How Many Edits Should Your Book Draft Get?

It would be a shame to open your newly published book and find errors on every other page. Yet, it happens more often than you think and many authors wish they had spent a little more time on the editing phase of publishing than they did. 

Now, it’s true—you might not escape a missing comma or two—but you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to share your book with readers, family and friends once it’s out and ready for a signing.

You can avoid this by making sure that your book has been properly edited before it ever gets to a printer. Editing it once isn’t enough, no matter how sure you are that you caught everything. Although I will never say that it is impossible to edit your own book draft, it is certainly difficult and you’re likely to miss things that your eyes got used to.

I can’t remember where I saw it, but I once read that the reason why it is hard to edit your own work is because your brain knows what should be there—and it goes ahead and fills it in for you. The problem is…nothing happened on the actual page. You saw what you wanted to see.

Annoying, right? Well, thankfully, there are a number of ways to make your draft as clean as possible without breaking the bank.

Get yourself an alpha reader

Have you heard of an alpha reader before? They aren’t talked about as often as beta-readers are, but they can be very helpful once you’ve completed your very first rough draft. They will ignore most of the spelling and grammar errors and get right to the heart of the story, telling you where it feels weak and where it’s strong. It’s best if your alpha reader is a fellow writer (preferably a bit experienced) as they will know where you’re coming from and can help you flesh out and structure your book from a writer’s standpoint. Alpha readers volunteer their time, so this form of review and editing won’t cost you more than a few emails and maybe a cup of coffee if you meet one in a local writer’s group.

Seek out beta-readers

If you spend any time at all on Writing Twitter, you’ve probably seen the term beta-reader thrown around quite a bit. Beta-readers are people who test read your draft, similar to volunteers for market research and taste-tasting studies. They aren’t paid to do this, so finding a few won’t put a dent in your saving account (especially great when you’re working with a tight budget). Though they usually aren’t professional editors, they are a sample of the everyday readers who will eventually enjoy your book. They can pick up on glaring typos, awkward sounding sentences, and plot holes (or inaccuracies) that you might miss in your own review. They will also give you a feel for how a broader selection of readers might react to your book. This will save you a lot of heartache when approaching agents and publishers with your draft. If your beta-readers didn’t like it, then it’s unlikely to get you much more than a pile of rejection letters (though, one can always hope for the best)!

The feedback you receive from helpful beta readers can help you to improve your draft in ways that would make you cry if you had to pay for all of them. So don’t skip this phase: the criticisms may hurt, but they’re worth it if it means you can produce a book worthy of the name.

Hire a content / copy / line editor

Wait! What’s all this? There are different types of editors? That’s absolutely right. I don’t mean to make things complicated, but you’ll have an easier time of it if you know what kind of editor to actually hire for your draft. This is where you have to fork out a few dimes, so let’s talk about these options so you’ll know where to go from here.

Ideally, you’ll want to find one person who can do the job. This may be possible, depending on your budget and how experienced the editor you choose happens to be. What you may not realize, at first, is that one edit is not usually enough for most manuscripts—especially complicated ones.

Content Editors

If you’re writing fiction, you’ll want to find a content editor. Let me hasten to say that if you have a strong writing community and can find alpha and beta readers who are highly experienced in writing for your genre, then you may not need to hire a content editor. 

Should you choose to, however, ask for examples of edits they have done for other authors in your genre. If they are just starting out (we don’t want to exclude new editors completely!), then ask for a list of books they have read in your genre and ask for a phone consultation so you can chat and feel them out a little. Once you’re confident that they understand your genre well enough to help you sort out issues with plot and world-building, you should be good to go. But, oh! Don’t forget to ask for a free sample edit before you sign any paperwork.

And yes, they should have you sign an agreement before you get started.

Copy Editors

If you’re looking for someone to find spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, then a copy editor is the one you want. Their job isn’t to tell you that you can’t have ice on your Mars-like planet because there is no water. They are there to fix that pesky habit you have of spelling “committee” with only one “m.” Oh, did you completely forget a word altogether? The copy editor will be on it (in their offices, a thesaurus is never too far away).

If you are very sensitive about the content of your draft, or simply haven’t written something very complex, you can get away with only hiring a copy editor (or having a general book editor only do a copy edit). They will go through your draft with a fine tooth comb and, yes, replace those missing commas. They will ensure you’ve used the right punctuation, not too much of it, and will ensure that your spelling is correct and consistent (I’m looking at my fellow Canadians, with our wild swinging between U.K. and American English).

Line Editors

So, who do you hire when you want your world or framework left as is, but you want your editor to correct a little more than simple spelling and grammar mistakes? A line editor. These are the people who will go line-by-line (as their name suggests) and tell you when a sentence is awkward, when dialogue is clunky, and when your character has blue eyes in chapter one and green eyes by chapter twenty (assuming you’re not writing about iris re-pigmentation surgery set in the year 2049).

Line edits are often the most appropriate edit to do after your book has been through alpha and beta readers. You don’t want to waste time doing a copy edit to catch misspelled words and bad sentences that might not even been in the manuscript at all after a line edit is completed. So, unless you don’t plan to have your draft checked for awkward constructions, conciseness, and clarity, have a line edit done before you call for a copy edit.

The one edit we haven’t talked about

You’re probably realizing by now that a book may need not one, but two or even three edits before it’s publisher ready. How much time and money you want to spend on editing is up to you, but it’s a necessary step no matter what you’re publishing. 

Before you find any alpha and beta readers, and before you hire any editors, there’s one thing you should always do first: go over your own work yourself. Why did I put this last? There’s no reason, I just like to do that.

First, go over your work with wide-toothed comb. Look for the huge mistakes your brain won’t gloss over. Don’t stress over it, though, just work the biggest lumps out of the cake batter, so to speak. Take a break for a day, and then take a fine-toothed comb to the draft on day two. Use this review to resolve subtler issues that you didn’t notice before. Look for major issues with style, clarity, consistency, and phrasing.

Your style is the way you write: your unique tone. Sometimes, you may weave in and out of a consistent style as you write. This second review is where you will try to recognize where you do this and correct it. Don’t be afraid of not catching it all: it will be hard for you to detect everything yourself. Your editor will pick up on whatever you miss.

Clarity is, well, how clear your message is. To fix this yourself, you will need to be honest with yourself. Be objective. Be harsh. Criticize it the way someone would if they didn’t like you or your book. Remove needless words and simplify any complex ones, if you can.

Remember to be consistent. If you spell neighbour with a “u” in the first few pages, then you should not be spelling it as “neighbor” by the end of the book. Take your time and fix all the less obvious problems you can find. If you’re ever mixed cake batter, you know that the small lumps are far harder to find and crush than the bigger ones. 

Getting ready for the publisher

This is your book. You have spent days, weeks, and months pouring over the words. They are a part of you, so you will be used to them. You’ve learned that your eyes may glaze over areas of text because you know what it says already, so there will be mistakes that you don’t catch—like that one person in every room, sometimes you can’t smell your own breath.

We’ve talked about getting a second opinion from alpha and beta readers. An alpha reader should be another writer, but you can ask trusted friends, relatives, or anyone really to beta read your book and send you their feedback. Try not to take their comments to hear. Just listen with an open mind. They can even use Track Changes in Microsoft Word to mark and comment on each line. Accept the changes you agree with and discard the rest.

You will have a solid manuscript by then, so your last step is to hire editors. Having cleaned it up as much as possible, you will save money on the final edits. A good, professional editor should offer you a sample of their proofreading or editing work at no charge, so you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into with them. Always trust the vibe.

If you don’t feel like you would enjoy working with an editor, or even a beta reader, then don’t. Finding new editors can be a hassle, so if you can find one you truly feel a bond with, then stick with them. You shouldn’t have to worry about your book being subject of a nightmare about typographically-challenged manuscripts.

Published by Kim-Lee Patterson

Kim-Lee Patterson is an editor and author from Ontario, Canada. Since 2011, she’s edited for a variety of clients, ranging from job seekers and students to business owners and book authors. Her versatile editing style and her ability to mimic other styles are some of the things that her clients love about her and her work.

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