The self-editing process is one of those things that you either love or hate with your entire being. The issue is that no matter how you feel about it, it’s inevitable. Picture this: you finished your first draft. You listened to the advice of seasoned writers who told you not to edit your work as you go but push through with your writing and complete your shitty first draft first. Bravo & kudos to you! That’s an outstanding achievement. So, what’s next?
Starting the Self-Editing Process
Before I answer that, let me say that this post assumes that you already know how to write a novel. So, we won’t dwell on fiction writing theory even though some of the concepts overlap. Ideally, if you could write a perfect first draft, you already know how to write a novel and self-edit all at once. Personally, I can’t, and many writers can’t either. That’s why self-editing is such a vital part of the process.
To start your self-editing process, once you have typed that END at the bottom of your novel, the first thing you must do is to take some time off. Not time off writing, but time away from this novel. Two to three weeks should do it. During that time, write something else, read something new, take on cooking, whatever you need, but stay away from your novel.
Isolating yourself from the plot and the characters will help you be a better editor of your work. The longer you stay away from it, the better you will read it with different eyes. That’s why I think all writers should have two or three novels and a few short stories in the works simultaneously — it helps you drop one and still have work to do on another.
Below is the schedule that I use to self-edit my work. It’s something that works for me, and it might work for you too. Perhaps you will use it as a guideline and tweak it to your personal preference.
Quick Error Check
My first goal is to eliminate all the obvious typos and mistakes that clog the reading. You will do this again at the end, more thoroughly, but for now, prepare your document for your eyes.
I first used an automated spell check, like the one that comes with Microsoft Word. That helps me clean up a lot of typos, double spaces, and things like that. Another thing that always happens to me is mistyping character names or places. That is particularly problematic when working with unusual sci/fi or fantasy names. One way to deal with it is to add the correct term to your dictionary — make sure it IS correct — then do the spellcheck. The program will catch all the wrong spellings.
The next thing I do is run my document through more advanced error-checking tools such as Grammarly or ProWritingAid. These are not free, and they are not cheap either, but I think they always pay their value tenfold in the long run.
After this first run of error correction, you will at least wind up with a manuscript that is not distracting to read. You won’t have to stop every second to add commas and fix spaces. At least you can start reading your manuscript as if it were a book you picked up at a library and read it with a reader’s eye.
Fast Read – Structure And Plot
After eliminating those annoying typos, you are ready to do the first significant read. You are looking to fix the plot’s structure, pace problems, and inconsistencies. You want to read fast, don’t agonize over every sentence.
I recommend that you do this first check on paper. Print your manuscript at 1.5 spacing (to save some space) and smaller than usual margins (for the same reason). You can use a service such as FedEx Kinkos to print your manuscript online and pick it up from the nearest location. For a 250 page manuscript, I paid $28. It’s not cheap, especially if you want to do it multiple times, but it’s worth seeing it on paper, at least for the first time and once again when you are done.
I think it’s a good idea to do this on a printed version because you will have a LOT of changes in your very first self-edit run. Use a red pen and mark your document as you read along. Put a star on the side and a short note over the paragraph. Here are some examples: “Foreshadow the knife,” “Why does he still have the bag,” “Add more description here,” and so on.
At the end of the first read-through, you will wind up with many notes related to plot, structure, and characters. As you read your chapters, have a notebook handy as well. Write down things you need to work on: character XYZ needs additional development; the setting in Chapter 10 needs to be described in more detail; dialogue in Chapter 7 is too long, etc.
Like most writers, you will discover a few sub-plots that are left hanging. If I get to the end of your book and ask myself, “whatever happened to XYZ?” chances are you forgot to tell me what happened. Fix that. Close all the sub-plots make sure your ending delivers on the promise you set at the beginning.
Once you finish this step, sit down immediately and make all the changes in your editing software. You want to have everything fresh in your mind. As you make these changes, feel free to adjust some words. During your read, you probably captured repetitions. That happens to me when I stop writing in the middle of a chapter, then I pick up a day later, but I don’t have the time to re-read what I wrote before. I know how to go on, but on many occasions, I use some words at the beginning of my new work that I also used at the ending of the previous day’s work. I catch these in my edit session, and I fix them here.
So, after steps one and two, you should have a grammatically correct, typo-free manuscript that’s also structured correctly. The plot flows as it should, and the whole manuscript starts to feel good.
Self-Editing: Pace And Length
There are many ways to tell a good story. If it’s a novel, you have to be aware that nobody can read the entire thing in one shot. Your goal is to get the reader to come back and finish the novel, be excited to wake up and continue and understand that there will be times when they need to put it down.
The pace and length of your novel are going to help the reader. It’s pretty evident that long, slow chapters will read slower, and short, fast chapters will read faster.
If you want an analogy, car chases are great in a movie, and drum solos are lovely in a concert. But if they last for twenty minutes, you start to feel burnt out. The same goes for your story. You must start strong, make your reader love your novel, but then slow down a bit, only to pick it up later. That’s why people love roller-coasters – up and down is fun and exciting.
So, what you do here is read your story and feel the pace. Does it take too long to read one chapter? Then break it up in two. Is a chapter too short? Does it feel like it ends too abruptly? Combine it with the next. Does each of your chapters start with a good hook and end with a good cliffhanger?
Now, this doesn’t mean ending each chapter with “…, and the wooden boards started to crack under his feet.” That will work for one chapter, but do too much of it, and it becomes predictable. Do it more subtly, throw something from the left field, but more important: always deliver on it.
Don’t end a chapter with a good hook and start the next chapter with a two-page description of the sunset. You should never describe anything for two pages, much so a sunset, but that’s a different story. My point is: if you have to choose, choose to under-promise and over-deliver, not the other way around. The reader will remember always being disappointed. But if you promise less and give a lot more, they will love it and keep reading.
Side note: not ALL your chapters should start with a hook or end with a cliffhanger – you should read through your novel and try to anticipate when people are about to put your book down, and then insert the cliffhanger. It’s not easy. Pace problems are the hardest to diagnose because reading is so subjective.
But do your best. Your goal here is to arrange your scenes and chapters in a way that makes reading feel natural. The moment your reader struggles to go through the chapters, he will not open the book again. You might need to ask your friends, family, or a writer’s group to help you with one read to identify pace issues.
Self-Editing: Strengthen The Setting
I insert this here because the setting develops in your head, and it’s easy to forget that the reader doesn’t have the same vision as you. All the reader has is what stems out of your words. So, you should pay attention to the setting at this stage in your self-editing. Does it come through clearly? Is it easy to see where people are and where the action occurs? Do you find spots in your novel where you have nothing but heads talking in the air? Fix that. Here you might add some description, but be aware that it slows down your pace. Don’t dump it all in one spot. Instead, sprinkle it naturally within the story.
Every time you read a chapter and ask yourself where this whole thing happened, you most likely have a setting problem.
Self-Editing: Character Development
Keep in mind that good fiction creates a strong emotional response in people. And because people are alive, they tend to react to other people’s actions, situations, predicaments, etc. Therefore, your characters are responsible for making that connection and creating that spark. If you have a milieu story or a plot-driven story, it’s easy to forget characters. If you have a character-driven story, it is unforgivable. Either way, you must read your novel and see if your characters are clearly developed.
Are they one-dimensional carton talking heads? Fix that. Give them thoughts, emotions, ideas, fears, weaknesses. At this point, you must fix all of these problems. The good news is that you don’t need to do a lot of it. Your characters are the story, so chances are they are present throughout. All you need to do is go in and add some things here and there. Show that nice lady scream at a homeless man to make us hate her a bit. Show that a drug dealer helps a disabled person cross a street to make us like him a little. Play with the reader’s emotions, and it will pay off.
Pay particular attention if you build your character’s story arc around the standard hero’s journey. Make sure you are not missing any steps in the journey and emphasize the most critical ones to your protagonist.
What’s The Right Word?
Now that your structure is proper and the pace adequate, it’s time to go deeper. Now you are going to edit for style.
I am talking about adding that elusive melody to your prose. It’s that layer that sits on top of your writer’s voice and filters it one way or another. That has to do with sentence forming, word usage, and word combinations. It’s at the most granular level – sentence level, or even less than that. Here, you evaluate your use of adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and verbs. You must make sure that your sentences flow nicely and paragraphs are chained naturally.
You will most likely find many issues here by reading your work out loud or, even better, by having somebody else read it for you. You will catch stumbles, and you will also notice great paragraphs. Learn how to avoid the first and duplicate the latter.
Some of the essential aspects of the style include clichés, adverbs, and adjectives. You usually use many of them in your first drafts because they help you write. But during the editing phase, it’s time to let them go. They served the purpose of assisting you in driving the plot, now do the right thing and get rid of them.
Clichés are a biggie. We use them every day in our speech, so it is not unusual that they crawl into our prose as well. Let’s put it this way: If you can’t find a better, more evocative way of saying something, remove the cliché anyway. The reader will appreciate the lack of something more so than a cliché, which indicates a lazy writer and, perhaps, an amateur. Cut those out without mercy. If you want to check more on clichés, check this list of 681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing. (http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/cliches.html)
Next, look for the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. When looking for adverbs (“he said angrily”), ask yourself: is there a way to replace the adverb with a stronger verb or add some additional cues that allow the reader to understand the situation? Adverbs are the easiest way to ‘tell not show,’ so be aware and keep them to a minimum. You can use your editing software to look for words that end in “ly.”
As for adjectives, they tend to find their way into your writing because they help you visualize things. You write something like “large room” and “long train,” but they add no value if you think about them. Unless we talk about a Giant, we all know a train is enormous, right? So, why say it? If the adjective doesn’t add something or somehow changes the way the reader thinks about the noun it modifies, it’s probably unnecessary. Use strong nouns instead, nouns that force the reader to imagine. For example, say that a “steel monster raced down the track” rather than a “giant train raced down the track.”
Polish your description – this is a biggie. You have to find the right trade-off between describing the setting, which tends to bore the reader, and letting the reader imagine things, which may confuse them. Try to find ways to express your thoughts through all the senses. If you want to describe a yellow sunset, don’t go into the usual “the sun shone bright, its rays bathing the shivering tree leaves.” Go with “a lemon light filled the air.” Lemon is yellow and sour. Now you must think about how the light makes you feel, rather than how it looks, but you do get how it looks by paying attention to how it makes you feel.
Hooks And Grabs
At this stage, you probably have a pretty decent manuscript. Typos and grammar mistakes are at a minimum if not gone completely. Your plot is tight; the structure is working, pace and length are good. Your style and voice ooze from the manuscript; you feel you can almost call it great. So what’s next?
Make it better.
We all know that your first 50 pages must be perfect and excellent, your first five pages must be impressive and grand, and your first page must be fantastic and beyond amazing. That’s an absolute requirement to grab the reader’s attention and make them stay for the rest of the journey. That becomes increasingly important if you are a beginning writer who needs to find an agent or a publisher to accept your first work.
So, go back and re-apply everything from above, on the first 50, 5, and 1 pages, in that order. The fewer pages you work on, the more aggressive you must be in your edits. Please don’t be lazy; read it repeatedly until it is perfect.
Final Manuscript Revision
So, let’s see where we are so far:
– The manuscript is clean of typos, and names are consistent across the board.
– We’ve checked the structure and made sure all plot lines make sense.
– The pace is good, and the narrative flows well.
– The setting is precise and evocative.
– Our characters have depth and connect well to each other.
– We inserted hooks and cliffhangers throughout the manuscript.
– We did stylistic corrections by removing repetitions, clichés, unnecessary adverbs, and adjectives.
Now your novel should be in much better shape, probably close to its final draft. That is the time to take another step away from it. Give it another two-three weeks. Put it out of your mind and distance yourself from it. When you return, make your final changes along the same lines as above, but do them all in one shot. By this time, you should have very few things to edit.
Last but not least: the final proofreading. If you are not a good proofreader—I am not at all—perhaps it’s a good idea to do that with a professional proofreader. That is particularly important if you are a beginning writer. If your manuscript still has typos and grammar mistakes, it will be difficult for an agent or editor to take you seriously. So, make sure your final step is one last round of proofreading. Here you will tighten the sentences, make sure all your commas are in the right spot, all typos are eliminated, and so on.
Let It Go
If you get here, you are ready to send your manuscript out. Just send it. I know you’re afraid of it. We all are. Fear of rejection is crippling, but you have to get over it and send your work out. You did your best. Holding on to it any longer won’t make it better.
If you went through the steps above (maybe more than once), you are not doing yourself any favors if you do not submit the novel already. Chances are, you will not be able to make it better. They say that a book is never finished, and sometimes that’s true. Often after I send a story, two minutes later, I think of a way to write something that sounds better. But it doesn’t matter. There’s a point in perfection when all the ‘perfect’ variants have the same relative value, so you are not doing yourself any service by not submitting it. Let go.
[UPDATE] I am adding an update to address a few comments I received: your manuscript will not be ready for publishing once you are done with your self-editing process. Your manuscript will be prepared to be reviewed by a professional editor. It could be the editor who will ultimately publish your work or just a freelance editor you hired. So, when I said ‘submit,’ I meant to submit it to the next chain in the editing process. There’s only so much you can do, and a professional editor is the next logical step. In the meantime, you should start your next novel! [END UPDATE]
As I said, this is my self-editing schedule. Yours might be different. You might combine things, do it faster, I don’t know. However you do it, make sure you do it, and I’d love to hear about your process and how you structure your self-edit?
Additional Self-Editing Resources:
Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne
Revision and Self Editing by James Scott Bell
Line by Line: how to edit your writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook
Self Editing by Lori Handeland
How to Edit a Book: Your Ultimate 21-Part Checklist by Jerry Jenkins
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Do you find editing a dreadful activity, or do you enjoy it?
- What are the most challenging parts of the editing process for you?
- What are the most common things you find yourself correcting during your editing process?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!
This is fantastic info – thanks!
Having read through the points listed, I’ve decided my settings need the most work (I think I’m guilty of creating talking heads in air quite often).
I find it really quite boring to write descriptions of places (I also confess to skimming over them when reading published novels – eek!), I guess I need to practice stylizing descriptions so they’re both more fun to read and write.
To get my sentence structures completely nailed, I read the book from the last page backwards, and I edit each sentence from that. By doing this, I have no way of sticking to the conventions of my plot, and I simply only have that one sentence to focus on. If I had the other sentences, I usually link my edit to the following sentence’s mood, which I do not like doing.
“You can use your editing software to look for words that end in “ly.””
I’d recommend you try out SmartEdit for just this purpose – makes life so much easier. There’s a free version that covers those pesky -ly words, as well as a pro version that has a raft of useful (and not so useful) features.
Bill, I never tried this software. I’ll check it out. Thanks.
This is a very good post with lots of great information for newbie story writers. I do a lot of this stuff as aI go alone. When I finish a large segment of the novel, I’ll go thru it looking for character inconsistencies, hanging plot developments and the typos. After I complete a third draft I get other writers to critique it. Once the critiques’ changes are made, I pack it off to an editor. I have to do this since I tend to read what should have been on the page, not what actually is.
An editor is a great way to get an independent pair of eyes to give it a critical read.
Thank you Hank! Do you actually hire a freelance editor?