‘Write drunk, edit sober.’ Powerful words from Ernest Hemingway, if I do say so myself. I’ll indulge in some wine or something when I write, mainly because it’s my relaxing time. But edits? Those are done stone-cold sober.
Editing fiction is the process of taking your work, your carefully (or not so carefully) written baby and polishing it and getting it ready for publication.
It’s a process because it’s best done in stages, and you really have to be meticulous.
It’s also extremely important because, as a writer, you want to put your best work out there, so your readers can enjoy it and come back for more. They won’t if it’s crap, but any proper edit can take a crap job and turn it into great.
As an editor with Luna Imprints Author Services (LIAS), I’ve had to learn the craft inside and out, and this is my little cheat sheet for newbie, or experienced, writers. Let’s hope it helps!
What self-edits are and how they compare to regular editing
When it comes to editing, there are two ways to go about it. Either you have someone do it for you, or you learn to do it yourself. The latter is what I, and others in the industry, call self-editing.
If you’re a writer with a traditional publisher (or planning to become one) they’ll have an editing team. You’ll be expected to do some work yourself, but for the most part they do it all, from the first draft to the final version.
As an indie, you can outsource editing to an experienced editor, or do it yourself. But be warned: you’ll want to make sure to accurately understand the different types of edits and which you may need.
Ideally, you’ll want an editor who includes more than one in their package, that way it’s also saving you money. (Make no mistake: editing can be expensive!)
What do I mean by ‘types of edits‘? Yep, you read that right. There’s not just one major type of editing. You could have developmental edits, copy edits, line edits, and final proofreads.
It’s important you understand what the different types are, that way you can accurately compare quotes you get.
Some of my clients ask me how much self-editing they should do before sending me their novel. The answer is: a lot.
There are things, as a newbie writer, that you won’t be able to pick up on. That’s what you hire an editor for.
But the version of your novel you send the editor should never, ever be your rough draft. Not even the one after.
You want it as polished as you can get it, with a story that makes sense. So, yes, even if you outsource your editing, there’s still some work involved for you.
When doing it yourself
What about when you go at it yourself, and self-edit the whole novel from beginning to end. Is it possible? Yes.
Can you do it? That’s a question only you can answer.
I edit all my own books now, with a final beta/ARC read from my team. It took a while for me to get to that point, and a lot of hard work.
The hardest work, I found, was to stop thinking my writing was so great.
In order to accurately self-edit, you have to be ready to call yourself out on your bullshit. This means bleeding your baby dry.
And if you thought that essay filled with red in tenth grade was bad? You haven’t seen anything yet.
When to do self-edits and when to seek professional help
Like I said, it took me a while to get to the point of editing my own work. It didn’t come easy and it was a lot of work.
Now, I help other writers with their stories at LIAS, and I’m fully transparent about my tricks of the trade. I want writers to learn, so that they can learn what I’ve done, for themselves.
The first, and foremost, is a clean self-assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses. Doesn’t mean you need to have a degree in creative writing (though one could help! For context, I don’t have one).
But are you open to learning, to pivoting on ideas you thought you’ve had, and constantly keep an ear out for the best editing tips and tricks? Even more important, do you have the time?
At the end of the day, only you can decide whether you are able to self-edit your own work. I personally believe we all can do it, but at the risk of sounding repetitive, it takes a lot of work.
Only you can answer if it’s something meant for yourself. But, here’s something to try out.
Grab a page of your novel and read it critically. Don’t read it for the story—read it for the writing. Look for repetitive words; sentences that sound clunky. Try reading it out loud. Better yet, try getting Siri (or its counterpart) to read it out loud. Believe me, it can get cringeworthy.
The purpose of this is, is to see if you can be honest with yourself. If you can admit that you overuse ‘whispered’ and your expressions are cliched and repetitive, and X section of Y chapter makes no darned sense whatsoever and needs to be completely rewritten.
Can you do it?
What it takes to do self-edits
To be honest, what it truly takes can differ depending on the person. But there are three main areas I’ve found help massively when it comes to doing self-edits.
Skill-wise: knowledge of basic English grammar, and an ability to assimilate more than basic information fast. This means picking up a couple of books on self-edits and giving them a good readthrough.
Tool-wise: If you always invert the “ie’ and never know when to put a comma, something like Grammarly might help you out. If, on the other hand, you have no idea where to start and need more of a ‘walk me through it’ experience, or want something more in-depth and aimed at novelists, ProWritingAid may be more useful. (Use the link to get 20% off the paid plans.)
Personality-wise: You need grit. Perseverance. And an ability to take breaks when needed before you delete everything you’ve spent months writing. An ability to compartmentalize and not take things personally also helps.
Example of what I follow for self-edits
The example below is something I’ve fine-tuned over the years. I went from having 12-18 drafts of a novel (before edits) to a single rough draft, followed by three editing drafts, followed by the final proofread (twice). Again, this has taken years to perfect, and I’m still perfecting it! But I’ve found splitting the edits into ‘phases’ has helped me tremendously, and it may help you too.
Why? Because our brain can’t keep an eye out for story issues, character issues, and plot issues, at the same time as grammar and punctuation, at the same time as structural things like phrases out of place, missing transitions, and repetitive words.
When you divide edits into phases, it helps you focus on one single aspect at a time. Does it increase the time you have to take into account for editing? Yes. But it’ll be worth it, because your baby will shine by the end of it.
My writing/editing process goes a little like this now:
Draft 1 is usually about 80% of the rough story done, minus some descriptions and settings and stuff.
This is my first iteration of the story. If you’ve read any of my posts before, you’ll know I don’t plot, but I do jot down ideas for roughly where the story will go. The characters arcs, and everything else about it, comes as I write. (Note: I am not suggestion you have to do things this way; plan and plot to your heart’s content if you work better that way!)
Draft 2 is filling the story in, and sending it to beta readers.
I don’t recommend having too many betas, as you can get confusing advice; I’ve usually stuck with 1-2 per series, and it has worked; I know authors who work with 3-6, and that also works for them; anything over 10, you may find yourself confused with conflicting advice.
Keep in mind that a good beta points out inconsistencies in your storyline, and helps you fill in gaps, and does not try to rewrite the story in their own image.
As well, if you send your story to betas you’ve found on the internet, please make sure to copyright it; better to be safe than sorry.
Draft 3 focuses on fixing my story; while I wait for the betas feedback, I start my four phases of edits. Two of those take place during Draft 3.
Phase 1: reading through the story 1-2 chapters at a time, and highlighting any sections that need more expanding/clarification. This could be a description that’s lacking, or a lack of emotion from a character to an event, etc.
Keep in mind at this point, I’ve got my editor hat on. It’s not about reassuring myself the story is good, it’s about finding everything that’s wrong with it.
Phase 2: addressing all the highlighted sections in Phase 1. I also do this in 1-2 chapters at a time, because it makes easy to stay ‘in’ the world that I’m writing.
I usually get my beta feedback somewhere between Phase 2 and 3 and fix the sections they suggest.
Draft 4: I continue edits on the story, but at this point all the plot/story edits, which some may call developmental, are done. Now it’s time for further edits like repetitions, dialogue tags, etc; or, more to the point, structural edits.
Phase 3: PWA, or ProWritingAid. I run my entire novel through PWA, in batches of five chapters. Specifically, I run their reports on: cliches, diction, dialogue (to catch dialogue tags), repetitions (all three of the reports: all repeats, echoes, overused), and finally, grammar and style. Oh, and pacing and readability; they help me figure out if I have too many slow paragraphs in a row, or if any of the paragraphs are too hard to read.
Phase 4: Once that’s done, I take all those five-chapter batches and put them together in one file, and start formatting it. Adding fonts, etc., and doing another readthrough while I’m at it.
Is the final grammar/style checkup. I’ve already run a grammar/style check-up through PWA, but I want to check again. So I take my prettily formatted Word document and convert it to an epub/mobi file, and upload it to the Kindle app on my phone, or the iBooks app (I have an iPhone). Then I spend the next few days reading the book through my ereader of choice, exactly as a reader would.
Why is this important? Reading your book as a reader will make you pick up on things you wouldn’t normally. Stuff like how some sentences can sound awkward, or some areas are extremely slow paced and yawn-worthy.
Once the readthrough is done, I make the final changes I noted, and send the file to my ARC team. I usually ask a few lucky ones to keep an eye out for any proofreading issues that escaped me.
While they’re busy doing that, I start work on preparing for the launch of the book, and at the same time I do one last fun thing: read the book backwards. This was actually something I learned earlier on from Kristina herself; reading the book backwards makes it easier for our brains to pick up on things, because you’re not focused on content.
So, to sum it up, through the entire editing process I end up with about 5 drafts of my each of my books. Drafts 3 and 4 are where most of the editing phases take place, and I keep the proofreading for after all that is done.
Splitting my work as such has helped me to maintain a good 4-6 novels releases per year, and to reduce my writing/editing time as such:
- Writing the novel, depending on its length, can take me 2 weeks to 1 month; if it’s over 60k words, it’ll take roughly 1.5-2 months. (Note: Estimates are based on the last 3 years of writing, and taking into account the fact I work a full-time job and now have a business on the side 🙂 )
- Editing the novel takes about 1.5 months, on average, for lengthy novels, and 1 month for novellas. This takes into account time to get beta comments back, incorporate them, and final readthroughs.
I find it helpful to plan out my editing phases, so I use Google Calendar or actual planners to write out my months in advance. This also helps keep me in check and accountable with myself, so I always deliver.
Tools for self-edits
ProWritingAid is amazing. I honestly can’t say enough for what I’ve learned through them. It’s not just the fact you can run the reports, but it’s also that you can learn why those reports are important. Which, when you’re editing your own work, is good to know.
Grammarly can be good, but I find it tends to focus on grammar only, and not the bigger things.
Some amazing books on the subject of self-editing:
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
- Self-Editing for Self-Publishers
- Revision and Self Editing for Publication
A final note: Don’t let editing stop you from writing
I hope that’s given you an idea of what self-editing would look like.
It’s normal that for the first few books you do it, it’ll take you longer.
You’re likely to have 15 drafts of the books, maybe more than one draft per phase of editing. And that’s normal. With practice, you’ll fine-tune your own method of doing things.
And, at the end of the day, there’s a reason there are editors out there. If this sounds too hard, or impossible, have a real talk with yourself. Can you do it? Can you be objective with your own writing? If not, hire someone to help you out. Rather than put a crap book out there, please ask for help.
And if you do take the self-editing route, don’t fall into the trap of having edits stop you from writing. There is a time for edits. And it is not when you write your first draft. That one needs to be written freely, otherwise it will never be finished.
Write first. Worry about everything else after.