“You just finished writing your novel! What are you going to do next?”
This sounds a lot like the gameshow host’s proverbial, “You just won a million dollars! What are you going to next?” doesn’t it? I’ve never heard a game winner shout, “Edit!” but, “Self-edit!” should be every fiction writer’s answer.
Completing a novel is exhilarating. There’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of having created a work of art, a sense of finality—it’s over, it’s finished, it’s perfect. If only this last one were true!
Finishing your novel is only the beginning. Whatever your goal—submitting it to agents or publishers, self-publishing, sending it off for some group beta reading, or even just sharing it with your family and friends—what comes next is important: it’s time to edit.
If you have a professional copy editor you trust, great! Send the manuscript over and get started. But if you aren’t ready to share your work yet or you can’t afford to hire a professional editor right now, there’s actually a lot of editing you can do on your own.
“To write is human, to edit is divine.” – Stephen King
When you self-edit, you need to break from your role as the author and writer, and take on a more objective perspective. Since your novel is the result of hours of your hard work and dedication, this is difficult to do.
Here are five tips for self-editing for fiction writers to make your job easier.
#1 – Take a Break
Step away from your manuscript for a little while and let it breathe—let yourself breathe. For months, or even years, you’ve drunk, eaten, slept, and agonized over this novel.
If you’re going to gain some objectiveness, you need to step away for a while. Refresh your mind and your energy. Read something new or spend some time outdoors. This will ensure that when you return to your novel, you’re ready with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
#2 – Get Rid of Excess Text
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” – William Faulkner
Sometimes, the hardest thing to admit as a writer is that not every word you write is precious and perfect. Rough drafts are often full of nonsensical sentences, repetition, and even poor storytelling.
While you automatically get rid of a lot of these during revisions, during self-editing, you can clean up your manuscript even more.
Read through your novel and remove unnecessary words and text. What counts as excess or unnecessary? Here are some ideas:
- Adverbs (i.e., -ly words that describe verbs)—they clutter your text and you don’t need them
- Repetition—if you’ve already said something, don’t reiterate it; once is enough
- “That”—often, “that” isn’t necessary; when you come across “that” in your text, reread the sentence leaving the word out; if the sentence still makes sense, delete it permanently
- Words that should be contractions—oftentimes, reading is easier when writers use contractions, so replace “is not” with “isn’t,’ “do not” with “don’t,” etc.
- Background information the audience doesn’t need to know—unless it’s essential to the story or characterization, remove it; Jane Austen never tells us what Elizabeth Bennet eats for breakfast, and readers everywhere are okay with that
- “Really” and “very”—“really” and “very” tend to be used as adjectives describing adjectives; this is rarely necessary; when you come across these in your text, eliminate them: either change the second adjective to something stronger or just remove “really” or “very” and let the adjective stand on its own
- Boring text—if you find yourself skimming through a dull paragraph or scene just to get to the end more quickly, consider removing the text completely; if you’re bored, you can probably imagine that your readers might be too
- General wordiness—if you can say something more succinctly and it still fits your style and voice, by all means, be more succinct; your readers will thank you
- Stage directions—readers don’t need to know every minute detail of your characters’ movements or actions; they don’t need to know how the knee unbent as the heiress stood to answer the door—it’s enough to know that when she answered the door, her un-dead husband was there waiting to exact his revenge
#3 – Break Your Mindset
Writing a novel means a fair amount of time spent staring at your computer. You probably use a certain word processing program that you’re comfortable with too, maybe Word, Google Docs, or Pages. This means that every day, your manuscript looks the same. And even when you think about the text when you’re not on your computer, you still imagine it this way.
This image of your novel has become your mindset, and if you really want to take an objective look at your book, you’re going to need to break it. Essentially, you need to see the text in a different light. The best way to do this is to change up the way you look at the text:
- Print it out and read it on paper
- Change the font to something substantially different, e.g., serif vs. non-serif font
- Read the book in another program—if you’re used to Word or Pages, try Google Docs, a pdf, or even a book publishing program like Adobe InDesign
- Change the layout—page size or margin size is a good place to start
- Change the font and/or background color
You’ll be amazed—and grateful—at the typos, misspellings, and clumsy sentences you’ll suddenly become aware of simply by getting your brain out of its rut.
#4 – Do Multiple Rounds of Editing
You’ve probably already read your manuscript through half a dozen times or more; you may even be getting sick of it. That means you’re almost ready to share it with the world! But not quite yet.
What errors you uncover through self-editing depends on how you read the text. Remember, you’ve taken a break and are coming back with an objective eye. Now you need to know what you’re looking for.
While a practiced copy editor (like me!) has the skills to read through your text looking for grammar and spelling errors, repetition, consistency, plot, and voice all at once, the average writer likely does not. So to make the process easier for yourself, do multiple rounds of editing and in each read through, look for specific issues.
Issues to look for might include:
- Read only to ensure the plot is solid.
- Do a pass to eliminate excess text.
- Read through for passive voice and rewrite it to active voice.
- Read to check only dialog.
- Read just to make sure the voice is consistent.
- Do a grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax pass.
- Read through only looking at characterization.
You should also always do a read through looking just for your most common mistakes and weaknesses. Not sure what those are? Contact a professional editor about a free sample or consultation, and then use the sample edit as a guide for your editing. You can also run your text through a free Grammarly grammar check and see where you make the most errors.
#5 – Read It Backwards
Once you’ve completed all other editing tasks, turn to the last page of your novel and, one line at a time, read it backwards. This will help you spot spelling errors, including homonym issues (e.g., you’re vs. your); clean up punctuation; and even identify sentences that still don’t make sense.
Why Do You Need Editing in the First Place?
Editing is essential if you want to be taken seriously as a writer. And your word processer’s spellcheck isn’t enough. It’s not just about the spelling and grammar, but coherency and storytelling too. And it’s about professionalism and perceptions:
“A poorly edited book will score bad reviews from readers or end up in the circular file on an acquisitions editor’s office.” – Penny C. Sasevieri, Huffington Post
Even more so, it’s about valuing your work as it deserves to be valued, as you the author deserve to be valued. Writing your novel has taken dedication and determination. Don’t just flippantly say “it’s good enough” and send it away to critics. Complete the process. And now you know self-editing for the fiction writer is something even you can do.