How to Self-Edit

My number one piece of advice for self-editing is to put your manuscript away for at least a month. You will be surprised at how much you’ve forgotten, making it easier to identify the problems in your manuscript. While you’ve got it put away, read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers for a detailed explanation of what to look for during this process.

Now that you know what to look for, I’ve got a mechanical how-to guide for you. The best way to approach self-editing is to think of it as your own editing process, which means you’ll go through each level of editing on your own.

As I explained in my article about preparing your manuscript for an editor, getting a book to publication is not a quick process. Plan to read through the full manuscript at least three times, probably more.

Stage 1: Developmental Editing. You’re going to look for big picture issues—plot holes, character development, story arcs. If you didn’t start with an outline, now is the time to create one. I recommend reading your manuscript on a tablet if you’re able to, taking physical notes of any issues you find. This way you’ll be less tempted to fix as you go—sometimes the solution is found later in the novel. Track the problems by chapter and page, making it easier to rewrite the relevant scene(s). You may end up rewriting your entire manuscript, and that’s okay.

Stage 2: Content or Line Editing. You should still be reading on a tablet and taking notes on paper. This is where you’re going to look for show vs tell, make sure your dialogue feels genuine, examine individual scenes for authenticity, etc. Pay special attention to action and love scenes in this stage to make sure your characters are moving in ways that are actually possible. This is the stage to fact check yourself—is that park your characters are walking across actually big enough to support 28 pages of dialogue? Is that a real street in your city? A fair amount of rewriting will happen in this stage.

Stage 3: Copyediting. You’ll probably want to do a couple of passes for copyediting. Do this editing phase on a computer, making changes as you go. This is where you need to examine punctuation and grammar. Watch for misplaced modifiers. Make sure dialogue tags and action beats are varied. Look for repetitive words—sometimes you’ll find a cluster of them in one scene, other times you’ll find the ones you just like and overuse (every author has them). Do one entire pass for commas, whether you’re adding or removing them. When I copyedit, this list has the kind of things I’m looking for—you could easily do separate passes for each section. The changes in this stage will usually be small and easy to do.

After you’ve gone through each of these stages, your manuscript will be ready to share with other people. Start looking for beta readers or an independent editor.

Some other quick tips for seeing your manuscript with new eyes:

  • Change fonts for each pass as you read it
  • Print it out and read as if it were a physical book
  • Use a text-to-speech app and read along (Word has a built-in option)
  • Read it out loud yourself

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