Step 2 – Self-Editing


If you’re reading this, it must mean your first draft is complete. This is a huge accomplishment and you really should be proud of yourself. But now comes self-editing.

The self-edit comes in four stages and is done before you hire an external editor.

  1. Let it rest
  2. Initial read-through and notes
  3. Developmental edit
  4. Copy edit

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 writing a novel, only three-hundred make it this far. So, congratulations!

Now, those last 300 will be tested with the next stage.

For some people, self-editing will be enjoyable. But for others, it will send them running for the hills. However, 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 dramatize this process.

Like you, I just wanted to be pointed in the right direction. And eventually, I pieced together enough information to move forward.

Let it rest

Go and relax. Sounds simple enough, right?

Self-editing a novel - Let it rest
Self-editing a novel – Let it rest

Leave the manuscript for a few weeks and don’t look at it.

This is quite a frustrating piece of advice because you will want to get stuck into editing. And I don’t blame you. But believe me, the wait is worth it.

When you walk away from your MS for a few weeks, you’ll forget about certain details and the words will become strangers to you.

Then, 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 lot easier.

*A top tip*

When your pen is restless and you feel the need to make changes to your MS, you must resist it at all costs.

If you really must write, go and write something else.

Bear in mind, your writing skills have developed significantly over the course of writing your first draft.

While the first draft of your completed MS rests, writing something else will do two things: It’ll keep you busy, and it’ll also help you continue developing 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, it begged me 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 had a few ideas about another project, so I began outlining the main points.

It felt good to write something fresh. And after the experience of completing my first 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.

Developmental edit

This part is difficult for the untrained editors amongst us.

Our problem, as the author, 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’re self-editing, the key question you must ask yourself is “can a reader follow this?”

The main three points to consider during a developmental edit are:

  • Overall story arc
  • Character consistency
  • Sub-plots

It might take several editorial 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.

Overall story arc

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. Try to find any plot holes, omissions, or inconsistencies.

If you followed the article in STEP 1, you will know the 5 points of Freytag’s pyramid. Make sure your story follows it.

Character consistency

The next read-through will require a closer look at your characters.

Throughout the narrative, your character will grow and evolve. However, if they stray too far from their main characteristics for no reason, your readers will notice.

For instance, a character might grow in confidence throughout the story due to a significant event. Or, a boisterous personality might be brought down a peg or two for some reason.

But at no point should a character go from being six-foot one, with green eyes, to short and dumpy with brown eyes.

Write a biography for each of your characters, and use it to check that the story stays true to them.


You need to make sure that your sub-plots are well threaded throughout the main story arc.

However, a sub-plot shouldn’t overshadow the main theme of the book. Nor should it be so subtle that a reader can miss it.

It should rumble on in the background with just enough attention to keep the reader interested.


During the developmental edit, you’re not trying to weed out all the grammar and spelling errors, and you’re not looking to rewrite entire sentences or paragraphs.

Of course, if you spot a spelling mistake or issue with grammar, feel free to change it. But the goal at this stage is to make the story work in its entirety.

**Top tip**

As you progress through your first read-through, make notes **not changes,**.

If you begin to make changes mid-read, you risk getting stuck in the infinite loop of read, note, change.

Self-editing - Make notes
Self-editing – Make notes

I thoroughly enjoyed this phase.

When I wrote my first draft, it was like I was documenting a movie as it was played in my mind. And even though I had a good idea of what happened throughout the story, I couldn’t remember all the details.

So, when I returned after a few weeks of rest, 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; I had serious doubts when I was facing eighty-four thousand words, and realised each had to be reviewed to earn its place on the page.

But when I realised that it was easier to tackle this beast chapter by chapter, I calmed down and got on with the job at hand.

Copy Editing, line by line

With the main arc nailed down, it’s time to think about things like style, grammar and spelling.

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.


There are five things to look for during a basic copy edit:

  • Spelling and grammar
  • Redundant words
  • Dialogue
  • Passive and active voice
  • Chapter layout
Spelling and grammar

Some writers think that this is the job of an editor. And to a degree, they are right. But if you send an error-riddled MS to an 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 the time comes).

When looking at your manuscript for spelling mistakes, you have to read it out loud.

Simply scanning for red lines on a Word document will catch most errors, but there will be words that the program will recognise as “correct.” Common culprits are: where/wear, and of/off.

And this is compounded if you use a program with the wrong preferred language.

English for writers in the USA will need to use US English, and those in the UK will use the correct version (Ha. Only joking).

This is why 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.

Redundant 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.

Get pruning those words.

Yes, it will lower your word count. But it will also make your writing more attractive to readers.

Dialogue tags

You don’t have to fluff up your writing with “he exclaimed,” or “she muttered.” Keep it simple – he said/ she said.

That being said, there are occasions for variations. But use them sparingly.

Remember, you’re telling a story. If you were to tell the same story in person like in a pub, break room at work, or at home, you’d probably use normal language.

Your book is no exception.

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.

But when it was time to do some self-editing, I found I needed some guidance on the basics. With some research, I caught on quickly and found I needed to revise 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 the time to learn and understand passive writing. It will help you in the long run.

Chapter layout

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 in a chapter should be strong enough to make a reader ignore the fact that it’s 1.a.m, and read one more chapter.

Self-edit chapter by chapter
Self-edit chapter by chapter

Also, you should be looking to invoke the reader’s senses at least once in each chapter.

This will help bring the reader into the story.

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.

If the chapter is devoid of sensory engagement, make a note with a view to add some.

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 an easy 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 (UK and US).

But you must be careful in how much change your work to satisfy the scores. And try not to depend on it.

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.


Break your novel 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. This stage will take time.

Your book deserves it your best effort.

Good luck.

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