Most of the Stuff You Need to Know to Edit Your Manuscript

Hacks for Hacks (sense of humor required)Look, I don’t want to imply there’s anything wrong with your book. I’m just saying that if your first draft was a masterpiece, your second draft will be like Wuthering Heights and The Brothers Karamazov glued together. Here’s how you can turn your hunk of clay of a first draft into the Mona Lisa.

  • Buy a blue pencil. You’ll need it to write down the snacks you’ll wanna buy for your next editing session.
  • Print two hard copies of the manuscript. The first is so you can make your edits on paper like God intended. The second is for years later when the Smithsonian comes asking if you have any memorabilia they could display.
  • Buy books on editing. This article makes them all obsolete, of course, but they’ll look great on your bookshelf. “Ooh, this writer apparently knows a thing or two about editing!” they’ll say. “Look at all those books!”

If you ask an editor if they’re a scammer, legally they have to tell you or it’s edtrapment.

  • Trim the fat. Nobody wants to read a flabby manuscript. Take out unnecessary words, as well as all references to fried foods and soda.
  • Murder your darlings. One of the most useful bits of writing advice, it’s a figure of speech that means that in your novel, you must kill a beloved pet, love interest, or small child. It’s hard, but I didn’t make the rules.
  • While you’re at it, let some of your minor characters know you might bump off a few of them, too, if they don’t start adding more to the story. Do this out loud.

  • blue pencils
    Photo by rosmary

    Add a sword fight.

  • Remove all instances of the following terrible words: moistened, accoutrements, tarpaulin, smelly, luncheon, dungarees, phlegm, incentivize, caulk, mouthfeel.
  • Do add the word defenestration. It’s a cool-sounding word, plus it’s a great way to get rid of those underperforming characters who didn’t heed your warning.
  • Let everyone on Twitter know how much fun you’re having by using the #amediting hashtag. I’ve talked about hashtags before, and the editing process is a great opportunity to use what you’ve learned. “This is so much work! #amediting” or “I can’t believe I thought this was a good idea for a book #amediting” or “I’m going to stab myself in the eye with my blue pencil. #amediting”
  • Cut more than you add. Remember this oft-shared piece of writerly advice: “The second draft is the first draft minus ten percent or the sum of all named characters divided by the number of mysterious red-haired women with green eyes, whichever is greater.”

And if all else fails:

  • Hire a professional editor. You can find hundreds of freelance editors willing to help you fix your book. But beware–there are lots of scam artists out there who charge exorbitant rates to do barely more than a spell check. Tip: If you ask an editor if they’re a scammer, legally they have to tell you or it’s edtrapment.

You can always make your book better. Why stop at just a second or third draft? A lot of writers grow to love their characters; once you master these techniques, you can make an infinite number of incremental changes–you and your book will be together forever!

What are your best editing techniques? Share them in the comments!


About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife, Jen, and his sons, Elliott and Wyatt, and he looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.


  1. says

    Normally I spread the manuscript out on the bedroom floor. The pages that the cats throw up on get cut. Oddly, it usually turns out to be 10% of them. Actually, I do one quick read just to make sure there’s still a story in there somewhere. Then I do a line by line. I’m a plotter so I don’t have to slice out entire plotlines any more. This time I’m sending it out to an editor as well. After that, the beta readers have at it. If less than 5 out of 10 of those throw up on it, it’s a go.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..Top 10 Reasons to Read Middle Grade Fiction

    • Shelley Schanfield says

      An excellent method that I’ve tried myself with great success, adding the additional step of picking up the pages at random and retyping the whole manuscript in the new order. This is a sure way to improve plot development and character arc.

    • says

      Ron, I love this! I’m wondering if we should lump beta readers who don’t respond or “got too busy” together with those who puke on the pages? We want our beta readers to do things like text us late at night saying, “Damn you for making me stay up! I have to work tomorrow,” because let’s face it, as readers when we come across a book that seizes our attention, work, sleep, even family time suffers a little. Otherwise, there’s danger we have something mediocre on our hands, and its time to go back to the smithy.
      John Robin´s last blog post ..The blog that John wrote

  2. says

    Just love these funnies. I like what Hemingway said:
    “The first draft of anything is shit.” On a serious note, at the final read, I print it out and read the MS with a white ruler, line by line. It’s the only way I can catch what I missed on the screen. Sometimes, I’ll read the page from the bottom up. Of course, I hire editors: content editor, line editor, and proofreader. And I am an editor and still can’t catch everything. I once wrote foul when it should have been fowl. Nobody caught it. Not even the editors where the story was published. I’ve decided now that there must be some kind of lesson in imperfection, since so many of us are.
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Night Sea Journey Earns 5-Star Reviews on Amazon

  3. says

    Hi Bill,

    My favourite technique is using highlighter, which goes with the need to print out my manuscript. It’s just not the same staring at it on a computer screen, even with the handy track changes and comments. I use an orange highlighter to circle goofs, to bracket in sections that drag, sound awkward, or don’t make sense, a black pen to write over these spots if there are any notes to make (but I avoid rewriting – that can be a vicious cycle), and a yellow highlighter to underline parts that are very good – this helps me when I hit sections that are so bad the only way to get perspective on what to do is to highlight what’s working, then work backwards.

    Printing out my work has helped so much. It allows me to be an editor/reader, and not a writer. It also speeds me up so I don’t lose the forest for the trees.

    By the way, thanks for the defenestration suggestion. I was thinking of a good twist for one of the subplots in the story I’m growing right now, and, given I have a crony with a fear of heights, you’ve just given me the perfect idea for how he might meet his demise…

  4. says

    Great list, even tongue in cheek.

    I got to #5 – Murder your darlings – and my brain went, Check! Check! Check! – and this is a love story.

    Oh well, characters are easy come, easy go – right?

    My editing style is OCD with ADHD. All over the map, but I keep track of things, and eventually check them off the list, or I’m not finished. Lots of editing books? Check!

    And, for the record, even if I win the Nobel Prize for Literature, ain’t nobody getting ‘hold of those first drafts. Once we are set in type (or digital equivalent), our county offers industrial-size shredding equipment for residents. I am NOT going out in public with my slip showing.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..First Guest Blog – I love milestones!

  5. says

    Bill, you’re so brilliant. These tips are right on. May I add a few from my own experience?

    “She said,” “he said”– so boring, readers skim right over these. Make them stop and take notice with fancy dialogue tags like: rejoined, reposted, asserted, professed, opined, responded, expostulated. Action verbs! Pop ’em in every single time. Never assume that a reader just wants to get to the dialogue and find out what that redhaired woman with the green eyes actually said (revealed, implied, divulged, suggested). It’s the mouthfeel that counts.

    Ellipses everywhere! The usual three points just don’t convey the mood, how ’bout seven? ……. See, isn’t that better? ………!!!!! Multiple exclamation points too — one’s never enough, more makes your prose stronger.

    Yes, a sword fight will unstick your plot, wherever it might be stuck. Absolutely. Keeps things sharp. En garde!!!!

    Cliches exist because people like them. Don’t waste time trying to come up with new stuff, it’s all been said before. Just figure out how to get the beautiful woman with sparkling emerald eyes and flowing red tresses her own sword.

    And if you hire an independent editor, be sure to send her your ms. two weeks late, then call every day and see how’s it going, ‘cuz you want it edited on time exactly. When she returns your manuscript with tons of track changes and hundreds of comments, have a fainting spell, then scream, then withhold payment. Believe me, it’s standard practice. Finally, ask her to recommend the ms. to her own literary agent. Because editors are angels in human form, she won’t mind, and any way, you *are* her only client.

    (Okay, sarcastic, passive-aggressive editor, back in your box. Back. In the box. Back, I say!) The only true thing in all that is that independent editors are indeed angels. It’s in our job description.

  6. says

    1) Rewrite the book in first person. It doesn’t matter if you chose third person limited or whatever for a reason. First person is always better.

    2) Add cliffhangers. The only universal mark of a good book is that every single scene ends with a cliffhanger. If a reader gets to the end of a chapter and the final sentence doesn’t scream “DUN DUN DUUUN!”, they might very well think the book is over.

    If you’re really ambitious, make the entire story end on a cliffhanger, too. You want readers to be left scratching their heads, asking, “WTF? Where’s the ending?” That way you can be sure they’ll eagerly await your next publication.

    3) Kill all adverbs. First find and delete any words that end in “-ly,” like “ally,” “lily,” “fly,” and “bubbly.” Then take out all of the sneaky hidden adverbs and adverbial phrases denoting time, place, etc.

    Raw: “She’d gone to the beach only once before, in her childhood.”
    Adverb-free: “She’d gone.”

    If you follow these three simple steps, I guarantee your manuscript will be 100% improved, and agents and editors will be cage-fighting to the death to represent you.

  7. says

    My novel has a green-haired woman with red eyes, so I’m OK.

    This next tidbit is absolutely, positively, true. I heard it from his own lips in a workshop in Freeport, Maine.

    This is how Jonathan Letham edits his work: He retypes it. Twice. The whole thing. On a typewriter. Start to finish.

  8. says

    I read it out loud. Where ever I stumble gets a big check mark. Sometimes I realize at that very moment what’s wrong sometimes I have to read more and then go back and fix the check marked stuff. It might be as simple as OMG-this-boring. In that case the paragraph or scene goes into an x-file because placed elsewhere it might work a whole lot better. Then again, it might never see the light of day again.

  9. says

    I read most chapters aloud to my critique group, the DFW Writer’sWoskshop, whose members have published over 300 books. I notice some of the awkward sentences and plot holes, but they notice even more while I’m reading my 12 pages.
    I always read the first three chapters outloud before sending to an editor or agent and usually reprint ten or more pages.
    Carolyn Rae Williamson
    Romancing the Gold, coming in the fall from MuseItUp
    There IS Life After Lettuce, Eakin Press, Fort Worth, TX

  10. Hilary says

    I laughed out loud – loved it.

    But surely – defenestration should mean “removing windows from a building”. Throwing someone out of a window ought to be “exfenestration”?

    OK I admit I’m a pedant, and who said English is logical?

    The one I struggle with is “Cut out more than you add.” I keep thinking of extra bits to put in ….