Finish Your Book with Polish & Pizzazz

5 tenets of good book editing.

By Lynda McDaniel, Co-Founder, The Book Catalysts, and Founder, Association for Creative Business Writing.

In the classic film noir, Double Indemnity,Edward G. Robinson plays an insurance investigator who foils Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyk’s scheme. How? He listens to his intuition.

“Every month, hundreds of claims come to this desk,” Robinson says with rapid-fire delivery. “Some of them are phonies. And I know which ones. How do I know? Because my little man tells me … The little man in here” (pointing to his gut).

You have a little man/woman,too, and it’s your best friend when editing your book’s rough draft—after you’ve finished it, that is. You don’t want to edit while you write because that slows down your progress and cuts down on your creativity. Besides, you may be editing content that you later cut!

Editing Gets a Bad Rap

Too often writers dread or even skip editing, in part because they believe they should have gotten the words right the first time. But as I explained in my first article (“Write Your Book Now”:, everyone writes bad first drafts, even writers you love to read. That’s how they finished writing their books—getting the words down the fastest way they could. They understand that good writing is really good editing.

So how do you edit your book? As you review your manuscript, listen to your little man/woman. Research shows that, like our brain, the gut receives impulses, contains 100 million neurons (more than the spinal cord), and is always on call. It alerts you to danger, good ideas, and writing that isn’t quite right. Pay attention to those uneasy feelings as you read your draft—and make changes accordingly.

As you edit, focus on the following five tenets of good editing:

1.              Concise. Word bloat. That’s what Lorraine Loviglio, retired manager of manuscript editing for the New England Journal of Medicine,calls her No. 1 pet peeve. She’s referring to those situations in which 13 words are used when five would do. And the affliction we call corporate-speak in which the pleasantly simple word “method” becomes “methodology,” “use” is fattened to “utilize,” and “symptoms” grow into the unwieldy “symptomatology.” Cut the wordiness and use plain English. Not plain vanilla—oh, no, your words can shout and sing and have rhythm, too—but they need to be, for the most part, clear and easy to understand.

We know that deleting words is hard. You’ve spent hours conjuring and corralling them; no wonder you struggle with separation anxiety. But in reader surveys of writing pet peeves, “wordy” ranks just after “not getting to the point quickly.”

2.              Clear. Review your writing from the readers’ perspective. Don’t mystify your readers with long introductory clauses like the following example (where is this writer taking us? We don’t have any idea until about the 18th word):

Without an organizational plan or an extensive outline of their intentions to guide them toward their goal, the team developed a lackluster proposal.

Translation: Lacking a plan, the team developed a lackluster proposal.

Next, try reading your content out loud. When words make you stumble, cut those culprits and replace them with clearer wording. And turn on your mumbo-jumbo detector:

At this point in time, we are accepting applications that contain a comprehensive examination of your qualifications.

Translation: We are currently accepting applications.

3.              Conversational. If you want people to read your book, talk to them, not at them. Conversational writing doesn’t mean you lapse into salty slang or sloppy syntax. You’re having a professional conversation as you write in a relaxed style that draws your readers in. The results are often clearer and more concise, too. For example:

Inasmuch as the process, if accelerated through the strategic channels in the allotted timeframe, will leverage our stance as an immeasurable uniqueness in the marketplace.

Translation: If we hurry up, we can get there first.

4.             Constructive. Most books need to offer encouragement and hope, even books about serious medical issues or economic problems. So double-check your tone. Is it constructive and appropriate to your audience? Do you talkto your readers, especially those who are beginners and want to learn from your expertise?

5.         Proofing. When you’ve done all the editing you can, proof and proof again. Then turn it over to someone else; it’s almost impossible to successfully proof your own documents. Your brain knows what you meant to say and often skips over the most embarrassing typos. Find a friend or colleague—or hire someone to make sure your book is as letter perfect as humanly possible.

Finally, a few more editing tips:

  • Print it out. Nearly everyone agrees that hard-copy editing is more effective. You’ll spot more typos and find creative solutions to clunky phrasing.
  • Edit in chunks. Don’t look at that 300-page manuscript and panic. Edit in short bursts rather than long slogs. Instead of a 30-minutes session, try three 10-minute edits. Your brain appreciates the break (it gets bored, too) and catches more mistakes.
  • Cut the clichés. Skip worn-out expressions. Instead, turn them around and catch readers’ attention with a phrase made fresh for your topic. “Cool clichés,” as we call them, make excellent chapter titles and subheads, such as:

Learned It the Soft Way—A chapter title about a legendary frozen custard entrepreneur.

Dorm et Vous—A headline for a back-to-college story.

Twice Sold Tales—An article about selling your business story more than once.

  • Kill your “darlings.” You know, those catchy phrases that sounded so good when you first wrote them but that your little man/woman is now telling you to cut. Listen to it!
  • Take breaks. We teach the importance of taking breaks during the writing process, and the same advice applies for editing. Enjoy a change of scene; get away from your desk. You’ll find more gaps and gaffes this way.

Write your first draft fast so you save time plenty of time for reviewing your manuscript (once you’re finished it). And make friends with your little man/woman. Together you’ll take your book from rough to polished (and on to published).

Lynda McDaniel is co-founder of The Book Catalysts ( founder of the Association for Creative Business Writing.

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