How to Edit Your Own Ebooks, part 1: Intro

For me, driving is like taking a shower:  I get all kinds of inspiration.  Yesterday on the way to picking up Ray I realized I know how to edit, I know how to make ebooks, and tons of people are like, “I can’t possibly edit my own ebooks…”  Aha, says I, “Of course you can.”

Keep in mind this is a first draft–and hasn’t been properly edited yet.

The first thing you need to know about editing your own ebooks is that you can do it.

It’s a skill (and in some ways an art, albeit a very cold and analytical one), and if you like words, you can learn it.

Actually, editing involves a lot of skills; it’s usually better to break editing into a number of different steps.  However, the more times you look at a particular document, the less you’re going to be able to see what you need to see.  Finding the balance between keeping a narrow focus and dulling your eyes through repetition is always a challenge.

I’m going to cover how to edit ebooks, mostly for yourself, but with a few notes in case you end up editing for someone else as well.  I will not cover how to edit POD books or other formats; I don’t have enough experience with POD yet to be able to give the down-in-the-weeds process that editors have to know.

The second thing you need to know is that fiction isn’t perfection.

I used to work as a technical editor; documents were meant to have no personality whatsoever, to be able to be read as smoothly as glass.  Grammatical perfection, stylistic clarity, and faithfulness to requirements were the pillars of my job.  We argued about sentence length (under 20 words), font size, and the correct color of green to use to indicate changes on certain documents (bright red was apparently an anathema on those things).

The writers never got a byline.

Fiction is a different beast.  With fiction, you want to know who wrote it.

Writers tell stories; if we need to misplace a comma in order to do so, we will.  As a writer, as you know that sometimes it’s better to break the rules.  But when you put your editor hat on, it will be tempting to fix all the broken rules and rewrite everything into perfection.


When you’re editing your own fiction, it might seem like you know the work best and therefore would never “fix” something like that.

Nevertheless, you will be tempted.

Writer brain (that creative and sometimes tortured playground) is not editor brain.

When you invoke editor brain, it’s almost like developing a split personality–your priorities change.  Your way of looking at the world changes.

The beginning-level editor thinks all imperfections are stupid and will try to talk writer into changing them.  Even if you’re the writer as well as the editor.

However, as editors get more experienced, they learn that some imperfections are perfect.  An experienced editor will stand up for their writers, defending elegant imperfections against Merriam-Webster, the Chicago Manual of Style, and even Internet Trolls.

The trick is knowing which imperfections are perfect and which are just typos, brain farts, or pure ignorance.

You may also need to edit some non-fiction.

Before you do, determine whether the non-fiction is allowed to show personality.

Some non-fiction, like this piece, like many blog pieces, memoirs, travelogues, etc., has personality and should keep it; the personality is one of the selling points of the work.  However, clarity appropriate to one’s audience takes a bigger priority in non-fiction than it does in fiction.

With fiction, the question of, “Will the audience understand it?” is often answered with, “Not at first.”

  • For example, in a mystery, you don’t want the readers guessing the ending too soon; there’ s always something that you want to conceal in fiction.
  • You will also have times when a character is extremely emotional or garbled in some way or other; you don’t want to un-garble the character if it’s more important that the reader understand the character is garbled than what they’re garbling on about.
  • Fiction writers also play with words and use them in inventive ways (like “garbling on about”).

With non-fiction, the question of “Will the audience understand it?” should generally be answered with “yes.”  (However, the more the audience is supposed to be reading something like a story, the more leeway you have with the question.)

A word on the process of editing:

Editing ebooks is not the same as traditional editing.

Traditional editing usually involves a built-up process separating editing into three main roles:

  • Acquiring editor:  selects the book, develops the “vision” of the book.
  • Copy editor:  researches consistence, sense, content, style, grammar, etc.
  • Proofreader:  ensures the book is ready to print (formatting, nitnoids).

Any freelancer will tell you that the traditional editing process goes right out the window when the client doesn’t have the money to pay for all that, and that you’re just supposed to make it “magically all better” for people who really don’t understand the process.

If you’re editing your own ebooks, you’re responsible for all three of those roles.

I will not cover the first role.  You’ve already selected your book (you wrote it, didn’t you?).  Your vision for your book, that is, who your audience is, how you’ll market the book, how you want it to look–those things are beyond what I’m going to cover here.

I will cover both the copyediting and proofreading roles.  I won’t separate them out; if you’re doing both of them, there’s no point in keeping them pure and distinct (and duplicating work, therefore wearing your eyes out all the faster).

As you read, keep in mind that this is my process.  Every editor has their own process; the important thing is to develop your own process, one that fits the amount of editing you have to do and the order in which you like to do it.  Don’t dwell on something, like an acronym list, if your readers don’t want and don’t expect it.  Take breaks when your eyes start to gloss over the small details.  If you catch 100 things and miss one, that’s fine–no editing job goes perfectly.  You will always miss something.

And, if you start to hate your work as you edit it…that’s normal.  No matter how good something is, when you apply your internal editor to it, in full strength, it peels apart and looks like the biggest pile of crap this side of Hercules’ stables.  If I’m editing for a client (or just cleaning up my first drafts), I make sure never to tell them what I think about anything until after I’m done editing, because my clients (even if I’m doing the writing) are always idiots and completely insane until after I’ve turned editor brain off again.  Editor brain is not nice; that’s not its job.

When you’re editing yourself, you don’t get to escape that feeling.  It’s all right.  When you’re down in the weeds of editing (in the copyeditor and proofreader stages), you will more than likely hate what you write, with a passion.  Focus that passion on fixing only the imperfect imperfections.

As soon as you’re done editing, you will step back and say, “That’s amazing.”  Your emotions about what you write will change in between one breath and the next sometimes.  It’s pretty funny.

Editing your own work isn’t some big mystery or anything.  It’s a process; if you know the process and you have some basic talent with words, you can do it.  Editing well is about restraint, about trusting your writer brain when your editor nerves are screaming that that comma is wrong, all wrong.

So if you find that you’re able to damp down your writer brain for a while and think analytically, you can edit your own stuff.  It might just make you a better writer, by learning how to trust yourself.


Indypub: Mobile Device Apps, Part 1.


Indypub: Mobile Device Apps, Part 2


  1. Claire

    I’m slow on the uptake and just discovered your blog. Really appreciate the tenor, i.e. color of the comments, down-to-earth style that makes me feel I am talking with you one-on-one. I am getting more into writing, will have a short piece (very short) published in “A Beautiful Fork” this month, so I am pumped. Just for the record, it’s is only used apostrophized to mean “it is,” not as in “belonging to it.” At least that’s how I learned it, counterintuitive as it is.

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