You toiled and struggled, stayed up late and got up early, gave up Netflix and likely abandoned several day-to-day activities generally deemed essential by non-writers. Then you typed “The End.” You wrote a book! Congratulations!
But now what? Most authors don’t only want to write a book; they want other people to read it. They want to publish. So, what are the steps that take you from “The End” to having a publishable manuscript?
Step 1: Celebrate!
You just wrote a book. Word on the street is that if a hundred people start writing a book, only three of them will finish. And we all understand why, right? Day jobs, kids, household responsibilities, writer’s block, impostor syndrome. You overcame all of that and more to write your novel, becoming one of the 3 percent who do so, and that calls for a celebration … even if your idea of celebrating involves eating cake while reading a novel (which, same).
Step 2: Put the manuscript away and do something else for a while.
Unless you’re the rare writer who writes from the first word through to the last without re-reading or revising along the way, you need distance from your manuscript. Distance is what gives you the objectivity to see if the story on page is the story you intended to tell and if the words you used say what you meant them to say.
If you’re able, don’t look at your manuscript for a minimum of four weeks. No need to take a break from writing, but set aside the completed manuscript and move onto other projects for a bit.
Step 3: While you’re taking a break, make a decision about your preferred publishing path.
The path you choose to publication will dictate some of your next steps, particularly the kind of editing you’ll need. Every author needs to self-edit, but authors pursuing traditional publication may want to seek an editor or coach to help with their query letter and submission packet, while authors who intend to self-publish may need an editor—or editors—for the whole manuscript.
Here are a bunch of resources to get you started thinking about the paths to publication:
Step 3a: If you intend to self-publish, start devising your marketing plan.
First you have to write a great book, then you have to let people know it exists and convince them to buy it. While you’re taking a breather from your manuscript, start devising and implementing your marketing plan: study the market, taking stock of what readers want and what successful authors do to sell their books; create your website and social media pages; and, most of all, start building a mailing list. One great way to build your mailing list is to offer a freebie, or “lead magnet,” such as a novella or character sketch related to your novel. Since you have a little time on your hands for at least four weeks, now’s a great time to create a lead magnet.
Step 3b: If you plan to work with alpha readers, now’s the time.
Alpha readers get an early draft of your manuscript to help you discern if there are major plot concerns. Many authors hold off and send a more polished version of their manuscript to beta readers, but if you’re a new author, getting feedback early can save you time and energy later. It would be a bummer if you heard from your first readers that your story doesn't work after you've spent hundreds of hours writing and revising. Catch that stuff early!
Step 4: Revise.
I’ve not used this quote for any social media posts because I can’t put a finger on where it originated. (Others who use it attribute it to “fantasy writer, Patricia Fuller,” but I can’t find her.) Nevertheless, her quote is perfect (thanks Patricia, wherever you are!): “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.”
If you don’t want to get caught with your ass out, you’ve got to revise. Take off your author hat, put on your reader hat, and dig in. Unfortunately, self-editing isn’t as simple as running spell check and fixing a few wonky sentences. First you need to dig into the big stuff. Do the characters feel authentic? Does the pacing work, or do you find yourself nodding off in the middle? Does the storyline make sense and feel compelling? Do your characters talk in a way that real people do? Answering those questions may include the realization that you need to cut, add, or rewrite sections of your manuscript. Your first draft is just that, the first of many drafts, so don’t be afraid to make big changes.
Here is an incredibly helpful resource for revising from Janice Hardy, who literally wrote the book on show, don't tell: "Fiction University: At-Home Workshop: Revise Your Novel in 31 Days." Note that big-picture editing accounts for steps one through twenty-four of thirty-one.
Step 4a: Research and select an editor (see below for an explanation of why this step is worth it).
Talking to friends, looking at the acknowledgments in your favorite books, and thinking back to your favorite conference sessions, blog posts, podcasts, and webinars about editing (all of which probably originated with an editor) are great ways to compile a list of editors’ names. From there, you’ll want to start looking through their websites, reaching out by email, and requesting sample edits. Many good editors book three to six months in advance and take four to six weeks to work their magic on your manuscript, so start early!
If you need more information on which type of editor you’re looking for, check out this post.
Step 5: Revise some more.
Once you’ve completed your first round of rewrites, additions, reorganizations, and overhauls, it’s time to look at the language. Are your sentences clear? Are they concise? Does each sentence serve a purpose and move the story forward? Is each word necessary? Are there words, phrases, action beats, or ideas that you’ve used repeatedly? And most importantly, does your writing serve your story? This is the step people generally think about when they think of revising.
Here are some of my favorite self-editing resources:
Step 6: Let someone else take a look and offer feedback.
Once you’ve gotten your manuscript whipped into shape (for the first time … there will be additional rounds of whipping it into shape), it’s time to solicit feedback (or a second round of feedback if you’ve already sent your manuscript to alpha readers). This means handing the book off to beta readers or critique partners. Your first readers should also be “ideal readers.” That is, people who read widely in your genre, subgenre, and category. You want readers who will have instincts about when something feels “off” in your manuscript or doesn’t meet their expectations of the genre. In a perfect world, they’ll also be discerning and honest (“This is great!” is warm and fuzzy, but it isn’t necessarily helpful) and have the writing chops to make suggestions on how you can fix the concerns they’ve raised. You don’t have to take everyone’s advice about everything (in fact, you shouldn’t take everyone’s advice about everything), but if several of your readers express the same concern about your manuscript, you should take a look. I recently heard a book coach recommend that authors work with at least ten beta readers to ensure that they can see trends in the feedback.
Note: Many of the authors I work with find their first alpha and beta readers in genre- and sub-genre-specific Facebook groups. With time, they narrow down a pool of readers who are reliable and helpful (and usually beta read for those authors in return!). If you’d prefer to find a critique group or critique partner, check online, with local writers’ organizations, at the public library, and at local independent bookstores, all of which host critique groups.
Step 7: After you hear from your readers, revise again. And again.
With all of that valuable feedback in hand, it’s time to keep revising.
If you’re not good and tired of your story, you probably haven’t revised enough.
Step 8: Send to an editor (or a series of editors).
I recognize that listing this step may seem self-serving but hear me out. No matter how you choose to publish, you’ll have a lot of competition. A lot. So, while it’s absolutely possible to publish without having your work professionally edited, it may not be the wisest path. (In fact, a survey by Taleist suggests that authors who work with professional editors and cover artists earn greater profits over time.) Entering the market with a compelling, well-written book is one way to set yourself apart and land loyal readers who will follow you through your subsequent books (and do your marketing for you). Similarly, a well-written submission package will set you apart as you seek an agent and publisher.
A good editor will want your story to succeed as much as you do. They will be genuinely delighted to see your hard work get the recognition it deserves. During the editing process, they’re also going to be the objective party who knows you and what you intended to do in your story and has the moxie to tell you (kindly!) what is and isn’t working. Plus, they’ll have the expertise to help you make the changes required to give life to the story you envisioned.
Step 9: You guessed it … keep revising.
This round of revisions will likely be easier since it entails accepting or rejecting your editor’s recommendations.
Completing these steps doesn’t bring you to the end of the road, but it does get you closer. Rather than holding a first draft in your hands, you’ll have a publishable manuscript. Whether it’s ready to go out to agents and publishers or have cover art and formatting added in preparation for self-publishing is up to you, but these steps will ensure that your story is as strong as it can be. Good luck!