Once you have completed a first draft, written the last sentence, and declared “I’m done!” with a sigh of relief, the self-editing begins. Any changes between that moment and the moment you send it to an editor are self-editing. This is the time you take your creative ideas and turn them into a work of art.
Why is self-editing important?
You can’t have good writing without self-editing. A muse is usually a very timid creature that will only show itself when its sure you won’t look at it too closely; most writers can’t limit what they put onto the page while they write the first draft. Actually, I have yet to meet a productive writer who limits what they write on the first draft. The best way to let the creativity pour out onto the page is to do it without worrying how it comes out. Unfortunately, that means what comes out unhindered onto the page tends to be mostly awful, sometimes even to the point of being unreadable to anyone but the author.
That’s where self-editing comes in. You take the good ideas written badly and turn them into something worth publishing and reading. If you’re a brand new aspiring author or a somewhat more experienced author looking to up your editing game, these tips will help you develop an effective system for editing your own work.
This is probably the number one tip that any author or editor would give on self-editing: Wait for some time between finishing your first draft and beginning your first revisions. If you’re ready to edit your work, you’ve finished your rough draft, and that’s an incredible thing. Take some time away from this manuscript to celebrate and maybe even start a new project.
Your brain needs a chance to stop thinking about everything you’ve just written, because as long as you’re still going over it in your head, you’ll only think about it from one perspective. Your perspective as the author is very limited and probably not how your readers will think of it. For effective self-editing, you need to think as much like your readers as you can. Your readers won’t already be familiar with the story like you are, so you need to present everything in an order and a style that will make sense to them.
After a couple weeks or a month (or possibly even longer), you’ll be able to look at it like you weren’t able to before. You forget some of what you meant to say when you wrote those words, so you’ll interpret them more similarly to someone who is reading it for the first time. You’ll notice that some things won’t make as much sense as you thought they did or sound as good as you thought they did. This is your chance to catch those errors so you’ll be able to dig even deeper with your editor.
2. Make an outline and a timeline.
I know you don’t typically think of making an outline after the first draft is written, but the story has probably changed since that first outline, if you even chose to write one. An outline based on the completed story will help you assess the goals of each chapter and whether that chapter achieved what you want it to achieve. It might even help you identify plot holes or subplots or characters that got forgotten.
Making a timeline can identify plot holes too. Your timeline might just be adding dates to the outline, but if your manuscript involves a lot of flashbacks, alternate timelines, or time travel, you’ll probably need a separate timeline. Just list the significant plot points or discoveries make in order of how they happened and put a date or day number on it (such as “2 years and 2 months” meaning that much time has passed since the first event of the story). Besides identifying plot holes, timelines are also helpful to keep track of events if you decide to rearrange chapters or events while you’re revising.
3. Retype everything.
I know it sounds like an awful lot of work, but it’s actually better than just reading through it. It forces you to be an active reader, to think about every word as you copy it. If you’ve typed it, print it out and type it again into a new document titled something like “2nd Draft.” If you’ve hand written it, you’ll have to do it eventually anyway. I guarantee you that the biggest improvements will come from retyping your work. I personally do this for everything I write, and it works wonderfully.
4. Read it out loud.
I talk about this all the time on this blog, but it’s about time I gave it some proper attention: Read as much of your manuscript aloud as you can. I know that this is a huge task when you have an entire book-length manuscript, but it is worth it. If it’s too intimidating, you can definitely limit it to key points in the story (the beginning, the climax, the end, and any major turning points), dialogue, and/or sections that don’t feel right. I do this often in my own writing as well.
Reading your writing out loud uses different parts of your brain and forces you to think about it in different ways. You’ll recognize overly-complex sentences or stilted dialogue. You’ll hear the rhythm of the words and how it affects the mood. Experiment with it and see how it works for you. Even if you decide it isn’t for you, keep it in your writing tool chest for testing or fixing scenes in the future.
5. Stop editing.
Hopefully you’re not sick of your own work by this point. You’ll probably keep finding flaws into eternity, but eventually you’ve got to let them go. Many authors look back at their early works and find endless flaws in them, but there comes a time when you’ve put out the best effort you can and anything else is nit-picking. You will see flaws in your work that most readers will not because you’ll look at it in levels of detail that most readers will not. You’ve been through your manuscript many times and spent hours examining it, so it’s only natural if you’re tired of your own story.
Send it to your beta readers and your editor. They’ll help you identify any major weak spots that are left. You’re so close to the manuscript now that you know it practically by heart, and you’re seeing the tiny holes in the fabric of the story. Editors and beta readers will see the whole story and how well it is woven together. Once you get their final feedback, you’ll have one last round of revisions, and then stop. Completely. Send it off to be published. It will never be perfect, but it will be good, and it will be yours.
Self-editing is not an easy task, for sure. But when you hold that finished book in your hands, you’re going to be proud of it. Seriously, you’re a published author. How awesome is that? You will have earned every right to sell it with pride, because you’ve labored over it, polishing it until it is worth being proud of.
Do these methods work for you? Let me know in the comments!