3 Tips for Revising Your Book from a Professional Editor

March 14, 2022 9 min read

1 Comment


By Professional Editor Kerry Ambrose


The Writer’s Superpower

If you’re reading this and you know it, clap your hands.

It is irrelevant whether you clapped. What matters is that you read the instructions—the marks on a page—and understood them. Isn’t language incredible? The knowledge conveyed in our words can transcend time and place (cue the head spin)!

If language is an evolution of our consciousness, the practice of writing is revolutionary. This assessment is not hyperbolic rhetoric; writers literally change language by exploring and informing the meaning of experience through metaphor.

But writers do not exist in a vacuum; communication requires connection. Writers reflect the world and are informed by it at the same time—no matter if that world begins at their own front door or in a galaxy far, far away.

The Writer’s Ally

Whether it is the first or the final draft, sharing our thoughts takes work—and a lot of rewriting!

An editor is a critical asset to a writer during the revision stages. Working with an editor saves you time (you want to write, right?) and helps improve your story—a win-win!

With more writers trying the self-publishing and indie publisher routes, collaborating with an editor is a good move for authors who are more concerned with telling a delightful story than with the commas incorrectly left in their wake. A determined editor will not rest until that copy is swept clean!

But an editor provides more than grammar checks.

There is flow to a story that exceeds the most advanced grammar app, and a professional editor will catch the errors, notice the omissions, and point out the opportunities for character development and plot twists that cannot be programmed into an algorithm. Our shared humanity is what makes the writer-editor pairing so powerful!

Three Editing Tips

Given that editing a book requires resources, what can an author do to save money and time when preparing to publish?

Answer: Pre-clean your pages by learning how an editor thinks!

Informed by my experiences editing both fiction and non-fiction, I know three ways to improve your manuscript—and your literary reputation: remain attentive, stay consistent, and be intentional. Read on below to learn how I apply these principles to cut through what does not serve the story.

TIP #1—Pay Attention

One way to improve a draft is to read and write with focused concentration. A responsible writer is an observant writer.

Use attention as a tool.

The mind’s ability to remember and imagine is a gift that writers can cultivate. Literature is a medium in which the famous doors of perception are cleansed (a la William Blake), and a writer’s options—the viewpoints—appear as infinite. Pushing the limits of infinity is where writers—and rock stars—can get into trouble.

Using attention as a tool gives a writer more options; your story can shift focus—it can zoom in, or zoom out. Is your omniscient narrator opening the scope for a panoramic viewpoint, or do you prefer to get all up in the protagonist's face? Would a shift in perspective or a greater magnification level help the reader better understand the protagonist’s struggle or the villain’s hang-up?

If so, be nimble and change things up; try something new.Consider a different point of view.

Beware the Head Hop

The power to be mobile within a story may lead to confused writing.

For example, while editing a 90,000-word novel, I noticed my client was shifting the point of view (POV) between several characters without warning, which is tricky in a fast-paced courtroom setting! By reworking those chapters to keep the POV with one character during each scene, the story became easier to follow.

Head hopping will give a reader whiplash. Do not do it unless you have an excellent reason for it. If you must head hop, avoid doing it within the same scene.

Editor’s Pro Tip: To check for head hops, use attention as a tool. This requires reviewing whether the narrative is possible for that character. For example, is this chapter from Fritzl-Roo’s POV? If so, Fritzl-Roo is not privy to what his buddy Thor is thinking. Unless he is an actual mind reader, Fritzl-Roo will not know what is in another character’s head!

TIP #2—Stay Consistent

Another way to improve a story is to make it logical. Do you want to break the rules? Sure, go ahead, but keep your unruliness consistent. A responsible writer is a reliable writer.

Consistency creates its own logic.

If you want to be a rebel, it is best to have a cause—and not deviate from it one hundred pages in! An editor will know if a writer is ignorant or intentional about the errors found in their copy. To decide whether rule breaking works for you, check your goals and check your style guide.

Goals and Guides

What is your publishing goal? Do you want to self-publish and flex the creative license, or do you plan to query literary agents? If you want to submit to traditional publishers or a magazine contest with rules and regulations, it is prudent to follow their submission guidelines.

It is also important to understand that guidelines, including theChicago Manual of Style(CMOS), are living maps—the borders are not written in indelible ink. The rules are recommendations, and—as in life—nothing is immune to change.

Our evolving vocabularies reflect this dynamic state of being. Subsequently, no matter what publishing path is chosen, using consistency as a lens to edit will help reduce distractions to the reading experience.

When reviewing a client’s work, I create a style guide to keep the punctuation and spelling preferences consistent. For example, have you ever insisted upon using a variant spelling of a word (e.g., grey) over the standard usage (i.e., gray)? Do you have strong feelings about the serial comma?

Want to improve your book to boost your chances of becoming a published author? Book a Manuscript Review with Professional Editor Kerry Ambrose.

You may get pushback from your editor or publisher if you veer from the standard form, but it is a writer’s right to resist the rules trying to confine their writing; novels are experimental, right?

As for that serial comma, while it is not wrong to omit the punctuation (notably in British English), it is a writer’s duty to assess whether clarity is being sacrificed for a grammar preference.

If the goal of writing is to connect with a reader’s mind, the goal of editing is to cut the static on the line!

The Chicago Manual of Style Online notes: “There are times when using the comma (or omitting it) results in ambiguity, which is why it’s best to stay flexible.”

Staying flexible is sage advice! It is also good for a writer’s body! But some writers are stubborn—consistently stubborn. If being a rebel is your destiny, be ready to defend your choices. A style guide such asCMOS is a helpful reference source.

Beware Inauthenticity

Readers can more easily suspend judgment if the story remains authentic to its characters and setting.

For example, to enhance the credibility of a 75,000-word book involving an international crime syndicate, I flagged the inconsistencies that happened as the protagonist crossed political and identity boundaries.

In addition to correcting measurements of size, weight, distance, and speed (US Americans do not use the metric system!), I checked how salutations (e.g., madame, madam, and ma’am) and other cultural nuances differ based on the country setting (e.g., France, England, US, or the Caribbean).

There are so many ways that committing to authenticity can enhance a story! And yes, this also applies if your fictional main character is a supernatural being in a mythical world—a world with its own rules of physics, language, and customs.

By staying consistent, the lie will be logical, and a logical lie is believable.

Excuse the Machiavellian tone of that idea.

Editor’s Pro Tip: Enhance consistency in a text by getting to knowMerriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage—especially if you wish to target US audiences and publishers.Merriam-Webster lists the common US English spellings of a word, and it also identifies a word’s variant spellings.CMOS states that it “normally opts for” the first spelling listed inMerriam-Webster.

The examples below show the different spelling and grammar:

  • US English (with serial comma): Fritzl-Roocanceled theircheckingaccount on thatgray day before running amile through theneighborhood towardThor’s three-story house; Fritzl-Roo needed tocolor hisdisheveledhair,authorize a newlicense, andoutmaneuver his buddy Thor before thetheater.
  • British English (without serial comma): Fritzl-Roocancelled theirchequing account on thatgrey day before running akilometre through theneighbourhood towardsThor’s three-storey house; Fritzl-Roo needed tocolour hisdishevelledhair,authorise a newlicence andoutmanoeuvre his buddy Thor before thetheatre.
  • Canadian English usually accords with the British English spelling, but that is not always true!

An editor is a writer’s ally in sorting through the chaos of linguistics!

Writers will want to stay consistent in their writing so that their story comes across as authentic.

TIP #3—Question Intention

If you want to impress your future readers, do not insult who they are. “Do no harm” is a famous principal in medicine, but it also applies to artists. A responsible writer is an informed writer.

To reduce harm, question your intention.

Paying attention (Tip #1) and staying consistent (Tip #2) will help inform a writer’s decisions when telling their story. Although language is not as dangerous as a jaguar biting your jugular, words—written and spoken—can have very real impacts on your reader; this includes spiking cortisol levels, jumpstarting tears, eliciting belly laughs, and pulling heartstrings.

You can help reduce unintentional harm by being conscientious about the words you use. You can also reduce harm by challenging language conventions. Remember, writing is a revolutionary act.

Does this mean an artist should self-censor to spare their audience from emotional anguish? Or, conversely, can compassion and common decency be sidelined in a work of literature—for the art’s sake? That may depend on the aims of the artist and the work.A writer is in dialogue with their reader, so intention matters.

Beware Unconscious Biases

Writing reflects the writer and their world. If you are not being inclusive in your writing practice, why not? While a writer is not beholden to political correctness, checking your choices for insensitivity cannot hurt.

For example, if you insist on highlighting a character’s sexual orientation or other social identity, does the selected detail have a purpose in pushing the storyline?

Is your story perpetuating or undermining stereotypes about a people or place? Are you writing from your own experience, or are you writing on auto-pilot—without questioning your constructed worldview? 

Feeling concerned—or hearing an editor’s concerns—about contentious content may signal the need to revise the scene, empower the character, or change the chapter’s POV to better serve the story.

One of my author clients recently did this by updating outdated clichés and revising a character’s backstory to disconnect it from an employment trope tied to gender, race, and class.

Those kinds of revisions are worth the effort. Why risk losing future sales because you insisted on using exclusionary language or stereotypes in your book? The way you write may show your unconscious biases.

Editor’s Pro Tip: Continue learning. In addition to attending webinars and lectures led by writers, editors, agents, and publishing experts with diverse lived experiences, check out emerging inclusive language tools to help identify terms, phrases, and titles that may be outdated in a progressive, pluralistic society.

Being inclusive is not a trend.

The Associated Press Stylebook, for example, updated its guide in 2017 to include the use of “they” as a nonbinary singular pronoun.

Words are a writer’s tools, so it is imperative to keep yours from getting rusty. For example, if you are writing about a specific place or time, using gendered terms (e.g., mailman and waitress) may apply to the setting; otherwise, choose gender-neutral job titles (e.g., mail carrier and server). Eliminating biased language is one way to reduce harm.

A writer is defined by their words, so it is critical to stay informed and be intentional about your choices.

Summary

As an editor, I recommend applying the following three tips to get a book ready for publication.

Tip #1 Stay aware. Use attention as a tool.

Tip #2 Be consistent. Commit to a story’s logic.

Tip #3 Question intention. Revise divisive language to reduce harm.

A responsible writer is observant, reliable, and informed. 

A knowledgeable editor can help a writer avoid head hops, inauthenticity, and biased language.

Writing takes time, and rewriting takes even longer. These three tips will enhance the editing process and improve your writing practice. By reviewing and revising with these principles in mind, your final draft and your future readers will benefit.

About The Author

Kerry Ambrose is a professional editor, and she started Ambrose Revisions, a book editing services business, during the pandemic.

Living in Toronto, Canada, Kerry is a former US Peace Corps volunteer and proud dual citizen; she has a BA degree in philosophy and an MA degree in social justice, and she knows a good degree about cooking through trial and error.

As a SYWW writer-coaching program alum, Kerry is thrilled to partner with So You Want to Write? Inc. as their In-House Editor.

Want to improve your book to boost your chances of becoming a published author? Book a Manuscript Review with Professional Editor Kerry Ambrose.

1 Response

Ann Birch
Ann Birch

April 19, 2022

This helpful advice covers many of the problems I encounter as an editor. I’ve forwarded them to a client.
Thank you!

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.


Also in So You Want to Write? Blog

How to Write a Book While You're in College
How to Write a Book While You're in College

September 26, 2022 4 min read

Bogged down in class assignments and side-gigs and unsure of how to make space for your writing? Read these 5 tips.
Read More
Tropes in Writing: To include or not to include?
Tropes in Writing: To include or not to include?

September 08, 2022 21 min read

Tropes are a hotly debated topic amongst authors. If you're considering use one (or more) in your book, read this first.
Read More
6 Tips for a Best-Selling Book Cover
6 Tips for a Best-Selling Book Cover

August 29, 2022 3 min read

Publishing can be tough work—the competition is fierce. Here's how to design your book cover to maximize sales potential.

Read More