skip to Main Content

How to Self-Edit your Book: Jessica Bell

It’s time to edit your novel for publication. 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 messed up your punctuation, and introduced a new spelling mistake.


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. (I’ll provide you a comprehensive list further on in this article.)

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.

Here’s a compressive checklist for you to make sure your book is in tiptop shape:

Things you should have already mastered before diving into the final edit are:

  • Plot & Pacing
  • Show, Don’t Tell
  • Incorporating the Senses
  • Balancing Backstory
  • Eliminating Clichés

I’m going to ask you some basic questions to see if you have indeed dealt with the above points. If your answer is the opposite of what is in brackets after each question, then you need to revise your manuscript again before editing for publication. You also may like to ask your beta reader/critique partner these questions to get a more objective perspective on your progress.


  • Does it have a clear beginning, middle, and end? (yes)
  • Do your characters evolve throughout the story, i.e. do they change? (yes)
  • Do your characters encounter obstacles along the way which prevent them from meeting their goals? (yes)
  • Do your characters eventually overcome obstacles? (yes)
  • Are there any sections of your book which seem to drag? (no)
  • Do you ever want to skip over some scenes to get to “the good parts?” (no)
  • Do you feel there are any scenes which end too quickly? (no)
  • Is your story driven by an underlying question that readers need to know the answer to? (yes)
  • Are there any major facets of your story you could remove without affecting your plot? (no)
  • Does the major thread get resolved, or at least come to a realistic conclusion? (yes)
  • Does the big reveal come close enough to the end? (yes)


  • Can you visualize what you are reading as though it were happening right in front of you? (yes)
  • Can you feel the emotions your characters are feeling? (yes)
  • Do your characters seem flat and lifeless? (no)
  • Have you made your characters real? That is, would your readers recognize your characters if they met them on the street without you using a lot of explicit exposition to describe them? (yes)


  • Is the imagery vivid? (yes)
  • When a character touches something, can you feel it? (yes)
  • Can you hear the dialogue (and dialects, if applicable)? (yes)
  • Can you hear everything your characters are hearing? (yes)
  • Can you taste and smell all references to flavour and scent? (yes)
  • Are you constantly using the words see, hear, touch, smell and taste? (no)


  • Are there any instances where you feel you are being told irrelevant information? (no)
  • Are there pages and pages of backstory all clumped together? (no)
  • Does your story begin with the backstory of the protagonist? (no) If yes, are you sure it’s necessary to your plot? (yes)
  • Have you peppered necessary elements of backstory throughout your manuscript in relevant places that move the story forward? (yes)
  • Does your backstory offer significant insight into your characters’ personalities, and is it important to readers’ understanding of the plot? (yes)


  • Are the actions of your characters often described using run-of-the-mill phrases? (e.g. She is driving me nuts.) (no)
  • Are your characters stereotypes? (e.g. an intellectual that wears glasses, or a blonde big-breasted lifeguard) (no) If yes, are you sure they’re vital to your plot? (yes)
  • Have you identified a unique slant to your story? (yes)

Did you answer all those questions correctly? Yes? Fabulous. Then you are good to go.


So what steps do you need to take to polish your manuscript for publication?

I’m going to make it very easy for you. Below is a list of the points you need to focus on (I go into greater detail for each point in Polish Your Fiction, which you have the chance to win today). I have listed them in the order I feel comfortable doing them. You may want to do them in a different order, and that’s okay. But I definitely do not suggest you polish style before you are satisfied with your content, because you never know how much text you are going to change. You might well end up changing so much content that you have to double-check you haven’t messed up any of your style corrections. It would just be a waste of time.

Here are the things you need to polish to get your book ready for publication:


  • First Line Hook
  • Character Consistency & Point of View (POV) Switches
  • Dialogue Tags
  • Tightening Descriptions
  • Chapter Endings
  • Removing Superfluous Words
  • Identifying & Replacing Tics (Overused Words)
  • First Person & Third Person Pronouns
  • Tense Consistency
  • Line Edits


  • Spelling & Punctuation Consistency (AmE or BrE?)
  • Typographical Considerations (Numbers, Time, Quotes & Apostrophes, Dashes, Italics, Paragraph Indents, Spaces)
  • Titles & Chapter Headings
  • Front Matter, End Matter, Acknowledgements, Back Cover Blurb

I must stress again, that these points are not going to help you build your story. It’s all about preparing a polished manuscript to publish.

Are you ready to hit that publish button?


This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. Thanks for the overview. I’ve learned to focus on one aspect of editing at a time through trial and error. I’ll search for certain words or phrases to see if they are used too much or incorrectly. I find them much easier when I look specifically for them.

  2. Thank you for this. I usually try to self-edit bit by bit as well but only on the basic level. I’ve also bookmarked, saved and favorited the checklist to use as future reference.

  3. Very many thanks for this – I, too, have printed it out and will use it again and again I suspect. Indeed, I will be doing so over the next few days in preparing a manuscript.

  4. Fabulous advice – a great, well-structured reminder about the editing process. I’m going to figuratively “cut out and keep” this. I’ve almost reached the end of the first draft of my second novel, and I’m looking forward to the editing process.
    My novel’s first draft is hideously long – about 160,000 words, so I will be using all of your criteria to make sure nothing is superfluous b the time I’ve finished editing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Latest advice, news, ratings, tools and trends.

Back To Top
×Close search