I’ve been a member of the writing community for almost a decade now, in particular the independent and self-published writing scene. As a member, I communicate with a lot of other writers – via social media, writer groups, my website, in person etc. and one of the most common issues I hear people dealing with is how to edit your own writing.
Now, I’m not an expert writer. I’m still learning as I go, and getting a lot of help from the writing community myself as I continue to hone my writing craft. But even though I’m not a multi-million-selling world-famous author, I do have a few tips that I’ve put together over the years on how to best edit your own writing. In particular, tips for editing your novel.
- Don’t edit right away. This one took me a while to adopt myself. I’m not a very patient person, so I deal with a desire to complete projects as quickly as possible. For writing, that means finishing the rough draft and then diving right in and editing. Don’t do it. Put your novel in a drawer for at least a month and don’t touch it. If ideas come to you while it’s fermenting, write them down in a separate notebook for possible inclusion later – but don’t try to stick them into the story just yet.
- Print a copy, put it in a binder and buy some red pens and highlighters. Although it’s tempting to start diving in and making edits directly in the document when your waiting period is over, you’re better off not editing the document itself yet. Print out a copy and start marking it up as you read through it. Tip: Use a red pen for specific changes to implement, and a highlighter for any area where you’re like “this sucks, and it needs to be dealt with.”
- Implement your edits in phases. After you’ve gone through and marked the hell out of that horrible rough draft you were so proud of a few months ago, now you can start putting some changes in place. To make it easier, as well as to feel like something is accomplished (and not get overwhelmed) what I’ve found works well is to go through and do all the specific fixes you marked in red first, before you go in and actually dive in deeper in rewrites. Then once you’ve made your grammatical, etc. fixes, your draft is in somewhat better shape for you to start going through and reworking the messier stuff. I try to limit myself to one chapter at a time in those edits so I have a clear, achievable goal when I sit down.
- Print a copy in paperback. Now before you do this, you might want to go through a few rounds of steps 2 and 3 above, until you have something you think is pretty good. But once you’ve got something you actually like, go to a service like Createspace and have an actual printed version made. By this, I mean actually go through your document, lay it out for print (margins, spacing etc) first, then have it printed. Like a real book. Doing this will a.) give you another break from your editing process to step away from the details of the writing, like your original draft in a drawer at the beginning, b.) get you a little bit on your way to figuring out how you want to lay out your book if you’re self-publishing, and c.) get you something to edit that’s really like what the real product looks like.
- Edit the hell out of your printed draft. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that reading your draft like it’s a real printed book will make it feel considerably different from any reading or editing you’ve done on screen. There’s just something about reading a real book that makes you process your writing in a different way. Perhaps its the fact that a printed book feels much like any other printed book that allows you to detach yourself from your personal connection, but trust me on this – it makes you look at your writing differently.
- Read your draft out loud. At some point you’ll think your book is done. This is when I recommend printing a new draft (physical book) and then sitting down and reading it out loud to yourself. You’ll find phrases are awkward, other bits are unnecessary, and a lot can be cleaned up. Here I usually find myself cutting words or fixing the way my characters speak. It’s immensely useful and I recommend it to everyone.
- Stop editing your own work. Now I don’t mean you shouldn’t edit your own writing. You absolutely should. But at some point you’re going to hit a point where you’ve made all the edits that you think are necessary. When this happens, don’t publish, but instead go find an editor to work with. There are a ton of great editors who you can find online (I have some I can recommend), or you can work with a publisher who’ll help out with editing as part of the process. No matter what though, don’t count on yourself, or even your friends, to be your final edit. You need someone disconnected from the project, who’s able to look at it with a completely new, unbiased set of eyes. Then work through the edits with them (note there are different types of editors – copy editors, proofreaders, etc. – you’ll need help in all these areas).
So there you have it, seven tips for editing your novel. While editing your own writing can seem daunting, especially as you are tempted to just finish up your project so you can start writing something new, it’s a key part of the process. You’ll learn a lot about your own writing strengths and weaknesses when you edit your own writing, which will help you be a better writer on the next book. You’ll also end up with a much better final published book if you take your time and do this.
Just remember that you should never fully be your own editor. You know your writing better than anyone else, and you know exactly what you mean by what you write. No one else is in your head except you. To write something that can connect with others, you should work with others before publishing to make sure you are saying what you think you are saying.
P.S. My first book, ‘The Trouble With Being God,’ was a learning experience for me on a lot of this. I did editing myself, and had some “friends” help, but it honestly wasn’t edited nearly as well as it should have been. I’ve learned in the years since a lot of what I did wrong (and I’m still making mistakes), but I thought it would be worth sharing some of what I’ve learned here with you all. By no means is this an exhaustive list, and some people might outright disagree with some of my tips – but they’ve worked for me and have made me a much better writer, as well as release much better books.
P.P.S. The image in this post is an actual photo of edits I marked up in my first print draft “book” version of ‘A Confession.’ During that round of edits, I actually also ended up cutting an entire substory that was ultimately unnecessary, removing over 5,000 words that didn’t make the final, released version.