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Writing: How to Self-Edit Your Novel

Professional editor Jessica Bell, an Australian author and poet living in Athens, Greece, shares her top tips for polishing your fiction writing. Her advice will help you make your book the best it can be, prior to publication. This post complements Derek Murphy’s recent article about employing editors.

self-published author, poet and musician Jessica Bell

ALLi Professional Member, the Australian author, poet and editor Jessica Bell

Ugh. It’s time to edit your novel. What a drag, right? It doesn’t have to be.

If you take a systematic approach, you can make sure you catch as many mistakes and writing pitfalls as possible without feeling overwhelmed by it all.

I’ve been an editor for more than ten years, and there is the one rule I live by which gets excellent results every time: edit piece by piece.

Sound ambiguous? Let me explain.

The Editing Process

When we read a manuscript from beginning to end, we aren’t able to concentrate on every detail at once.

For example, let’s say you’ve read through the first chapter of your manuscript and the only error you notice is the word cafe lacking the accent on the e. Easy. You fix it. And you make a mental note to catch that as you go along.

But in the next chapter, you come across an awkwardly structured sentence, an embarrassing grammatical error, a character that is speaking in a way that sounds like another character, and you seem to have used the word look way too many times in one paragraph.

That’s a lot to fix. But you do it fix it, and all seems like it’s in order.

But guess what? You were so focussed on fixing these things, that you didn’t notice the other instance of cafe lacking the accent on the e. And now that you’ve reworded a few things, you’ve also buggered up your punctuation, and introduced a new spelling mistake. Whoops.

It isn’t necessary to have the “whoops.”

When editing, you can’t expect to do a good job if you read through your book from beginning to end and hope to see the mistakes as you go. You are bound to miss things. Many things.

The Most Efficient Way to Self-Edit

The most efficient way to edit, is to isolate all the things you need to fix, and focus on fixing one thing on your list, before moving onto the next.

Cover of Polish Your Fiction

Now available worldwide in print and as an ebook

  • For example, you could start with your first line hook. Is it compelling enough?
  • Then move onto character consistency and point of view switches. Are your characters distinguishable from each other? Focus on one character at a time and making their voices unique.
  • Then go on to wheedle out redundant dialogue tags and/or replace them with action, tighten your descriptions, make your chapter endings pop, remove superfluous and overused words, vary sentence structure so you don’t use too many personal pronouns, check your grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
  • Then, move on to reading your manuscript from beginning to end.
  • Even better, read it aloud, or use a text-to-voice generator.

Editing doesn’t have to be daunting if you focus on one thing at a time. And once you’re done, your book will shine.

This article draws on Jessica’s new writing guide, Polish Your Fiction: A Quick & Easy Self-Editing Guide.

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25 Responses to Writing: How to Self-Edit Your Novel

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  2. Gene Warner July 5, 2014 at 3:01 pm #

    Yes, completely effective d-i-y editing and proof-reading can be next to impossible. How annoying it is to think you’ve done a good job, only to have other point out more flaws after you’ve published. Meanwhile, outside assistance isn’t usually feasible, and that’s why I turned into a complete d-i-y’er for my own books. Seeing all the bad deals offered (many of which are disgusting, I must say) I’ve been working on the development of a better alternative — http://www.boysmindbooks.com/publishing/publishing.html. For those who want or need these sorts of services, this is a very practical and absolutely legitimate way to get one’s work (print and ebook versions) professionally edited and proof-read, and into the distribution channels, with the least possible up-front cost.

  3. Rupert July 2, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    Thanks. It’s the simple advice that helps

  4. Warren Shuman June 28, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    Hello Jessica: Thanks for an excellent view and your sugestions for self-editing. I use a chapter by chapter regimen, and rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite for characters, (I give them special traits) and storyline construction. i shift and cut scenes, and polish for typos, and grammar, I use several languages which helps to keep the accents correct. I am never finished making minor changes and inserting more effective phrasing, and words. Until I feel that I can’t do better. It is a labor of love. But i love it. I have three e-novels that I have adapted from my screenplays. I expect to e-pub them in the fall. Indie authors must learn to wear 4 hats: Author, Editor, Publisher and Marketer.

    I wish you great success with your new book.

    Waren.

  5. Renée Layberry June 27, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    “Editing is a skill that is very different from writing.”

    I heartily agree.

    The article and comments above have great suggestions for making your manuscript as clean as possible. After doing all of this work, however, it’s absolutely imperative that you enlist the help of a qualified editor to really work with the text, to understand the shape of your message, to catch the quirks to which you’re blind. *All* writers need objective, professional, qualified feedback; it’s simply impossible to provide that one one’s own work. As an editor myself, I have another editor work on my writing—and something is always corrected. Every. Single. Time.

    Don’t skimp on professional, objective editing!

    • Jessica Bell June 28, 2014 at 8:34 am #

      I very much agree with you, Renee, and one of the very first things I mention in the book is that it should not replace a professional editor. What it will do is make your manuscript as clean as can possibly be before you send it to one.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. William Ash June 27, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

    Also buy a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or another professional style guide. Use it. Question everything. Once in a while, reread the Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

    Also, editing is not just a mechanical process. It is a very important part of the creative process. It really helps if you are narcotic and paranoid, in a comforting, supportive way. Editing is where anything is made. It is finding the work by tossing out what is not needed or confusing. And it is the best part of the process because you have just done the grunt work of typing in the story, now you just pour over it giving it guidance or a good thrashing. There is no such thing as a good, timid editor.

    Editing is a skill that is very different from writing.

    • Jessica Bell June 28, 2014 at 8:33 am #

      You’re absolutely correct, William. I also go into detail in the book about that there are various different stages of editing, and this book deals with the last stage and has nothing to do with developing content.

  7. Georgia Rose June 27, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    Thanks Jessica, have just bought the book – looks like it will be very useful as I get on with the polishing!! Many thanks for the post 🙂

  8. Lisa June 26, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    Excellent and timely advice (for me) struggling with the daunting task of self-ediiting and fixing the things pointed out by a professional editor. How do you keep from hating your story by the end of all this? 🙂

    • Jessica Bell June 27, 2014 at 8:29 am #

      Haha, you can’t. I feel that way all the time. Just think of it as a “job.” Something you need to fix for someone else. 🙂 Good luck!

  9. Amy Butcher June 26, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    This is generally some solid advice, especially for people who aren’t used to editing. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like there are some handy checklists in there.

    If it hasn’t been mentioned, one way to speed up changing all those “cafés” all at once is to use the ctrl-f function in Word to find every instance and make the mass change. (Although you have to check every word to make sure nothing crazy has been changed. Word 2013 makes this very easy to do with everything listed in a column on the side).

    The idea is just to make one type of change at a time and then move on to the next thing. You never have to remember about spelling that particular word again, as Jessica so rightly observes. That makes the editing process faster and much more accurate.

    She maybe goes through this in your book, but I think a style sheet is also a big must. PerfectIt is also software that isn’t terribly expensive and that can be handy for finding those pesky variants of words (make-up, makeup, set up, setup).

    • Jessica Bell June 27, 2014 at 8:28 am #

      Hi Amy,

      Thanks for your comment and for reading.

      Yes, I do go into detail about things like this in the book. I advise, however, not to just use the Ctr – F, and replace. Silly mistakes can be made that way. For example, I once wanted to change “ass” to “arse,” and so I did a Find and Replace, and ended up with words like “embarrarse” instead of “embarrass.” You also might like to change some instances of “as though” to “as if,” for example, but not want to change them all. So I suggest that you highlight them all first, so that you can evaluate each instance at a glance. You can also add a space before and after the word you are searching for as an extra precaution.

      What you do is:

      1. Go to the Find function from the Edit menu, or simply press Ctrl+F. In Word 2007, Find is located in the Editing group on the Home tab.
      2. A Find and Replace box will pop up. On the Find tab, enter the specific word or phrase you want to highlight into the Find What bar.
      3. Click the Find in button below the bar, and select Main Document.
      4. You will see that all these words have been selected. Be careful not to click inside the document, otherwise these selections will disappear. Go to the Font group by either pressing Ctrl+D, or by locating the Font group in the Home tab. Click Text Highlight Colour and click on a colour. Now your selected words will be highlighted throughout your manuscript.
      5. Once you’ve edited your selected words, Select All (Ctrl+A), and click Text Highlight Colour under Font, and select No Colour. This will remove the highlighting from any words you did not change.

      Important Note: Do not use the Reading Highlight function in the Find box. It highlights all the words, but as soon as you edit one thing in your document, all the highlighting disappears.

      And yes, a style guide is a very important, especially when you want to send your manuscript off to a professional editor. This is also mentioned in the book.

      Cheers!

  10. clare weiner June 26, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    Good ideas here!

    And for dialogue/character consistency/keeping up the pace, there is nothing like finding a friend who will read it aloud to you. Failing that, read aloud to yourself (or the cat)

  11. Michael La Ronn June 26, 2014 at 7:23 pm #

    Great article, Jessica. Totally agree about editing piece by piece. It’s the only way I can keep my sanity during the editing process, especially right when I start. So much to edit, so much to do. Breaking it down like you do will also help edit faster, too. Good luck with the new book!

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