The Complete Guide to Self-Editing Your Novel
Your first draft is one part of a much longer process.
When it comes to writing a novel, actually writing it is just the first step. Once that task is done, you begin the long, multi-layered experience that is self-editing. It’s many parts intimidating and a few parts exciting, but ultimately, the best way to describe it is daunting.
Fortunately, it’s not as complex as it might seem. Best of all, all the work you put in self-editing will be well worth the payoff of an amazing, polished novel.
In fact, editing is actually my favorite part of the writing process!
While that may seem odd, I find first drafts incredibly stressful. There’s so much pressure to get my ideas onto the page in their best form. On the other hand, editing is just taking what I’ve already created and refining it, trimming the fat and adding more where necessary.
Learning to Enjoy the Editing Process
- 1 Learning to Enjoy the Editing Process
- 2 The Complete Guide to Self-Editing Your Novel in 8 Steps
- 3 It’s Time to Start Editing
You can learn to enjoy editing too, even if you despise it now. After all, self-editing is simply about knowing what you’re up against and having a system in place to make the experience smooth sailing throughout.
That’s why many people choose to work with a professional editor before seeking publication. A professional can both guide your self-editing process while also providing a keen set of eyes and an outside perspective on your work.
Personally, I’d recommend a combo of both, which you’ll see reflected in this guide.
By doing a thorough round of self-editing before hiring a professional, you ensure your editor isn’t distracted by simple mistakes you could have corrected on your own. With your own edits completed, enlisting an editor’s help becomes a fast track approach to creating a stellar novel.
With this guide, you get the best of both worlds!
However, regardless of whether you want to hire an editor or even can, this guide will walk you through each step of the self-editing process from your first day until you send your polished novel to the printers. Let’s get started!
The Complete Guide to Self-Editing Your Novel in 8 Steps
#1: The First Rest
And by “let’s get started,” I mean “let’s take a break for a while.” Yep, you heard me. The first step of self-editing is to take a break right after you finish your first draft.
This is the case for two reasons. To start, you’re probably pretty burnt out by the time you finish your first draft. You’ve been neck deep in this story for months if not years. You need a chance to ride the high of having finished, not face the intense process of self-editing.
Second, you need to distance yourself from your story.
After having worked on the same idea for so long, you’ve likely become engulfed by it. As a result, you’ll struggle to be objective about your work, and I’m not talking about just spelling issues. What you’ll miss are dull characters, extraneous scenes, and weak plot points—essentially, the things that make sense in your head, but destroy the story for your reader.
This is your chance to reset and gain some distance from your first draft. Many authors refuse to even glance at their manuscript for at least six months. Personally, I think a month is plenty of time to step away and helps you avoid another major problem—losing your momentum.
After all, you need to take a break, but you also need to stay motivated to return when that break is over. My advice is to take the next 3-4 weeks off from your novel. Write other stories, read tons of books, get outside, or watch some movies. Throughout your break, take an hour each week to learn more about the writing craft.
Whether you devour some books on writing or occasionally peruse blogs like this one, make sure you stay engaged with the writing process so you’ll have an easy transition when it’s time to work again!
#2: Reading Through It
With a healthy distance from your work, you’re ready to start reading your first draft.
Really, this step won’t be much different from reading any other book. You’ll sit back in a comfy chair, pull up your first draft on your laptop or tablet, and enjoy the story start to finish. The only difference is that here, you’ll be taking notes.
You can do this in a variety of ways—I personally have a notepad next to me as I read, but you may prefer to type up your notes in a separate document or even in the comments section of your first draft. Whatever your preference is, you’ll want to make a note whenever you come across a major issue in your story.
These notes should include:
- Major plot holes
- Boring or poorly written characters
- Stilted dialog
- Weak pacing or confusing scenes
- Anything you think is missing from the story
You’ll notice I said nothing about spelling issues, grammar, weird sentences, or the like. That’s because those things will be dealt with later. The next few steps all involve fixing large, structural issues, so there’s no point in fixing your spelling mistakes yet. For all you know that scene will get scrapped or rewritten later, wasting all the time you spent perfecting its prose earlier on.
Additionally, these notes don’t need to be in depth by any means. The purpose of this step isn’t to edit your work, but to reassess it with the fresh eyes you gained during the first step.
Enjoy reading your draft the same way a stranger in a bookstore might. Absorb the story and engage with the characters, just with a slightly more critical eye.
#3: Structural Edits (or the Second Draft)
Once your read through is complete and your notes are compiled, you can begin working on structural edits, also known as your second draft. By structural edits I mean big picture stuff, the same things I encouraged you to watch out for during the reading stage.
This can include things like:
- Plot holes
- Poor story structure
- Weak characters
- Bad pacing
Essentially, the goal of this step is to go through your draft on the macro level and make sure you have a cohesive story on your hands.
This’ll be by far the most difficult and gut wrenching part of the entire editing process. You’ll delete scenes, cut characters, and “kill your darlings” so to speak. It’s rough and intimidating, but know it’s all in the service of turning your core story into the strongest, most polished version it can be.
A great way to approach the structural edit is to separate your efforts into “Plot” and “Character.” Here are some examples of what you might focus on in each of these sections:
Plot: Your Midpoint isn’t a turning point for your protagonist
Fix: Change the stakes so your protagonist gains a major skill and takes action
Character: Your protagonist doesn’t prove they’ve grown at the Climax
Fix: Connect their ability to overcome the conflict to their ability to overcome their Central Problem.
To help you get a good grasp on fixing issues of story structure, I wrote an entire series about that here. For characters, I recommend you check out this post. Of course, having a well-kept outline makes this all much easier. With an outline you can quickly reference where scenes take place and see a roadmap of how your plot and characters relate to one another.
If you don’t already have an outline or deviated from your original one when writing your first draft, go ahead and create one. Jot down a note for each scene, letting you know what happened, who was there, and why. With your scenes written out, mark where each one falls in your chosen story structure.
Most importantly though, don’t be afraid to be aggressive in fixing every element of your story.
Your final novel will thank you for it.
#4: The Second Rest and Seeking Help
With structural edits done and your story in good shape, it’s time to seek a second opinion. You’ve corrected all the obvious missteps in your story—now you need an outside eye to catch the flaws you won’t notice.
However, that’s not the only focus of this step. Since finding editors, beta readers, and critique partners can take a few weeks or months, this is also the perfect time for your second rest. Just like before, you’ll take this time to step away from your novel, reset your mind, and relax. When feedback comes in, you’ll be able to approach your story once again with fresh, objective eyes.
Getting that feedback, however, is the hard part. It usually comes in a few forms:
- Beta Readers
- Critique Partners
- Professional Editors
For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on working with an editor, since that’s my expertise. However, check out this post on finding beta readers and this one on critique partners for more!
Now, at this stage in the editing process you’ll want to work specifically with a developmental editor. Developmental editors specialize in finding and fixing the structural issues of your story, much like you did for your second draft. The major difference is that it’s their job to dive deep into your draft and give it the tough love it needs to shine.
They’re about as objective as someone can get, and that’s a good thing.
Best of all, finding a developmental editor is as easy as a quick Google search. Once you’ve found someone you’re confident you’ll enjoy working with, they’ll usually take a few weeks to a month to review your draft and write up comprehensive feedback for you. Some will meet with you for a consultation before or after they send you feedback, and most will be available for questions after you’re done working together.
Whether you consult with a professional or only your fellow writers, make sure you seek outside advice at this stage.
Trust me, you want to tackle these edits now rather than later. Nothing is worse than spending three weeks copyediting, only to realize you need to rewrite your entire opening scene from scratch (along with all the reverberating changes that will cause in later scenes).
#5: Wrapping Up the Third Draft
With feedback in hand it’s time to work on the final draft of your novel.
This third draft is where you’ll look closer at issues like pacing, theme, characteristic moments, and the other smaller aspects of writing. It’s also when you’ll take the time to digest and apply the feedback you received in the previous step. For many people, this is a difficult task—when presented with deep cutting criticism, especially of our beloved stories, it’s natural to reject it.
However, I encourage you to pause and reflect on the feedback you’ve received.
What issues have cropped up? What feedback do you disagree with and why? Even if you ignore a piece of criticism, you want to do so with purpose and consider all the possibilities.
For example, say multiple beta readers confused two of your characters, and your editor suggested combining them into one character all together. You’re very attached to these characters—that’s understandable. But how can you still solve the problem?
Well, what about changing their names to be more distinct? Perhaps you can pay special attention to their dialog, ensuring each has a unique voice? These small fixes may not completely solve the problem others saw, but it can be a healthy middle ground if you balk at their advice.
Beyond fixing these larger scale issues, the third draft is there for cleanup.
Does a scene lack tension? Up the pace with shorter sentences and less description. Does a section of dialog come across as fake? Take the time to liven it up by injecting each character’s unique voice.
Ultimately, your novel at the end of the second draft is only good. It takes the refinement of your third draft to make it great.
Now that your story is in its best possible shape, it’s finally time to turn your attention to issues like spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
To be honest, I’m not an expert in this. My expertise is in developmental editing, not copyediting, and it’s something I’ll always seek outside help with for my own novels. Despite this, I have some basic advice that can get you started copyediting your novel, along with links to other resources to learn more!
Let’s start with what exactly copyediting is…
Basically, copyediting is about clarity. This may be clarity of spelling, punctuation, or grammar, but it also might be clarity of sentence structure or scene. Remember, your job here runs deeper than the average spell checker. What you need to do is ensure that at no point will you leave your readers thinking, “Wait, what did I just read?”When editing a novel, your job runs deeper than the average spell checker. #amwriting Click To Tweet
As with all things, there are a few ways to approach this:
#1: Read your manuscript aloud, listening for sections that sound incorrect. Your computer or Kindle can probably do this for you.
#2: Cross out words you overuse. You can do this with the search feature in your word processor.
#3: Run your manuscript through an editing software like ProWritingAid (not an affiliate link, I’m just a huge fan!)
#4: If you have the patience, recreate your novel from scratch. Print it out and set about rewriting everything into a new document. This is a brutal tactic, but it’ll force you to tighten your prose and improve your overall writing. Trial by fire, am I right?
Of course, there are many ways to tackle this step. You can check out these posts for more:
- Edit Your Copy
- Self-Editing Basics
- Copyediting: Style Manual for Your Story
- 5 Steps to Surviving Your Copy Edit
#7: Proofreading and Formatting
By this point in the process, you’re on the home stretch.
Similar to your structural edits, this is where seeking outside help is usually well worth it. Proofreading is all about fixing the final typographical and formatting errors in your manuscript before it reaches store shelves and seeking an expert eye is in your best interest.
However, unlike the steps above, this is something you may never do yourself.
While the structural edits of your second and third draft should usually be done before sending your novel to an agent or publisher that’s not always the case for proofreading. If you sign a contract with most any publishing house, their team will do your final proofread.
They’re the ones dictating the format of your book, so it makes sense that their experts will handle the final proofreading instead of you!
Of course, if you’re self-publishing your novel, this task will fall to you. Just like with copyediting I’m going to refer you to some of my favorite resources for further advice, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Your final format will probably change between ebook and print, possibly even between Kindle and Nook.
- Take the time to go over your manuscript thoroughly if you’re tackling this step alone. Look for any stray punctuation, weird indents, extra spaces, etc…
- Don’t get overwhelmed. Work on this step in batches if you can, versus rushing and missing important details.
If you’re about to proofread your manuscript, check out these tips before you start:
- Proofreading Your Novel: 8 Ways to Edit Your Final Draft
- Book Formatting for Ebooks and Print
- How to Format a Book: 7 Book Format Mistakes to Avoid
- How to Format Your Book for Kindle in Only 30 Minutes
#8: Embracing Your Work
Finally, the hardest part of any art is knowing when you’re done.
You see, your taste will always be growing and changing. When you read a book, explore blogs like this one, work with an editor, watch movies, or talk with other authors, you expose yourself to new ways of telling stories. These ideas become expectations for your own work, and that’s a good thing. It means you’ll always be improving and growing as a writer.The hardest part of any story is knowing when you’re done. #amwriting Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, the danger is that you’ll never accept your novel, flaws and all.
There will always be another word you can tweak or a better way to phrase a sentence. Characters will evolve in your mind while remaining static on the page. What this comes down to is knowing when enough is enough—and when your novel is ready to be sent into the world.
This looks different for everyone. Some authors spend six months total on each book they write, start to finish. Others only write one book in their lifetime, spread over many decades.
In the end, this is a decision you have to make for yourself, but I encourage you to err on the side of confidence, regardless of the flaws your novel may have. If you’ve gone through the self-editing process to the best of your ability, I feel safe saying you’re ready. I hope you feel the same!
“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures” – Henry Ward Beecher
It’s Time to Start Editing
Of course, whether you’re still working on your second draft or even on your first, knowing what’s ahead of you is always helpful. Keep this post in the back of your mind as you move forward and check out the rest of The Novel Smithy if you’re looking for more.
Since this post was a bit of a beast, I’ve turned it into a more organized PDF ebook you can download for free! I’ve even added extra links for resources and a “Goals” sections, so I hope you’ll check it out below. Better yet, consider checking out The Ten Day Edit for even more details on how to organize and manage the self-editing process. 🙂
Thoughts on The Complete Guide to Self-Editing Your Novel
Thank you very much for the great advice! I’ve just finished my first draft (taking the well-deserved break) and I know this guide will be of great help on my editing journey. 🙂
I’m so glad to hear that Kenza! 🙂
Thank you for all this timely information. I have completed the rough draft of my second book. I have analyzed each scene in about half the book. I am always interested in learning more and perfecting my craft.
Thank you!! This was very helpful for me as a first time writer! Thanks for sharing!