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Guide to Self-Editing

 by Maddy Glenn 

I’ve worked with quite a few authors, editing their projects. Some are brilliant at keeping to schedule, some like to think their brilliant at it, and some admit that they just can’t write or edit that way.

I have a lot of writers telling me they’ll be finished with their self-edits eg. “at the beginning of February”. I get in contact with them late January: “Oh yes, I’ll be finished mid-April”, and so on.

Now, I don't want to diss the writers who take ages to be finished - I know they're self-editing and you can never really know how long it will take. In fact, I can’t stress enough how important it is to self-edit, especially when you don’t yet have an editor.

You’re going to look so much more professional and serious about your writing if you have clearly done some edits yourself.

 

So. How does one self-edit a novel?

Drafts 1, 2, 3, and 4

Writing a novel is never as simple as 'start at chapter one and work through to the end'. You won't come out with a perfectly polished manuscript straight away.

Writers who think their first draft is perfect are the most in need of an editor - if only to point out inconsistencies, unnecessary complications, and plot holes.

No one's first draft is beautiful. Never show your first draft to anyone. This is your embarrassing secret. You've now got the chance to make it less embarrassing.

Draft 1 - Write Like a Loony.

Draft 1 is your chance to write with reckless abandon. Just go for it. Some writers plan it meticulously. Others just hedge their bets and go on a writing binge.

Draft 2 - The Big Stuff

This is the first edit. You’re going to read through your text and do your best to ignore those nagging sentences that don’t quite work.

Draft 2 is all about the overall structure.

 

Plot

Does your plot have an arc? Will it keep readers on their toes? Are there any bits of your plot that might have readers falling asleep?

Characters

How about your characters? Do they develop in any way? Are they individuals? Do they make decisions, showing their personalities, or do things just happen to them?

 

Style

Is there a consistent writing style that runs through the text? Sometimes your mood can hugely affect the way you write:

Chapter 5 was a high-energy chapter. You wrote it like a Jason Bourne car chase.

Short sentences. Unexpected shocks. Fast decisions. Lots of movement.

Chapter 16 is also a high-energy chapter but you hadn’t drunk quite so much caffeine when writing it, so it’s more emotional and internal. The character is questioning their every move, emotionally reacting to others.

These two chapters are written in very different writing styles, but they use the same character and are in the same (theoretical) book. You want to keep the style and flow of the book on one thread or your readers will get confused and will struggle to identify with the text.

Is it high adrenaline or is it a family drama? Make your mind up.

 

In draft 2, you’re going to polish your structure and characterisation. Make notes on how you’re going to develop your characters more...

Decisions

Worries

Morals

Dialogue

Habits

...and then do the work! Rewrite the draft!

Draft 3 - It's All in the Details

You’ve developed your characters and you’ve reshuffled your plot to follow a story arc.

It’s time to read through it again.

This time, you’re going to look at the smaller details which make a novel tick.

Does the dialogue feel realistic? Does each character have their own way of talking? Are there any responses that are totally predictable?

Are the descriptions detailed enough - or too detailed? Do you really need to describe the colour of the curtains?

 

Lastly, notice any passages of long explanation. These tend to shout telling, not showing. For example, take the beginning of The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. There is page upon page of boring explanation about the history of warlocks, politics, and wars. No one likes an Info Dump.

HAVE A BREAK. HAVE A KITKAT.

Leave it for a week. Come back to your text with fresh eyes and reread the whole thing.

Draft 4 - The Final Touches

You’re going to do a quick proofread of your text. I know, I know, you’re totally sick of this damn story by now. But it’s got to be done if you want an edit for an affordable price!

Are there any sentences that don’t quite make sense? Are they a bit unclear or confusing?

Check for grammar and spelling mistakes - keep a heavy dictionary next to your laptop!

 

Lastly, are you writing in American English or British English?

It’s always good to do a quick google of the basic rules and do your best to make sure you stick to one of the dialects.

Your editor will know a lot more about the grammar and spelling differences between the two dialects but you could save time and learn something about grammar if you do some of it yourself.

Your Choice

Now, some writers like to get beta-readers at this stage. They tend to work on an ‘eye for an eye’ basis: I’ll critique yours if you critique mine.

You can also pay for people to write detailed critiques (see my services page).

 

Others feel it is high time they got their work to an editor.

 

At which point, it is time to contact me.

It is time you handed over your baby and started getting it out into the real world!