How to Edit Your Book in 4 Steps


Mike Nappa

© 2011 Nappaland Literary Agency nappalandliterary.com

By Guest Columnist Mike Nappa

Mike Nappa is founder of Nappaland Literary Agency, and author of 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected, available wherever books are sold.

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The woman asked a sensible question; she deserved a practical answer.

I was sitting on an “Agents & Editors” panel at a writer’s conference when she took the microphone. “I’ve been working on revising my manuscript,” she said to all of us in the crowded ballroom, “and I think it’s getting better. But how do I know when I should stop revising and start sending it out? How do I know when my book is done?”

Good question, I thought. And one with an easy answer.

Then the experts around me started hemming and hawing and making these kinds of abstract noises in response:

“Well, a book is never REALLY finished, so you have to just choose a stopping point and hope for the best…”

“It’s like falling in love. When your book is ready, you just know.”

“When I wrote my last award-winning book [insert some random story about how great I am that has nothing to do with your question here]…”

Finally I could take it no longer, so I stole a microphone and said what I thought was obvious, and which is the process I’ve used to pen more than 50 books over the last 20 years:

You write a book four times.

When you’ve finished the fourth writing, you’re done—or at least ready to show your manuscript to an agent or editor.

Here, briefly, is how that process works:

1. The Close-In Writing
The basic method: You write a day’s worth of work (either fiction or nonfiction)—whatever that means for you. Next day, before you write anything new, you revise and edit the previous day’s work. This is the “close-in writing,” and becomes the first draft—the first time your write your book.

2. The Close-In Edit
When the entire first draft is complete, you go back through and, beginning with word one to the end, you revise and edit the entire manuscript on your computer. This is the “close-in edit,” and becomes your second draft: the second time you write your book.

3. The Distance (or “Hand”) Edit
Next, you print a hard copy of the second draft of your entire manuscript. Beginning with word one to the end, you hand-edit the hard copy, scrawling notes and profanities to yourself all the way through the margins. Then, using your hand-edit notes as a reference, you go back into your computer file and revise the manuscript as needed. This is the “distance edit,” and becomes your third draft: the third time you’ve written your book.

4. The Oral Edit
Finally, you print a new hard copy and read your entire manuscript aloud. Read it to the walls, to your spouse, to the patrons at Starbucks, to your dog, to the bowl of soggy Cocoa Puffs left over from breakfast. Doesn’t matter who’s in the room, only that you can hear yourself reading it. Start with word one and don’t stop until you read the last word. Yes, it may take you several days, but that’s OK. Keep reading every word out loud until you’re done.

As you read, note any places where the phrasing causes you to stumble, the wording feels confusing or out of place, or your mind seems to wander from the text in front of you. Those places need to be cut or rewritten, so as you’re reading aloud, pause to make notes as to what to do to improve them. When you’re done, incorporate your notes into the computer file of your manuscript. You’ve now finished the “oral edit”—and written your book four times.

At this point, you will be: a) extremely sick of your book, but b) finished.

Yes, this is a tedious, tiring process. But it works. If you write your book four times, chances are very good that when you’re done it will be a finely-crafted work of art … or at least undoubtedly something much better than when you started.

77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected

I thought writing a book four times was just common sense, and that most every writer/editor/agent already knew about it.

The reaction at that writer’s conference showed me otherwise.

The important thing, though, is that now you know how to tell when your book is finished. So if you’re thinking of pitching your latest masterwork to my agency or somewhere else in the industry, do us all a favor before you send it:

Write your book four times.

Then it should be ready.

© 2012 Nappaland Communications Inc. All rights reserved. Printed with permission. To contact the author, visit: www.NappalandLiterary.com.

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9 thoughts on “How to Edit Your Book in 4 Steps

  1. TwilightBat

    If you actually want to get an AGENT and to get PUBLISHED, you MUST have your work edited by a professional. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to try to spruce it up beforehand (to save yourself embarrassment) — but — don’t DELUDE yourself into thinking you can actually “EDIT YOUR OWN BOOK” with tips from blogs! I recently discovered that there are a number of editorial companies with editors who actually work in the business, such as Manuscript Magic (www.manuscript-magic.com) and NY book editors. The COMPETITION for publishing is HUGE, so do yourself a favor and put your BEST FOOT FORWARD prior to submitting. AGENTS CAN SEE THE DIFFERENCE!

  2. alexhawkins

    I type faster than I think, but it helps me progress. I find I frequently export my work as .epub and read it to check for any glaring grammatical errors (grammar doesn’t flow easily for me when typing 80+ words a minute), which are then corrected. After I complete the first draft, I go into the fine detail line by line. Works for me. I can see about 4 rewrites in it though in total…

  3. cruizen4u

    As a first time writer (still unpublished at the moment), I wrote the whole book then found out I was supposed to have edited after each chapter. Now I am going to try these 4 steps and see what happens. It makes sense to me. Thank you.

  4. aspirinnovelist

    This is the best advice for any writer. I’ve found all this advice out the hard way, but when the penny did drop (still dropping), the raw and technical thing about actually writing a novel that’s readable, became crystal. Ignore this advice at your peril!

  5. Traci Loudin

    I would have to respectfully disagree with most of this. #1 can wind up wasting you a lot of time writing your book if you edit scenes that you later decide are unnecessary. Why waste time editing Chapter One before you even write Chapter Two, considering that you may cut Chapter One entirely?

    #2 again, why waste time doing a close-in edit when you may not have cut out unnecessary scenes yet? You may do a close-in edit and halfway through the book realize you need to restructure and reorder some scenes. Now your earlier close-in edits may be worthless, because major events have changed.

    I think most writers/editors would agree that you start big and go small. Look at your book as a whole first. Outline what you have. Determine the value of each scene and whether additional supporting scenes are needed or whether any scenes are redundant. Add/remove as necessary. Only then should you go in and do numbers 2 through 4 as described above.

  6. TerryDassow

    You’re right about becoming completely sick of your book. I’m on the third revision, and it’s exactly as you said. I also know I’m nowhere near done, despite revising it two times already. Thanks for reminding me that there is an endpoint. Back to writing!

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