7 Tips for Self-Editing Your Novel

Before I signed with my awesome agent, Barbara Scott, I knew my novel needed another round of edits. I looked at several freelance editors, but I just couldn’t afford the cost. So, I rolled up my shirt sleeves, prayed, and decided to do it myself. Again.

At this point, I’d already gone through my book for grammatical errors, typos, etc. I’d had a published writer and several beta readers go through it. Three other agents expressed interest if I could go back and make my novel stronger.

Here are the tips I learned that pushed my book from a maybe to yes.

1. Print it out. I fought this (don’t ask me why, my frugalness I suppose, sounds better than stubbornness), but it truly makes a huge difference. Your eye will catch things on the printed page you won’t see on the computer screen.

2. Only edit one thing at a time. Go through your manuscript focusing on one thing at a time. Do a sweep for dialogue. Is there useless chatter? Talking that doesn’t move the story forward? Do you have too many tags? Then go back for description. And so forth.

3. Examine every character. Don’t waste time with cardboard characters or the stereotypical bad guy. I highly recommend Deb Dixon’s Goal Motivation and Conflict.

4. Setting. Regardless if you write historical or contemporary, you need to research your setting. Find some of the not so common places to set your characters in. For example, lots of scenes are in restaurants, change it up and put them on a picnic at some fantastic landmark.

5. Hooks and cliff-hangers. Check out the beginning of every chapter and the ending. What can you do to make it stronger? What could happen that would ensure the reader couldn’t put your book down because they have to know what happens next? Is your heroine being chased by a wolf? Then make it a pack of wolves and have her twist her ankle. Take it a step further and do this to every scene. I recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing.

6. Description. Remember to include things beyond sight. Let us know how it smells, tastes, feels, and sounds. Is the rain splattering or pounding? Are the hero’s hands calloused or warm? See Frontierinternetservices.com.

7. Wrapping up all the ends. Make sure all the sub-plots and story lines are resolved. You can set things up for a sequel, but you can’t leave things undone. Readers will feel cheated if they have to buy the next book to find out what happens to the main storyline in book one.

What are some of your favorite non-fiction writing books? Do you have any tips or tricks you use when editing?

54 Replies to “7 Tips for Self-Editing Your Novel”

  1. Good tips, Melissa. You recommended two of my absolute fave writing books.

    I also like to hear my novel read aloud to catch any flaws. And of course, I have my list of overused words I search an axe. Seems like every novel I write, I favor a new word lol.

    Great post, Mel. 😉

    1. Martha, good reminder on overused words. If you search Nick Harrison’s blog, he has a list for writer’s to watch out for. Swallowed and pulse leaping are two of them. 🙂 Take a guess at why those to stick out in my mind. lol

  2. Great tips!
    I might also add that it is good to make sure that you don’t over-use an abnormal punctuation, the same phrase, odd tags, adverbs, passive voice, etc. Personally I tend to use semi-colons too much, so that is something I really have to look out for while editing.

  3. Great tips, Melissa!

    I totally agree with number one…so important to print out the manuscript and edit on paper. I always catch the simple typos on the printed out version.

  4. Print out — necessary to catch things you don’t see in the usual on-screen format.
    Examine characters — easily missed but sometimes we’re so focused on proofreading or fixing up a scene that we forget that Martin, Marvin and Morry aren’t all necessary characters.

    1. Novel Girl, I have ended up combining characters quite frequently, or deciding to eliminate all together. Also, make sure your characters names start with a different letter and don’t ryhme.

      1. This issue about characters’ names has been niggling at me. I have a Marty and Marco. I’ve been putting off changing but it may have to happen. Not sure. What’s your view?

      2. I would change one of them. They both start with M and are both five characters long. Keep whichever name you’re most attached too or has the most meaning for the character.

  5. Great advice, Melissa! Another book that I recommend reading is THE ARTFUL EDIT: ON THE PRACTICE OF EDITING YOURSELF by Susan Bell. Her book gives great examples and goes beyond the basics.

  6. Like you, I’m on my own in this editing endeavor. Time will tell how well I’m accomplishing it. “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King has been a great help to me. Sending a pdf of my novel to my Kindle when it’s “finished” is also helpful for seeing the things I missed while doing the other tinkering. I have to follow all of these steps you suggested—one at a time, printing often. It’s amazing how many reams of paper I go through!

    1. Melinda, I haven’t tried sending my novel to my Kindle yet, but plan on doing it with my current WIP. And I use the same marked up printed version for each of the edits, I just use lots of different colored highlighters. 🙂

    2. Melinda, I agree- Browne and King’s book is a great resource. I’m adding the others listed in the comments/blog post to my ever-growing TBR list, too! 🙂

  7. Nice post! Excellent advice.

    My own would be, use a checklist. I designed a master that I put in my book (thank you for the nice mention!) but you can do up your own. Have it go from the “big issues” (story structure, character) down to the “polish” (scene openings and endings, dialogue).

  8. What great advice! I love the idea of going through and looking for one thing at a time…I’m definitely going to need this post later when I edit my own novel!

  9. My favorite writing book is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. A trick I use when editing is the “search and replace” feature of MS Word. I search, in sequence, for words such as “that”, “was”, “got”, “there” and a few more, and replace them with the same word but highlighted. That allows me to easily see throwaway words and excessive passive voice.

    The longer I’ve been writing, the more I believe I’m out of touch with the world. I used to think I just needed to write the kind of books I like to read, and that there would be millions of other people out there who liked the same kind of books. But I’m changing my mind. I get so tired of the non-stop conflict in books. Dan Brown wears me out with all the conflict in his books. Even Bilbo Baggins wears me out with all his non-stop conflict in The Hobbit. Give me Herman Wouk and The Winds of War, where conflict is spaced out and stories told and characters developed in between. Too much conflict has pretty much killed modern fiction for me. “In the opening paragraph introduce your protagonist and plunge him into conflict, then raise the conflict through the novel” is the conventional wisdom. Am I really the only person in the world who hates that much conflict in fiction?

    1. David, there can be different kinds of conflict, not just action conflict. In fact, the inner conflict or struggle of a character is what keeps me emotionally involved and can have the most impact. Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict delves in to this and explains the difference between action and what true conflict is for your character.

      I think this might be what your referring too. 🙂

    2. I agree with you, David. Too much conflict never gives a reader a chance to recover. I write fiction as a realistic-type story and I find a good mix of emotions is more interesting for character developement. After all, real life for any person includes more than conflict. Conflict is an element of a plot, not an entire plot or theme. Enjoyed your comment.

    3. Me too! Thanks for the hope that someone out there might read my current book if I could ever get it published, not to mention the three that already are–but POD, alas! The beauty and value of fiction have to do with the new worlds and their new inhabitants that the reader can learn from as well as being entertained.
      Thanks for that comment!

  10. Reading anything out loud will find errors that a simple read on the screen or in hard copy never will. I know it takes a long time, but I’ve seen the results. You catch voice inflection errors, blah dialogue, awkward prose, slow plot development…almost everything.

    Great post, Melissa.

  11. At the risk of being unduly critical, the credibility of this article suffers when I read “At this point, I’d already went through my book for grammatical errors, typo’s, etc.” in the second paragraph.

    This alone makes the argument that self-editing is ineffective.

    1. Thanks, Roy, but I’d say it makes the arguement that you need to do more than one edit. Going through once isn’t enough and a second pair of eyes is always smart.

  12. Chalk me up (always “nice” to start with a cliche!) as another author who reads a ms out loud. For me, this is the last edit, and I always look forward to it. Thank you for all these great ideas Melissa! This is exactly the blog post I needed to read as I rewrite my current novel.

  13. Thanks for all the great reminders, Melissa. I like the checklist idea, seeing as I am an incurable list maker. I’m also in the midst of a revision/edit, so this really gives me the push to finish it off!

  14. Thanks for these tips. I especially like the first one – like you, I fought the idea of printing it all out. It felt clunky and wasteful. But wow, did it help!

    1. Isn’t if fuuny that the things we sometimes fight the hardst are the most helpful when we break down and do it? Glad I’m not the only one who fights. 🙂

  15. I like your comment about chapter endings. On one of my hundred (or so it seemed) rewrites, I realized my chapter endings had a lot of going to bed scenes, one of which was fine but too many made them repetitive and meaningless. Great list!

  16. Thanks so much for this post. I’ve learned so much, including make a check list and get James Scott Bell’s editing book. And Susan’s book.
    What do you think about crit groups?

    1. Critique groups can be great or they can be bad. If the group is dedicated to growing their craft, giving constructive criticism, and moving towards becoming published, then it’s great. But sometimes it’s hard to find all of this in a group. I have critique partners and it’s proved much better for me than an actual group. But an outside eye by someone who is a little bit further along than you is where you want to go.

  17. I’m finishing an (6th? I think) edit of a book that’s too long. Last time around I removed almost all adverbs. (I’m a Strunk & White fan too). Still too long, and I honestly felt the story couldn’t afford to have scenes removed. It was called by my editor “literary,” and I used no contractions except in dialog. I’m removing the written out “he hads,” et al. and I can’t believe the number of words I’ve cut! I’d love some comments on how you all handle such matters. I cannot wait to hear from you 😉

    1. Joan, going through multiple edits proves you want to make your book great and are committed. So congrats on that. Without knowing how much over the word count you are, it’s kind of hard. If it’s way over, could you take out a sub-plot? Or, could you chop it in two and have a sequel? Maybe take another look at each scene. If a scene was removed, would the rest of the story still make sense? If yes, then it needs to be cut.
      Some of my favorite scenes ended up under the blade of the scissors. Hope this helped you some.

    1. I have read that book and it rocks! Of course, I was lucky enough to take one of Brandilyn’s classes in person and she’s just as amazing in real life as in her books. Thanks for adding this one, Janalyn.

  18. Thank you for these tips! I need them now as I’m editing (again), and I especially love the checklist idea and the suggestion to search for one thing at a time to edit – it’s so easy to get distracted! I’m going to wait to print until I’m a little farther along. It’s always nice to know that I’m not alone in this process…

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