How to Self-Edit Your Novel

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Most of us know that the definition of writing is editing, yet a lot of people see editing as the scariest and worst part of the novel-writing process. I, on the other hand, find it to be insanely rewarding and exciting. In a list of my favorite parts of writing a novel, editing comes second to finishing the first draft. I mean, you get to live within the beautiful story you created… again! How amazing is that?

Let me clarify editing for you, because I have a slightly different process for my first draft. I actually never edit my first draft. If you’re curious, here’s why.

Why I Never Edit the First Draft

Basically, I know my first draft is going to require more effort to work within the document, so I just set it aside and write a completely new one. That’s right. My first draft is written and never touched again. So when I talk about how to edit a novel, I’m talking about fixing my second draft.

The first draft is about getting the story out, while the second draft is filling the holes and making the larger writing changes. I find it easier to just rewrite the whole thing. It’s a more complete version of the story, where there will be very few (if any) major changes left to be made. Now editing is just making sure you’ve thoroughly put the pieces together.

If you’re ready to start editing your novel, here are the steps I use to make sure my manuscript is ready for the next step (professional editor, publishers, self-publishing, etc.).

Develop questions to guide you through the edit

The first step is figuring out what to look out for in your writing. This can be based on past experiences, if you’ve written before, or based on your rewrite or pass through of your first draft. What are your crutches?

One time I went through my first draft and, for fun, counted all the times my character mentioned being bad at small talk. Out of an 80K word novel, it was too many times. I knew that was my crutch when I was too lazy to come up with a better reaction.

You can question other things that you typically struggle with, such as character body positions changing or a tendency to tell more than show. If you aren’t really sure what to look for, or want a more comprehensive list of things you might not remember, look for a guide to help you. My favorite is Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James which covers everything. Not an affiliate link, just an amazing tool that I’ve used in every one of my writing projects. There are others, but this is the one I’m familiar with.

Approach your novel with fresh eyes

As I said before, I write a first draft, celebrate, and then move on to the rewrite. Once you’ve completed that rewrite, or however you choose to make the first fix of your novel, it’s time to take a break. Forget about your story, write something else, or just take a mental break from writing. Get away from the novel.

When you come back (time length varies based on what you need to refresh), you’re going to have a fresh new look at your novel. You will have forgotten phrases you wrote, scenes you’ve crafted, and characters you’ve developed. That’s great. You can come in with the eyes of a fresh reader. Now it’s time to edit.

Figure out your editing process

Some people like to read the entire novel and make little changes that they notice on the go. Others like to take it piece by piece. My strategy is a mix of the two.

I go by chapters and do a quick read for context. Typically, the story itself doesn’t need to change, but sometimes the mannerisms, movements, and conversations do. In my first read, I fix any glaring grammar issues that I notice and track comments for bigger things that need editing. My first priority is reading the section.

After I’ve finished reading and making the small changes, I go in and make the commented changes. These can include character positions, change of conversations, thoughts, and descriptions. If I need to completely rewrite a section, I’ll do that, but mostly I work within the same document. If a scene changes more than just a few tweaks, I’ll copy the chapter into a new section and archive the original. That way if it doesn’t go as planned, I always have the original to refer to.

Once done with the first edit of the chapter, I’ll go through and read it again. This time, I’ll look more closely for grammar, copy and paste mistakes, clarity issues, filler words, and missing commas (my biggest weakness… this tweet describes my opinion of commas).

Any time I make a change, I make myself read the chapter over again. It helps me make sure I don’t accidentally make a change that works for that sentence but ruins the context of your entire chapter.

Do this process for the entire novel, but make sure you always have a fresh mind going in to the process. There’s nothing worse than making all your edits and going back the next day to realize nothing made sense because you were too tired.

Make one full novel edit before starting again

It might be tempting to go back to a previous chapter and make edits before you’re completely done, especially if you notice that you need to change something in a later chapter that affects how you write an earlier one. Just like when writing your novel the first (or second) time, make the edit in the chapter you’re working on and move forward as if that change has been there the whole time. Take note that you’re going to have to fix earlier chapters to support this version.

After you’ve finished, you can go back and make a change if you had the previous problem, but I strongly suggest taking a break. Editing takes a lot of brain power. You’re making all the connections, plot twists, and story lines work fluidly and that can be draining. Refresh your mind and body. Take a week or more to think about something else before you come back.

After that, it’s time to start again. You can use the same technique, but because this version is going to be much more polished, you can just go through it once and make your necessary changes. Depending on your skill, this might be a one-time pass or it might be a recurring thing until you’re finally satisfied.

Ask for editing help

My favorite editor is my dad, especially because he offered his services. With my first book, I made the mistake of sending it to him after I wrote my second draft. It was edited, but only in the loose way of storyline. Boy, did he have is work cut out for him. After a few chapters of major fixes (I was really bad at commas and description… understandable because it was my first novel ever), I did a major haul and sent him a new version. Things were still edited, but it was a little nicer.

The great thing about getting help is that your editing helper is going to be unfamiliar with the story. You’re getting an actual fresh pair of eyes and brain on your manuscript so they can give you first time opinions on everything, including your lack of commas. Sometimes you have to offer something in return. I was able to help my dad with an old novel of his in exchange for his help with mine.

Once you’ve created a novel that is thoroughly edited and ready for new eyes, it’s time to take the next steps. Maybe you’re going to hire a professional editor to go through and catch anything you missed. Maybe it’s time to send out to publishers or try to find an agent. Or maybe you’re ready to start developing a plan to self-publish the book.

It’s much more comforting to know you’re sending a novel that has been thoroughly processed and checked for major errors. Having confidence in this editing can help you better prepare for the next steps in your process. That piece of mind can help you set up a system to get your novel out into the world.

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