Updated: Jul 28
DISCLAIMER: Thanks to all these editors who generously shared their advice. Please use your own due diligence when screening editors to suit your own budget and end goal. Request a free sample edit to see if an editor fits. Also, have a conversation with them upfront about your expectations.
Always remember that a strong story depends on character motivation and agency. Every single scene/chapter of your book should, in some way, answer or relate to these three questions:
What do your characters want?
Why do they want it?
What is standing in their way?
Your characters' motivations will shift and change as they learn new information, and the choices they make will be impacted by the obstacles that cross their path. Bringing the focus back to these questions can help you solve a lot of problems when you’re editing your book. Are your characters' choices not making sense? Give them a stronger motivation! Is a chapter feeling too slow or boring? Throw another obstacle, internal or external, into the character’s path!
When you’re editing your book, try not to take the easy way out. I get it—revising can be a slog, and sometimes you just want to hurry up and finish so you can send it back to your editor/agent/beta readers ASAP. But you will get much better results if you take your time and really dig into the process, trying to think of even more ways you can make your story beyond the notes you received from your editor/agent/beta readers. The best revisions happen when you see every round of editing as an opportunity to make every single element of the story better, in some small (or big) way. Don’t be afraid to scrap or rewrite a whole chapter you’re not 100% in love with!
2. Jaime Dill
Know your why. For everything. We so often get bogged down in the how, especially when building our plot. But a snappy entrance or unexpected twist or climactic thrill won’t matter to anyone if you can’t give the reader a reason for it. Escapism is not a full deviation from plausibility. It is the reader’s instinct to seek relatability in characters and the events that happen to them. If your reader can’t find a sensible motivation and follow the thread of consequence, you’ll miss out on keeping their interest and winning their emotions.
Do not give an isolated opinion the power to ruin you. While early reader feedback is valuable to your editing process, you must know when it’s appropriate to listen. If someone stands out from the majority because of their shockingly negative response or inability to enjoy your work, block it out. In an appropriately large pool of readers, the odds are not in the naysayer’s favor. Likely, they are not the right audience. Therefore, it is not worth the time and emotional exhaustion of letting it get to you and persuade you to change everything about your book.
Do two easy self-editing steps to save money before hiring a professional editor to tackle the hard stuff. First, you'll be amazed at how many typos, missed words, and clunky sentences you find when you read your work aloud. Or, use tools to read your draft to you. While listening, if you find yourself thinking of other things, you may want to revise that section if it couldn't keep your attention! Second, create a list of pet words, filler words, filter words, etc. to find and replace or remove to reduce repetition. Find more tips like these at RevisionDivision.com.
Do not skip the research needed when vetting editors. Ask for word of mouth referrals and check websites of professional organizations as well as websites of potential editors to make sure you're paying a professional. Check testimonials, references, and rates. You get what you pay for so consider carefully the quality of editing you're looking for when budgeting for editing costs. Lastly, the relationship between an author and editor is important so don't work with someone who is not a match for your style and preferred way to receive editorial feedback. Find more help choosing an editor at RevisionDivision.com.
4. Nicole Evans
When looking for feedback on your stories, whether it's from alphas, betas or a professional editor, look for someone who isn't only willing to give you honest criticism, but someone who provides WHAT is wrong and WHY it needs to be addressed, but leaves the HOW to fix it up to you. It's your story, after all. Listen to advice, don't be afraid to heed trusted guidance, but remember, the heart of the story is yours and your solutions are there! It might just take another pair of eyes to help find them.
When contacting an editor or any industry professional, please always remember that do so through professional channels, like their website or professional email. Sliding into DMs is not a good look.
Paradoxically, the most effective strategy for editing your own manuscript is to leave it alone – in the beginning, at least. By the time you’ve finished your first draft, you will likely be so engrossed in what you’ve written that you won’t be able to see the wood for the trees. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been over your manuscript a dozen times or more, when you’re so close to a piece of writing, you will miss things – obvious things that you’ll kick yourself over when you finally realise. There could be simple grammatical errors, plot holes, characters doing things that don’t make sense, or any number of other errors.
So, give yourself some time when you first finish your manuscript. Spend a few weeks away from it, preferably focusing on something else. When you come back, the errors will be waiting for you, jumping out of the page with their little hands raised.
Perfectionism is a common trait in writers. I’ve known some to keep going back over the same chapters, constantly tweaking things and making no progress on the rest of the book. Editing is vital, but it’s also possible to over-edit. The risk is that you’ll start cutting out things that actually work well and replacing them with things that don’t.
If you find that you’re bogged down in a chapter, constantly switching things around and unable to get it just right, then put it to one side and continue with the story. By the time you come back to it, your eyes will be fresher, and you may find the flaws you thought existed aren’t really there. Even if they are, the solutions should be a lot clearer to you.
My single best piece of advice for authors is to write for your reader, not other writers. By this, I mean to keep sight of what matters first and foremost: story. Prose, dialogue, all the technicalities should of course be acceptable at the least, but readers will forgive almost anything if an author keeps them turning the pages. This is simply done by creating a protagonist the reader cares about and placing big obstacles between the protagonist and their goal(s). Be interesting; take chances and be bold. Your reader’s time is valuable, and the competition is intense.
One of the most common and easily avoided mistakes I encounter as a copyeditor is the repeated failure — or outright refusal — of the author to use contractions in dialogue. This will sink the best story. As an example, take the line, “I will not do it. I do not care whether you pull that trigger or not, I am not going to do that.” This is how evil overlords and arrogant nobles speak; the Sheriff of Nottingham, perhaps. You’re not writing a high school essay. Have your characters talk like real people. Read your dialogue aloud to be sure it passes muster.
7. Kyra Nelson
Read widely in your genre and read like a writer. Reading like a writer means that instead of just enjoying a story, you’re actively paying attention to how the author is doing what they do. Like a character? Pay attention to why you like them and how the author presented them in their prose. Get bored? Try to track where the pacing slowed for you and why. Think about what the author could have done to make the section more engaging. You learn a ton from reading like a writer and find great ways to implement tricks from your favorite authors into your own writing.
Don’t feel like you have to fix everything with your revision. Not this revision anyway. Authors tend to feel like revisions should make their manuscript perfect or near-perfect. A good revision doesn’t have to make your manuscript perfect; it just has to make it better. Most authors reach a point in revisions where they feel completely overwhelmed by the book. It’s usually because they’re focusing on trying to fix everything all at once. Instead, choose one or two things to focus on for this round of revision. Once you’ve done that, move on to the next couple things on your revisions list. You’re allowed to do as many revisions as you want, so don’t rush it.
Find an editor who you click with. This can take time and effort, but I usually advise prospective clients to get several sample edits and pay attention to the editor's style and personality. You need to trust this person, and you need to know your editor respects you as the author and owner of the manuscript.
This is a little harder, but really, it's thinking you can skip out on any of the steps. Even editors need editors! Don't try to fit your editing into a preconceived timeline—get an editor, listen to the editor's advice, and put in the time necessary to make your work the best it can be. Don't rush to publish!
My number one editing tip is to leave your work alone for AT LEAST two weeks after the first draft before you even think about editing. You cannot come to your piece with fresh eyes if you jump immediately from drafting to editing. Writing a first draft and editing it require completely different mindsets. You need that break to shift from one to the other. Oh, and once you've done a round or two of edits yourself, hire a professional! We're worth it, I promise.
PADDING! I hate padding with a vengeance! This is where you cram in extra words, sentences, paragraphs or whole side-plots/side-points just to meet a word count goal. It's always incredibly obvious and it really weakens your piece, making it seem waffly and unfocused. If you're really struggling to meet a word-count goal, either add more relevant and valuable content, or just reconsider if this piece is right for that word count.
10. Ruth Owen
Learn how to punctuate dialogue tags. There are two types: standard tags and action tags.
Standard tags are variations on “she said.”
Example: “That’s not a hippopotamus,” Gus explained.
Action tags are sentences that describe what the speaker is doing before, while, or after speaking.
They might look like this: Sharon gasped. “But it looks like a hippopotamus!”
or like this: “That’s because it’s cloaked.” He pushed a button on the contraption he was holding. “Look again.”
Note that you should use a comma between standard tags and the line of dialogue they connect to. Use periods between action tags and their corresponding dialogue.
Even short action tags are still action tags. Because Sharon cannot literally gasp the words “But it looks like a hippopotamus!” there’s a period after gasped. The same applies to words like laughed and sighed, though with breathed and sobbed, there’s a gray area.
You learned it’s wrong to say, “Me and my friend are singing.” But did you know it’s equally wrong to say, “He met my friend and I”? or “They sent it to my wife and I”?
That’s because of something called case. If a pronoun is the subject of a sentence, it’s in nominative case: I, you, he, she, it, they, and we. You could insert any of them here:
_________ called him.
The kids and _________ called him.
Now, the other pronoun in the sentence, him, is the object. In English, all pronouns that aren’t the subject are in accusative case: me, you, him, her, it, them, and us.
They all fit here:
She called _______.
And if there is more than one person getting called, you still use an accusative pronoun:
She called Henry and _____________.
In short, don’t use I unless you’re the subject.
11. Justine Manzano
Search your document for words like feel or felt or feeling or something similar (saw, heard, smelled). When you find them, take a few steps back. Reread your page. Are you telling us what the character feels? Or are you letting us experience it? Dive into the character’s point of view and change your wording. What are they feeling? How do they experience that feeling? That character does not feel nervous. Her hands are shaking. Her knees are trembling. She’s not seeing the sunset. If you’re describing it from the point of view of the character, we know she’s seeing it. But what exactly is she seeing? The same can be used for any of the examples above. Remember that your reader wouldn’t be experiencing any of this unless they were looking through your character. Cut out anything that puts a space between your reader and POV character.
The biggest editing no-no is editing as you go. When you’re writing your first draft, turn off your internal editor. That first draft is where you pour all your words and tell yourself the story. There is no need to second guess yourself in that first telling of the story. You’ll never get it out perfectly the first time. You’ll need to do many drafts. So, don’t slow yourself down by writing with the absolute best finished product in mind. Write. Get the story out on paper without changing anything. Write your emotions. Clean it up later.
12. Miranda Darrow
For Romance Writers:
Give your romantic leads incompatible goals. Getting together needs to be both the worst thing imaginable and the best thing ever for both parties. Their internal conflicts are just as important as the external conflict (plot).
Balance the attention and scenes between the romantic leads. Most romances use dual POV, but even if you have just one, make sure they’re both getting time on the page and time together.
Make your love scenes pull double-duty. Every love scene should also reveal character, advance the plot, and/or change the relationship between the protagonists. They serve a storytelling purpose.
Keep your pacing and the romance story arc swinging back and forth. Don’t let them fall in love too quickly. Make those readers wait until after love is clearly impossible (the dark moment) before they can truly be happy together.
For Romance Writers:
It’s not 1980. Old tropes about falling in love with her captor and rape leading to love are completely passé. Read popular romances published in the past five years to get up to speed on consent and agency for both love interests.
If you’re new to the genre, don’t think that writing romance is easy. Romance authors balance two internal character arcs, external conflict and a compelling plot, plus readers already know the ending, and it still needs to be original and touch on all the emotions. Easy as rocket science.
Don’t break the golden rule for romance and kill off one of your romantic leads or leave the other. Romance genre novels need to end in Happy Ever After (HEA) or, at the very least (popular in Young Adult Romance), a Happy For Now (HFN) ending.
13. Maryann Miller
I’m a firm believer in the benefits of going through a manuscript several times. The first rewrite is to deal with story issues, fixing plot problems and strengthening characters, but a second, or third, draft should focus on ways to improve our use of language. Sometimes we write in such a hurry that we overlook the fact that the word placement and usage may not be quite right.
"Sirens screamed, bouncing off the buildings and deafening me. "
Wait a minute. Sirens can’t bounce off buildings. "Sirens screamed, the wail bouncing off the buildings and deafening me."
“I smiled in spite of myself.” What exactly does that mean? Perhaps it would be better to write, “I smiled, despite my glum mood.”
Inappropriate sensory descriptions can also be a problem. “My own voice sounded dank…” Dank is a smell. It can’t be heard. “Soft-smelling hair.” Soft is a touch, not an odor.
Don’t strain to find the most unique dialogue attributive. “Said” works well in most cases, often having a way of disappearing as a person reads. If you use unusual attributives, it can jar the reader. The most absurd one I saw in a story was “ejaculated.” The double entendre was not on purpose. Let the dialogue itself, or an action, show the intent. “I hate this.” Harry threw the letter across the room.
Don’t give a “grocery list” type of description of characters and places. When a character steps on stage, the reader doesn’t need to know everything the character is wearing, what color hair and eyes, etc. The momentum of story lags when detailed descriptions are inserted, and the same goes for giving back story of each character. It's never wise to push the "pause" button when writing a story.
14. Maria Tureaud
When revising for content—building blocks, plot, arcs, pacing, themes, etc.—though it’s difficult, begin in Act Two. Act Two is every writer’s problem child, and often suffers from soggy middle syndrome. Generally, writers spend so much time ensuring Act One is ‘perfect’ that by the time they make it to Act Two they’re burned out, and tend to let big moves slide in order to swiftly move through the process. Unfortunately, that soggy middle results in agents rejecting for ‘plot falling apart’, also known as ‘not right for our list’ or ‘didn’t connect with the material the way I’d hoped’ form rejections. Spend as much time as you can in Act Two.
I have many, but in the interest of protecting writers, my top no-no is hiring an ‘editor’ just because they charge below industry standard. I understand hiring a professional isn’t always affordable, but clients often seek me out after getting ripped off, so I can do the job they thought they’d hired the other person to do. Sometimes people don’t realize they’re getting a Critique Partner style critique until they hire a professional, so this practice continues. Most professional editors will work out payment plans with writers. The most common is half upfront, and half upon delivery of material. The other side is writers spending far too much on editorial services ($3000 on an 80,000 word manuscript (Developmental Edit). A good place to start researching is the Editorial Freelance Association. Is your potential editor a member? Some freelance colleagues are not EFA members, but their track records speak for themselves.
15. Judy L. Mohr
The best editing trick any writer can have in their editing arsenal is reading aloud. You can stare at a sentence for hours on end and know that something is off, but you just can see it. The moment you read it aloud, the missing "the" becomes obvious.
Our eyes filter what our minds see, filling in the gaps and editing on the fly. However, there is something about vocalizing a line that forces our brains to work differently, picking up things easily overlooked when reading.
Repetitions of sounds. Awkward phrasings that the tongue stumbles over. Voice inflictions and accents that are misrepresented on the page. Missing punctuation.
The editing benefits aside, with the way audio books have taken the publishing industry by storm, it's important to understand how your writing sounds, as it can have a direct impact on your story's success.
I have a saying: Don't rush the process. Yet, I see writers doing it all the time.
Sometimes, it's from a lack of understanding of the publication process. However, more often than not, it's because writers have deliberately chosen to skip vital steps, creating shoddy work that shows little care for the reader experience.
Whether you are aiming for traditional or self-publication roads, learn what steps are necessary and take them!
If you query that fiction manuscript before you've finished the manuscript, the agent or publisher will notice. If you forgo using critique partners or beta readers, your readers likely won't understand what you've written. And if you're self-publishing and have elected to skip using a copyeditor… Guess what… We can tell!
If you want to produce something that you can be proud of for years to come, DON'T RUSH THE PROCESS!