I don’t spend much time on this blog talking about my own creative writing. If you’re new around here, I’m Hannah, a professional book editor. I’m also a fantasy author and am working through my new adult fantasy series right now. I think it’s going to be a quartet, but I’m not tying myself to four books just yet.
At the time of publishing this post in February 2022, the second draft of Book 1 is with my beta readers (they’ll be done soon), and the first draft of Book 2 is almost ready for self-edits.
A conversation with another writer inspired me to write this post. They’d been intimidated by self-edits because they didn’t know where to start and wished someone had outlined their own process. This writer found that resource eventually, but I thought I’d toss my hat in the ring and talk about how I personally approach my early rounds of self-edits.
First, a Quick Note
Please know that self-editing, like writing, is a personal process. There are some best practices you can employ, but the way you individually tackle this process is up to you. What works for one won’t work for another. If you like something from my process, please feel free to use it for yourself. If you don’t like my process, that’s okay too!
When I start talking about my own process, please know this is for early drafts only. My process changes later in the game, and I’ll write a separate post on that topic.
With all of that out of the way, let’s begin!
Self-Editing Best Practices
When you self-edit, it’s easiest to split the work into several phases so that you don’t overwhelm yourself. What that looks like is up to you, but a simple way to think about it is this:
- Step 1: Story editing. This is when you’re going to make changes to your story, plot, characters, worldbuilding details, etc. Don’t worry about language/grammar so much at this point. Focus on getting your story elements fixed.
- Step 2: Language editing. Once you do have your story set, you can start focusing on the language more. You’ll tighten up word count at this stage and probably rewrite a lot of stuff. That’s normal!
- Step 3: Proofreading. It’s a best practice to proofread your manuscript before sending it off to a beta reader. Cleaning up basic typos will help your beta reader focus on more important things.
That’s the basis for self-editing that I’d recommend. It’s efficient; you don’t want to rewrite a ton of language just to realize your story actually needs a lot of work. It’s okay if that happens, but if you’re trying to save time, consider following a similar process to what I shared above.
And remember, self-editing isn’t about making anything ‘perfect.’ There is no such thing as a perfect book. Books are art, and art is subjective. Even the most famous authors in the world have editors helping them. Just focus on doing your best right now!
Where I Started
I finished my first draft on August 1, 2021 and sent it to my alpha reader. The manuscript was around 115k words at that point; I hadn’t self-edited at all, but I needed to get it off my desk and into my alpha reader’s hands so I would stop fiddling with it.
While she read and compiled her thoughts, I jotted down my ideas for what I needed to change, then I started outlining Book 2. Taking a break from your manuscript is important; you don’t need to work on something while your alpha or beta readers review your stuff. (That would just get messy and confusing with all of the different versions floating around.)
My break was outlining, and that worked for me because I was excited to get started on Book 2. Your break might be not writing anything, focusing on reading, or something else. It’s whatever makes you feel rejuvenated creatively.
When my alpha reader sent me her comments and notes, I read through everything. She had a few questions I could answer easily and reactions to things she loved, and we also talked out a few problem spots that I knew were problem spots when I sent the draft to her. I shared my notes and ideas I’d jotted down before my break, and we could both envision the changes.
It was a good gut check, but it was still up to me to decide what changes I wanted and needed to make. After our chat, I let the draft and her feedback sit in my brain.
The Reverse Outline
While I thought over what I might change, I started creating a “reverse” outline. That just means I went through the first draft and created an outline of that exact version of the manuscript. Because I’m a plantser (I plot a little and ‘pants’ a little), this was really helpful for me.
That outline focused on:
- Summaries for each scene
- Why each scene was important for the story
- The novel’s timeline
Each scene summary was 1-5 sentences. When I considered why each scene was important, this acted as a gut check for me. If I couldn’t immediately pinpoint why the scene was important for either the plot or character development, that was what I call an orange flag. I made notes to revisit and see what I could do to breathe more life and purpose into those scenes. (If I couldn’t figure that out, that meant the scene needed to be totally overhauled.)
Once I had this outline completed, I revisited my alpha reader’s notes and decided what scenes were going to be changed and to what degree. Specifically, I used the “comment” feature in Microsoft Word to add little comments to the document’s margins. Some of my comments included things like:
- Tracking what subplots needed to change (I decided to remove one entirely!)
- New scenes I needed to write
- Clarifications to worldbuilding that were in my brain but not on the page
I had a colleague—another editor—review my reverse outline to see if there was anything she thought I’d overlooked. I knew I needed a little objectivity, and this step served as another gut check for me.
She thought all of my ideas for changes made sense given the story I’d outlined and had a couple of questions. They were questions I had answers to but hadn’t put in the outline. With that feedback, I was able to double-check that those answers were in the story when I revised.
Having someone review your outline isn’t a necessary step, but it was really useful for me. You might consider doing this if you feel unsure or mired down in the details as you prepare to revise.
Step 1: Story Revisions
My alpha reader sent her feedback to me at the end of August 2021. Between reading through her notes, creating my reverse outline, deciding on changes, taking a little break, and having that colleague review my outline, I was ready to start revisions on November 1, 2021—just in time for NaNoWriMo! It had taken two months for me to get to that point.
You might need less time, but I needed that time to really think and get my plans in order with that manuscript. You might also need more than two months. That’s okay too. There’s no rush unless you’re on a deadline for a publisher or editor.
I started by making the very specific changes I’d noted in my outline. This included drafting several new scenes, rewriting several others, and editing out that subplot I mentioned before. I also addressed my alpha reader’s smaller comments and questions that she’d left in the manuscript. I did all of this without focusing on language. If you go back to the “Self-Editing Best Practices” section of this post, that was my version of “Step 1: Story editing.”
As I made those changes, I was also creating a new copy of my reverse outline that reflected the changes I’d made. Having double monitors really helped me with this step; I had my manuscript up on one screen and my outline up on the other.
By the time I was done, my manuscript had grown from 115k to 142k. There was a lot that I added and changed, and my manuscript was stronger for it. Given my genre is new adult fantasy, that revised draft was still well within genre word count.
TIP: If you find “story” revisions overwhelming because of the many moving parts, you might find it helpful to split this step into a couple of different phases. In one phase, look at plot and worldbuilding. In another phase, look more at character development.
Step 2: Language Revisions
I took another short break before diving into my language editing. That’s Step #2 that I listed at the top of this blog post.
I had several goals when I started revising language:
- Cut the word count down to under 140k
- Clean up any obvious grammar mistakes and typos
- Smooth out hard-to-read sentences
- Improve the overall flow of my prose
Being a professional editor, the grammar part isn’t too hard for me to do on my own work. I’m sure there are some things that slipped through the cracks, especially because I was focused more on cutting word count and improving the flow of my prose rather than checking every single comma.
First Language Pass
When I edit for my clients, I do two passes through a manuscript. This means I read through once, make suggestions, changes, and comments. Once I do that first read, I take a short break before reading through a second time. I decided to follow a similar structure for my self-editing.
For my first language pass, I used Track Changes to make all of the edits I thought the prose needed. This included fixing punctuation and typos, rewriting sentences and sometimes even entire paragraphs, and tweaking dialogue.
TIP: In Microsoft Word, you can change the colors of the Track Changes feature. Go to the Review tab, then click the arrow on the “Tracking” box. Click “Advanced Options” in the pop-up window, then change your colors accordingly. I like to use blue for insertions, red for deletions, and green for text I’ve moved to a different location.
This took me two weeks to complete. Keep in mind, as a professional editor, my editing speed is probably higher than the average author. It’s what I went to school for and have worked in the field for many years.
I also hyperfocus when I’m editing, so I was sitting with my manuscript for two to three hours every night after dinner. It works for me, my life, and my brain, but this may not work for you, your life, or your brain. That’s okay! Go at your own pace. It’s better to work carefully than rush through.
Second Language Pass
For my second language pass, I hid all of my Track Changes and had Word read my manuscript aloud to me. Read Aloud in Word is a great feature and doesn’t sound too robotic. If you’re able, I highly recommend trying this feature out.
TIP: If you want to hide your Track Changes, go to the Review tab. There’s a drop-down menu that probably says, “All Markup.” Change that to “Simple Markup” to see all of the changes without all of the colors and deletions.
While Word read to me, I ‘paused’ the narration as needed to make additional revisions using Track Changes. Doing this step allowed me to continue tightening up my word count and helped me improve the flow of my prose in certain sections. I also found a few typos I’d accidentally introduced during my first pass (hey, I’m human!).
This phase also took me two weeks to complete. I finished two days before Christmas Eve 2021, which was perfect timing because I wanted to send it to my beta readers before the holidays.
Language Edit Results
One of my big goals was cutting the word count. I got the draft down to 137,768 words, so I cut about 5,000 words from the manuscript.
I’d still like to cut the word count—my goal is to get it between 130k and 135k—but by the time I finished my second language editing pass, my brain was burnt out on that manuscript.
This is totally normal. We all need breaks from our stories. I’ll continue tightening the language after I get feedback from my beta readers.
TIP: If you’re trying to cut your word count, think about cutting 10 to 20 words on each page. If you have a 300-page manuscript, that means you’ll be cutting 3000 – 6000 words!
Step 3: Proofreading Before Betas
Step #3 that I listed early in the blog post was to proofread before sending to beta readers. I consulted with my betas, and they were comfortable with me doing the bare minimum here. For me, that was accepting my Track Changes and only running the manuscript through Word’s built-in spell checker.
A word of caution: Grammar programs are helpful tools, but they sometimes get it wrong. Computers don’t understand the nuances and flexibility of language, so they’ll sometimes (a) flag things that are actually fine or (b) offer the wrong solution. Don’t just accept all of these programs’ suggestions; you’ll be doing yourself a disservice. Evaluate each suggestion carefully, and if you aren’t sure, you can skip it or consult a resource like the Grammar Girl blog or Purdue’s OWL database to try to find the right answer.
Remember, proofreading before sending your manuscript to beta readers is just about cleaning up the most obvious, distracting typos and errors.
I did this in just one day, then sent the manuscript to my betas. This was the process they agreed would be fine for their own reading experience, but I know there are still mistakes buried in that draft.
As I publish this blog post, my beta readers are both still working through my manuscript. They started in early January after the holidays, and I asked them to finish around early to mid-February. Once I get those notes back from my betas, I’ll create a Part 2 to this post and share my next steps in my own self-editing process.
Will Draft #2 need another round of self-edits? Yes, I’ll be making additional tweaks! There’s one scene I already know I want to change, so I’ve put a note in my updated outline. There are also a few things about the MC’s arc that I want to smooth out in the last few scenes because of how they’re going to impact Book 2.
Will I be using a professional editor eventually? If I decide to self-publish, definitely. My own editorial training can only take me so far with my own manuscript. After all, we all have trouble seeing the forest through the trees in our own work. Yup—even editors need editors.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 to this post!
And remember: if you don’t think my process would work for you, that’s okay! You’re going to discover your own process as you continue practicing your writing craft. Take any strategies you think will work and leave the rest.
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