3 Levels to Self-Editing Your First-Draft Business Book Manuscript
Putting yourself in your reader’s shoes
So you’ve completed your first-draft business book manuscript — first, let me say, congratulations! You’ve come a long way, and gotten much further than a lot of entrepreneurs who hope to write a book, but never do.
But now, you’ve got a bit more work to do. It’s time to self-edit your book so it’s ready to send to a professional editor or to get early input from readers. And though it may seem daunting, there are actually a lot of great strategies you can use to make that task easier. One of these strategies is breaking up your editing into different levels — what I call the 50,000-foot level, the 10,000-foot level, and the ground level.
The 50,000-Foot-Level Self-Edit
The first of these levels, where you’ll be looking at your manuscript to make big changes, is the 50,000-foot level. At this level, you’ll read through your printed manuscript and think about issues related to organization and content. You’ll be jotting notes about the order of your chapters, content that doesn’t fit, and areas that feel light and require more elaboration or better supporting content.
Your goal at the 50,000-foot level is to improve your manuscript in several ways. By using these strategies, you’ll already be making huge strides in improving your book.
1. Ensure Information Flows Logically
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Have you assumed knowledge they may not have? Have you included more background than is needed for someone with their level of experience? Then, think about whether the organization of the book makes sense, now that you’ve written it. Does the order of the chapters still make sense? How about the order of subtopics within each chapter? If anything is missing or confusing, make a note of it in the margins so you can come back and fix it later.
2. Be Tight, Crisp, and Concise
Remove repetitive, unnecessary, and rambling content. Don’t obsess over having a high word count. Especially for nonfiction books, readers value shorter books that deliver information clearly and concisely. So don’t be afraid to kill your darlings (or your not-so-darlings).
3. Maintain Consistent Length
Check the word count of each section and each chapter. Are they consistent? A typical length for a chapter is between 2,500 and 5,500 words. That said, it’s more important that they be consistent than fit within a specific range. My first draft of my book Entrepreneur to Author included an 800-word chapter and a 6,600-word chapter (yikes!), so I ended up trimming the longer one and combining the shorter one with another chapter.
See if you can combine smaller chapters or break up longer ones. If your book includes multiple parts, check that the number of chapters in each feels balanced — and that the overall word count in each is similar.
4. Keep Content Balanced
Think about the stories and supporting content you’ve included in your book. (To learn more about supporting content types, check out my blog post here.) Is there a balance of different content types? Have you included enough supporting content to convince your reader of important or controversial points? Have you over-done it in areas where you didn’t really need to prove anything or explain something in so much detail? Do the supporting content and stories you included achieve your intended goals, or do you need to re-work or outright replace some? Check that supporting content is sprinkled throughout, rather than being heavy in some chapters and basically absent in others.
The 10,000-Foot-Level Self-Edit
At the 10,000-foot level, you’ll review the structure of individual paragraphs and sentences with a goal of enhancing readability. There are many ways to improve your writing, but here are some things to watch for in this stage of your self-edit.
1. Capture Your Voice
We each have a unique “voice” to our writing and it’s important to find your authentic writing voice and keep it consistent throughout your book. This will allow your reader to better know and connect with you as a person.
Read your manuscript out loud. Are your words written the way you would speak them if you were talking to your ideal reader? If not, consider re-writing sections not written this way to maintain your voice consistently.
2. Use the Active Voice
In an active sentence, the subject does the action, while in a passive sentence, the subject is acted upon. Generally, the active voice makes your writing stronger and more interesting, so instead of: “The game was won in the first five minutes by the young forward’s heroic play,” try: “The young forward wasted no time, winning the game in the first five minutes through his heroic play.”
3. Write Directly to Your Reader in the First Person (Singular)
It often best to refer to yourself as “I” or “me” to your reader as “you”. That does a better job of making a connection with your reader and of positioning you as the expert.
4. Avoid Awkward Sentence Structure
Sometimes your words feel clunky or, worse yet, make your intended meaning ambiguous. Again, read your text aloud. When you do this, it’s hard for your mind to smooth out awkward phrasing or ambiguous meaning, which can highlight that you need to rephrase.
5. Begin Paragraphs with Your Main Point
Begin paragraphs with your main point. If you read just the first sentence of each paragraph, does your chapter still make sense? If not, your main points may be buried too deep in your paragraphs and you should pull them up.
6. Begin Sentences with Important Information
English is a flexible language, which gives a writer a lot of latitude to arrange the parts of a sentence. You can use this to your advantage and pull important information to the front.
Instead of: “Six out of ten kids surveyed say they prefer biking over running,” consider writing: “Kids prefer biking over running, according to six out of ten kids surveyed. The point isn’t that kids were surveyed, it’s that kids prefer to bike. The result is clearer, easier reading that highlights your main point.
7. Keep It Parallel
When enumerating items, whether in a sentence or in a numbered or bulleted list, use consistent grammatical construction. If you start a list with “Make sure you don’t forget to…” then each item should complete the sentence in a grammatically correct way.
8. Make Efficient Word Choices
Can you be more precise? Can you use fewer words? Can you use simpler vocabulary? Where possible, choose the short, clear, simple option if it gets the job done.
Double-check your facts and include sources where appropriate. Check the spelling of names and places. Make sure visuals referenced in the text match when you cross-reference the caption, and so on.
10. Maintain Consistent Tone
Aim for a consistent tone, from start to finish. If you strike a humorous or sarcastic tone in one chapter, but a serious and professional tone in another, your readers will sense the inconsistency. Consider which tone is appropriate for your subject, and what impact it might have on how your reader feels about you.
By now, your first draft should be feeling pretty good, and there’s just one more pass before your self-edit is complete.
The final pass of your self-edit is for catching spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. These errors can often change the meaning of a sentence or make it hard to understand, so the more you can eliminate now, the better.
Word-processors do a decent job of flagging obvious spelling errors and gross abuse of punctuation and grammar rules, but they don’t catch everything.
What should you look for when proofreading? That’s a difficult question to answer, because you’re really looking for any errors that have snuck past you up until this point. But some of the more common things you might find include the following:
Correctly spelled but improperly used words
Missing or incorrect punctuation
(Unintentionally) incomplete sentences
Subject and verb disagreements
Inconsistent verb tense
After the Self-Edit…
I suggest doing self-editing at these levels in succession, printing a copy of your manuscript, making hand-written notes of things to change, and then making those changes electronically before moving on to the next level. In fact, if the changes are significant, you might want to print a fresh copy and repeat the process.
Now your manuscript will be in great shape to send to a small group of readers to beta test your book. And get ready to pop some bubbly…your manuscript is nearly ready to send off for professional editing and publishing!
Scott MacMillan is an entrepreneur, strategic adviser, and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing, with a passion for helping business owners write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.