You’ve finally finished that novel or short story collection. It’s taken you months… maybe even years! Hooray! …WHAT NOW? Before you consider professional editing and publication, it’s always worth going over your work at least once. It can be tempting to just hand your work over to someone else, and self-editing often feels like the most boring and difficult aspect of writing a book. But, as we all know, the more editing, the better – so here are some top tips for self-editing to make your life a little easier.
1: Take a break!
It may seem counterproductive, but walking away from your work might be the best thing you can do for it. Give yourself a few days, or even weeks, without even looking at your manuscript. If ideas come to you about plot points you need to straighten out or timeframe consistency you need to check, write them down somewhere else and keep them for later. It’s easy to become blind to your own work, and giving yourself that space gets you energised and motivated for the edit, as well as sharpening up your eyes for the proofread.
2: Make a list of your twitches and common errors
Every author has what I call a ‘twitch’ (or several) – a habit of using a certain word, phrase, or form of punctuation far too much. If you know, for example, that you are prone to overusing ‘quickly’, ‘explained’ or em-dashes, keep an eye out for these as you read. If you have previously worked with an editor and know you tend to make certain grammar errors, look out for those too.
3: Look things up
If you are unsure about whether something is correct – whether it’s a fact you’re using or a form of punctuation – don’t be afraid to look it up, even if you feel it’s something really simple. Part of being a good writer (and editor!) involves always being prepared to admit you’re wrong and learn something new. Make your rule ‘If in doubt, look it up’.
4: Read aloud
One of the best ways to notice errors in your own work, which are easy to miss, is to read aloud. You can do this alone or with someone else (whom you trust!). Not only does reading aloud help you spot issues such as repeated or missing words, but it can hugely help with the more subjective side of editing. You’ll be more aware of narrative flow and pacing as you read, and should be able to make sure that dialogue always sounds natural, especially with regards to punctuation.
5: Make an outline
If you haven’t already made an outline for your book, now is the time to do it. Often this is the easiest way to spot plotholes or pacing issues. See my guide on how to write a book outline, or use Freytag’s pyramid as a base.
6: Be organised and efficient
Even if you are the kind of writer who needs to be relaxed and informal in order to be creative, editing is the time to be structured. The quickest way to burn yourself out and lose motivation is to spend long hours poring over your manuscript at night until you are too tired to keep going. If you can, set yourself a schedule and stick to it. I would recommend that you spend an hour at a time at most on the edit, and then take a break to do something else, or leave it until the following day. This enables you to always be as sharp as possible.
7: CUT THINGS OUT!
Being ruthless is the best way to ensure that your work shines. Although it can be emotionally taxing to remove words or sentences (or even entire chapters!) you’ve worked so hard on, it’s usually the best way to tell your story. Aim for succinct, clear writing that avoids repetition. If you are afraid of cutting something out, try copying the original text into a separate document and making the changes there, then going back and comparing to the original. Nine times out of ten, you will find that the shorter version is better and that the parts you agonised over removing weren’t actually that necessary.
It’s important to remember that your work doesn’t have to be perfect after an edit, nor should you expect it to be; you are always going to miss some errors, and allowing other people – whether professional editors/proofreaders or beta readers – to look over your manuscript will provide perspectives and nuances you might not even have considered. However, your edit is likely to make a huge difference to your manuscript, and it’s worth doing it properly. Set yourself up somewhere you feel comfortable and alert, grab a beverage of your choosing, and get going!
Image by Steve Hodgson