After spending lots of time planning and writing, you’ve finally finished a manuscript (woohoo!) – now you’ll need to work on self-editing your novel.
This step is important even if you’re going to be sending your work to a freelance editor (it can save you money), and it’s especially important if you plan on submitting to agents or publishers. You want to send out your best work. Work that has been honed and shaped to the best of your ability, rather than a first draft.
But how do you review your own work and self-edit? Are there any steps you should take, and where do you start? This can be tricky because there are no rules. A lot of it can be down to your own personal process and how you like to work, and it can take time to figure that out.
Top tips for self-editing a novel
Take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes
When you’ve been working on a manuscript for so long, you get very close to the material. After a while, you won’t be able to view it as objectively. The best thing you can do to get some distance is to set the manuscript aside for a while and get some distance. This can be for a few weeks or a few months, it’s entirely up to you. Give it long enough that you don’t know your book almost word-for-word and inside-out.
After a break, you’ll be able to look at the manuscript with fresh ideas and perspective.
Break it down and focus on the biggest tasks first
Breaking your revision process into stages can make it more manageable. When you come back to your manuscript again, concentrate on the biggest tasks first. There’s no point combing over your sentences to make sure they aren’t clunky if you need to sort out plot holes or character arcs. A good order, I’ve found, is something like this:
- Major plot and structural elements
- Character arcs/development
- Dialogue authenticity
- World, setting, visuals
- Line by line edits – clunky sentences and so on
It’s all about practice and learning the craft
You’ll get better at self-editing the more you do it. It can seem daunting at first – how do you tackle a plot hole? How do you fix this character’s personality? How do you build up your world so it feels realised? This is where writing craft resources can really help you. If you know about the fundamentals of writing craft, such as avoiding exposition and using immediate scenes rather than narrative summary, you’ll be better equipped to fix any issues in your manuscript. There are some fantastic books out there for learning about novel writing craft, and they can equip you for self-editing. Here are some of my favourites:
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
- Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
- The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein for writing for children/young adults
- Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth, for writers who struggle with exposition
- Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
- Paper Hearts Volume 1: Some Writing Advice by Beth Revis
Don’t feel like you need to learn everything at once, though! It’s a process. As long as you’re writing, working on your craft, and revising your work consistently, you’ll improve.
Use beta readers and critique partners
There’s no getting around feedback – you can’t completely self-edit a book because by nature books involve a whole team of people to make stronger, better, and more publishable.
The process of self-editing is much easier when you know what you need to work on, and sometimes, no matter how much time and distance you take, you won’t be able to spot an issue or something that needs work. Outside of hiring a professional, this is where beta readers and critique partners can help. They’ll be able to spot things you can’t, and can give you direction.
Just be aware that too many cooks can spoil the broth – if you have dozens and dozens of people giving you feedback, you risk losing your vision for the story and feeling confused about the direction you want to take it. It’s helpful to have fresh eyes on your work, but you may want to limit the number of people you get feedback from to a small handful who know your genre well and have some idea about the craft of writing and storytelling.
Categorise and make lists
I recommend keeping a list of your own thoughts on what you need to change in your manuscript after you’ve read through it yourself. You can add your beta/critique partners’ feedback to this list, then split it all into categories to help you (characters, world-building, plot, and so on). Colour coding can help at this stage.
Anything that comes up multiple times (in your own notes and notes from your betas/CPS), probably does need work. Something that only one person highlighted may be more of a subjective thing, depending on what this is – for example, if everyone likes your main character except one person, who can’t relate to that character’s life experience, that may be subjective.
Learn about story structure
Learning about and having some kind of understanding of story structure during the revision process can be helpful. You don’t have to be someone who outlines beforehand, but when going into the revision stage, it’s essential to make sure you have a good plot structure if you’re writing genre fiction or something more plot-driven.
If you write first drafts without an outline, you may find that your drafts struggle with plot or character arc issues, and this may mean you need to do a lot of rewriting and broader changes. This is where story structure can come in handy. You can use your first draft as a guide to develop a stronger structure.
Some structuring methods you can read up on include:
- Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, with “beat sheets” and structures for various genres and plotlines.
- The Snowflake Method where you gradually expand a one-sentence summary, layer by layer, into a full outline.
- The three-act structure, a classic method used in both screenwriting and novel writing.
- The Hero’s Journey, developed by Joseph Campbell and great for fantasy. Brandon Sanderson discusses this in a free writing lecture here.
- Plenty more methods discussed in Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.
I hope this post helps you with self-editing your novel. If you’ve self-edited to the best of your ability and are ready to take the next steps into self-publishing or submitting your work, and need further editorial help, check out my editorial services.