1. Brush up on your grammar and punctuation. There is a sea of information about grammar and punctuation online. Research it, learn it, and practice it. Just make sure you’re getting your info from reputable sites that know what they’re talking about. I recommend Grammar Girl, Purdue’s OWL, and—for the most part—GrammarBook.com. You can also check out the latest blog series of mine, The Grammar Grind, for short but information-packed articles about grammar and punctuation as well as additional tips and examples. I’ve included exceptions and my personal style preferences in most of the articles.
2. Choose a style guide and stick with it. This one is extremely important for consistency. Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press are the two most prevalent style guides in the publishing industry. Most fiction publishers typically use the former, and several nonfiction publishing houses and publishers in journalism use the latter. Whichever one you choose, make sure you stick with it throughout the whole manuscript. Both cover issues on punctuation, style, and give editing tips.
3. Cater to your audience. When editing your book, think about the audience you’ve written it for. Make sure that the content is age appropriate and that the plot elements are relatable to the book’s audience. If you’re catering to a YA market, make sure you include typical struggles of teens and young adults; they’re typically “coming of age” stories. If you’re catering to an adult audience, don’t focus on the characters’ inner realizations as much as the events going on around them. In both cases, use dialogue and a style of narrative that is fitting for both the story itself and your primary market.
4. Check for inconsistencies. If there is one thing lovers of books can’t stand, it’s internal inconsistencies. Think age/birthdays, time lapses, order of events, characters’ personalities, environment, narrative style, dialogue—pretty much any place where you could have a slipup. Use an outline or other guide to keep your story’s facts and characters straight. I highly recommend a program called Scrivener. You can use it to keep track of character traits, write individual chapters, keep notes about scenes or characters, and pretty much whatever else you like.
5. Take others’ comments into consideration. I know this one is tough, but listening to others is an important step to improving your writing. If all your beta readers are telling you that they have a hard time picturing a setting or that they had trouble getting through a particular scene, LISTEN. There’s a reason you’re getting the same comment over and over. By the same token, if you get one or two comments about a character or line of dialogue being off, look into it, but make the decision yourself. If the vast majority of your beta readers are okay with it, chances are it’s probably fine. And if you’re the one giving the critique, be specific with your feedback. Comments like “I really like this piece!” or “This scene didn’t feel right,” isn’t very informative or helpful. Instead, say things like, “I like the flow of the narrative here,” “This character is really witty!” or “The dress she was wearing seemed a bit elaborate for the scene.”
6. Cut the fluff. I’ve mentioned this as a writing/editing tip before, but if the scene doesn’t propel the plot or spark a change in one or more of the characters, cut it. The secret to writing a great book is crafting it in such a way that every piece of information in it is useful. Readers will skip past the fluff, and if there’s enough of it in your book, they could be discouraged from finishing it.
7. Double-check your work. Even for trained professionals, it’s easy to miss a few things the first time around. This is especially true for grammar and punctuation, but it’s also true for fact checking, character development, and worldbuilding. Don’t leave problems unsolved. Every issue should be resolved or at least heading in a clear direction. The only exception to this is in the case of book series, but even then, each book should be able to stand on its own.
8. Add layers. Books are like ogres, or onions—or both! One of the biggest parts of the editing process is adding in layers. Each time you revise a piece, add in elements that give characters depth, enrich the plot, or add to the environment. But be careful not to go overboard with it. There is a fine line between layers and fluff!
9. Take your time. Rushing the editing process will leave your book lacking every time, so just don’t do it. If you’re going to take all the time and effort to write an entire manuscript, do it right. Take your time going through it line by line and scene by scene to make it as perfect as possible before publishing. The goal should be a professional piece that is marketable.
10. Read, write, and research. The secret to becoming a better editor is becoming a better writer. Do your homework: read books that are well written; practice your writing skills; research topics you’re including, even if you’re already familiar with them. The more you do these things, the stronger your editing skills will become.