Your first draft is done, and you may want to start sending it out or letting people read it straight away. You shouldn’t. Let it sit, let it rest, and then after a few weeks (or months, or whatever), come back to the desk and look at it afresh. You will see bits and pieces that don’t fit, rocks among your gems, and you will get to work editing.*
So how does one go about self-editing? It’s a tricky business, I’ll tell you that. It’s tricky because you know what you’ve written, and you may either be sentimentally attached to certain parts of the story that need to be seriously changed (or deleted altogether) or you may skim over your writing and miss things that need to be fixed. If you are like me, you may intentionally gloss over something that you know is wrong, but you aren’t sure how to fix it yet.
Thus the first step in self-editing is to READ CAREFULLY. In fact, read out loud, slowly. When you do this, you will catch things that you would likely not catch reading silently (think awkward word pairings, misspelled words, horrifyingly long sentences). Read once through without changing anything.** Doing this will give you a good sense of your story, how it flows (or doesn’t) and what places need work. Once you’ve read through, go back to the beginning and get started editing with the following tips:
1.Get rid of your “catch phrases”
We all have certain words or phrases that we tend to use more frequently than others. You’ll notice them as you read, and you will remember them. A few times through the book is okay, because your reader may or may not remember that the phrase you used on page 238 is the same as on page 24. HOWEVER I will advise to use particularly “pretty” phrases or words (think quiescence) only once. A word that your reader has to look up or a phrase that they will linger on WILL be remembered. Go ahead and rework these phrases, choose different words, and go on from there. You may have to do this several times.
2. Cut “very”
Do you remember the scene from The Dead Poet’s Society where Mr. Keating talks about “very”? He warns the boys to pick stronger words. And now I’m warning you. If you are using “very” to beef up your verbs or adverbs, you need to work harder. And I know it’s tough. Sometimes you just can’t think of the perfect word. That’s why we edit more than once, and why when we are writing the first draft, we don’t worry so much about “verys.” But to make your novel as strong as it an be, pick “crucial” instead of “very important.”
3.Check your POV
No matter if you are writing in first or third, point of view is crucial to your story. (See what I did there? Huh, huh?) First of all, you should pick a point of view and stick with it. If you pick to follow two characters, alternating between them, don’t all of a sudden drop one (unless they die – which in that case I hope it’s a mystery and we know something the protagonist doesn’t!) or add a third. I’ll give you an example. If you’ve been a follower here for a long time, you know that I LOVE Robin Hobb. This is probably the only complaint I will ever have against her. In one of her recent novels, she changed perspectives and started following a different character – without any indication that this is what she was doing. It was confusing and, to be honest, it took me a couple pages to understand. I did understand, but for those few moments I was not immersed in the story – and our goal as writers is to keep the reader immersed.
When you are writing a single character, try to make sure that every word you write reflects that character. If your own biases or stylistic word choices slip in, cut them. Be careful about consistency. Your novel will shine when you are consistent.
4.Grammar, typos, and formatting
The general stuff, right? Make sure you use correct grammar (or stylistically consistent grammar). Correct misspellings and repeat words. Make sure that your formatting is consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s tedious stuff, but important. Publishers and agents expect a level of expertise when it comes to writing.
I hope these tips will help you as you begin self-editing, and if you have more, please feel free to share them in the comments below!
*You may also need to rewrite huge swaths of your story. This is fine. This is expected. This is probably needed.
**Mark places that you feel need work, if you must. But try your best to refrain from changing things! You want to come into the work with “fresh” eyes – as a reader not a writer. It will help in the long-run, I promise.