• Crit & Pen

Self-Editing 101: How the Heck Do I Edit This Thing?

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

A Bon Jovi quote is the last thing you want to read after typing “To be continued,” “The End,” or “Finito” at the end of your latest masterpiece, but alas: We’re halfway there.

“Wait a second,” you say, “I wrote during my break hours, gained ten pounds, and dried out my corneas churning out this manuscript and you mean to tell me I’m only halfway finished?”

Yep. You’re halfway finished. Especially if it’s your first draft.

The next phase is the toughest part: editing your untamed beast of a first draft. So many plots to untangle. All of those holes to fill. And, goodness gracious, let’s not think about continuity without a bottle of ibuprofen within arm’s reach.

But don’t worry! Self-editing isn’t as hard as it sounds. In a few steps, your manuscript will be ready for another pair of eyes. All you’ve got to do is take them:

  • Step 1: Let it rest.

  • Step 2: Read it (aloud).

  • Step 2.5: Take notes.

  • Step 3: Edit the story.

  • Step 4: Edit the prose.

  • Step 5: Edit the copy.

Think of this article as an introduction to the world of self-editing. Use it to prepare your first draft for a critique partner, an alpha reader, or (shameless plug incoming) a professional developmental editor. After all, we’re people too, and we’re much more likely to focus on the story if the prose is clean and the narrative is clear.

Ready to get started? Perfect! Grab a notebook, your manuscript, and a few pens so we can get to it.

Step 1: Let it rest.

Talk about anticlimactic, eh? But if you’ve just finished your first draft, then you’re taking the leap too early.

In On Writing, His Majesty Stephen King revealed that he lets his manuscripts rest for as long as six weeks before looking at it again, but you may only need a few days to a week.

Use that break to read another book, binge a Netflix show, or start another project! After some time away from the work you’ve slaved away for, you can approach your work with a clear head and an objective point of view.

Step 2: Read it (aloud).

You’ve taken a break, and now it’s time to get to work.

Don’t rush things! Take your time and read the story as a story (more on what to do with your observations here later). Think of yourself as a reader, not a writer.

Are you cringing? Ready to toss it in the furnace? That’s natural. The first read-through is the toughest, but remember that this is only the first phase. Your story can only improve from here!

If you’re having trouble at this stage, try listening to your story instead. Your word processor likely has a text-to-speech function, and even if it doesn’t, there are plenty of free websites and apps that can read entire novels of text out loud for you.

Step 2.5: Take notes.

Put those cringes to good use: either pause the program or stop reading whenever you think something sounds wrong (i.e. “This passage could do without the Tolkien-esque description of the furniture in the basement,” or “There are way too many star-metaphors in this thing”). Make notes in your notebook to scan the manuscript for similar errors later, but don’t get too bogged down with line-level details just yet.

This is the step where you pick at the story.

Do you find that certain worldbuilding elements don’t add up? Does the middle sag? Did you find yet another plot hole to fill? Make a separate list of developmental problems, organized by chapter and scene, to look over once you’ve finished reading.

When you have, brainstorm solutions to those problems. It’s easy to get intimidated by over three-hundred pages of story-in-the-rough; fixing those issues will seem much less daunting in list form.

Once you’ve got your fixes figured out, it’s time to roll up your sleeves.

Step 3: Edit the story.

Depending on the size of your list, this pass could take anywhere from one month to…well, forever, if you’re not careful. Good thing you’ve got a plan of action!

Here’s where a writing routine comes in handy. Set a daily or weekly goal for yourself and stick to it. Maybe it’s a chapter a day, or a scene a day, or a set of words or pages a week. Whatever the case, give yourself a deadline and work through your list of fixes at a pace that works for you.

At this step, the most important things to remember are to not judge your work too harshly, and to save the prose-polishing for later. You’re still early in the self-editing process, so focusing on typos and awkward phrases too soon will distract you from what really counts: the story.

Step 4: Edit the prose.

Only after addressing everything on your list is it time to edit the language itself. What use is a pretty sentence if it’s smack-dab in the middle of a scene you decide to cut later?

Repeat steps one and two, but when you read your manuscript this time, pay careful attention to the language. Is it clear and easy to follow? Did you stumble over a few too many passages? Is that one brilliant line you wrote a few weeks ago suddenly…not?

Edit as you go, and value clarity above all else. Kill your darlings. Tighten those metaphors. Cut those echoes and crutch words and everything you noted in your other list from Step 2.5. If you already know which words and phrases you abuse, one Ctrl+F on Windows (Command+F for Macs) is all it takes to weed out the offending words.

“Blasphemy! I know I’ve compared the love interest’s smile to a summer sunflower fifty-two times so far, but I can’t possibly cut any of them! My metaphors are brilliant! Award-worthy! Absolutely uncuttable! Also, no one cares about echoes!”

Remember: The goal here is to make your manuscript as easy to read as possible. You want your next reader to focus on the story, not how many ways you can describe a hydrangea. Every echo, overused metaphor, and clumsy sentence is another potential distraction.

Step 5: Edit the copy.

We’re almost ready to send this off. And no, prose and copy are not the same thing!

Don’t worry, you don’t need to become a proofreading expert overnight to pull off this next step. After taking another break, it’s time to address the technical issues: typos, grammatical correctness, formatting, and all that fun stuff. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be readable.

Take advantage of your word processor’s spellcheck option to correct the obvious errors (But be careful! The robots aren’t always our friends, and may make some wonky suggestions), but you’ll have to read through it to catch what it can’t: narrative continuity, misnamed characters and places, punctuation mark abuse.

Want some shortcuts? If you’re a comma fiend, for example, you can Ctrl+F for commas and decide which to keep and which to nix. If you notice some double spaces, remove them with Find and Replace (Ctrl+H)! There are countless ways your word processor can help you copyedit, but nothing beats reading through the manuscript yourself.

Before sending it off, make sure your document is in standard manuscript format:

  1. 12pt, double-spaced Times New Roman

  2. Half-inch indentations

  3. One-inch surrounding margins

  4. A cover page with your name, contact info, and the novel’s title

  5. A header with page numbers, your name (again!) and your novel’s abbreviated title.

Even if it’s only going to a critique partner, this is as good a time as any to practice! Plus, it’ll save you a step when it’s time to publish or shop it around.

That’s all for now!

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Self-editing can feel like a process that never ends, especially if you’re a newer writer without a tried-and-true process. This isn’t the only way to approach self-editing, but it’s a good place to start! Give it a go, decide what you like and what you don’t, and you’ll have your own method in no time.

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