Somewhere a rumor started that writers don’t have to self-edit. I’m here to let you know that it’s a false rumor. Writers should always self-edit. Keep in mind two facts, though. One: Self-editing does not make up for professional editing. Two: Self-editing comes after the first draft.
See, all writers have to wear more than one hat. We have our fun hat, the one we wear during our first draft. This is the creative, bedazzled hat that reminds us not to give a damn about what anyone else is going to think. As Terry Pratchett put, this is us telling ourselves the story.
The second hat is more professional. Think construction hat. We’re going to worry about the structure, plot holes, grammar, and the overall picture. We’re going to use our blueprints and evaluate our story with a keen eye. We’re going to locate any missing pieces and our hat is going to make sure we’re protected. (By “we”, I mean our egos. They are awfully fragile.) Switching hats is a good way to give yourself distance from all the blood, sweat, and tears you just put into that first draft.
It also helps to change formats, or read aloud when you go back that first time. Make notes, but don’t edit yet.
There is more than one type of self-edits, and I’ll talk about them below.
Levels of Editing: Big Picture & Small Scale
There are essentially two levels of editing, but each level contains their own bits. The first thing you do when you complete that first draft is put it away. Yep, throw it in your desk drawer and forget about it for as long as possible. Anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months. The point of this is when you finally unearth it again, you’re looking at it with fresh eyes. You’ve probably heard about that numerous times, but I can assure you it’s important.
The first level is the big picture editing. You may have the urge to start rewording and editing your grammar as you do you first read through, but that’s a waste of time. Big picture editing is also called developmental or structural editing. You’ll remove scenes, chapters, subplots, and anything else that doesn’t move the story forward or develop character.
Big Picture Edit
- Background dumps
- Scenery dumps
Not everything has to go, but it’s important to look at each of these to see if they need cut, moved, or strengthened.
Small Scale Edit:
- Word choice
- Author’s Voice
- Inconsistency in usage of words in a sentence (afterward vs afterwards. Stick to one spelling)
- Spelling of names, places, and things
- Inconsistency of details about characters, places, or things
- Document clean up (such as extra spaces between words)
- Deleting extra words (such as two “the” in a row.)
- Basic spelling and punctuation
- Book format
Tip # 1: Use your blueprint (a.k.a the outline)
I love outlines, but I haven’t always been this way. I used to sit down with my notebook and just go for it. I never finished a book, and although the pieces were interesting, they were a mess.
You don’t have to outline every single scene, but you should at least know your direction. See my Dramatic Structure page for help outlining and tips for plot points.
If you don’t create an outline before your first draft is finished, then create one out of your first draft. It’ll help you see the big picture and point out spots that need work, or if you haven’t tied off any loose ends. I like to do both an outline in excel with each plot and subplot and on index cards. Excel allows me to see it all on one page and if a plot point doesn’t have an event for one of plots, I know I have to add it. Index cards help me physically move scenes around to strengthen my structure.
Tip # 2: Cut the fluff
During your small scale edit, you’ll want to go through your manuscript and hunt down words that are filler. This will cut your word count and tighten your sentences. This includes “to-be” verbs and weak adjectives. They rob your writing.
Check out my favorite go-to page for cutting the fluff. 297 Flabby Words and Phrases That Rob Your Writing of All Its Power
Tip # 3: Kill your darlings
A lot of writers aren’t clear on what this means. To me, it means that cut anything that isn’t moving your story forward or giving character information that is vital to your story. It’s important for you to know as many details as possible about your character and their world, but your reader doesn’t need all that information. Less is more, and it keeps your reader interested.
Check out this post on what this phrase means.
Tip # 4: Use action and reaction scenes
MRU changed my writing forever. I don’t worry about it during my first draft, but during editing, it’s a blueprint inside a blueprint. Just like anything else in the writing process, MRUs have to make your book better. If it doesn’t work in some parts, that’s fine. Writing is not like speed limits and stop signs. Breaking the rules isn’t going to get you in trouble.
For a better look at MRU, check out this post.
Tip # 5: Show and tell
You’ve most likely heard “show, don’t tell” a million times now. It’s not something I worry about in my first draft, or second, or even third. This, despite how time-consuming it is to go through your entire manuscript hunting for these instances, is considered small scale. Don’t waste your time at the beginning of the editing process changing these sentences around because you may end up deleting a lot of work if you need to delete the entire scene or chapter.
Showing keeps your reader in your world while telling puts them at a distance. You never, ever want them at a distance because that’s when they put down your book.
For more about Show vs. tell, check out this post.
Tip # 6: Format
While in your drafting process, it’s alright to have any format you wish, especially if changing it helps your editing. One of the last things you should do while editing is change your manuscript to the correct format. Read the guidelines for the publisher carefully. Many of them will automatically toss your beloved work simply for not following their guidelines.
Check out a basic formation guide here.
Tip # 7: Your opening pages
How many times have you picked up a book and found that it takes 50 pages to get to the story? How many times have you put the book down to never pick it up again? The writer drones on and on about the world, the character’s background, or anything that is absolutely boring. My answer is all. Every book I’ve read like that was donated and I never made it to the good parts. Readers don’t have time to waste, so don’t waste your opening pages (or any pages) with fluff. Of course, you want to ground them in the who, why, and where, but it doesn’t need to take pages or chapters.
I recently read a book where the opening was fantastic. The MC comes back from break to find someone has planted her own obituary on her work computer with an exact time of death. Though the rest of the book veered horribly wrong (I couldn’t finish it), the writer obviously knew how to start strong.
With all that said, this really should be the last thing you worry about. You’ll change it so many times by the end that you won’t remember the first opening.
Check out here the importance of the opening pages and chapter.
Tip # 8: Exit stage left
Another time consuming small scare edit. Having your character detail every movement they make is a big no-no. Readers are not idiots and they know how the human body works. They know that someone sitting has to rise to pace. You don’t always need to describe them rising and then pacing (unless the rising part is important. If a character is about to attack the POV character, the POV character will watch every movement. It’s acceptable to write it out).
Check out The Manuscript Shredder for more information.
Tip# 9: Active Vs. Passive
Sandy was attacked by Rizzo. Rizzo attacked Sandy. Shorter sentence, more direct. However, there are times you need passive voice if the person/thing is unknown.
Check out this post on Grammarly to learn more about active vs. passive voice.
Tip# 10: Use Beta readers
Using Beta readers is one of your last steps. You usually do this right before your last draft, before you send it off into the world. Beta readers can help pick out parts that don’t work. Usually, you want to give them a direction on what to look for or what you think isn’t working in the manuscript.
Check out my post on Beta readers for some great tips.
Extra tip: Use a spell checker. Keep in mind, though, that spell checkers have their weaknesses. They don’t have human eyes.
What is your favorite part of editing? Let us know in the comments below!