Self-editing your novel

Hi there,

Happy 2017! I’ve been busy lately with family matters and editing my third book – Sean Yeager Claws of Time. Here are some thoughts collated from the arduous task of self-editing and the further research I did before kicking off the same:

What is self-editing?

It seems self-explanatory, but let’s define our scope. You’ve written your first draft from start to finish and now you want to edit to the stage where it is good enough to present to either a) a professional editor b) your agent / prospective agent c) your self publishing platform d) your beta readers.

In the main, I suggest it is a combination of a) to d) depending on whether there is a commercial partner expecting to have approval, and have their editor work with you prior to acceptance of a manuscript for publication.

The nature of the editing will vary from simple typos, to wholesale changes to scenes and structure. In my experience, it is wise to expect a lot of rewriting and improvement until you reach the happy place of being satisfied with the words on the page, and of course the flow. Or until your publisher says ‘yes’ we’re going to publish your work.

Stages of self-editing

Leave it in a drawer edit

Yes, leave your draft to one side and read other people’s work for a while. This will help to create a sense of separation from your work and a mental benchmark of what ‘good’ looks like. Once your mind has absorbed enough outside works and experiences, you’ll be ready to properly read your own work with fresh eyes. This is vital.

Coarse edit

This is the pass where you iron most things out. Typically I expect to remove, reduce, re-phrase, augment or re-write pretty much every page. Only the really good writing remains untouched. If it reads as ‘clunky’ it needs changing / improving / removing / scorching off the face of the planet. Delete as applicable.

I check for typos, perspective inconsistencies, speech attribution, adjectives, use of language, word flow issues, punctuation, scene progression, dialogue quality, plot points, character reactions, and so on. This is a heavy edit.

Tips – set your objectives clearly and write out your own editing checklist and refer to it regularly. Use a tool to check for overused words such as: that, then, with, like, towards, felt, looked etc. Consider each character’s path through your book – write it out as a brief flowchart and check that it makes sense. If it doesn’t, the chances are you have missed out necessary actions / speech / narrative, or even entire scenes.

My aims in this pass are to ensure that every section is effective and well written. I also re-consider the key plot points to check they make sense. I amend them or remove them if they don’t.

By the end of this stage, you will have a draft manuscript where you are not ashamed of the quality of the writing, and which you have begun to understand as a reader.

Structural edit

Once I have a sense of what I have actually written – as distinct from what I imagined I had written – I take a step back and review the story I am telling. I refer to my notes about each subplot and each character’s progression through the story.

The key question I ask about each sub-plot is – what does this add to the overall story? i.e. Do I need to keep this? Or do I need to move things around? Or should I delete a minor sub-plot lock, stock and barrel?

Tips: Structure – your main character (protagonist) should appear on page 1 or at least early in chapter one. Prologues usually suck and should be burned.

The key question I ask about each scene is – what is the scene’s purpose (action, fear, joy, discovery etc.) and does it work? i.e. is it effective enough or in need of a re-write?

Tips: Scene review – imagine the scene happening in real life and check how plausible it would be for actors to portray it. If it sucks, you need to augment and improve it. If it’s unclear, you may be overwriting and using too much purple prose. Short paragraphs work, pages of narrative by and large do not.

Self honesty is really important, and usually less is more. Also, it is worth recalling the established rules of writing and plotting (web research / books on the same) and breaking less than 30% of them at a time. Unless of course you never want anyone to read or recommend your work.

Removing unnecessary scenes or sub-plots can be really hard, and I don’t do so lightly. However, if you have a sneaking suspicion that the scene about the tree guardian who appears halfway through your story and does nothing except say two lines, is a bit flabby, the chances are it needs to be cut. Unless of course your story is about tree guardians, in which case they should have made an appearance on page one and regularly from that point on.

By the end of this stage, you have a manuscript draft where you are happy with your story, the major plot points and the length of the book. If not, go back and do it again…

Read aloud edit

I print and I read out loud, with a pencil at hand. I never cease to be amazed at how many outright mistakes sneak through until this stage.

The psychology is this – reading is the first pass through your brain, speaking is the second pass, and hearing what you have said is the third pass. The combination means you are much more likely to notice mistakes in your work.

Also, the flow or otherwise of what is written on the page comes across most clearly when you read your work aloud. If it flows, you can imagine what your readers will experience. And where the flow is poor, you will hasten to smooth things out out of sheer embarrassment or even boredom (as a reader). Yes, the section your always hated which dragged on still sucks – so now it’s time to edit it properly…  or cut it.

Tips: Dialogue check – do people really speak like that?  And would your character say those things in that manner? A key way to show a character is through their interactions, therefore what they say and how they say it matters. Provided of course – they had a plausible reason to say what they say. i.e. Action to reaction. What they know and what they don’t know.

By the end of this stage, you have a draft manuscript you are pretty much happy with, bar the detailed proofing. If not go back and do it again… Or if you absolutely hate the book, perhaps you need to park it for a while?

Writer’s proofing

Once happy with all the key ingredients I run the document through a couple of software tools and consider all the corrections I’m offered. Even the stupid ones which seem to make no sense at all. It’s boring and unfortunately completely necessary. The number of times I have found misused words spelt perfectly, or doubled up words in plain sight, is surprising and a relief – provided you correct them early enough. One tool alone is not enough to spot them all – for reasons I’ve never fully understood. (Software rules and such like).

Tips: check out tools in trial form first and see if you like them. Word alone is not enough.

By the end of this stage, you have a manuscript you are willing to share with others.

Professional editor edit

In an ideal world, all books would be further edited by a professional who gets the aims of the writer and is sympathetic to the effect they are trying to achieve. This may take the form of technical editing, structural editing and further proof editing.

It’s a partnership thing. If you find a great pro-editor, cherish them and send them greetings cards. If not, find someone else if you are able to. (Me, I’m looking.)

By the end of this stage, the book is quite different to the first draft – usually for the better, though I dare say – not always.

Final, final edit

More of the same until a) it’s done or b) someone say’s it’s getting published next week. Quite often a beta reader will raise an important omission or mistake. Sometimes this reaches the writer in time… I jest, the more complex your story the more edits will be needed all the way through to published editions, and corrections to published editions.

When is it good enough?

Never. Provided a writer keeps improving as a writer, they will always want to go back and revise a lesser work until they are sick of the sight of it. Incidentally, by the fifth round of editing I am usually sick of the sight of my own work. When this happens I call a break and go and write or do something else for a while.

Golden tip?

Fresh eyes are essential, as is a sense of detachment.Take a break and read other people’s work – ideally writers who are better than you are. Edit often and in hour chunks.

If you can forget you wrote the first draft manuscript and polish what you see in front of you, you can self-edit. Once you can no longer do this – take a break and/or get help.


Hope my insights help. Best of luck with your writing projects. Next time, I plan to write about plotting your book, click your bookmark or subscribe and please feel free to comment.

In due course, I will publish Sean Yeager Claws of Time. Having hurried on previous books, this time I’m following all my own advice and plenty of other people’s. Please check out my website and consider the younglings in your life who are missing out by not reading Sean Yeager Adventures. They are just a few clicks away on Amazon and elsewhere, somewhere between Harry Potter, Star Wars and James Bond.


D.M. Jarrett

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