The fail-proof guide to editing your business book
When I had a haircut recently I asked the hairdresser what could be done to make my fine hair look thicker, and she advised slicing some layers into it. I was surprised – surely that would mean less hair, not more?
But she was right. Chopping out hair in strategic places added volume and structure, making what was left look far more enticing (or so I like to think).
This is the way it is with your writing. What you take out leaves space for the important stuff to come through, giving your book interest and shape. Don’t be afraid to drop some of your writing on the cutting room floor.
This, folks, is what we call editing.
Why is editing so important? Think of watching a fight scene in a movie. You’re engrossed in the action, wincing at each body blow and flinching as a nasty one causes blood to pour from the hero’s head. Will he make it through so he can save the day? Will he even survive? You forget you’re in a cinema – it’s just ‘real’ to you.
Then, as you peek from behind your fingers to see if he’ll manage to prise himself from the grip of his evil enemy, you notice something incongruous on the left side of the screen. It’s the edge of the scenery, which only shows for a second but long enough to distract you from the action. This glitch reminds you that you’re only watching a movie after all. For that moment you lose your sense of flow – not for long, but enough to spoil your fun.
Now imagine you’re reading a business book or self-help guide, and have the same experience due being unable to work out what the author is trying to say. Or maybe there’s a clumsily constructed sentence or mis-spelled word.
It’s the same jarring experience, but with one important difference. You’re unlikely to walk out of a cinema if you stumble over a split second in a film. But with a book it’s all too easy to put it down, intend to pick it up again later, and never get around to it because your last encounter wasn’t terribly positive.
This is why editing is as much a part of creating a brilliant business book as planning and writing it are.
When to start editing your business book
It’s a glorious moment when your first draft is complete, or it will be if you get that far. Many authors don’t – they polish their first couple of chapters until they can see their faces in them, start to contemplate the remaining 40,000 words, and then . . . it feels overwhelming, so they put the book ‘on hold’. This the main reason I suggest (nay, insist) you stop yourself doing any serious editing until you’ve finished the first draft of your whole book.
There are other benefits to this too: you can’t polish what you’ve written until you have the whole book in front of you – the flow won’t be obvious until then. And if you edit as you go along you delay the completion of your first draft, which denies you the satisfaction of seeing the whole work that you – yes you – wrote.
So ‘draft hot, edit cold’, as they say. I’m about to show you how to transform your imperfect first draft into a thing of beauty.
How to edit your business book
Editing is a simple process but it can feel like a big deal, so here’s a systematic way to do it. Believe me, when you’re wrestling thousands of words into shape a procedure comes in handy. Also, revising your draft is a ‘left brain’ activity which entails being objective about what you’ve written, so following a set of guidelines feeds nicely into that mindset.
Step One: be ready
Wait at least a week or two between finishing your first draft and editing it. We read faster than we write, so you won’t have a sense of the pace of the finished book as experienced by your readers until you’ve allowed some time to pass.
Also, you need space to forget the writing of it: the highs, the lows, the terrible sentences that didn’t work but which you decided to leave in because (quite rightly) you wanted to press on.
And you want to experience the pleasant surprises, too. It’s like when you come home from being away and see your house anew; it’s not just that damp patch on the wall that screams at you, but the bright beauty of the colourful rug you’d stopped appreciating.
Next print out your manuscript, numbering your pages and ensuring each chapter starts on a new page. Yes, you’ll hear the trees crying, but it really is the only way. We skim read on screen but we read more slowly from the printed page, so if you rely on a digital version you’ll miss countless errors. The bonus of this is that you’ll feel mightily impressed by the vast amount of words you’ve generated – it’s starting to look like a real book.
Now it becomes fun. Grab a pad of sticky notes, a pen, and some blank sheets of A4 paper. Turn one of your sheets horizontally and put the name of each chapter across the top (you may need more than one sheet). You’ll be sticking your notes in columns below.
Find yourself a cosy spot where you can read your manuscript away from your normal writing desk – a fresh perspective helps. Outside is nice if it’s sunny, but don’t forget to weigh down your pages or you’ll have the same experience as I did in my garden while editing a client’s manuscript (frogs all over the neighbourhood are still reading it to this day).
Step Two: be mentally prepared
Return to your original book strategy and outline document. Read it through again. If anything has changed in the meanwhile make a note, but otherwise remind yourself why you’re writing this book, who it’s for, and what the gold within it is. You want to be thinking: ‘What’s the point of this book? Who would read it? And why?’
Write your answers in bold at the top of a blank sheet of paper and keep it visible at all times while you’re editing.
Moving forward, I suggest you set aside several hours each for steps three, four, and five and do them in no more than one or two sessions per step. This allows you to hold your whole book in your head – helpful for spotting gaps and repetitions.
Step Three: edit for content and readability
In this step you’re not worrying about style but content. If you see the odd stylistic mistake by all means correct it if it’s simple, but try not to become distracted.
Take one chapter at a time and before you start reading it, note down the following questions at the top of each chapter (one sentence only per answer):
What’s the purpose of this chapter?
How does it fit into the purpose of this book?
If my readers could take away only one point from it, what would it be?
What impression do I want them to have by the end?
Now read through, taking note of the following:
Does anything in the chapter not serve the purpose you identified above? If not, cross it out or make a note to move it somewhere more useful by jotting a remark on a sticky note and placing it on your chapter heading sheet. It doesn’t matter how beautifully the section is written, or how much you love it, it needs to go.
Are your points ordered in a logical way so they make sense for your reader? If not, draw some arrows to re-order them.
If you were in your readers’ shoes, would you need more information about a particular topic? Don’t assume they know everything you do.
Have you referred to anything coming later or earlier in the book? If so, don’t try to find it now but jot it down on a sticky note and place it under that chapter heading on your sheet. You’ll use it to check for consistency later.
If it occurs to you that new material needs to be added, write it on one of your blank sheets and insert it into the relevant place in your manuscript.
Have you repeated stories or points from other chapters? If you think you might have done, note these on your sticky notes and check later.
Do you need to do more research on an area? Could you create or insert an invitation to download a lead magnet in certain places? If so, this goes on a sticky note too.
Step Four: make your changes
Return to your computer and make the necessary changes, saving the chapters as a second draft. You can bin the sticky notes as you go along (a satisfying process, I find) and keep the ones that need more work.
While you’re re-writing, stay alert for any further changes you might need to make but avoid making stylistic ones; you’re focusing on top-line flow here, not elegance of language.
Cutting and pasting is usually fine, along with a basic effort to make the joins look pretty; think patchwork rather than fine needlework.
Step Five: edit for style
Print out the whole manuscript once more (again, ignore the weeping trees). This time, read it aloud so you gain a feel for the sound and rhythm of your writing, because when a word or phrase snags for you it’ll snag for your reader too. Scribble a correction on your manuscript and read it again.
Reading aloud is something most authors don’t do, and will instantly put you ahead of the pack – when you try it, you’ll see why it makes such a difference.
If you find your mind wandering, your readers’ will as well. Does your writing need more interest, more punch? Is it too long winded? Could it do with a story, an interesting fact, or a touch of controversy to liven it up? Are you making use of metaphors, images, and interesting words to avoid a dry reading experience?
Trust your instincts here. Also, ensure your chapters make consistent use of headings and sub-headings.
Pay attention to the rhythm of your sentences. Cut any jargon, woolly phrases or words that don’t add to your meaning, and re-work awkward sentences by saying aloud what you mean and working from there.
After you’ve done this, return to your computer and input your changes. Give yourself a week or two’s break and then re-read the entire manuscript one more time (on screen this time if you prefer), tweaking as you go along.
You’re done! Feel free to reward yourself in whatever excessively indulgent way you like. You’ve earned it.
This is an extract from my newly published book Your Business Your Book. It’s the only guide you need to planning, writing, and promoting the book that puts you – and your business – in the spotlight.