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The Ultimate Guide to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Working on your novel doesn’t stop when you type that last word on the page. The next step involves beta readers, self-editing, and professional editors, and that’s before you even get to the book design part of the journey.

People say that writing is the essential part of the book publishing process, I’d say self-editing and your editor are the MVPs.

Writing is all about getting the story and your ideas down. Editing is about refining those ideas and making them shine.

Why is Self-Editing Important?

Before you even think about sending your book to an editor or your beta readers, you must go through your draft yourself.

Do you need to do it right after you type in “The End?” No. But you do need to look it over before sending it to a professional editor or a publisher.

Why? Because exceptional writing doesn’t happen in the first draft. Refining your ideas, correcting grammatical issues, and tweaking your chapters does.

One of my favorite posts is a Tumblr thread (visit the link for the thread) that showcases a writer’s editing process, which can be best summed up in this photo:

What a manuscript looks like after self-editing.

That is what you should be doing to every single story that you write. You need to take a hard look at each page, word, and character to make sure you’re entertaining your readers.

I know that editing is intimidating. That it’s going to take work and effort to complete, but you’re going to have to commit. Please remember that the meat of your story is already on the page. You just need to make it read well and look pretty.

On top of this, editing makes you a better writer, and saves you money down the line. Furthermore, beta readers and editors alike will thank you for giving them a readable first draft.

In the end, all of this work will be worth it. You’ll have that book in your hand.

And best of all, I’m going to help break down the editing process for you.

Self-Editing for Beginners

We all know that there is no one way to write a novel, but is there a right way to edit one?

As much as we want to say that we can do anything in the editing phase, there are three rules that we must follow:

  1. Don’t edit as you write. It defeats the purpose of writing. If you’re too focused on revising what you’ve already written, you’ll never finish your story. Get those words on the page first. Edit later.
  2. Take a break after writing “The End.” How long you wait is up to you. It can be a day or a week. Just make sure it’s not months or years because the goal is to finish. I typically let the story breathe for a week before going back to it. I find that the week away gives me the chance to “forget” my story enough to come back to it with fresh eyes.
  3. Fix the big issues first, copy edit later. This is just basic common sense. Why fix the little stuff, like grammar, punctuation, and spelling first, when you’re just going to be rearranging things, rewriting scenes, or taking things out of your novel?

From here, you should understand that you will be reading your manuscript multiple times to find different issues. In other words, you’re going to want to learn about the four types of editing.

The 4 Types of Editing

a person self-editing

According to Editor’s Canada, there are four types of editing:

  • Proofreading: detects any errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar. It may also involve checking of different elements of a layout, such as headlines, paragraphs, illustrations, and colors, for their correct formatting.
  • Copy Editing: the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.
  • Stylistic Editing: Clarifying meaning, eliminating jargon, smoothing language, and other non-mechanical line-by-line editing. May include checking or correcting reading level, creating or recasting tables and/or figures, and negotiating changes with author.
  • Structural Editing: Clarifying and/or reorganizing a manuscript for content and structure. Changes may be suggested to or drafted for the author.

Believe it or not, all four of these types of edits need to be taken into consideration when editing a novel.

You might have to read through your manuscript several times to catch everything. And if you don’t find anything or are unsure, you’re editor will be able to catch it and help you out.

Whether you’re using a professional editor or not, it’s good to know this information. It’ll help you find mistakes in each area.


Don't forget to use the Chicago Manual of Style as you're self-editing

Let’s talk about formatting for a minute.

The publishing industry uses The Chicago Manual of Style when formatting books. Your editor will thank you if you get this done before sending your manuscript their way. Or you can incorporate it into your writing process to save time. Ultimately, it’s up to you.

You don’t have to follow the style guide to the letter, but you should make an effort. Your editor will appreciate it if you hit these points at the very least:

  • Send your manuscript as a Word document (.doc or .docx).
  • Use double-spaced line spacing. If you’ve already written your book with different line spacing, select all of your text in Word, click Format > Paragraph, then select “Double” in the drop-down box under “Line spacing.”
  • Use a single space following periods.
  • Use black, 12-point, Times New Roman as the font.
  • Don’t hit tab to indent paragraphs. In Word, select all of your text, then set indentation using Format > Paragraph. Under “Indentation” and by “Left,” type .5. Under “Special,” choose “First line” from the drop-down menu. [Note: Nonfiction authors may opt for no indention, but if they do so, they must use full paragraph breaks between every paragraph.]
  • The first paragraph of any chapter, after a subheader, or following a bulleted or numbered list shouldn’t be indented.
  • Use page breaks between chapters. In Word, place the cursor at the end of a chapter, then click “Insert > Break > Page Break” in Word’s menu.

The Most Common Self-Editing Mistake that Beginners Make

For many people, self-editing is an entirely new experience. It’s only natural for us to make some mistakes along the way. However, there is one issue that every writer tackles on their first self-edit:

They don’t look critically at their story before sending it to an editor or a publisher.

The biggest mistake first-time authors make while self-editing: They don’t look critically at their work, before sending their first draft to an editor or publisher.

As much as we don’t want to admit it, our brain babies aren’t perfect, and we need to look at them critically. That means cutting out things that don’t need to be there. It could be a subplot, a character, or a scene.

Heck, you might not have even noticed that you forgot to incorporate an actual story into your novel, or you don’t have a main character. You won’t know any of this until you read through your story and really look at it.

This is why almost any self-editing articles on the internet tell you to take a break from your story after writing it. That way, you can come back to it, read it, and start figuring out if you’ve got everything you need for a great story or if you need to cut things out.

Like writing, self-editing is a process. We need to work through it to get to the end goal.

The Self-Editing Process

I wanted to take everyone through my self-editing process. It is not for everyone. Some of you may not need to read through things twice or will have to accelerate your editing time. So do whatever works best for you.

I use this for my blog posts, short stories, and half-written novels. I also do this when I am editing for someone else. It can take some time to do, but I find that it creates a nearly error-free draft.

My Process

Here’s my process for self-editing:

Step #1: Grab all of the creature comforts that you used to get through your designated writing time. These items can include your story and character outlines, favorite snacks, or a bottle of water (or wine).

Step #2: Either print off your book or to turn tracked changes on. Then you’re going to read. This can be aloud or silently – it’s up to you. As you read, I want you to take notes. Write them on the page. Mark up that manuscript in red ink (or whatever color you like). When you’re done, walk away from your novel for a day or so.

Step #3: After a couple of days, I want you to go back and reread it. If you read it silently, read out loud now. Make more notes. Once you’ve finished that second read through, leave it again for a day or two. When you come back this time, you’re going to start making those changes.

Step #4: Make the changes. If you need to add things, add them. The same goes for deleting or rewriting parts of your draft. Get to a point where you’re happy with what you’ve done. This is where you want to fix structural, stylistic, formatting, and content-based issues.

Step #5: Read it one last time. Here you can finally do a copy edit. So look at your grammar and spelling. Get it to a good place. If you need help doing this, check out a grammar service, like Grammarly.

(For my blog, this is where I stop. This is the best that I can do before sharing it with someone else. There are not a lot of mistakes for me at this point, and I’m comfortable with putting it out there.)

Step #6: Share it with either your beta readers or a professional editor.

Step #7: Look at the comments left by your editor or beta readers. Take some time to think about what they said. Then go back and make the changes that you need to make.

Step #8: Repeat steps five through seven until you’ve got a sparkling gem. Please note that you should avoid staying stuck in this process, or you’ll never publish. Set a limit to how many times you go through this part of the process.

Step #9: Proofread. This is it. This is the final step before you get that book out into the world. You can do this yourself, or you can hire someone to do it for you.

If you follow the steps above, you will have a polished book in no time! All it takes is some time and commitment to get it done. There are, of course, other ways to get a book self-edited.

Self-Editing Checklists

Another approach you can use is to apply a self-editing checklist while you’re working through your novel. These checklists go over all four types of editing and cover all of the different aspects of writing, like characterization, plot, setting, etc.

Here are some resources for self-editing checklists:

  • Reedsy. I like it because it’s pretty thorough and breaks everything down into chunks.
  • Jerry Jenkins. While this one is not as in-depth as the Reedsy one, it still covers a decent amount of information. I’d personally use it for shorter works of fiction – like a short story.
self-editing checklist

Self-Editing Tools and Resources

There are tools out there that can help you with the self-editing process. Some of these tools are free, and others you may need to pay for, but you should use some of them.

Here are some resources to keep in mind as you revise your story:

  • Writing groups. I love writing groups because they are full of like-minded people that have gone or are going through the same that you are. They can offer tips on how to correct mistakes or get through the self-editing process.
  • Editing Software. There is a lot of grammar and self-editing software out there that you can use. I like and use Grammarly, but I’ve also heard wonderful things about the Hemingway Editor and Scrivener. Word of warning: the software does not catch everything.
  • Trusted friends or relatives. They are great at catching mistakes and for being a shoulder to cry on. Don’t be afraid to lean on them for help and accountability.
  • Print it off. I know it’s old school and not good for the environment, but it helps to get away from your computer screen. I’ve caught so many more mistakes on paper than on a computer. 

** Pro-tip for the printed version. Use these common editing symbols to streamline your on-paper editing process:

editing mark for self-editing
  • Read it aloud. This is great for catching weird phrasing and sprucing up your dialogue. You get bonus points if you can record your story.
  • Incorporate a dictionary, thesaurus, and grammar book into your editing toolkit. Another old-school approach that comes in handy when you’re working on word diversity or looking to make your sentences flow better.

All of these tools and processes help you get to the end goal: publishing your novel. I know that it can seem like a lot of work, but it can be fun. I some times enjoy the editing process over the writing because this is where you get to shape your words into something special.

The best thing about this process is that there is no one set way that you have to do it. You can take what you like to make a process that works for you.

Either way, I hope this gives you a glimpse of the self-editing process in action. To round out your editing know-how, we are going to look at professional editors and what they do for us at this stage of the novel.

Do you have any self-editing processes that you stand by? Please let me know in the comments below!

Stay safe, everyone!

Until next time!



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


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