• tarahthornburg

How to Self-Edit Your Novel

So much of being a creative person is trying to unlearn all the things you think you know. And a big part of growing as a writer is returning to the page day after day with the freshness of a beginner.

This is why I love working with writers who are still at the beginning of their author journey. I learn so much from trying to explain what I think I know, and by analyzing the components of my own writing process, I often stumble upon new realizations.

Many of these realizations come from the editing process. As someone who writes for a living, I spend most of my time revising what I’ve already written. A good edit can take a manuscript from a ho-hum novel to one that the reader can’t put down, which is why learning how to self-edit is crucial for anyone who wants to write for a living.

Of course, self-editing is no substitute for a professional edit. No writer — no matter how experienced — can effectively proofread her own work. But learning how to be an effective self-editor will save you time, money, and heartache when it’s time to hand over your manuscript to a professional.

I’ve refined my own self-editing practices over the course of 17 novels, but the editing process is always a big question mark for my students. This is why I’ve distilled down my very best tips into this handy little guide.

Tip No. 1: Let your rough draft marinate. Whenever you finish a first draft, you may be tempted to start revising right away. You are riding high on the accomplishment of finishing your novel, and you want to see if it’s any good, right? All you want is to hold your book in your hands, and the editing process is the biggest hurdle standing in your way.

Resist the temptation to dive into edits! Throw your manuscript in a drawer, or tuck it away in a folder deep within the bowels of your hard drive. If this is your first novel, don’t look at your draft for two to four weeks. For more seasoned writers, I’d suggest waiting at least a week.

Giving your draft time to “marinate” allows you to get some distance from the writing and come back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll automatically feel less attached to your words, and you’ll be in a better position to view your book through the eyes of a reader.

Tip No. 2: Separate your editing into phases. Once it’s time to begin revisions, it’s best to complete several rounds of edits on your manuscript with each round dedicated to a different phase or type of editing.

  1. The first phase is the developmental edit (revising characters, plot, pacing, etc.).

  2. The second phase is the copyedit (editing sentence structure, word choice, and editing for consistency).

  3. The final phase is the proofread (checking for typos and grammatical errors).

You may wish to make multiple passes through each phase in the editing process, but make sure you have a specific focus each time you go through your manuscript.

Tip No. 3: Devote your first round of edits just to story and characters. The first round of edits should always be dedicated to making your story the best it can be. During this initial edit, don’t concern yourself with correcting mistakes and polishing sentences. Focus on the flow of the story, character development, and pacing. This is the best time to add or delete scenes, rewrite chapters, and add in more descriptive passages as needed.

Tip No. 4: Read your work aloud. Once you are satisfied with the story and characters, it’s time to work on the prose. Personally, I could polish my writing until the cows come home, but the most effective way to ensure prose flows smoothly is to read it out loud.

I am such a believer in reading my writing aloud that I do this for every single book I write. It is the most important part of my process, and I would never dream of skipping it now.

Reading your work aloud serves several purposes:

  1. First, it helps weed out long-winded or awkward passages. (If you struggle to read a sentence because there’s no place to breathe, you may need to rework that sentence.)

  2. Reading aloud will help you develop an “ear” for prose and hone your voice as a writer.

  3. Reading your prose will bring dialogue to life. There’s nothing like hearing a sentence out loud to know whether someone would really say such a thing.

Tip No. 5: Get feedback from beta readers. At this point, I am usually in need of a second opinion. I’ve spent so much time with the manuscript that I can no longer see the forest for the trees.

This is when I send the book to my wonderful team of beta readers to get feedback on the story and characters. I have a group of five to seven people I use for every book, but if you are a new author, you can find groups dedicated to beta reading on Facebook and Goodreads.

I like to take this time away from my manuscript if possible so that I can be more objective when I receive feedback.

Tip No. 6: Print out your manuscript. After my book comes back from my betas and I make the necessary changes, I like to print out the manuscript and do some revisions by hand. There’s something about seeing your work in print that allows you to pick out typos and notice sentences that still need some love. This is also a wonderful excuse to buy yourself some fun and colorful pens.

Tip No. 7: Proofread with text-to-speech. The final phase of editing I’ll do is a read-through using text-to-speech. Even though I always send my book to a professional editor, I like for my manuscript to be as clean as possible before it leaves my hands. (This is also something I’d recommend doing for sample chapters if you are shopping your book around to literary agents.)

Text-to-speech helps me catch typos I may have missed, and it helps me hear repeated words more easily than I do when I read the book myself.

Macs have a wonderful text-to-speech function built right in under Accessibility in Settings, and you can even choose different voices and accents for a more pleasurable editing experience. (I like Kate and Serena.) If you are working on a PC, you can use any number of the free text-to-speech platforms available online to hear your book read out loud as you follow along.

Seventeen novels later, these are the best tactics I’ve found to effectively self-edit my work. If editing your first book feels like an insurmountable task, don’t fret. The more you write, the easier editing will become — and the better you’ll get at recognizing problems in your own work. The only way to improve is to keep writing, keep reading, and keep getting feedback on your work.

Have you used any of these tactics before? Did you find some new ones to try? Let me know in the comments!

Photo by Andrew Neel

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