you’re a writer and anything like me, when you finish the first draft of your
latest work you’ll type the words ‘THE END’ and feel a curious blend of
euphoria and sadness. Although I know those two little words won’t make it into
the published version, I type them every time; it’s a form of closure on my
least favourite part of the writing process, producing that first draft.
what then? Unless you’re unusually gifted, or have painstakingly edited as you’ve
gone along, chances are that the manuscript will need some work—some spit and
polish—before it’s in a fit state to be released into the world.
you’re just starting out and haven’t the funds to spend on editing, or whether
you intend sending the manuscript off to a professional editor, there are
various steps you can take yourself to improve the work to make it more
publishable or in a better state to present to an editor.
are various methods of self-editing. I’m going to set out what I do for my
longer works, which might be helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to
begin. (For shorter works, especially short stories, some of the following
steps might be truncated or missed out altogether.) Like writing itself, this
is not the only way of doing it; it’s not the best or recommended way—it’s
simply my way. Each writer must find what works best for him (or, as ever, her).
I’ve typed the two magic words ‘THE END’. What next?
Step 1: Let it Rest
After saving and backing up the Word document, I close it. Then I try to forget it about for a minimum of four weeks. Longer, where possible. Two months is better, three perfect, but I don’t have that much will power.
Step 2: The Bigger Picture
I can’t stand ignoring the manuscript any longer, I’ll read it through from
beginning to end. This is where the importance of Step 1 comes in—it’s as
though I’m reading a novel someone else has written. Obviously, I know the
story and recognise the style of writing, but I will come across entire
passages I can’t recall drafting.
main purpose of this step is to make sure the story works on the broadest level.
It isn’t to make corrections, although I usually can’t stop myself changing any
typing errors I come across. While I’m reading, I’ll keep at the back of my
mind questions like:
- is the
opening interesting enough to draw the reader in?
the plot flow?
- do the
characters act, um, in character?
- are all
the story ever lag?
- is the
there any themes that could be better developed or emphasised?
are other questions, but that should give a flavour. Essentially, I’m looking
at the bigger picture during this step.
Step 2A: Major Revisions
I identified a need to rewrite part(s) of the work during Step 2, this is when
I’ll do it. I’ve been lucky—only once have I needed to do a major rewrite after
the first read-through. This was with the final instalment of the Earth Haven trilogy.
as I was writing the original ending, I knew it was too easy: the characters
weren’t having to sacrifice much to achieve their ends and it lacked a final
face-off between the two main groups of protagonists. In short, it was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I let the
manuscript sit for a few weeks before embarking on Step 2.
confirmed what I already knew. I discarded the last few chapters and rewrote
the ending, adding another chapter or two in the process. I knew immediately it
was better, a much more satisfying end to a 300,000-word trilogy.
I returned to Step 1. After I’d let it rest for another four weeks or so, I
embarked on Step 2 once more. This time, the bigger picture looked complete.
Step 3: Snagging
I’m happy with the overall structure, I’ll start the fine-tuning process.
During this second read-through, I’m looking for passages of narrative or
dialogue that don’t flow as well as they could, and correcting them as I go, or
that don’t add value to the tale. This might involve rewording paragraphs or
sentences to make the writing clearer, and deleting words, phrases, sentences
or entire paragraphs that are superfluous.
Step 4: Eradicating Clunkiness and Repetition
this third read-through, I’m looking at individual sentences and revising any
that are awkward or contain unnecessary repetition. I find that when writing
the first draft, I often use the same word repeatedly in places when there are
perfectly good alternatives that freshen up the prose.
will search for how many times words I tend to overuse appear, like ‘just’, ‘that’
and ‘the’, together with certain swear words, and either delete some instances
or substitute alternatives. It’s about removing clunkiness and repetition to
make the reading experience more pleasurable.
looking, too, for inconsistencies such as referring to ‘Jenny’ as ‘Jill’, or
(true example) saying a character comes from Hull when earlier in the novel he
came from Grimsby.
at this stage, I’ll check any facts or references are correct.
Step 4A: Rinse and Repeat
I repeat Step 4 depends on how many alterations I made the first time around.
If not many, I’ll move on to Step 5. If there were a lot of changes, I usually feel
I have to repeat Step 4 in case the changes themselves have introduced more
clunkiness or repetition.
Step 5: The Nitty Gritty
final read-through. The proofread. For this, I reformat the Word document into
a mobi file and transfer it to my Kindle. It’s surprising how many simple
errors I spot on the Kindle that I missed on the computer screen. Reading it in
this different format seems to make typos jump out at me. I keep my laptop
close at hand so I can change the master Word document as I find errors.
Step 6: Spellcheck
corrected all errors I noticed during the proofread, I’m almost ready to
publish. Before I do, I run the manuscript through Word’s spell-checker. What
I’m mainly looking for are any final spelling errors I missed during the
proofread and things like double spaces, which sometimes go unnoticed,
especially if they occur at the edge of the page.
steps are broadly equivalent to the various types of editing mentioned in Part 1: Step 2 – developmental edit,
Step 3 – line edit, Step 4 – copy edit, Step 5 – proofread.
theory, I should now be ready to publish a book filled with flowing narrative
and sharp dialogue, free of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and other blemishes,
polished and shining like a new pin. In practice, of course, I’m unlikely to
have caught every single tiny error in a ninety-thousand word novel. The aim is
to achieve perfection, whilst recognising that I’m only human and am certain to
have missed something.
accepting that I’m not perfect which enables me to publish anything. Otherwise,
I’d never get past Step 4. I could read through a draft novel a hundred times
and find something to change on each occasion, though after a while it’s only
because this time I prefer a
particular sentence construction over another, or a particular word over the
one I used, when either do the job perfectly well. We have to draw the line
somewhere, say to ourselves, “Enough’s enough. Publish and be damned.”
are some other methods I’ve heard writers say they use. I’ve tried some of them
and they’re not for me. But try them and find what works best for you.
change the font size and/or type (this is of similar effect to what I do when
transferring the book onto my Kindle, and should be useful for those who don’t
own an e-reader)
print the manuscript onto paper and edit/proofread the hard copy
read the text, particularly the dialogue, aloud
have someone (or the voice function, if present, on your word processing
program) read it to you
read sections of the work backwards (useful, I imagine, for proofreading rather
there are any novice writers looking in who aren’t sure where to start when it
comes to self-editing, I hope you’ve found this to be of some use. Don’t
forget: this isn’t ‘one size fits all’. You’ll need to try various methods and
combinations until you find what works best for you.