Writing a novel can be a daunting task. But perhaps even more daunting is editing that rough draft. This stage of writing a book trips up a lot of writers. Many authors spend months or years wondering what to edit first. Others let their fear slowly take over until they believe that their draft will never be good enough, no matter how much editing they do.
No matter where you fall on the editing scale, you need to have a reason, a focus, and a system to not only edit your novel but also to finish editing your novel. We’re going to cover all three of these aspects in this post. And be sure to read through to the end because I have a free editing checklist that will help you have focus and a system.
Why Should You Self-Edit?
The responsibility of editing a novel does not fall solely on a professional editor’s shoulders. If you’re an author who has written a draft, part of your author job is to edit that draft. Why?
1. You know your story best.
As the creator behind this new work, you know its ins and outs unlike anyone else ever will. No development editor or beta reader can rewrite your story like you can because it’s your story. While they are immensely helpful with identifying plot holes and developing your characters, they just can’t fix those areas like you can.
Your creativity, imagination, and desire to write this book should not stop when you finish the first draft. Let those same driving factors carry you through the editing stage.
2. It will save you money.
Let’s face it. We all know that our first drafts always need a lot of TLC. I know mine sure does. It’s just part of writing a book. If you handed your first draft over to an editor, you would end up paying thousands of dollars as your editor works and reworks the draft into something publishable. And even then, editors can only do so much (see point 1).
If, however, you put the time and work into heightening the conflict, tying up loose subplots, and correcting grammar, you won’t have to spend anywhere near as much money on an editor (or editors). Yes, the work will take time, but it’ll be worth it.
3. You want to _____.
The final reason for editing and seeing the work through to the end comes back to the reason you wrote the book in the first place. Did you want to bring the same joy to readers that your favorite author did to you? Did you want to prove to yourself that you could do it? Did you want to share the story that’s been burning inside you since you were a child?
We all have something that started us on this journey of becoming a published author. Think back to what that was for you, write it down, and put it somewhere you can see it while editing. Your “why” will help you push through those tough editing days.
The Key to Self-Editing Success
There are a lot of different things that keep authors from finishing the editing stage. It could be a full-time job or a family, or it could be a lack of direction. Maybe you’ve remembered your “why,” and you dive right into the work.
The first day, you read the first chapter and realize you need to add more description. But after working on that for a couple of days, you find that your MC’s hair color changes, so you spend the next week skimming every reference to your MC only to get distract by a plot hole. Sound familiar?
When you don’t focus on one area of editing at a time, it’s easy to get lost in the murky waters of your manuscript, and you will quickly start to feel like you’re getting nowhere.
The key to self-editing success is focusing on one type of edit at a time.
For example, on one round of editing, you can review and edit only chapter beginnings to ensure that they hook the reader. You do that for every single chapter until you’ve worked through the entire novel.
The Self-Editing Checklist
Once you’ve got your “why” and you’re ready to focus, you need a systematic way to work through the edits. One way to do that is to read through your draft and identify the areas that need work, make a list, and start working on each area one at a time.
But to save you time, I’ve put together the Self-Editing Checklist. This checklist includes 24 different areas of your novel to edit. Each item is listed in the order that you should tackle them, and they are separated into four different rounds of editing. Print this out and keep it with you to help you focus on one edit at a time and to check them off as you make them.
After you download the Self-Editing Checklist, come back here to learn more about how to use the checklist to better your editing approach!
The First Round of Edits
The goals of this round of edits.
1. Read the draft with fresh eyes.
Before you start editing, you should put your draft to the side for 1-2 weeks. This break period allows your mind to put some distance between what it knows the book should say and what the book actually says. This break will help you read your book with a fresh and critical eye that is more willing and able to catch the issues that need to be fixed.
I do not recommend a break of more than about 2 weeks, and that’s because too much time away can make it harder for you to get back into the work.
2. Identify what needs work.
The main goal of this round of edits is to simply find and mark what needs to be edited. No edits will actually be made at this stage.
Why you should mark instead of edit.
In this round, you will read through the entire draft in as few sittings as possible. That might mean three days or two weeks for you depending on your schedule. But if possible, try to keep this first read through down to 1 week or less. This will help you understand the pacing and plot of your novel better than if you read only one chapter a day for a month.
As you read, you will look for and mark things such as plot holes, character inconsistencies, boring dialogue, etc. All areas you should mark are listed on the Self-Editing Checklist.
Also, if you haven’t already made a style sheet for your book, now is the time to do it. I won’t go into detail here on what style sheets are and why you should use them, but if you want to learn more, you can read about it here.
How to mark your draft.
The easiest and most efficient way to mark up your draft is by using the comments feature in your writing software of choice. I use Microsoft Word and Scrivener for Mac for different revisions, and they both have a commenting feature.
When you come across something that needs to be edited later, for example, a few boring lines of dialogue, you can highlight the text and click the new comment button to leave a note. You can be as brief as “Fix boring dialogue” or as detailed as “Jason’s dialogue needs to be more intense, and Ben’s character doesn’t use the phrase ‘What’s up?’” In my own revisions, I sometimes leave a three or four word note and other times I write a paragraph or two. Write down as much as you need to so that you will remember how to edit it later.
The Second Round of Edits
The goals of this round of edits.
1. Make the Changes from Your First Read Through
Now, that you have a clearer understanding of your novel’s flow, you can better make all the edits that you marked in your first read through. Whether you made a note to change a character’s physical description or to rewrite an entire chapter, go through your manuscript and make all those changes. If you come across an edit that you’re not sure how to implement, skip it. You can come back to it at a later time. The purpose of these edits is to make changes that you’ve already found so that you can make more edits on a cleaner manuscript.
2. Make Big Picture Changes
The second goal of this round of edits is all about revising the larger issues. We will get into the details such as grammar later. For now, you need to only focus on three categories: scenes, characters, POV.
Revise your scenes.
This category can be further broken down into three sub categories: scene beginnings, scene endings, and scene transitions.
You need to start by reading your scene beginnings. You can read anywhere between the first paragraph and the first page. When you read, you’re analyzing your writing to determine if your scene openings grab your reader’s attention. You probably hear this talked about a lot with the first chapter and the importance of hooking your reader. Well, the same is true for every chapter beginning. You have to keep your readers engaged through to the end of your book.
Your scene endings are equally important. How you end your scenes or chapters will largely determine whether or not your reader puts your book down. The goal is to keep your reader turning pages, and you do that with endings that leave them asking more questions.
Now, I don’t mean that every scene or chapter should end in a cliff hanger. In fact, I don’t recommend that. While cliff hangers are one option, another could be resolving one issue only to introduce a new one right at the end. You could also end on a good note that leaves the reader pleased but curious to see how long that will last for the MC.
Finally, editing scene transitions simply means that you are making sure the end of one scene flows smoothly into the beginning of the next. You don’t want to end one scene with your character in the dessert at three in the afternoon only to turn the page and find that same character in the snowy mountains only an hour later.
If you make a location change, you will need to make sure that your readers are clear on how the characters made the move and where they are in the timeline of the story. If you change POVs, you need to make sure that the reader is clear you’ve swapped heads.
Revise your characters.
Like with any part of your story, consistency with your characters is key. You need consistency across all areas for each character so that they don’t change eye color part way through your book and so that your 19th century middle-class woman doesn’t say a word only a 21st century teen would.
A style sheet (download free templates here) or a character sheet will help you immensely with this part of the editing process. You can record on one of those sheets the physical description, personality, dreams, fears, and even mannerisms or types of phrases each character would use. If you haven’t made a style sheet or character sheet yet, you will want to do that for each character. Once you have them, you can use them as reference as you edit your characters.
Take this opportunity to not only make sure your characters stay in character but also to develop and deepen your characters. You may come across a chapter where your MC is directionless, no real purpose for the chapter. That’s something you’ll want to change. Looking back at your character sheet, what are your MC’s goals or dreams? What are your MC’s fears? Using that type of information, you can either throw obstacles in your MC’s way to slow him or her down or challenge the character, or you can get your MC one step closer to the goal.
Revise your POV.
This is a step that I think often gets forgotten, but your POV is crucial to how you tell your story and how your readers relate to your characters. Without this being strong and consistent, you’re going to have a hard time holding your readers’ attention, much less entertaining them.
You already chose a POV and one or multiple POV characters before you wrote your book. Now, you have to make sure that you stick with that type of POV throughout your novel, not slipping into head hopping or using the wrong tense. You can read more about how to edit POV in my article The #1 POV Mistake and How to Fix It.
The Third Round of Edits
The goal of this round of edits.
Make Smaller Picture Changes
Now that you’ve made all your big, overarching edits, you can get down to the smaller details of your story. We save these edits for last because paragraphs, scenes, and entire chapters can be completely rewritten during the editing stage, so there’s no benefit in focusing on the details until those larger rewrites are finished. Once those are complete, you can focus on the three smaller edits: writing, grammar, and punctuation.
Revise your writing.
To start, you need to look at how you wrote your draft. What words did you use, how did you describe your characters, settings, and actions, and what information did you share repeatedly.
When you examine your word choice, you want to make sure your words do three things. First, it should fit the time period. Just as an 18th century man wouldn’t greet someone with “What’s up?” your narration shouldn’t use words that don’t fit the time period. Some of the words will be obvious like the example I gave, and other words will require a little to research to see when it was first used.
Second, you want to evaluate your description. Did you spend a couple of pages just to describe a mountain range? Did you forget to include any character description or action in between a long conversation between characters?
Lastly, and going right along with the first two, are there words you used repeatedly? Did your hero furrow his brow every time he was confused or mad? Did you use “very” instead of a stronger descriptive word? Reading over your manuscript, you should be able to tell which words or phrases you over used and change them to something different. A quick search in word can also tell you how many times a word was used, and Scrivener has a feature that will show you your most used words.
Revise your grammar.
These last two revisions may be an author’s least enjoyable task, but they are none the less important to writing a great novel. Poor grammar can confuse your reader or communicate something you never intended.
Here are just a few of the grammar errors that I find often:
Ambiguous pronoun references
Problem words (which/that, farther/further, there/their/they’re, etc.)
If grammar is not your strong suit or you can’t remember back to your high school grammar days, take the opportunity to brush up on the grammar basics. This won’t require you taking a grammar class again. There are many great books on the subject, and below are a few I recommend.. It won’t be time wasted, especially if you truly want to make writing your career.
My personal favorite of the above resources is The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. It is a simple to read and understand guide to grammar that will equip you with what you need to know to write your book.
If you're looking for a more hands on approach, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is more like a work book, offering exercises that you can complete in the book with answers in the back.
Revise your punctuation.
Just like with grammar, poor (or no) punctuation can leave a reader wondering what you are trying to tell them. Bad punctuation can also make it harder for a reader to read.
Here are a few common punctuation errors I find often:
End punctuation falling outside quotation marks (“I want coffee”.)
Semi colons preceding a sentence fragment (I like cookies; especially chocolate chip.)
A period in dialogue preceding she/he said (“I’ve been looking for you.” She said.)
This is another subject that would be worth reading up on if you feel like you’re unsure about some of the punctuation rules. The Best Punctuation Book, Period. is an easy to read, easy to reference punctuation book that I recommend.
The Clean Up
The goals of this round of edits.
1. Make the draft physically appealing
Cleaning up your manuscript focuses on the formatting and style of your draft. This is the more technical side of editing. Even if you plan to hire someone to format your manuscript before publishing, these edits are simple to make on your own, and they could potentially cut down on your formatting costs later on.
Revising your fonts.
Your manuscript should include no more than three font styles and size. One font style and size for the chapter number, one for the chapter title (if any), and one for the body text of your manuscript. Any more font styles and sizes beyond those two to three will just bog your manuscript down. When it comes to your book’s appearance, less is absolutely more.
Go through your manuscript and make sure your font style and size is consistent across chapter numbers, chapter titles, and body text. If you are familiar with formatting styles and want to take this a step further, you can make sure all chapter numbers/titles are formatted with the Heading 1 style and the text is formatted with the Normal style. If you don’t know what that means, you can do a quick YouTube search or just leave this for your formatter.
Revising your chapters.
Next, you will want to make sure your chapters are numbered in the correct order. You don’t want your readers in chapter 5 only to flip one page and find themselves in chapter 7. If you create a table of contents, you will also need to make sure that your chapters are in order there.
If your chapters have titles, make sure they are spelled, punctuated, and capitalize correctly. Also, be sure to reference each title name with the table of contents (if you have one). They need to match down to the last punctuation mark.
2. Read through the draft one more time.
The final step is reading through your manuscript one more time. If time allows, take another break from your draft first. You’ve spent a lot of time editing and revising, and time away can give you an opportunity to distance yourself from your second draft.
When you’re ready, read through your entire manuscript in as few sittings as possible, just like you did at the start of this process. Use this time to catch any errors, plot holes, inconsistencies, or typos that you either missed the first time or may have introduced while editing.
Once you’ve completed the final read through and edits, you should celebrate! Congratulations! You’ve made it through the various editing stages for your book!
What to Do After You Finish Editing
After you’ve taken a must deserved break, treated yourself, and finished your celebratory dance (or is that just me?), you’ll probably ask, “Now what?”
First, I’ll tell you what you should not do. Please, please, please, do not let your novel sit on your desk or computer unread. Share it with someone! Or better yet, get it ready to publish and share with the world!
To do this, you can start by sharing it with a few beta readers. This has become a common practice among authors, especially those who self-publish. Many readers will beta read for free or in exchange for a free copy of the book once it’s published, and many authors will beta read for free as well, sometimes with the agreement that you will beta read their book in return.
The best beta readers are going to be those who read widely in the same genre as your book. They are going to be the ones who are familiar with your book’s market, what works, what doesn’t work, what’s cliché, and what’s treading.
To get the most out of beta readers, prepare a list of questions ahead of time and send that to your beta readers when you send your book. This will help the beta reader know what sort of specific feedback you are looking for.
After you review all the feedback and decide whether or not to make the beta readers’ suggested changes, you will be ready to send your book off to an editor. You don’t want to skip this step. No amount of self-editing or beta reading can ever replace the work of a professional editor.
The finals steps will be formatting your book and designing a book cover or hiring someone to do those tasks. You will also need to write the back cover copy and a brief bio to include with the book, and you will need a professional headshot to include in your book as well.
Finally, you’re ready to decide on your publishing route—traditional or self-publishing—and publishing platform—hardcover, paperback, ebook, or a combination of the three. Then it’s just a matter of setting everything up and hitting “publish.”
In case you missed it, you can click below to download your self-editing checklist.
If you want to learn more about any of the topics mentioned above, be sure to let me know in the comments below. And don’t miss the next article: How to Find the Right Book Editor.
Do you have any more editing tips? Maybe something that helps you through the process? Share with us in the comments below.
And remember, keep writing and editing!