How To Self-Edit Your Novel
So, 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 just push through with your writing and be done with the first draft first. Bravo & kudos to you! That’s a great achievement. So, what’s next?
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 into the theory of fiction writing 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 an important part of the process.
To start, the first thing you must do, once you typed that END at the bottom of your novel, 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 your 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 at the same time — 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. Or, perhaps you will just use it as a guideline and tweak it to your personal preference.
Quick Error Check
My first goal is to get rid of 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 use an automated spell check, like Word. This will help 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 names in sci/fi or fantasy. One way to deal with it is to add the correct name to your dictionary — make sure it IS correct — then do the spellcheck. All the wrong spellings will be caught by the program.
Fast Read – Structure & Plot
After you eliminated those annoying typos you are ready to do the first major read. You want to read fast, don’t agonize over each and every sentence. What you are looking for here is fixing structure and pace problems, as well as inconsistencies in the plot.
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 where you can 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 in your very first self-edit run you will have a LOT of changes. Use a red pen and, as you read along, mark your document. 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 a lot of notes related to plot, structure, and characters. As you read along your chapters, have a notebook handy as well. Write down things that you need to work on: Character XYZ needs additional development, Setting in Chapter 10 needs to
be described in more details, Dialogue in Chapter 7 is too long, etc.
If you are 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 as well. During your read you probably captured repetitions. This 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 in the beginning of my new work that were also used in the ending of the previous day work. I catch these in my edit session and fix them here.
So, after step 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.
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, but also understand that there will be times when he/she needs to put it down.
The pace and length of your novel are going to help the reader. It’s pretty obvious 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 wonderful in a concert. But if they last for twenty minutes you start to feel burnt out. The same goes with 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, it feels 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 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. Actually, 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 on reading.
Side note: not ALL your chapters should start with a hook or end with a cliff-hanger – 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. As a matter of fact, 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 has to struggle 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.
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, at this stage in your self-editing, you should pay attention to the setting. Does it come through clearly? Is it easy to see where people are and where does the action takes place? 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 did this whole thing happen, you most likely have a setting problem.
Keep in mind that good fiction creates a strong emotional response in people. And because people are alive they tend to do that by reacting to other people’s actions, situations, predicaments and so on. Your characters are therefore 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 you 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 bad drug dealer help a handicapped person cross a street, to make us like him a little. Play with the reader’s emotions and it will pay off.
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. This 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. It is here where you evaluate your usage of adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs. It is here where you must make sure that your sentences flow nicely and paragraphs are chained naturally.
Most likely you will find a lot of 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 catch great paragraphs. Learn how to avoid the first and duplicate the latter.
Some of the important aspects of style have to do with clichés, adverbs, and adjectives – all of them used extensively in first drafts because they help you write. But during the editing phase, it’s time to let them go. They served the purpose of helping you drive 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 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 at 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 in your writing because they help you visualize things. You write things like “large room” and “long train,” but if you really think about them, they add no value. Unless we are talking about a Giant, we all know a train is big, 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 not needed. 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 on 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 minimum if not gone completely. Your plot is tight, structure is working, pace and length are good. Your style and voice oozes 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 great, your first 5 pages must be amazing 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. This 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. Don’t be lazy; read it over and over until it is perfect.
So, let’s see where we are so far:
- we cleaned up the typos and names
- we checked the structure and made sure all plot lines make sense
- we verified the pace and made sure it flows well
- we are certain the setting is clear
- we developed our characters and made them connect
- 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 a much better shape, probably close to its final draft. This is probably 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: do a final proofreading. If you are not a good proofreader — I am not at all, for example — perhaps it’s a good idea to do that with a professional proofreader. This 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 got here, you are ready to send your manuscript out. Just send it.
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 novel 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 really matter. There’s a point in perfection when all variants of the ‘perfect’ 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: once you are done with your self-editing process, your manuscript will not be ready for publishing. Your manuscript will be ready 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 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 personal 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?
Self Editing by Lori Handeland
10 ways to improve your writing by self-editing by Susan Harkins
Before you submit: Some tips for Self-Editing by Carol Saller
Self Editing Success by Carole Moore
Best of luck,