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How to Edit Your Own Work Before You Self-Publish Your Book

Whether or not your budget will stretch to a professional proofreader or copy editor, writing coach Derbhile Dromey’s down-to-earth advice will help you make your self-published book the best it can be before you hit the “publish” button.

graphic of copy, tick and commaWhen I was submitting my novel, The Pink Cage, to traditional publishers, I had visions of the manuscript being carefully tended to by a scrupulous editor, who would treat the book as if it were a prizewinning bloom, pruning it to allow its beauty to shine.

The reality is that even in traditional publishing houses, less money is being invested in editing. When I did land a publisher, the manuscript was given a proofread by an intern. Lucky for me that I had applied my own editing process to the book, imparted to me by my incredibly gifted creative writing tutor, Suzanne Power.

I’m going to share this process with you now. In an ideal world, you would get a professional editor to do a copy edit of your manuscript, to make sure that your book competes with the best, and to stop readers from slagging you off on Amazon and Goodreads. But budgets being what they are, there is plenty you can do to get your manuscript camera ready. At the very least, doing a thorough edit of your own work will save you money if you decide to hire an editor.

After the First Draft

Don’t get me wrong, editing your own work is quite a challenge. You’re snowblind from all the words you’ve written; you’re too immersed in the world you’ve created to see straight. But at this delicate stage, you are the best person to edit your own work. Your ideas still need nurturing. If you turn it over to an editor after the first draft, the editor may unwittingly snip away some prize blooms along with the dead wood.

To clear away the snow blindness, step away from your work. Have a break. Have a Kit Kat. Watch trash television. After a while, you’ll feel an itch and you know it’s time to return to the work. Now you’ll be able to approach it with fresh eyes, almost as if a different person wrote it.

Use a Wrecking Ball

As you read the draft, the central thread of the story will become clearer to you. Now is the time to be ruthless. Anything that does not relate to that thread needs to go. This culling process will ensure your story shines through. It’ll be easier for readers to follow your thread, and you’re less likely to get bogged down in sub-plots.

Use a Scalpel

When you’ve done that, take another short break, then read it out loud. You’ll be amazed at the amount of repetitions, clunky sentences and inconsistencies you’ll spot. Don’t lose heart – these are a natural part of the writing process. This is a good way to reduce your word count without cutting out too much of the story. You don’t have to kill as many of your darlings as you think.

Polishing Your Manuscript

Take a break again, and this time when you return to it, start at the end and read backwards. This breaks the attachment you’ve developed with your story. Read the last sentence, then the sentence before that and so on. Our eyes naturally correct what we read, but reading backwards helps you to separate the words and letters and weed out rogue typos.

A special word to those writers who tend to write a little too lean and end up with a word count that falls short. I feel your pain. At this stage, pinpoint the scenes that you skimped on because you were afraid you were writing too much, and start fleshing them out. Ideally you’ll have compiled notes about your characters, settings and plot, and you can incorporate those into parts of the story that are less well developed.

Now you’re ready for a second pair of eyes, whether that’s an editor or the reading public.

If you’ve any questions about the editing process, please feel free to ask me a question via the comment form below.

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30 Responses to How to Edit Your Own Work Before You Self-Publish Your Book

  1. EVA ST VAL March 30, 2016 at 6:13 pm #

    D.D you don’t even realize how helpful you are for me,after I finish to read your advice I realize

    the idea to edit my book by someone goes, because all that you tell me in your advice make

    sens for . I can tell that you are the most sensitive writer I never read. Your love is so strong for
    \
    the authors who are struggling to edit their books. Thank you again for your adice.

    The title of my book is:” A responsibility that bring a truth love”, soon it will be in Amazon.com.

    Sincerely Eva.St.Val

  2. Scott McIntyre July 17, 2015 at 11:10 pm #

    Derbhile,

    Can you give me an idea of what a fair price would be to hire a professional editor to do a copy edit of a novel? I’m working with my dad to try and get his books ready for e-publishing and I obviously don’t want to spend more than the going rate.

    Thanks,
    Scott

  3. Barbara Vandertorre March 23, 2015 at 9:42 pm #

    Dear Derbhile:

    Thank you for the informative article regarding self editing! I would like to edit my own work. Unfortunately I do not have any editing or english degrees. I am on a strict budget, so I
    cannot afford to hire an expensive editor. Is it possible for a beginner to edit their own
    novel? If education is required can you recommend a book or a suitable course that would
    help? Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you!

    Barbara

  4. Shine Jacob March 21, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    Great thread, and very informative. Thanks a lot. I am working on a book, and it’s the first one. I have heard that there are possibilities that I might get disappointed to know that my book will not be published in the first go. Is that true? Are there any websites where I can submit some sample of my work (chapters) and get a feedback?
    Thanks a lot for sharing this information, and thanks to all in advance.

  5. Laura January 6, 2014 at 7:13 am #

    Hi there,

    This is a great thread with very helpful suggestions, thank you! I am going to be editing my book myself with the specified process but what I’m really struggling with is finding an editor.

    I can look on google but I feel there are so many bogus companies on google, I’m not sure I would trust them?

    If anyone could give me any suggestions of decent priced but more importantly, very good editors, I would be most grateful.

    Thanks,

    Laura

  6. Sharon January 6, 2014 at 1:57 am #

    I was a beta for 2 years and just started freelance editing. If you are short on money and can only afford one round of edits then you need to send the most polished draft possible. There is a good book for writers about the editing process and how to do your own edits, but you have to get another’s set of eyes on it at some point. Betas are a good option. The book is called The Editors Eye.

    • Sharon January 6, 2014 at 2:06 am #

      I want to add, when a reviewer talks about editing issues they aren’t just talking about crossing T’s and dotting I’s.

    • Jemima July 20, 2016 at 3:44 am #

      Hi Sharon. I saw your comment on D.D self editing. I would like to know more about you. I am writing my first e-book. English-language is not my first. i do not break it though but I feel it’s not strong enough for a book. Pls advise.

  7. Donya Lynne January 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    Excellent advice. I also recommend reading out loud. I have a similar self-editing process as yours (I am RUTHLESS with my manuscripts, let me tell you), and I’ve found that reading out loud toward the end of the editing phase (usually during a proof) helps me find a ton of small errors or words I want to correct.

  8. Sue curd December 28, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks. I’ve just started the wrecking ball stage and am finding it’s a much more creative process than I’d imagined it would be. It’s the first time you get to hold the whole piece – currently my novel is a bit of an ugly sculpture, bits definitely need the chisel applied quite generously.

    Happy editing!
    Sue

  9. Laurie Boris November 20, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    There are some great tips here for self-editing, especially reading aloud. Although even if I weren’t an editor, I’d encourage most self-publishing authors to hire a copyeditor before publishing. Fresh eyes catch more errors. Even if you’ve given yourself some space and time from your manuscript, your brain can still trick you into bypassing small errors because you naturally fill them. Many readers lose patience with self-published books that are rife with errors. You might not get a second chance with them.

    I would also suggest you give your self-edited manuscript to a few beta readers before you publish. They can offer valuable input and perhaps catch macro issues like dropped plot threads, pacing problems, and characters that aren’t really necessary to the story.

    Another tip is to learn your craft. Sharpen up on your grammar, punctuation, and word usage (I’ve seen manuscripts that hadn’t even been through rudimentary spelling checks), and you’ll spend less on editing.

  10. David James November 2, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Self-editing may not be the answer for everyone, but it is for me. Of course I could always ‘invest’ in a professional editor, but that is horrendously expensive and, in my experience not really needed. You are the best judge of your own best intentions, knowing about the use of hyphens, inverted commas, ellipses, capital letters, slang and accent in dialogue, the deliberate use of ‘bad’ grammar, I have line-by-line read my latest ms five times and each time picked out one or two infelicities that another editor would have passed over. I’m sure that error will as ever make his sly imprimatur but in the end you have to stop agonising over minutiae and publish.

  11. Nas Hedron October 23, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    This is a really important topic for indie authors and this post is a good starting point for anyone interested in self-editing.

    As someone who edits other people’s work, I think it’s worth pointing out that in addition to using self-editing *instead* of an outside editor, it’s also a way of getting the most you can out of your editing budget if you’re using a professional editor. The last thing you want is to have a paid professional spending time fixing things that you could have fixed yourself for free.

    If people are interested, I’ve written a detailed, three-part series of articles on self-editing at indiebooklauncher.com (a fourth part will follow). I’ve emphasized practical techniques you can apply right away to improve your self-editing.

    You can find the first part and links to parts 2 and 3 here: http://www.indiebooklauncher.com/resources-diy/self-editing-part-1-self-editing-fundamentals.php

    Happy editing!

    Nas Hedron

  12. Derbhile Graham October 2, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    Also, thanks for all your tweets and Facebook shares.

  13. Derbhile Graham October 2, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    Thanks all for your comments. My ultimate message is that although you can’t do without an editor if you want to produce your own manuscript, there is a lot you can do yourself to make your manuscript print-ready. If you do your own editing, you’ll save a lot of money if you do approach an editor, because most editors factor the amount of work they’ll have to do into their price.

  14. Richard E Harding September 30, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    Horrors! I’ve found errors in the above now it’s published! Mustn’t worry though it is only a note.
    Richard

    • Debbie Young October 1, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

      Richard, no problem – just let me know what you’d like edited in your comment and I can easily change it! Thanks for your lengthy and interesting comment – editing a book about OCD must have been a real challenge!! Best wishes, Debbie Young (ALLi blog editor)

  15. Richard E Harding September 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    Thank you for the article, Derbhile.

    When I decided to write my first book last year, I was very nervous about the editing. I now know that editing is just as hard work as writing it in the first place! But I am an OCD perfectionist and however many times I edited the story I still found all sorts of errors, until finally I decided enough was enough and sent my pdf off to the printers – just five copies to see what it would look like – just in case.

    What a shock when I actually had my precious book in my hands, instead of staring for ever at the words on a screen! On the first page opened randomly, there it was – an error – Oh my god; if there was one immediately, there MUST be dozens I thought. I thought correctly.

    I made 200 changes before I dare send off for 20 copies! It has made me ever more vigilant to ensure it didn’t happen again – EVER! It paid off. Despite having life-long, severe OCD, all that obsessive checking paid off. At last checking things, words in this case, was at last a great benefit. Even through the long hours of burning the midnight oil, I knew that my compulsive editing could only, in rhis case, pay off.

    Yes, even after all this endless work, I still found things I will change if ever there was another print run. But, after all this fine tuning to tye point of exhaustion, it was entirely necessary.
    I wouldn’t trust anyone else to check every little thing to this degree, because I would only have to check THEIR work even more carefully.

    In the end, of course, my readers will find something wrong, but I reckon that’s inevitable.
    I read scientific books, almost exclusively and find error after error in a book I thought I would trust to be scientifically perfect!

    My second book was all about my lifelong OCD torment and it took me even longer to edit, because it was a book about being obsessional-compulsive. I’m not going to check this comment too much, mainly because the top half of this writing has disappeared up into the top of the window on my iPad!
    Happy writing to all.
    Richard.

  16. Ena Manning September 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Very good advice. It is amazing how many little ‘errors’ one finds when reading and re reading one’s work. Also how descriptive areas of the work can be altered to make them more meaningful. Good luck to all who are publishing.

  17. Bette A. Stevens September 28, 2013 at 12:55 am #

    Thanks so much for this outstanding post!

  18. Leti Del Mar September 27, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

    Great advice! As an Indie, I need all the help I can get 🙂

    I think lots of people get scared when it comes to editing because so many out there say you need to spend an arm and a leg for it to be done correctly. But your right, there is so much you can do on your own.

    http://wordswithletidelmar.blogspot.com/

  19. Darlene Elizabeth Williams September 27, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    All very good advice about self-editing your work. The more edits you do, the more beneficial. Editors are human and, therefore, may miss some errors, but we do our humanly best to edit your work to perfection. I’ve read too many self-edited books where, unfortunately, the errors override the story. Every author, which includes myself even though I am an editor, will miss errors. It is simply because we are too close to our work. When we read, our brains tend to autocorrect mistakes we what we see is not necessarily what is written. My advice is to edit your novel until you think you have it perfect, then seek out a reasonably priced editor (yes we do exist) to take a final run through. The editing you’ve done will greatly reduce editing costs, and your editor while catch those final little whoops. Then your work will shine and great reviews will follow. No one star reviews because of grammatical and spelling errors. You’ve put your time, heart and soul into your work. Make it worthwhile with a final edit from a trained professional. I am writing a book and, believe me, I will send it to an editor after I’ve made several passes because I know I will still have errors. If you lose your audience with a poorly edited first novel, you’ve lost them forever.

  20. gabrielle bergan September 27, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Thanks so much for this Derbhile, this is exactly what I’ve done with my soon to be published book:) Feeling better about it now:)

  21. David James September 27, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Good advice DD. You cannot even trust traditional publishers to edit. Mine professional even made a spelling error on the front cover, misspelling the title!

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