Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: Being Your Own Worst Critic (Respectfully)

Self-editing your novel is one of the hardest parts about self-publishing. Not only must you objectively look at your work to make any headway, but it’s completely self-paced, which means if you only revise one paragraph a day, it’s going to take a massive amount of time to finish your manuscript. 

Learn about the self-editing process and how you can respectfully become your own worst critic.

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Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

At some point, every writer hates the editing process. And I especially hated the self-editing process, because I had to force myself to be mean. 

But, as every writer will tell you, the editing process is a necessary evil every writer must navigate to make it to the other side with a better overall manuscript. A manuscript worthy of beta readers, a professional editor, and a spot on anyone’s bookshelf. 

And while some people say you should set aside about 50% of the time it took you to write your manuscript to edit it, that isn’t a rule. It’s a guideline. 

Don’t rush the editing process, especially the self-editing process, and you should take many things into consideration before setting a hard launch date. For the average and/or first-time writer, it’ll likely take longer than you expect.

It took me two months to write my first manuscript, and about 1 year to fully revise and edit it. What’s more? After I finished writing the second and third novels in the trilogy, I went back and revised the entire series, finishing the project about 2 years after I finished the first manuscript.

SELF-EDITING: It isn’t just for self-published authors.

Whether we like it or not, self-editing is an integral part of the writing process. Regardless of if we’re self-publishing or traditionally publishing, self-editing is essential. Self-editing for self-published authors:

Whether we like it or not, self-editing is an integral part of the writing process. Regardless of if we’re self-publishing or traditionally publishing, self-editing is essential. 

Self-editing for self-published authors means:

  • Builds stronger writing skills
  • Improves Beta Reader feedback
  • Allows the professional editor to focus on details

Self-editing for writers seeking traditional publishing means:

  • Agents will enjoy a more polished manuscript
  • Builds better writing habits
  • Focuses your eye for details to expedite future processes

Self-Editing: The Critical Step Back!

The self-editing process will undoubtedly be hard enough without our minds remembering everything about what we wrote. And that’s why this unofficial first step is so critical.

Often overlooked, though regularly spoken about, taking a step back has proved effective for those who do it.

But taking a step back is about more than just letting your mind rest. It’s about forgetting what you meant, so you can objectively look at the words and understand what they mean and the impact they have on new eyes. 

Have you ever been reading a novel and an awkward sentenced cropped up? It happens in both self and traditionally published books, but our goal is to limit the amount of errors and awkwardness in your writing.

But how much time is enough?

Though completely discretionary, I recommend at least 1 month. 

This should give you enough time away from your novel to forget some things so you can better sift through your writing from an objective perspective.

What do I do? I take about 2 months away and write an entirely different novel, so I can get my head out of the world I plan on editing. I’ll write a different novel, in a different setting, with different characters; and will write my fast draft in 1-3 months, before going back to my original manuscript.

SELF-EDITING – A PROCESS OVERVIEW

The part I think most people get confused about is that the self-editing phase should be a complete “professional edit”, just from your eyes. It should comprise any developmental, structural, or story editing, line editing to smooth out your sentences, generalized copy editing where you’ll isolate and correct any inconsistencies, and a proofreading for quality control.

Round #1: Initial Read Through + Notes ONLY

The first read through should be dedicated to re-familiarizing yourself with your story. Don’t stop and smell the roses, simply read through your novel as quickly as possible and make notes for big picture issues you’ll need to review and fix. 

I’ll repeat that: Just take notes, no editing during this round.

Round #2: Big, Overarching Plot Issues & Scene Rewrites

After your initial read-through you’ll likely have a list of things you need to fix, resolve, or cut from your story. This first “real” stage of self-editing is where you’ll immerse yourself in these edits. Because of the scope of these edits, this will likely take the bulk of your time, but don’t let time scare you into rushing. Take your time to make appropriate and engaging revisions.

Round #3: Second Read Through + Notes

This step is a repeat of Steps 1 and 2. Read through your novel for a second time, make notes of anything you need to go back to resolve, and carve out the time to make those changes.

The reason this repeat gets a step is that it’s important to catch any and all plot issues before diving into the rest of your self-edits. While there might yet be issues you’re unable to see (because of your familiarity with the plot and professional editing inexperience), you should do the best you can to polish your manuscript before sending it off to Beta Readers and a professional editor. 

Even if you have to change things later, these steps are never a waste of time.

You may also need to repeat this Steps 1 and 2 a few times. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s only natural that the first draft is a headache to revise. There’s a reason it holds such infamy. 

Round #4: Hunt & Search for Crutch Words, Destroy as Necessary

These words include “just” and “very”, but also overused adverbs, “that”, and more. Crutch words are needless words we add to our writing. It’s essentially a placeholder or something we say during casual conversation, but are out of place in your story.

Also known as filler words, these meaningless words only hold back your writing style and story. 

Round #5: Cut the Flowers

The best way to cut fluff from your story is to eliminate flowery words. Stick to “said” as your main dialogue tag, instead of “inquire”, “screamed”, or “implied”. Use immersive showing to communicate with your readers. 

Round #6: Avoid Passive Voice

Use strong nouns and verbs to get your scenes and emotions across. Passive voice can be ambiguous and leave your reader confused about what “it” is. Painting clear and concise portrayals is key to accurate, descriptive, and immersive scenes. 

Round #7: Focus on Tense & POV

Because consistency is important, you’ll want to hyper-focus on which tense and POV you’re using throughout your novel. If you’re editing on your computer, write it on a sticky note and tape it to your monitor.

If you’re editing manually, write it at the top of every page to help keep it top-of-mind.

Round #8: Trim Sentences

Consider every sentence individually and cut any words you can. You might find you can reduce several sentences into one, or you’ve added unnecessary or redundant words.

Round #9: Focus on Punctuation

Your manuscript should be in pretty good order when you hit the final read-through, but don’t forget to look for little things you might have overlooked. Things like slight misspellings and punctuation issues are common when we’ve read our manuscript 10 times through, but don’t let glossy eyes overwhelm. 

You’ll also want to ensure you’re using appropriate and non-excessive punctuation.

A QUICK SELF-EDITING CHECKLIST

THE PLOT

  • Follow the plot
  • Remember to tie up loose ends
  • Eliminate unnecessary scenes
  • Identify and add foreshadowing

YOUR CHARACTERS

  • Create character profiles to ensure consistency
  • Avoid similar character names
  • Use just the right amount of character back-story

WORLD-BUILDING

  • Balance showing and telling
  • Remember your research
  • Tell the readers only what they need to know
  • Sprinkle, don’t dump, information

THE WRITING

  • Clean and tighten your writing
  • Check your narrative flow
  • Use convincing and natural dialogue
  • Vary sentence lengths
  • Ensure forward momentum and pace

GRAMMAR

  • Remember your commas
  • Double check your formatting
  • Pay attention to spelling
  • Check sentence stickiness 

Remember, this checklist isn’t the end of your self-editing journey. This is only a guide meant to help you along the process and give you a jump start.

SELF-EDITING TIPS

Self-Editing Tip #1: Remember the 2 main hooks in your novel: the Opening Hook and the Mid-Action Hook.

While many people know and research the Opening Hook, many aren’t aware of the Mid-Action Hook. While the opening hook is a device you use to draw your readers into your book and engage them at the earliest opportunity, the Mid-Action Hook is a great way to make an impact and propel them into the second half of the story. 

Self-Editing Tip #2: Take your time and do it the right way.

Even if the process seems never-ending, it isn’t. Realizing this as you go into it will ensure you don’t get stuck in a self-editing rut and just cycle through step after step, round after round. That being said, it will take time. Sometimes, massive amounts of time, so don’t rush the process because you want it to be over and done with.

Self-Editing Tip #3: Edit backwards & sideways.

Are you starting to gloss over parts of your novel? Or did you lose track of what you just read five second before? While some parts of the editing work smoother when done sequentially, not every step does. Mix it up and edit backwards by picking a random chapter out of a hat until you’re done with that round of self-edits.

It’s important to remember that self-editing is a challenge for even veteran writers. No one’s immune. But what we must remember is that self-editing is necessary to productive and efficient writers.

While I’m all about taking the time to craft a great story, you’ll need several pairs of eyes to make that happen. A thorough self-editing and beta reader process are the first steps, before the professional edit.

What we don’t want is to dive headfirst into the professional edit with a raw manuscript. Doesn’t that just sound disastrous? 

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