How to Self-Edit a Novel: A Practical 9-step Guide

You’ve finished, thank goodness. The book you’ve had trapped in your head for weeks, months—maybe even years—is on paper, just waiting to be read. Waiting to be released out into the world. All that remains now is to edit your work and polish it into the gem you know it is at heart.

But where to start?

This 9-step, practical guide will help you edit the first draft of your novel and get it to the point where it’s ready to be read by an agent, publisher, or your audience.

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Let’s get started.


1) Let it rest

Start your self-editing by stopping the writing process.

To get the most out of your self-editing process, you need to give yourself and your book time to ‘rest’. A few days, a few weeks, a month or two—in On Writing, Stephen King reveals that he puts his books in a drawer for about six weeks before even thinking about self-editing them.

By giving yourself time to let go emotionally and stop seeing through the rosy lenses of what you think you’ve written, you are giving yourself the opportunity to see what’s actually there.

Plus it gives you a well-deserved break to decompress after the high-octane process of the first novel draft. Rushing into the self-editing process too soon could actually do more harm than good.


2) The Big, Broad Overview AKA The Re-Read

Determine overall quality with a first readthrough before continuing with this process.

After leaving your book to rest, you will never be closer to the mind of your reader than in this first readthrough—use it wisely, and read your book through, cover to cover.

Leave yourself broad notes as you go; nothing specific, just small ideas for improvement or changes. You can do this either by printing your draft out and doing it by hand, or through one of the myriad digital markup tools available, such as Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat or the ubiquitous (and free) Google Docs.

I would recommend trying both methods—personally, I use digital to edit the vast majority of the work, then print out particularly troublesome pieces to work with by hand later down the line.

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You’ll be able to ask yourself three big questions that will decide the rest of your self-editing journey:

  1. Why did you write this book?
  2. Does what you’ve produced match up with your why?
  3. Do you think your audience will actually want to read this book?

The next steps are designed to help you hone in on any remaining problematic areas left in your book. If you find that your book isn’t readable even by its author, it may be time to rewrite completely, or even abandon the project.

Abandoning the project is an absolute last resort, and even then certain elements can be re-used elsewhere in your fiction writing. If in doubt of the quality of the novel overall, get a patient friend or an editor to read it through as well. They may be able to point out the issue(s) more clearly.


3) Polishing The Hook

Bait and polish your hook; give the first opening paragraphs the care and attention they need.

The first few pages of your book are the make-it or break-it point for your publisher and your reader. In fact, many publishers only read the first few paragraphs of a manuscript before rejecting it entirely.

You need to immediately capture your readers’ attention, which is why the hook of your novel (the first few pages or paragraphs) is worthy of a self-editing step all of its own.

After your first re-read, go back to the beginning and read just the first paragraph. Is it enough to make you want to keep going? Or is it the equivalent of throat-clearing for the rest of the book?

Here are some other questions to ask yourself to hone in on major problems:

  1. Have you established a scene in the present, rather than a prologue or backstory?
  2. Have you created some kind of driving conflict straight away?
  3. Have you generated a mystery that the reader will want to see concluded?
  4. Is there some kind of tension in just the first few sentences?
  5. Is it likely to “surprise” your reader, or is it just more of what they’ve read before?
  6. Have you overset the scene with too much description and not enough action?
  7. Is there dialogue? Is it necessary?
  8. Have you introduced too many characters, or too much information?
  9. Are any of the characters you’ve introduced actually interesting? Have you made sure to include why they are interesting immediately?

Pay particular attention to your opening line. There are myriad ways to open a novel, but they all have one thing in common: they immediately hook the reader. You can find some great examples from Writers Digest here.

You need to both bait (offer something of interest and substance) and polish (offer it in an interesting and well-written way) your hook in order for it to be successful.


4) Building the Structure

Every chapter and every page should have a point for its existence and the order in which you have placed it.

Words mean nothing if they aren’t placed into a structure that makes sense. Format and flow can be just as important as a well-placed word or a timely metaphor when crafting a story for your readers.

Begin your structure edit by asking yourself if the current order of the chapters makes sense. Not strictly in terms of plot, but in terms of pacing; does it take too long to get to that big action scene, or do you skip ahead too soon and miss out on all the buildup? Try swapping a few key sections around and see what it does to the story.

When editing a client’s book, I like to write the chapter summaries on post-it notes and stick them on a wall. Something brief, like “The hero is driven from his village by a pack of powerful villains” and “The hero discovers a secret power within himself that could turn the tide against the enemy” or “The hero gets the girl”.

I then scramble these around and see what the book now looks like.

Often, it will be absolute nonsense, but occasionally you will encounter interesting interactions. What if the hero discovers his or her power after securing his or her love interest? How would that affect the novel, and the relationship between the characters? Does it make the novel more engaging?

Ultimately, however, you should generally be aiming for a simple structure: a build-up where the hero travels, learns and struggles, a peak where the hero fights and succeeds, and a diminuendo where the hero rides off into the sunset. Generally, there will be some catharsis at the end as well; a relief of the tension of the novel.

D4Darious has a great video on story structure as applied to screenwriting—but the same will be applicable to your novel. Check it out below.

For more specifics, read up on The Hero’s Journey, which is often pointed at as the fundamental story structure that every myth, legend and tale that humanity has ever created.


5) Crafting Believable Characters

Create characters with flaws, wants, needs, and struggles, and ensure that they grow at some stage in the novel—if they don’t, make sure there’s a reason why.

The key to great characters in novels is to remember that your readers, in part, want to become or feel for your hero. Even if they’re a Hobbit in a fantasy land, they still need to have human wants, needs, struggles and quirks.

The same goes for your villain.

  1. What do they want?
  2. What is stopping them from getting it?
  3. What do they desire, and,
  4. What do they fear?

If you can’t answer these questions immediately, you need to take another look at your characters.

Readers want to see heroes struggle to succeed, fail along the way, with the conclusion of their story always somewhat in doubt. One of the main reasons that some people consider Superman to be an absolutely terrible hero is because he can just do anything while barely getting hurt. The same went for Batman during his infamous utility-belt-that-has-shark-repellent-in-it phase.

If winning if a foregone conclusion for your characters, then what’s the point of reading the story in the first place? If you’ve got a Mary Sue, nobody is really going to want to travel with your character—because they aren’t relateable. They don’t struggle. There’s no tension, and there’s no cliffhangers and what-ifs that the reader will be dying to answer just over the next page.

On a similar note, your characters must develop over time. They learn to love, they learn to let go, they learn the difference between revenge and justice, and so on. Maybe they learn to take a joke, or they accept their inheritance as King in the North.

Even if they don’t change, there needs to be reason for it. Some books even have heroes go around in circles, ultimately returning to their roots. Whatever happens to your characters needs to have an affect on their outlook and their behaviour. If it doesn’t, there needs to be a damn good reason for it.

Setting as a character

One final note: in some genres, the setting can be just as much of a character as the protagonist. Sci-fi and fantasy novels tend to have particularly memorable cities, landscapes, nations, towns, villages, etc. If you think that the setting of your novel is particularly important, and is intentionally used to further the plot in some way, then you should go through the same process for the setting as you did for the characters.

Does the world feel “full” enough for readers to immerse themselves in? Does it feel real?

If not, it can be as easy as adding a few small details to certain chapters to puff out the character. A little bit of graffiti revealing the local political climate, an overhead conversation that uncovers a local legend, a snippet from a newspaper that includes pertinent headlines for the populace.

The key here is not to just add these details in willy-nilly, but to give them a reason for existing; otherwise it’s essentially just fluff. Try to tie these small details into the grander feeling you’re going for in the scene—you could even tie them into one of the subplots you came up with during step 2.


6) Tweaking the Dialogue

Think of your dialogue as a sword fight, and cut anything that doesn’t have a reason for being.

Sometimes the action in your novel is a swordfight—and sometimes your characters will duel with words. Thinking that dialogue should be treated differently from key action scenes is a common mistake during the novel self-editing process.

In fact, thinking of dialogue in terms of a sword duel can be a useful way to identify and fix key problems with your character conversation. Each sentence should be a parry, a thrust, an attack, a retreat, pressing the advantage, and so on. If they aren’t, they need to be adjusted or, better yet, cut out altogether.

Characters speak because they want something from someone else. Detectives want information, victims want mercy, robbers want money, and so on—if the reason for the conversation isn’t clear, then ask yourself why it exists in the first place.

Author Robert Yehling says that a particularly effective way to eliminate shoddy dialogue is simply to read it out loud. 

“A lot of [fiction writers] don’t; they just write it and go with it,” he explains in an interview with the Author Learning Center.

“But when we read books, when we read dialogue, while we may be reading with our eyes, we’re listening with our inner ear. That gives us the picture of the character; how they talk and so forth.”

“If we read the dialogue out loud, we’ll know instantly if the dialogue doesn’t sound right.”

One last point: “said” is perfectly okay to use in dialogue. Ignore anyone who says otherwise. It’s one of the few times where repetition is acceptable. “Said” should be used 90 per cent of the time in dialogue, and other words should only be used if they add something to what the character has just said.


7) Making Style and Tone Consistent

Adapt your tone and style to match each chapter’s purpose, but maintain a level of consistency throughout the novel as a whole.

Consider the kind of book you are writing. Is it funny? Serious? Dramatic? Nostalgic? Depressing? Whimsical? High-falutin’? Something in between?

If your primary goal is to build a thrilling mystery, funny asides could easily put a hole in your tension. Meanwhile, a little dark humour in a detective novel is more than usual, but dropping into slapstick would be extremely out of place.

That being said, no novel ever sticks to one single style or one single tone, but rather adapts to the circumstances in the book. Comedic novels can have serious moments, while even books like The Road have sections of upbeat hope.

For each chapter of your novel, identify the primary feeling you are trying to elicit from your reader, and adapt the tone of your writing to align with it. This can be as easy as simply swapping out some words for appropriate synonyms, or adjusting the pacing of the chapter to better match comedic timing, thrilling tension, exciting action, and so on.


8) Final Touches

Take the time to put the final touches on your work.

You’re so close you can almost taste that book deal. To really get the sparkle on this diamond of a novel, there are a few general tips that will improve your writing:

  1. Cut any and every unnecessary word.
  2. Double check for spelling and grammar.
  3. Avoid adverbs—use a stronger verb instead.
  4. Use active rather than passive voice 90 per cent of the time.
  5. Cut repetition of words as well as of ideas.
  6. Consider using a tool like Grammarly or the Hitchcock editor to identify specific, minor issues.
  7. Identify and tidy up loose plot threads (but don’t spend precious word count on that one person back in chapter 1 who is never seen nor heard of again)
  8. Try to simplify your language—use short, blunt words rather than long, romantic ones.
  9. Shorten your sentences, but try to keep some variety of length and rhythm too.

 

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9) Know when to stop

Put down the pen or keyboard: better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.

By this stage, you will be absolutely sick of your own writing and just want to be done with it. you have reached the same point now that you did at the end of the primary writing process. It can be all too easy to hate everything you’ve written, and obsess over minor details that, in the long run, could actually be making your book unique and interesting.

Know when to stop the editing process. Once you’re sick of self-editing and never want to read another word, it’s almost certainly done. Send it off for one last readthrough, and then wing it over to your agent, publisher, or website.

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Well done. You’ve finished.


What’s your process for self-editing a novel? Did I miss out a crucial stage? Let me know in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “How to Self-Edit a Novel: A Practical 9-step Guide

  1. Great article! There are some ideas in there I hadn’t thought of before – will try when I finish my next novel 🙂

    One of my go to self editing tips is the same tip as when I’m writing the plot in the first place. If I think something is boring – maybe a scene takes too long, or doesn’t add drama or tension or anything other than “the plot progresses” – I ask this:

    “What is the worst thing that could happen?”

    I was taught that in film school by a film maker called Costa Botes. Taken it with me ever since. It’s an awesome way to quickly add trouble to the plot, or in the case of editing, to shore up a boring moment.

    Liked by 1 person

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