doesn’t matter if you are going to self-publish or try to find a traditional publisher through a literary agent.
You should always aim to make your manuscript as perfect as possible. If you send an unedited draft manuscript to an agent or even beta readers, you are not putting your best foot forward.
Worse still is to self-publish your book without a thorough edit.
The editing process
There are so many aspects to manuscript editing. You certainly need to focus on character development, a consistent point of view, and look for any plot holes.
You also want to pay attention to words and phrases that are either overused, inconsistent, or incorrect. This is often referred to as copy editing or perhaps a line edit.
It’s a slow and painstaking process to learn how to edit. But you can make it easier if you have a list of focus points in mind before you begin.
20 Point checklist to edit a book
The following points are the most common areas that usually need careful attention.
Premium tools like Grammarly and Prowritingaid can certainly help you reduce grammar and spelling errors.
But a grammar checker will never find problems in your story. You can’t rely on a grammar checker to help you when it comes time to edit your manuscript.
Keep the following points in mind as you go through the process of self-editing and improving the quality and accuracy of your writing.
You can use the infographic checklist below to remind you of all the points that are explained in detail below.
1. Check character names
There is nothing more annoying for a reader than inconsistency in the spelling of character names.
Ann or Anne, Cathy or Kathy, Jeffrey or Jeffery, Alan or Allan, Allison or Alison, Elizabeth or Elisabeth, or Lindsay or Lindsey?
If you have character profile cards, make a list of all your characters and keep it next to you when you edit.
It is rare that you won’t find typos or misspellings with names. Check every mention of your characters’ names very carefully.
2. Excessive use of the passive voice
You can’t avoid using some passive sentences. But you should always aim to use it as little as possible.
In most cases, it’s easy to rewrite a sentence in the active voice.
He was shocked when he was sentenced to three months in prison for dangerous driving. Passive
He was shocked when the judge sentenced him to three months in prison for dangerous driving. Active
An easy way to find passive sentences is to use the free Hemingway editor. Then you can rewrite as many as you can.
3. Remove weak adverbs
Stephen King calls adverbs weeds.
Look for your use of adverbs, and especially with dialogue tags, and try to replace them with a strong verb.
“I don’t know if I can take any more of this,” she said quietly.
“I don’t know if I can take any more of this,” she whispered.
The car drove away very quickly.
The car sped away.
4. Omit the fluff
Look for long sentences that slow down your story. If you use excessive defining and non-defining clauses or adverbial clauses, they can often be deleted.
Well, you know I think it would be better, given what has happened, or could happen, if we agreed to postpone the wedding to later in the year.
Let’s put off the wedding because of what is happening.
5. Look for redundancies
Redundancy is when there is a word or phrase that is not necessary. In other words, you are saying the same thing twice.
her eyes. What else can you blink?
his shoulders. What other parts of the body can you shrug?
the sound of a car backfiring. A car backfiring makes a loud sound, so there is no need to say it twice.
She wrote a biography
of her life. A biography is always about a person’s life.
6. Avoid unnecessary prepositions
Sometimes the verb is enough to describe what is happening.
down on the chair.
out on his trek to Nepal.
up the generator.
7. Double check your facts
Nothing ruins an author’s credibility faster than getting basic facts wrong.
While it is critical for nonfiction books, it can also apply to fiction novels. Whenever you cite or mention a fact, check that you are correct.
Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July
14th, 1968 20th 1969.
King John ruled during the
13th century. John was King of England from 1199 until his death in 1216.
Typhoid is a
viral bacterial disease spread through contaminated food, water, or close contact.
8. Remove that
Very often, the pronoun that can be removed when it serves no purpose.
It was the same car
that he drove to three world championships.
There were three rooms in the house
that were painted green.
It’s the smell of roses
that I love.
9. Don’t over punctuate
You can be creative with punctuation, but don’t go overboard trying to paint a page with it.
“You know …” he started, “I hate my job! My boss is so … well–nasty and, to be honest, vindictive TOO!”
“I hate my boss because he is nasty and vindictive,” he said.
10. Avoid clichés
Expressions like kicked the bucket or as dead as a dodo are always best replaced with a more original expression. You could just as easily say he died.
Also, watch out for situational clichés like, there was a knock at the door, or she asked her mirror.
Always aim for originality in your writing wherever possible.
11. Your characters say things
There are many words for said, but you should go easy on trying to replace it. Readers have a blind spot for he said, she said.
But they don’t have one for annoying dialogue tag verbs that over-explain.
Verbs such as grunted, retorted, wheezed, gasped, sighed, laughed, snorted, exclaimed, or declared are often better changed to simply, said.
Mary was very tired and in a bad mood when she got home after work and didn’t feel like cooking. “I think I’ll just order a pizza,” she
12. Don’t stage direct
Too much detail can bore readers. There’s no need to explain every small action.
When he arrived home, he reached for his keys in his jacket pocket and tiredly opened the front door before taking off his jacket and flopping onto his sofa, exhausted.
After he arrived home, he flopped onto his sofa.
13. Check your characters’ voices
You should know how your characters talk. Do certain characters use a lot of slang, or do others speak more formally?
Check the register you use for each one and make sure it stays consistent.
If a character says hi y’all, how’s it going or what d’ya mean, it would seem unreal if he suddenly used how do you do, that is gracious of you or thank you indeed for reminding me.
A good way to check this is to copy and paste the dialogue of one character into a document and then to read aloud.
14. Nothing’s happening
If there is nothing happening, don’t bother explaining it.
He didn’t arrive.
She didn’t say a word.
He didn’t go to the bank.
15. Avoid adjective chains
When you describe something, try to use one strong adjective instead of two or three weaker ones.
The morning was very cold, gray, and bleak.
It was a freezing morning.
16. Degrading verbs
When you see a verb weakened by a little, a bit, almost, or nearly, you can usually avoid using them.
He almost smiled. He tried to smile. She nearly missed her bus. She just managed to catch the bus. He was only a little bit late. He was late, but only by a few minutes.
17. Grade your vocabulary
Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
Complex words can certainly show off your expansive vocabulary. But they can also drive a reader to a dictionary instead of reading your book.
Go easy on them. It’s better to be understood than be seen as a sesquipedalian writer.
18. Check the eyes
If your character flashes her big blue eyes in chapter two and then flashes her big brown eyes in chapter eleven, you have a problem to fix.
Check your character details and events carefully.
It can happen so easily that a character has two brothers at the start of a story but suddenly has three brothers half-way through.
One of the best ways to maintain consistency is to use character profile cards.
Another element to check is the minor events and details that arise in your story.
I remember in one book I wrote; a character put a six-pack of beer into his empty refrigerator. Three chapters later, he returned to find only eleven left.
19. Don’t be afraid to chop
More words don’t make for a better story.
Check your narrative, especially, and make sure you are not waffling. World-building and scene-setting are necessary, but don’t let them occupy half of your story.
Say only what needs to be said.
20. Take lots of breaks
It is a long job to edit a book manuscript. Don’t expect to do it all in one day.
Take it one step at a time, and give yourself a rest in between. It’s not about how fast you can edit, but how well you can do it.
Use this checklist to help you plan your schedule and tackle one or two issues at a time.
Day one, check your characters’ names. Day two, check for excessive passive voice. Day three, you choose.
Some book editors spend more time working on a manuscript than the author spent writing it.
The more time you invest in self-editing your book, the better the final result will be.
If you still plan to hire an editor, it will cost you much less because of all the work you did.
When you are querying your book to agents, you stand a much better chance of success if your manuscript is perfect.
For self-publishing authors, good self-editing and using beta readers can help you sell many more books.
There are so many ebooks on Amazon that are full of typos and mistakes.
You can rise above the pack with quality writing and editing.