Learn these 31 tips for self-editing your fiction novel.
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But first, the obligatory disclaimer: Self-editing, no matter your background or how thorough, should not take place instead of a professional edit, and should instead be a precursor to the beta reader and professional editing processes.
Like every other phase in the writerly process, the self-editing phase is crucial to completing your manuscript. While it’s entirely possible to send your roughest rough draft to a fresh group of beta readers, it isn’t ideal – and they’d probably appreciate the service of even the most basic proofread.
Honestly though, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t self-edit. Yes, even if you don’t enlist beta reader assistance and go straight for the expensive-AF professional editor. When one self-edits, you’re catching the little things betas and professional editors will likely also catch, which means you’re setting them up to catch larger, oftentimes more expansive issues.
Since you’re so close to your work, you probably aren’t going to catch overtly confusing sentences or unclear details, because you know all-the-things about your novel. You don’t need to read that the water beaded on their face as they ran through the winter rain, because you know that’s what’s happening. A reader with fresh eyes and a blank slate won’t see those things, because they haven’t already experienced the scene a million-and-a-half times.
All that being said, self-editing is a service to yourself and allows you to cash-in and fully utilize your betas and professional editor to the best of their abilities.
Tips for Self-Editing Your Book
Tip #1 Let your manuscript rest in a drawer. Or digital folder.
Instead of immediately jumping back into the novel you just spent months – if not years – working on, you should take some time to let it rest. I recommend a minimum of one month, but it really depends on you. When I’m done working on a manuscript, the month-or-so-long break at the end is my reward for such tireless and committed diligence.
Tip #2 Listen to your manuscript.
Complete the first read-through without editing – notes only! I usually grab a spiral notebook and make notes dictating the chapter and rough page number (though this might change depending on edits you make before this). The only thing I’ll change are small things I notice regarding readability. Things that will take less than a 30-seconds or a minute to do. Punctuation issues, grammar, spelling – those types of things.
Tip #3 Complete your first read-through with haste.
If it took you a month to get through your first read-through it took you too long. When I’m going through my first round of edits, I aim to complete my first read-through-plus-notes within three days – at most. I’d prefer to get it done quicker, but it depends on my schedule. By doing this, I can ensure I’m not forgetting the little details of the story helps , which help me catch inconsistencies I might have forgotten otherwise.
Tip #4 Protect the time you’ve set aside to self-edit.
I can’t stress this enough! When I schedule my self-editing “appointment” with myself, I keep it. I don’t reschedule it if something else comes up and I definitely don’t just not do it or half-ass it. My writing, whether for my blog, novels, online courses, or other projects, is my life and I hold it to the highest caliber of quality.
Tip #5 Read it out loud.
You might not want to read through your entire manuscript aloud at once, but then again, you might not want to actually edit your manuscript. I kid but reading your material aloud will legitimately help you find little miss-types and weird writing you might not have otherwise. Just keep in mind, reading aloud will increase the time it takes to read your manuscript, so have some hot water and honey at the ready.
Tip #6 Always be active, rarely passive.
When editing, search for passive voice. The literary way of describing passive voice, is that passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb. Active voice is when the subject is doing the acting. In most writing, it’s best to use active voice, through it isn’t 100% necessary at all times, but it is best for clear, concise sentences.
Tip #7 Correct the spelling errors.
When I’m doing my first read-through I update little spelling errors along the way, so I don’t forget them later. Some people advise against this, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. I simply find it work best for my writing and editing style.
Tip #8 Pay attention to tense and POV.
The best thing to do is write down what tense and POV you’re supposed to be using for your novel and stick to your computer screen. If you printed and are read through a physical copy – way to go, you! – then I’d suggest you write at the top of every page which tense and POV you’re supposed to be using.
The reason I do this is because you will undoubtedly find many inconsistencies in regard to both tense and POV. You might find yourself head-hopping or adding a -ed when you’re writing in present tense. For this reason, I make it easy and clear and make an active effort to remind myself.
Tip #9 Ensure there are people in your novel. REAL people; not plot devices.
When you’re editing your novel, I typically re-start or redo each character outline. I don’t simply copy/paste because I might miss something. Basically, I start fresh, with a thousand open Word files, and every time that character comes onto the “screen”, so-to-speak, I jot down any relevant notes into their new file.
At the end, I’ll go over everyone and ensure they come across as three-dimensional. If they don’t, I either add information to make then a real person or cut them. Obviously, one of those options is less time consuming than the other. This is especially relevant with characters you only have in one or two scenes. Do you have another character you could make active in those scenes and cut this guy loose? Or is he relevant to the overall plot?
Tip #10 ON that same note, are you treating your reader like a person? Or like an inane fool?
When reading through, look for over-explanations and redundancies. These might make the reader feel talked-down to and that’s never the goal. Our readers are intelligent individuals and they can and will get annoyed with such repetition.
Tip #11 Pay attention to the appropriateness of your writing style and tone.
Depending on your target audience and who you’re writing for, you’ll want to contour your writing style and tone for that audience. In other words, you’ll use different style and tone when writing Young Adult versus Adult – or even Young Adult versus Middle Grade.
Tip #12 Are your emotions on point?
When I come to emotional scenes, I typically make note in my notebook to go back later. I’ll often sticky note them, too! The last thing I’ll do for emotional scenes is note it on my “Beta Reader Ask Sheet”, so I remember to ask my beta readers specific questions about the emotion depicted in the scene.
Tip #13 Omit needless words.
Flowery or otherwise unnecessary words that no one need in your novel. If you even think it might need omitted, write it down. When you go back through after your first read-through, try reading the sentence without that word and see if it makes sense. If it does, omit it. If it doesn’t, try to figure out if there’s a way to rewrite the sentence in such a way that allows you to cut the word in question.
Tip #14 Avoid redundant scenes.
Redundant words are the bane of your novel. If you describe something as “green like grass”, you might want to rewrite that sentence.
Tip #15 Which portions are boring, and why?
If you notice yourself dragging through a portion of your novel, you might ponder whether your readers would be doing the same thing. Either way, note it in your “edit notebook” and continue through your first read-through.
Tip #16 Where can you show more and tell less? I’m not saying you should always show versus tell.
Show versus tell is an endless debate, but when reviewing your novel, it’s best to note places where you insert information overload or go into meticulous detail about mundane or obscure things that don’t matter in the grand scheme of your plot. Both of these are great examples of places you can cut your writing and make room for information that’s relevant or even add a bit of foreshadowing.
Tip #17 Avoid too much stage direction.
His right hand slipped into his back right pocket. Everyone loves details, but it’s also good to leave something to the imagination of the reader. This relates to an above tip about TREATING THE READER LIKE A PERSON and how they dislike being hand-fed every bit of detail.
Tip #18 How realistic is your dialogue?
Read your dialogue out loud. Read it with a friend, an enemy even. Read your dialogue until it hurts, because it can make or break a scene or entire novel. Having realistic dialogue is something people need when reading. If it comes off uneasy or jolted it might ruin the reader experience.
Tip #19 What cliches does your novel have?
It’s all right to have clichés – most/all novels do – it’s what you do with them that matters. Ensure your novel doesn’t read like fan-fiction – unless, of course, that’s what you’re writing – because when most people purchase your novel that’s not what they’ll be expecting. And the best way to ensure a positive experience is to actualize what you tell the reader they’re getting into.
Tip #20 Edit in a different format than you write.
I’ll just assume you’re writing your novel – via Word or a like program – on a computer because…well, writing by hand is a lot of hard work that cramps your hand and slows the process. If you do write by hand, great for you! If you don’t, consider printing your manuscript into a physical medium or converting into an ebook so you can read it on your phone. This helps me not just gloss over the words and actually pay attention.
Tip #21 Use every word with intention.
Ensure each word has a purpose.
Tip #22 CTRL-F trouble words
Including a lot/alot, affect/effect, can/may, further/farther, good/well, into/in to, it’s/its, lay/lie, less/fewer, that/who, their/they’re/there, then/than, who/whom, your/you’re. You’ll also want to find the words you often mistype and search for those as well.
Tip #23 Did you write too much?
While I’d never encourage you to conform for bookish norms, they are norms for a reason. Also, along the lines of writing too much, you might want to make note of chapter length. If you have mostly short chapters, with one random sixty-pager, you might think about breaking it up.
Tip #24 Identify your crutch words.
Are there words you use too often that could be replaced by better words? Now, don’t just Google a thesaurus, but really consider your word choices and if they were the best ones.
Tip #25 Stop using double spaces.
Please stop. They were originally used to help with formatting, but they’re unneeded in our – glorious – digital world.
Tip #26 Ensure systematic formatting.
Speak of formatting, make sure each page has proper margins, spacing, etc. and ensure each page is the same. I’ve looked at manuscripts where the formatting changes from page to page, which is just as unorganized and unappealing as it sounds.
Tip #27 Pluck all the flowers.
Similar to the OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS tip, except flowery words can be more difficult because we wrote them and think they add to the scene. Sometimes…they do; but sometimes they just bulk it up. Make note of the scene and reevaluate it at a different time and with the freshest of eyes. If you still think you need them, but they are actual flowers, make note to ask your betas about it.
Tip #28 Start your character outlines from scratch.
What are their strengths and weakness? Because they should have an equal amount of both. Cut up your old outlines and make brand-spanking new ones, because you’ll often find a character or ten that you haven’t completely flushed out yet. And that’s going be something you’ll focus on in revisions.
Tip #29 Is there conflict in every scene?
One way to keep momentum going, even during the softer scenes, is to add conflict. We should all know by now that this doesn’t exclusively mean physical conflict – this could mean a character’s internal conflict with what’s happening around them. In fact, not every conflict should be physical. Add variety in both internal and external conflict to ensure people don’t grow bored of the repetition.
Tip #30 How’s your foreshadowing?
Make note of when you’re foreshadowing and where you need to add foreshadowing – because there will be both. When I wrote my first novel, there was little foreshadowing in the first draft, meaning I needed to add a bunch of it in revisions. One way I’ve learned to combat this is to write it into my outline.
Tip #31 Uuse ProWritingAid to Help With the Basics; They’re constantly improving their platform!
Okay, so this is my own, little pro-tip, but ProWritingAid is probably my best friend during those moments when I just need some basic information about my writing. It’s great for editing faster, catching things you might not actually view as potential issues, fixing style, and comprehensive reports about your words and how you’re using them, and tons of other features – too many to go to great detail here – but, seriously, give it a go!
The best tips are often things you’ve heard a million times before, but sometime need that extra bout of reassurance…because maybe, just maybe you don’t need to do something you literally always need to do.