How to Edit a Manuscript: 7 Stages to Success

Are You Looking for How to Edit a Manuscript?

Here’s some straight talk on how to edit a manuscript. Whether you’re new to writing or it’s old hat, you have got to know how to do this.

Let’s start with the negative.

Here’s Not How to Edit a Manuscript

Let’s start with what should be basic but, sadly, is anything but.

You have to edit your work. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. And it doesn’t matter how experienced you are. Or, you think you are.

Because every single piece of writing needs editing. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Betas and Sensitivity Readers

Without getting too far into what either of the above are, the bottom line is that it’s not their job to fix your stuff on the technical level. Yes, everybody makes typos. And that’s normal. Because a stray comma or a homophone (e. g. they’re for their) is no big deal.

The real issue is when a writer dumps their first draft onto beta readers. I have had this happen to me more than once, and here’s what I do.

I kick it back. Yes, really! Because I have no time to correct great big swaths of someone else’s MS. And, let’s face it, editors charge by the word. Making your beta readers do this is essentially getting something for free from them.

They already agreed to read your stellarish prose. So don’t make them waste their time correcting the technical stuff.


There is a lot of great self-published work out there. And there is also a lot of self-published junk. Want to be the former, rather than the latter? The road to great work of any sort is to edit that sucker.

So, will your work be wonderful, famous, popular, and beloved? Not necessarily. But at least people won’t lose their place or guess the killer too soon or otherwise want to throw your book across the room.

How to Edit a Manuscript, Really, I Mean it This Time!

So, this is the advice I give everyone.

Stage 0: Preliminaries

Leave it alone for 3 months.

Don’t cheat and go back early!

In the meantime, write short stories. Nothing fancy; they can be fluffy fanfiction. You just want to keep writing. Why? Because it’s a good habit to stay in, if you can.

Stage 1: Simple Word Searching

3 months are up? Run searches for words like-

  • That
  • Just
  • Very
  • Actually
  • Seem (and all of its variants)

Keep the numbers to the side. A scratch pad is fine.

Stage 2: You Are Your Own Biggest Fan

Now read your MS like a reader. You’re not looking for errors. You are a fan and you are reading the latest work from your favorite author.

Take note (that scratch pad comes to the rescue again) of when-

  • You get confused
  • Or you can’t tell characters apart
  • You get bored
  • Or you can’t picture something
  • You guessed the twist or the killer, whatever the surprise/denouement is


Stage 3: Dumping Crutch Words and Repetitive Words

Now start editing. Remember your words like that, etc.? There are actually more words which should be on your list but those are a good start. Reread sentences. Can they make sense without those words? Then out they go.

Stage 4: Fixing Characters, Plot, and Dialogue

Characters are hard to distinguish? Then consider what makes people unique. And see if you can combine two minor characters.

Twist is given away too early? Then introduce complications. Throw in some monkey wrenches.

Read the dialogue out loud. If you have trouble saying it, then it may not be realistic.


Stage 5: Beta Readers and Sensitivity Readers

Find beta readers. And offer to read their work. Be kind, fair, constructive, and helpful. Hopefully they will be as well.

Listen to beta readers but their words aren’t necessarily gospel.

If your work is about a marginalized community that you are not a part of, sensitivity readers can be a very good idea. As in, writing gay people if you’re straight, or Black characters when you’re white. You don’t have to do this for every single side character with only three lines. But a major character or a memorable minor one? You want to make sure you’re not stereotyping or othering or exoticizing people. Why? Because present-day readers will tear you apart if you do. And they would be right to do so.


Stage 6: Take a Break

Give it another 3 weeks to a month to sit around. Write more short stories in the meantime.

Stage 7: Cut, Slash, and Burn

Is that time up? Read again, the whole thing, this time as the writer. Edit it until it bleeds.

Congratulations. You’ve just edited your MS.

Takeaways for How to Edit a Manuscript

So the truth is, editing can be an incredibly daunting process. This is particularly true if you’re a pantser, so you’re not planning your work before you start. Personally, that would drive me nuts.

But this method of how to edit a manuscript can work for either plotters or pantsers. And it can even work for folks in the middle, just like me: so-called plantsers.

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Working With a Beta Reader

What’s It Like, Working With a Beta Reader?

A beta reader is somewhat different from an editor.

For one thing, beta reading is generally something that people do for free.

Beta Readers

Beta readers are people who read over your work and evaluate it before it goes to a publisher. They might read for typos, spelling errors, grammatical issues, and punctuation problems, but that is not a very good way to work with them. Work with an editor for that.

Instead, you want them to help you with flow and continuity. If your main character is female and 5’2″ and has a chihuahua on page 4, then she should still be female, 5’2″, and the owner of a chihuahua on page 204, unless there is some on-page reason why she isn’t. E. g.:

  • She is transgender, and successfully transitioned (with or without surgery) to male. Or the character no longer identifies as female or male.
  • The character had a growth spurt and is taller, or has osteoporosis, and shrunk, or maybe her legs were amputated (sorry, character!).
  • She gave away the chihuahua, or it ran away, etc.

The last thing you want is for your beta reader to wonder where the chihuahua went, particularly if the little dog isn’t a big part of the story.

How Can You Start This Relationship?

The best way to get a beta reader is to be one. So offer a trade with another indie. Be kind when you’re done, and either recommend your beta reader friend or at least donate a little something to one of their three favorite charities. If the work is absolutely abhorrent, at least you can say you did that.

What Should You Expect?

You’re working with a volunteer. Things might be slow. You cannot be overly pushy. However, setting an expectation as to the overall deadline (be generous with the time frame!) is helpful. E. g. if you want the beta reading to be done in ten months for a 100,000 word document (very possible, even for a busy beta reader), say you need it done in nine months and try not to be overly anxious about it.

What Are Some Practical Tips?

Use Google docs in order to avoid version control nightmares. Create a schedule and a set of expectations. Hence for our hypothetical 100,000 word work, a nine month time period gives the beta reader about 39 weeks to get it all done. If each chapter averages about 1,100 words long, then you want a beta reading turnaround of about 2 – 3 chapters per week to make it in nine months. See why I’m talking about giving yourself a one-month cushion? You’ve also got to account for vacations, illness, the other person being busy with other stuff, and even a lack of motivation on their part.

How Many Beta Readers Do You Need?

For our 100,000 word work, you’re probably going to want more than one beta reader. In fact, I would recommend that for any work longer than what most people would call a short story. You need some give and take and a consensus. If three beta readers tell you a chapter is dull, then it’s dull. If two say you need to use the word ‘whom’, and one says to use the word ‘who’, look it up on a trusted authority, such as Grammar Girl. Majority does not rule here.


Good beta readers are in the demographics of the people you’re trying to reach with your novel. They like your genre or at least are willing to read in it and offer feedback. They don’t tear you a new one when they don’t like something, but they are also unafraid to tell you if something isn’t working for them.

Some Standard Questions

Ask them:

  • Are the characters believable? Are they distinguishable?
  • Do you think the situations are plausible?
  • Are the settings well described? Can you picture yourself where the characters are?
  • Do the transitions work?
  • Are the conflicts plausible?
  • Is the conclusion a satisfying one?

Also ask about genre-specific issues, such as whether your mystery was too easy or difficult to solve, if your horror story was scary enough, if the technobabble in your science fiction novel was credible, etc.

Practical Tech

Google docs is particularly useful for multiple beta readers, as they can see each others’ suggestions. Just set everyone to ‘suggesting‘ and not ‘editing‘. Google docs will also inform them when changes have been made, so they are reminded that you’re still out there, and you still need their help. Be sure to make corrections on the page so the beta readers can comment on them if they want to.

Don’t like Google docs? Then use Word and turn on its editing features. Use Dropbox or the like if your documents are too big to practically email back and forth.

Manners Count With Your Beta Reader!

Be gracious about the corrections; these people are trying to help you! But if it’s important for your character to be Lithuanian or eating pretzels or whatever, then stick to your guns and explain why. Do so without rancor, of course. Be kind and your beta readers will be so in return to you.

Establish a really good relationship, and you could be reading for each other for years.

PS… Beta Reader Rewards

Not 100% necessary, but nice to do all the same. I’ve gotten and given gift certificates. And if your work makes it to publication, send them a signed copy. For free.