Self-Editing Your Novel

National Novel Writing Month is coming to an end, and that means it’s time to take all those words and add a little magic. December is editing month, and also a time when many literary agencies are closing their query boxes for the year to enjoy the holidays. Some writers are polishing their virtual knives and preparing for editing season. Others may be shelving that story for a few weeks in the spirit of a little self care. Still others may be looking at an unpolished pile of vomited words thinking now what?

Well, now the real work begins.

It’s also when the real fun starts. Now you get to bring that black and white drawing of a story to life by adding color, depth and composition. Some writers have a method to how they get their hands dirty with editing, others are still searching for a system that works. If you’re in the latter realm, here’s what works for me. Five steps to get that manuscript to a sparkling shine.

Note: Before you get started, create an edit document (or sheet if using Scrivener) and break it out into sections. Mine usually includes: grammar style for words/phrases, objects, dictionary of unique words/phrases (fantasy writers – I usually keep a separate doc for the dictionary), character name spellings, and any other fixes you want/need to keep track of as you go. It’s amazing how many times objects disappear or characters fade to white during the editing process.

  1. Structure your novel. It’s written, a pile of words with characters doing things. Does it make sense? Is there a clear beginning, middle and end? This step may happen several times during the editing process, but I find the first pass is the most critical. Whether the story will be a standalone or part of a series, this is where you lay down and define the arc for your character(s). Where do they start? Where do they end? Are they different at the end? Have you tied off all (or most) of the loose ends? What are the plot points and beats – i.e where does the tension ramp up or offer readers a breather? I personally get dirty when I hit the structure, ripping apart scenes and bits and rearranging them all in an order that makes sense. There is no flow at this point, just a base timeline getting everyone from a to b, or a to dead. ^_^
  2. Characterization, Description & Stakes. This step is the dirtiest, but very critical. One chapter at a time, start digging beneath the layers and bring it all to light. What does your character see, smell, touch, etc. Use all five senses and bring that description to life, show us your character acting/reacting to the environment. And above all, ensure your character has a driver and motivation for the chapter. What do they want/need? How do they go about accomplishing it? And do they achieve this or get derailed/pulled back? Dig through the strata and bring all of this erupting to the surface. Remember, your readers are brand new to your world, so show them the magic.
  3. Feelings & Flow. Two words: Emotion Thesaurus. I have a story I polished earlier this year, and my biggest struggle was how to connect the reader to the character. Once I found this book, lights started to click on in my head. During this step, what you’re looking for in each chapter is words like felt, looked, watched, etc. Remove these words and replace with concise actions, emotions, etc. Show us their joys and pain, through their eyes. You also want to look at beginnings and endings. Does one chapter flow into another or is there a gap? Is each starting and ending with a hook? Your goal is to keep tugging that reader along all the way to the end, then wait for their hate-mail as they demand to know where the next story in your saga is.
  4. The Filler Express. By this step, your book’s going to be in pretty good shape and the way ahead gets a little faster (and easier). Filler words are added weight to your manuscript, and most have nothing to offer but a redundancy of thought. Look for adverbs, most of which can be trimmed away or rewritten into stronger sentences. Cut the fillers: just, so, very, really, that, but, etc. etc. Google this. There are tons of articles on the web about filler words and why they should be cut, so I won’t re-invent the wheel here. I tend to hit 2-3 different articles on fillers so I can destroy them all.
  5. Spell Checker. This final step requires some forethought from the writer, because not all spellcheckers are created equal (or 100% correct). I start with in search of any final adverbs or instances of weak writing. But, I choose which words/phrases to fix and which are better left alone. Then I compile the final manuscript into a Word document and search for each squiggly underline. Sometimes Word finds erroneous things missed, and sometimes it’s just plain incorrect, so search for each one and edit/leave as necessary.

Hooray! You’re done editing your story and a huge chunk of the hard work is out of the way. Drink a beer, eat some chocolate, and hand that baby off to your beta readers or critique partners. While your book is in good shape at this point, your readers will still pick it apart and find all the nuances you missed. No worries, you’ll have a little time to breathe the free air, take in a movie, read a book, or draft your next story before the 5-step process starts all over again. And hopefully at a much quicker pace the second, third and twelfth time around.

Good luck! 🙂


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