How to Self-edit your manuscript
Your first draft is complete. This is a huge accomplishment and you really should be proud of yourself.
A Google search will point to many sites that claim roughly 97% of people who say they will or are writing a book will never finish. That leaves around 3% actually get this far. I don’t know how this figure is calculated, but let’s work with it. So, for every ten-thousand people who attempt this path, only three-hundred make it!
Now you are ready to enter the world of self-editing. For some, it will be enjoyable, and for others, it will send you running for the hills. But if you’ve got the fortitude to make it this far, you are ready and equipped to take the next step.
Unfortunately, when I got to this stage, I struggled to find helpful videos to guide me. As a new author, I was looking for guidance, but instead, every guide/video seemed to dramatized this process.
Like you, I just wanted to be pointed in the right direction. But eventually, I pieced together enough information to move forward. And listed below are some pointers for you to do yourself before you send your work to a professional editor.
1- Let it rest
Go and relax. Leave the manuscript for a few weeks and don’t look at it.
This is quite a frustrating piece of advice because you want to get stuck into the editing. And I don’t blame you. You want to see this dream come true. But believe me, it’s akin to letting a bottle of red wine breathe. The wait is worth the reward.
When you walk away from your MS for a few weeks, you forget about certain details and the words become strangers to you. And when you come back with a fresh eye, you’ll be able to see the good, the bad and the ugly, and self-editing becomes a bit easier.
*A top tip*
If your pen is restless and you feel the need to make changes, go and write something else. Bear in mind, your writing skills have developed significantly. Every word and sentence you have created since starting your manuscript has sharpened your writing abilities beyond measure. And by the time you finished 50K, 60K, 70K + words; there’s a high probability that you’ll write better and quicker than when you first started.
Now, while the first draft of your completed MS rests, writing something else will do two things: It’ll keep you busy, and also help you to continue to develop as a writer.
I struggled to walk away from my little novel and found myself thinking about it over and over. The main document was stored on my laptop and every time I logged on, I saw it and felt compelled to open the file and tinker. But I didn’t.
The only thing I found effective in keeping my itchy fingers from opening it was to write something else. I’d had a few ideas here and there about another project and began outlining the main points. It felt good to write something fresh. And after the experience of writing the novel, I found the words for the new project flowed well. I found that when outlining (properly), I was able to capture the full story arc in a way that truly reflected what I saw in my mind.
Leaving the manuscript for a month was the best thing I could’ve done. And when I returned, I was armed with a notepad, a pen and a highlighter. Then, I went to work.
2- Initial read-through and Self-edit
Overall story arc
This part is difficult for the untrained editors amongst us. Our problem is that we know exactly what we are trying to say. We can see the entire story as it flashes through our mind. But when you are self-editing, the key question you must ask yourself is “could a reader follow this?”
During the first read-through, you are looking for problems with the main story arc. Does it have a beginning, middle and end? It might take one cycle or several cycles to get the entire arc nailed down. But focus and patience are key. If you rush this, you will cause more work further down the line.
Write out chapter bullet points on post-it notes. This will give you an overview at a glance. Knowing what each chapter does for the overall story is essential to keeping you on track. Start at page one and read through the book chapter by chapter. You are looking for discrepancies in the story– plot holes, omissions, inconsistencies.
As you progress through your first read-through, make notes **not changes** and keep going until the end. If you begin to make changes at this point, you risk getting stuck in the infinite loop of read, note, change.
Remember, you are not trying to weed out all the grammar and spelling errors, and you’re not looking to rewrite entire sentences or paragraphs. You are making the story work in its entirety. But of course, if you spot spelling errors, make the change because you may miss them later.
I thoroughly enjoyed this phase. When I wrote my first draft, it was like I was documenting a movie while it was playing in my mind. And even though I had a good idea of what happened throughout the story, I couldn’t remember it all. So, after I left the draft “rest” for a few weeks and returned to page one, I felt like a reader who was opening the book for the first time. Lots of things stood out. Particularly things that didn’t quite work.
I didn’t even make it through the first paragraph before the lid came off of the highlighter and I began jotting down notes. I won’t lie to you; facing eighty-four thousand words and realising that each had to be reviewed to earn its place on the page; I had serious doubts. And the urge to make changes as I saw them was hard to resist.
When I realised that it was easier to tackle this beast piece by piece, I calmed down and got on with the job at hand.
3- Editing line by line
Spelling and grammar
Passive and active voice
With the main arc nailed down, it’s time to think about things like style, grammar and spelling. And a great way to make things stand out is to change the format. I write in Calibri, size 11. But when I edit, I change to Times New Roman, size 12. This makes the work look like a new book.
Some writers think that this is the job of the editors. And to a degree, they are right. But if you send an error-riddled MS to a developmental editor, they will not be able to focus on their primary job. You’ll be paying them to be distracted by things that you could have fixed. Be sensible and fix the things you can fix. And let the specialists focus on their work.
When looking at your manuscript for spelling mistakes, you have to read it. Scanning for read lines on a Word document will catch most, but there are words that the program will recognise as “correct,” but they are not e.g where/wear, of/off, etc. It also gets confused with certain words and won’t flag them to you. This is where self-editing demands discipline. Read each word out loud.
And don’t think running the book through a writing aid will do the job for you. They are just beefed-up versions of Word (more on these later). You have to put the time in and work through your masterpiece.
Again, break it down into chapters. This is the best way to tackle the workload. Dedicate a morning to one chapter and the evening to another. And if your chapters are small, work through two or three each session. But don’t rush. It will take time. Your book deserves it.
Redundant and unnecessary words
Keep an eye out for redundant words like “he sat down on the sofa.” Simply say “he sat on the sofa.” Also, avoid telling the reader about things like “She didn’t reply.” Instead, find a way to show the reader that she held her silence instead of telling them.
You don’t have to fluff up your writing with “he exclaimed,” or “she muttered.” Keep it simple – he said/ she said. However, there are occasions for variations, but use them sparingly.
Passive and active voice
Another thing to think about is using the active and passive voice. English is my first (and only) language and I have never had an issue with writing. Or so I thought. And when it was time to do some self-editing, I found I needed some guidance on the basics. With some research and by studying THIS video, I caught on quickly and revised hundreds of sentences.
Again, this is something your editors are very well trained in and will spot these issues from a hundred yards. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the problems. Take a look at the video and try to apply the teachings to your book. It will help you when you write your next one.
Each chapter has a job to do. They don’t just tell the next part of the story. They should keep the reader turning the page.
The beginning of each chapter should be interesting enough to entice the reader into saying “just one more chapter.” But you don’t want to start on a high and taper off towards the end. Pique their interest, build on it, then deliver a climatic end. That last paragraph should be strong enough to make them ignore the clock and read one more chapter.
Also, you should be looking to invoke the reader’s senses. The chapter should keep the reader in the story. This is a good time to note if you’ve achieved this. Use a check list as you read through the chapter and have “see, hear, smell, feel, taste” on there. Then tick those that are present.
4- Writing aids
The last thing I will talk about is the use of writing aids. Since you’ve been doing internet searches on things like editing and writing, you’ve probably been inundated with adverts for Grammarly and ProWriting Aid etc.
I don’t use Grammarly, but I have heard good things about it. I do however, use ProWriting Aid.
It’s a simple program to use that does a good job of catching mistakes. It also tries to educate the user in correct use of the English language. But you must be careful in how much change your work to satisfy the scores. And try not to depend on it.
HERE is a post about writing aids where I give my two-cents worth on the pros and cons of using these types of programs. Ultimately, I think they are a great way to polish a manuscript before you send it to a professional, but I caution you against letting them dictate every word.
Good luck and enjoy the ride.