Are you the kind of writer that loves writing a first draft but has no idea what to do once you’re done with it? Do you worry that you don’t know how to edit a novel, so you freeze up, get overwhelmed, and either publish right away or stuff it in a sock drawer forever?
Editing is hard, but luckily there are strategies you can take when editing your first draft (and others), or even if it’s your first time.
In this article, I’ll teach you the process I’ve learned after years of struggling to edit. But first, there’s one thing we have to get out of the way:
Editing is essential and you have to do it.
A lot of writers loathe editing.
I’ve known some novices who refuse to edit their work at all. (Eventually, those folks have learned that’s not really a great idea.) I used to hate editing as well, but over the years, I’ve come to . . . not necessarily enjoy it, but tolerate it.
I know it’s an essential part of the writing (and publishing!) process and respect if for that purpose.
It’s still a pain. And it can definitely be overwhelming.
Eventually, in my many years of rebelling against the editing process, I realized I didn’t want to edit because I had no earthly idea how to begin!
Figuring out an editing process gave me some fresh eyes on how to approach my own work, and become a better writer while simultaneously becoming a self-editor.
The 9-Step Process to Self-Edit a Novel
I want you to skip the years of trial and error I went through to find a good way to self-edit a book.
To do this, I’ve constructed a step-by-step guide to tackle the editing process. This works for novels, books, short stories, and everything in between. (I seriously use this.)
1. Take a break
This is essential. DO NOT skip this part.
Your first instinct is going to be to give your story a read through immediately. You absolutely know there are parts you wanted to revisit while you were rushing through a first draft.
(First drafts should be written quickly. To see why check out this post.)
No matter how much you want to, don’t reread your book right away. Set it aside. I recommend leaving it sit for two months. For shorter works, I recommend a couple weeks.
This break is vital so you can come back with fresh editor’s eyes.
It also allows you to avoid overlooking problems with the big picture because you’re so concentrated on perfecting the little details.
And if you’re really itchy to edit your own writing immediately, consider some other ways to exercise your mind and distract yourself (for a little while). These might include:
- Other physical activity
- Catching up with friends and family you avoided while writing
- Playing with your pet
- Watching a movie
You get the idea, although I recommend something physical in some way, since moving your body after long stretches of hunching over a computer can rejuvenate not only your body, but your mental state.
Overall, it takes a lot to edit an entire manuscript, or any of your own work. Giving yourself a break will restore the energy you need to do this.
2. Reread your novel with an eye for large problems
For now, ignore stylistic issues and typos. You’re looking for structure issues, characterization problems, plot holes, etc. You’re not looking to improve your use of language at this point. You’re looking to improve the story.
That means you want to concentrate on developmental editing, not copyediting or line editing (although this will be important at some point in the editing process).
Notice I did not say start editing. You’re just reading right now. You have to take a macro view of your entire book before you can really dive in and start revising.
Make notes on the larger issues. Create a list of things you’d like to change. But do not start editing.
Open up a Microsoft word document or even a journal and jot down holes with the story essentials. Take your notes, and evaluate the story as a whole when you’re done reading before you start sweating the small stuff.
Some ideas you might want to take notes on while before a developmental edit are what Shawn Coyne of the Story Grid says are the editor’s six questions. These are:
- What’s the genre?
- What are the conventions and obligatory moments for that genre?
- What’s the Point of View?
- What are the object of desire? (a main character’s macro want and need in the story)
- What is the controlling idea and/or themes in the story?
- What is (a brief summary of) the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff? (Or think three acts, if you’re following the three-act structure)
Using an editing checklist like this will keep you focused on the most important elements that build a story from page one to the end. The details you can take a look at with a separate checklist, for other ways to make your story stand out, like:
- Voice and style (line edits are important to shape this)
- Grammar (watch out for passive voice)
- Word choice (focus on vivid verbs versus adjectives and adverbs)
- Dialogue (this is what separates seasoned writers from the rookies)
- Show don’t tell (which can also support setting descriptions and actions and decisions that support character development)
3. Revisit your outline
If you didn’t make one, that’s fine. Make one now.
Trust me, even if you’re a pantser, you’re going to want a map of your entire story laid out in front of you. It’s easier to see your book’s structure that way, which makes it easier to move scenes around, or cut/add scenes or chapters.
If you did make an outline, revise it to reflect the current state of your book. (We all know inspiration sometimes strikes and you probably added a scene here and there that wasn’t in the original outline.)
Now look at that outline and identify any major issues with structure, etc. and brainstorm ways to fix those issues. Make a new outline based on your fixes.
Now you have a plan for your next draft!
Why else is an outline helpful at this stage? Because it’s going to catch plot points that you undervalued or missed, and it’s also going to help you notice when subplots are working well or not at all.
A strategy for creating a chronological order for all your plot lines could be to write a synopsis for each of your subplots and then see where moment overlap or are lacking.
Do you create set ups that didn’t pay off later in a story? Or in other words, did you place a plot point in act one that needed to make a significant impact on the plot in act two or three but got lost somewhere in the process of writing the whole book?
Outlines can catch mistakes like this, and they’ll help you pay attention to what needs revising in the next draft.
4. Start your second draft
Now you can edit.
Keep in mind you are looking for large issues right now. Concentrate on structure, tone, characterization, and definitely your plot.
You’re not worrying so much about making your sentences sing and finding the perfect metaphor or simile. You’re not expecting to sound like a book sold to a traditional publishing house (although we’d all love that, I’m sure, you can save that for your third draft).
What you are trying to do in your second draft is fix those big picture problems.
Details like world-building and how they impacted plot poorly in the first draft can be considered and changed here.
So can those plot holes in subplots or the main plot, figuring out how to create engaging cliffhangers that pay off somewhere else in the story, and anything going on with main or supporting characters.
Regardless of how you approach your book editing when looking at your first draft, don’t let your fear of writing a second, polished draft prevent you from writing and revising your second draft. Delay too long, and you might shelve that book and never come back to it again.
As you write draft two, keep your outline nearby so you can stay on track. (Side note: I “outline” by writing each scene on an index card and taping them to my wall. They’re always staring at me that way. And it’s a great guilt trip if you’re prone to procrastination to see them all up there judging you for not writing.)
This part is the hardest to do and is definitely the most frustrating and overwhelming. Keep at it and don’t give up.
There’s always room for more improvement when you write draft three.
5. Reread again
This time you’re making sure you’ve fixed all your major problems, but you can also start looking for prose issues. I always print this version out so I can write notes in the margins and correct sentences right on the manuscript.
Even better, read your manuscript out loud. Sometimes (meaning always) the ear picks up words and prose differently than reading in our heads.
This is hideous and may require an extra large cup of tea, but it’s important.
It doesn’t matter if you’re self-publishing or going to query a literary agent, reading out lout will change how you hear your book.
And if you hear it sounding confusing or funny, you’ll get a chance to change it before other readers stop and question it.
6. Start draft 2.5
I don’t consider this round of edits to be a third draft, but if you want to call it that, fine.
This is where you’re doing a lot of prose tweaking. Fix those telling spots and make them show. Make sure your dialogue is realistic. Add some description if needed.
For me, this is the fun part of editing, where I’m really filling out my book and making sure my style is consistent.
If you’re not falling in love with your story and writing by this place in the editing process, a bigger problem is probably going on with your story.
Maybe you should revisit those developmental edits or your outline before your keep going.
But if you’re getting exciting while you read and edit this draft, you know you’ve made some nice changes and upped your writing game.
7. Send your manuscript to beta readers
Yep, it’s time to let people in on this massive project of yours, typos and all.
This is not a perfect, publishable draft. Any beta reader you choose needs to know that upfront so they’re not concentrating on commas and spelling.
They may mark a typo if they see one, but they should be aware they are helping you the most by focusing on the major components above all else: plot, characterization, setting, conflict, the big idea driving your whole book.
(A note on beta readers: Please don’t send it to your mother. She will love it and not give you good feedback. Ditto for close friends and other family members. Find some other writers or people you are positive will not worry about offending you when giving you feedback.)
Make a list of questions for your beta readers to keep them concentrated on what they really need to look for. Here are some example questions to keep your beta readers on track:
- Are my characters flat?
- Does my dialogue sound realistic?
- Does anything not make sense (with plot, with world rules, with choices characters make, etc.)?
- Were there any places you got bored and didn’t want to continue the book?
- Is the climax exciting enough?
Avoid the urge to edit more while your beta readers have your book. DO NOT send them a new copy because you changed something. This will lead to a downward spiral of you tweaking a sentence, sending them a new copy, them starting over, repeat. They will get frustrated and most likely will not finish reading your book at all.
The added bonus to taking another break is you will have plenty of space from your story when you come back to it, which means you’ll be able to look at it through editors’ eyes again.
If your beta readers bring up multiple issues, take time to consider them before revising again. Here’s how to process feedback from beta readers. Always consider everything your beta readers say. Do not get defensive. Do not argue with them.
They represent your readers and were kind enough to help you out.
8. Start your third draft
Hopefully, your beta readers didn’t find any glaring problems with the major components of your book.
If they did find some pretty major problems, you’re going to work through the second draft steps again:
- Don’t panic. I know it’s frustrating, but you CAN fix this book. Don’t give up now!
- Revise for major problems.
- Send the book back out to beta readers. Consider a few new people this time, but make sure you send it to a handful of the original group so they can tell you if you’ve fixed the issues. (If they’re not willing to read the book again, that’s fine. Understand that this is your baby, not theirs, and they might not have the time or the urge to keep helping you with this particular project. Don’t make enemies over something so trivial.)
If they didn’t find any major errors, hooray! For this draft, you’ll focus on the micro view of your book: typos, grammar, and all the tiny little tweaks.
I highly recommend reading your work aloud at this stage. You’ll catch so many more weirdly worded sentences and typos if it’s vocalized than if you’re reading it. Eyes tend to skip things, especially if they’ve run over the same ground a million times.
Again, this part is essential and I don’t recommend you skip it!
You’ve spent a long time on your story, and you’re about ready to share it with the world.
And I’m sure you’ve become a better writer by learning how to edit a novel or other story.
Celebrate, then get ready to write your next piece of creative work!
Bringing in the Professionals
This is a post on self-editing your novel, but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention professional editors.
I’d never worked with an editor before last fall, and let me tell you, the experience was quite illuminating. So if this still seems like too much for you to handle, let me give you a rundown of the different types of editors and when you might consider hiring them.
A developmental editor gives you macro-level insight into your entire story. They’ll help you straighten out the kinks with major issues, like structure.
You’d want to hire a developmental editor early on before you waste time doing several drafts. I’m talking after your first draft or between draft two and draft 2.5. Find out more about developmental editing through The Write Practice here.
A line editor is just what it sounds like: They comb through each sentence. A line editor’s specialty is language. These are the people to help you get beautiful prose.
You’d hire a line editor after you’ve fixed major structural problems and anything else of high importance. They won’t help you fix your story, so that needs to be done first. This is third draft stuff. Find line editors we recommend here.
A proofreader is the person you want if you don’t know the difference between a comma and a semicolon. (Or if you can’t spell “semicolon.”) Proofreaders go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and fix any typos, including spelling mistakes and grammatical and punctuation errors. They come in after your final draft, right before you publish.
You’d want to hire a proofreader in the final stages of your editing, especially if you’re going to self-publish. Find proofreaders we recommend here.
I Promise It Gets Easier.
Are you overwhelmed right now? I know I probably would be if I’d just read this post and had never edited anything before (especially a longer work like a book).
Eventually, you’ll be able to move through these steps quickly and you won’t look at your first draft manuscripts with dread.
Just take it one step at a time and work the process.
You’ll get to a well-edited, publishing-ready draft, and your book will be all the better for it.
That can be a reward in and of itself.
Do you follow a similar editing process? Let me know in the comments!
For today’s practice, grab a short piece you’ve already written. If you don’t write short stories, pull up a scene from your book. (Make sure it’s something you’ve let sit for a while!)
Start by reading the piece and keeping an eye out for the big issues. Take notes. Then set a timer for fifteen minutes and fix those large issues.
Next, consider the people reading this as your beta readers and share your edited writing in the comments! Don’t forget to do your fellow commenters a HUGE favor and play beta reader for them. We can all use feedback!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.