You’ve completed a first draft. Congratulations! Seriously, you deserve a pat on the back, and I really suggest you take the time to give yourself one.
Now comes the hard part: editing.
Seriously, how do you edit a novel? 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!
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. So here’s my 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 reread your story 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Make sure your outline is 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.
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.
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.
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, etc.
(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!
*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 can really 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.
Finally, 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. 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!
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.
If you want, 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!