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This post is all about learning how to self-edit your book, the best ways to strengthen your writing after an early draft, and the top self-editing tips for fiction writers so you can return to your first draft with confidence.
Finished NaNoWriMo, wrote a novel, and now you don’t know what to do next? It’s time to self-edit your book! Revising that first draft can be so intimidating. Here are my tips, as an editor, to help you make the most of the self-editing process before you pass your book off to a professional editor.
Cheryl Klein, author of Second Sight, talks about how the Latin word for revise actually means to visit again or to see again. Returning to your manuscript for the self-editing process is about considering your work with fresh eyes and listening to what’s working and what’s not working in a big-picture sense.
Before You Self-Edit Your Book
Write Your Marketing Copy
This may sound a little strange—especially if you don’t have any marketing experience and your manuscript isn’t complete yet—but stick with me. Even if you don’t plan to use the material that you write in this step to actually promote your book, this is still an invaluable exercise before you revise for two reasons:
- First, it helps you step away from your actual manuscript and create a bit of distance from your story, but you can still focus on your writing skills and think about your book from a new angle.
- It also helps you narrow your focus even more to remember what it is about your story that’s so compelling—what you really want readers to know about it—and whether or not that comes across on the page.
The type of marketing copy you can practice writing includes:
- Jacket material
- Back cover blurb
- Proposal material
- Any kind of elevator pitch you’d be using on a website, in an interview, etc.
What kind of marketing copy do you write? Anything you need to communicate about your book to motivate readers to pick it up.
This is really about priming the pump before you get to revising.
You may decide to scrap the whole thing. Writing this marketing material doesn’t mean you have to use it as your flap copy. It’s really just a writing exercise, and when you position it this way in your head, you may surprise yourself by just how creative you can be.
Focus on what you’re really trying to accomplish in the book, the themes you’re trying to explore, and all of the big-picture elements to make sure everything’s in place. This writing exercise is meant to fuel your revision next steps so you can return to the vision and heart of your story.
In writing the marketing material, you may decide that you actually need to go in a completely different direction in one area of your book, or maybe it just solidifies to you what your story is really about at its core. Don’t get bogged down in a sales pitch if you don’t have the marketing experience.
Every author is going to have blind spots in their manuscripts that only a professional editor can flag, tighten, or cut out. But, when it comes to self-editing and shaping a novel after a first draft, you really have to trust your gut.
There are scenes, moments in the plot, or character development that may not sit right with you for some reason. Get curious about it, and lean in to it. Maybe you don’t know how to fix the issues in your manuscript, but you know something is off.
Something about the action scene is jolting you out of the story or a character in your head isn’t really coming to life on the page like you thought she would. Maybe the dialogue doesn’t seem realistic to you, but you don’t really know why.
The first step is to put on your writer detective hat.
If you’re noticing awkwardness surrounding dialogue, for instance, do your research and look into resources about dialogue. Look up podcasts, articles, and other writing resources out there about specific storytelling techniques.
Compartmentalizing at this stage in your novel is your best friend.
Hone your craft, friends, and be specific. If your dialogue feels stilted, it’s time to go back to the basics.
Ask fellow writers in your community.
Ask authors on Twitter how they handle dialogue.
And then, go into your revision with these specific resources at your disposal.
To write better, you have to write all the time. Practice, practice, practice. Yes. That’s true. But also, there’s a time and a place for every author to perform a diagnostic report on the current draft. Don’t just keep at it until you “get better.” Replenish your well of creativity.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes, “Good dialogue gives us the sense that we’re eavesdropping.” If your dialogue feels stilted, it’s time to get curious and see what you find.
If you want the world building to be more complex than it currently is, read some of your favorite fantasy books with complex worlds for inspiration. But don’t stop there. Look up interviews by those authors. See if you can find podcasts, articles, and other tangible resources where they talk about their writing process and how they created the world you enjoyed so much.
Be a student of your craft and do what you can to target specific storytelling techniques, and assess your novel within those buckets.
Honor the Writer You Are
This is a crucial step for that pre-revision stage. Know your writing habits, and be as honest as possible with yourself about what your book actually needs.
Ask yourself if you need some time away from your manuscript to recharge your creative batteries to even look at your manuscript again. Or maybe you’re the kind of writer who needs to ride that wave of momentum and go straight into self-editing.
No other writer or editor can answer that question for you.
It really just depends on who you are and how you work—how you tick. If you’re going to put your manuscript away for a time, make sure to have a return date in mind.
Don’t just close the tab in your mind on your book and think one day you’ll feel the inspiration to pick it up again. Chances are, it’s going to be a lot harder to return to your book if you put it away for a while. This isn’t always the case, but you may have to push past some blocks you may be feeling.
Don’t abandon the story. Set reminders for yourself if it’s a week, a month, three months—whatever the timeline may be to recharge your creative batteries. Just make sure you have a start date in mind.
Sustain your creative well.
If you decide to push through and continue on with the self-editing process, make sure you are feeding your creativity simultaneously. Leave room in your writing and editing schedule to read books, watch movies, listen to podcasts—activities that will inspire you and rejuvenate you. Go on a walk, be in nature. Leave time for the things that are important to your mental health and your writing.
While You Self-Edit Your Book
Create a Book Map
A book outline maps out your novel scene by scene or chapter or by chapter. This will help you pinpoint areas of the book that feel thin or recognize chapters that stray a little too far from the book’s purpose and drive.
Cheryl Klein has a chapter in Second Sight called the “Art of Detection” that’s all about book mapping and outlining. It’s a necessary read, no matter what kind of writer you are.
Creating a book map can help you if you need to re-plot the action or themes of your story for pacing, to create urgency or tension, or to simply improve the overall flow of your novel.
Developmental editors often use book maps to help authors evaluate their manuscripts from a big-picture level, but this exercise can be immensely helpful for authors too, especially if you have several threads in your story that are a little disjointed and need to fit together.
Tune Out the Grammar Police
Give yourself permission to sidestep the grammar police in your first revision after the first draft. As a copyeditor, this kind of hurts my soul a bit, but it is a crucial step for authors shaping their stories after a first draft.
Once you make more substantive, big-picture changes to your book, that’s when you can return to your manuscript and make line edits to address any issues having to do with grammar, punctuation, usage, and syntax.
Don’t stifle your creativity before you get there. Don’t get bogged down by grammar.
Your job is to get the story on the page—not worry about a rogue apostrophe or comma. Let your copyeditor tend to these things.
Cut Out Unnecessary Words
Revision and editing is all about trimming down and only keeping what advances the story. This trimming will mostly happen with a line editor who knows how to tighten your language, so don’t expect this to be a perfect process on your own.
Authors look at their stories through one lens, and we all need a second set of eyes to review our work.
It’s always better to cut out words and realize you have too thin of a manuscript and you have to add more “meat” to it than to keep fluff no reader is going to care about.
I hope these thoughts are helpful as you dive in and do the hard work! I always tell my authors they are doing the hard work when they return to their manuscripts with a critical eye and show up to revise, revise, revise.
Be Kind to Yourself
Give yourself what you need to make sure you refill your creative well and do what you can to get this book that you care about into the hands of readers.
This post was all about self-editing your novel and my three tips to edit your book (1) before you revise and (2) while you’re revising your first draft.