How to Start Self-Editing your Book
Although there’s no substitute for a professional editor/proofreader, you can save yourself time and money on how much professional attention your manuscript will need simply by doing as much self-editing as you can.
Many authors feel that editing just isn’t their strong point and are quick to pass on their first draft to a perplexed editor. This is fine if you’re happy to bear the consequences – potentially some hard truths, plenty of homework, and an oversized invoice.
But if you are prepared to have a go yourself, you won’t be sorry for the extra effort you’ve put in. Aside from saving yourself money, self-editing is one of the best learning tools you can have in your armoury.
You’ll be amazed how much of your book actually gets written in subsequent redrafts and editing – early stages are just for getting something in place to work with. And with practice, your self-editing will also make you a more efficient first-draft writer.
So if you want to hone your creative writing skills in a new way, here’s how to put self-editing into practice.
How sick are you of your novel?
You have a couple of options here: one is that you break down editing into the three stages I’ve talked about earlier in this blog series, which will mean working through your manuscript at least three times looking for stage-related issues; another is that – depending on your thoughts on the condition of your manuscript – you try to combine all three of the stages as best as you can.
The former method is more logical but you’ve already spent a LOT of time with this story, which means that at some point working through it endlessly is a little detrimental anyway. I would suggest going with whatever feels more comfortable for you.
If you still have a lot of stamina for this project, then by all means, follow the three stages of editing, leaving a gap of several weeks in between each stage in order to give yourself the best chance of spotting errors. This is the ideal approach, but some writers may be starting to feel a little impatient by this point.
If you’re getting sick and tired of your manuscript, you’ve gone manuscript-blind, it’s starting to affect your wellbeing, or you’ve got other story ideas you’d rather move along with, then just catch as much as you can in one go. Either way, you will still be making progress by attempting to self-edit rather than bypassing it altogether.
Lock up your manuscript
Begin by putting your manuscript away and forgetting about it.
Yep, that’s right. Once you’ve got the entire story down and have gleefully typed The End, hide it away and don’t look at it for as long as possible. Schedule this break into your writing and publishing timetable.
Some writers skip over this bit in their eagerness to get into print. But I cannot overestimate how important it is to get distance from your work. You would be really amazed how easy it is to miss the most obvious mistakes when you are so close to it.
Haven’t you ever spotted an error in a book and wondered how the author could have possibly missed such a glaring howler? It could happen to the best of us.
You know your story better than anyone else because it’s all right there in your head, playing out perfectly. You know it so well that you may not notice you haven’t actually written down a crucial element of the plot, without which – to an innocent reader – the entire book just doesn’t make sense.
But you are more likely to spot it if you step away, do something completely different for a while – maybe write something new – and then come back to it with a fresher perspective.
I’d recommend a few months if you can, but – I know what you writers are like – so, several weeks at the very least.
How do you like to read?
When you’ve had your break and are ready to begin self-editing, choose the reading method that works best for you. This might be on-screen, paper, or even via audio (record yourself narrating the story or get someone else to read it back to you).
Personally, I’m one of those proofreaders who still likes to print a manuscript off at some point, because errors tend to jump out at me more this way; plus I seem to get a better feel for the narrative reading it on paper than screen. But use whatever method is best for you.
Find a space where you are comfortable and won’t be distracted. Make sure you have everything to hand: pens, paper, snacks and drink of choice. (If I know you writers as well as I think I do, that’ll be either coffee or something stronger and worse for your health and concentration!)
How you’ll spot the errors
Some errors are going to jump out at you as you read, e.g. typos, a wrong name in the wrong place, a distracting amount of exclamation marks, or even larger issues such as failing to conclude a particular subplot or getting the timeline mixed up.
Other errors and issues will require more attentive editing, and you may want to jot some notes down as you read through to ensure consistency, or to trace the plot and subplots. That style sheet I’ve talked about before will come in handy about now, so think about creating one as you’re working through.
One good way to spot mistakes, particularly in sentence structure, punctuation, or dialogue, is to read your narrative aloud. You’ll be looking for whether the pauses are in the right places, if the dialogue sounds natural, whether there is enough variation in your sentences and the tempo aligns with the story’s pace.
When to stop
Please don’t forget that if your manuscript is going to a professional editor or proofreader, they are going to be changing and rearranging things a little (or sometimes a lot, if that has been agreed), so you won’t want to go too overboard just yet with making your book publish-ready. That would be a little like dyeing your hair and then getting it cut.
By all means, work on correcting all the errors you can find and ensuring your book is of a presentable standard, but just know that by sending it to a professional, it’s still a work in progress.
Problem: So how do you know when enough is enough? You’ve started and now you can’t stop; no matter how many times you read it, you still find errors. When will it ever end?
Solution: Set yourself a timetable – a schedule for each stage of the process (or all of the stages if you’re working through in one go), but be meticulous with this process and remain as close to the timetable as possible. When your time is up, stop! Remember, your goal doesn’t have to be perfection at this stage; if you hire a professional, they will tie up the loose ends or point out any looming inconsistencies. Your aim here is just to help you improve on what you’ve already started, and to save money at the next stage.
Problem: You’re starting to lose the plot, the characters have gone off the beaten track, you’re no longer sure of the storyline, you’ve read it so many times and now nothing is making sense. Is it time to set fire to it and end this misery?
Solution: Absolutely not! Schedule lengthy breaks between drafts – you’ve stared at it for too long and now you need to distance yourself and come back fresh. Right now you’re just tying yourself up in knots.
Other than that, get someone else to look it over for you... preferably someone who knows a lot about books and/or writing and who will give you an honest evaluation. Many writers use beta readers at this point. My jury is out on beta readers, but some writers find it a useful stage and essential part of the process, and if you find some good ones – those who have read extensively in your genre and can provide honest, constructive feedback – they could be worth their weight in gold.
Failing all of this, a developmental editor will give you a no-holds-barred assessment of your story’s potential, biggest issues and how to go about solving them.
If you’re not confident with spelling and grammar, invest in some good reference books and tools or line up a few online guides.
Some of my own favourites are:
New Oxford Spelling Dictionary
New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors
New Hart’s Rules
Collins Easy learning Grammar & Punctuation
MS Word Spellchecker
Proofreading & Editing Macros for use in MS Word
PerfectIt 3 Intelligent Editing Software
MS Word Styles – for formatting
In Part 10, the final blog post in this series, I’ll be helping to clear up exactly what happens when you have finished self-editing and are ready to hire a professional editor or proofreader.
Part 1: Understanding the Editorial Stages
Part 2: Developmental Edit (Structure)
Part 3: Developmental Edit (Plot)
Part 4: Developmental Edit (Characters, Setting, Timeline)
Part 5: Copy-Edit (Narrative Voice, Point of View)
Part 6: Copy-Edit (Characters, Setting, Timeline)
Part 7: Copy-Edit (Sentence Structure, Stylistic Choices)
Part 8: The Proofread
Part 10: Hiring A Professional