At Book in a Box, we use an editing process that’s not commonly taught, but is a secret trick of numerous bestselling authors, including myself, Neil Strauss, and Tim Ferriss. And I’m going to share it with you.
The conventional way to edit a book is to sit at your computer, read your manuscript in your head, and make edits as you read. Maybe—if you’re old school—you print the manuscript out on paper and make edits with a pencil.
What other way is there?
Well, there’s actually a totally different way to do it. It sounds crazy, but it works:
You read your book out loud—to a person—and make edits based on what you hear.
Yeah, I know. It sounded insane to me at first too. My editor told me to do this on my first book, and I ignored him. I had looked at that stupid manuscript at least 25 times. I thought there was no way I could improve anything…until I recorded the audiobook.
I recorded the audiobook for my first book a month after the manuscript was locked and sent to press. As I read through it, I couldn’t believe it—I found at LEAST 50+ tiny little mistakes that I wanted to correct. Not big ones like spelling and grammar—the copy editor had caught those—but small ones, like word choice, phrasing, and sentence construction.
From that point on, every book and long blog post I have ever published, I read out loud—usually to another person.
We have refined that process and adopted it at Book in a Box, and we use it with the authors who want it. Here’s how it works:
We send our authors a printed, physical copy of the rough draft of their manuscript. They read through the manuscript to themselves one time to get a feel for it, and mark any clear mistakes they see or places they want to edit with a pencil.
Then, they get on Skype with their editor and read the entire manuscript out loud (typically over two calls, sometimes three). As the author reads, they inevitably HEAR other errors, phrasings they want to change, sentences that sound off, etc. As they read through their manuscript, they comment on these changes with their editor and their editor marks them down.
The best way to imagine this in your head is to pretend that you’re recording your audiobook. In fact, this process is almost exactly the way that audiobooks are actually recorded. You read the book out loud in front of people into a microphone. The only difference here is you’re not in a studio—you’re on Skype talking to your professional editor.
What’s cool about our process is that because it’s a professional editor on the phone, if the author “feels” something is off, but isn’t sure how to change it, that’s fine. They just tell the editor that it feels off to them, describe as best they can why they feel that way, and suggest some ways to make it better. But it’s not their job to know precisely how everything should sound—their editor is the professional writer.
If you are doing this on your own, you don’t have the luxury of having a professional editor on call. But you do have something that is almost as good: a friend or loved one.
While reading your book out loud is a good start, reading it out loud to another person is MUCH BETTER. They will help you gauge whether it sounds right— and if not, what to do about it. Even if they aren’t accomplished writers, they know what sounds right—and believe it or not, that is a great measure for good writing.
Why This Works: Clarity
The reason that reading your manuscript out loud to your editor works so well is because you will catch dozens of things you would have otherwise missed. Hearing yourself speak forces you to notice bad or strange phrasings—even if you don’t know exactly why it’s off or how to improve it.
Basically, if it’s something you would say out loud, then it usually reads clearly on the page. If it’s something you would never say to another person, it does not read as clearly.
As you read, remember—you must actually read out loud. Don’t mouth the words under your breath. While you read, ask yourself these questions:
“Does this sound the same way I’d say it to someone face to face?”
“Does it feel right to me?”
Your job in the revision stage is to make sure that your book says what you want it to say, in the way that you want to say it. This is your book and your voice, after all.
If you want another take on this, Paul Graham explains why writing in spoken language works so well.