Editing is a word that fills many writers with either delight or terror. Sometimes both at the same time. Knowing how to self-edit your work is critical if you want to succeed as a writer.

That said, never believe, for a moment, that you and only you is good enough to fully edit something. You're not. I'm not. No one is. If you've been told you can edit a book entirely on your own and have it done right, you've either been sold something, or you haven't yet developed a critical eye for your own writing — or you just think you're better at editing than you really are.

Is what I just said rather harsh? Yes, it is. I'm not going to take it back, though. I'm not going to pretend I don't believe something other than what I do. Just because I edit for clients does not mean that I'm capable of fully editing my work and catching all of the little mistakes. I'm not.

What I am capable of doing is getting my novel into much better condition than it currently is. At that point, I must rely on my editors and proof readers to get my story as polished as it can be.

This is my guide on self-editing. This process may not work for you. To be truthful with you, I'd be surprised if this process does work for you. So, why am I doing this?

I am doing this so you can see how another's process works. From there, you can decide what bits work for you. You can also decide which ones don't work for you. That's equally important. You must find a method that lets you to develop your critical eye, work efficiently, and work quickly. Editing is a lengthy process. Sometimes, I feel that it takes longer to edit a novel than it does to write it.

As my programming husband likes to say, “90% of the work takes 10% of the time. The remaining 10% of the work takes 90% of the time.”

I've edited several of my novels at this point, and I'm inclined to agree with him. It is one thing to bring a novel to life in draft form. It is another thing entirely to make that novel come to life for your reader.

Just because you like something doesn't mean that it is what is best for your reader. When you edit, exclude yourself. Only consider your reader. They're the person you're writing for.

Even if you have to discard that sentimental scene that has so much value to you, but doesn't add to the story. That's what killing your babies means. It means that you exclude what you cherish in your novel for the sake of your reader.

Writer, your book isn't yours. It's your readers. When they buy your book, they're trusting you to entertain them. Editing is the process where you take your vision and you turn it into something that the reader enjoys.

Even if it means straying away, in bits and pieces, from that little vision you had for yourself when you started the book.

For my initial editing run, I use a printed copy. I see the book differently when printed. After I make all of my notes, I transfer them into my computer. Then, I edit it again — this time, directly in scrivener.

To add another layer to it, once I have finished that editing run, I compile in scrivener and load it into Microsoft Word. (It has a good grammar check and tends to put blue lines beneath the elusive there/their/they're and which/witch errors that inevitably crop up. Just because you know the rule doesn't mean that your fingers won't conspire against you. They're one of the most difficult editing errors to spot when it is my own writing!)

The first thing I use when I work with print copy is my general office supplies:

In no particular order, a list of the supplies:

  • Sharpies (Mini & Regular)
  • Post-it Flag Pens and Highlighter
  • BiC mechanical pencil
  • Various colored v5 Precious pilot pens
  • USB sticks for data backup
  • Post-it Notes / Post-it Flags / Sticky Notes (Various brands)
  • Avery NoteTabs
  • Paperclips

As I read through the manuscript, I will use these supplies to flag things, take notes, write in the margins, and do general edits. Post-it notes/sticky notes are used as a way to expand on thoughts when I don't have enough space on either the back of the page or in the margins.

This is  The Eye of God in printed format. 344 pages, double-spaced, equates approximately 1-1/2 inches of manuscript. I have it secured in a 2 inch ring binder. (I believe it is a 2 inch ring. Might be 2-1/2 or 3 inches. It's the largest size that Staples sells.)

The process is quite simple for me. I set the manuscript and all of my supplies out in front of me, look at the first page, and start to read. I mark down anything and everything that could be improved. I ask myself, every sentence, every word, every event, “Can I do this better?”

Then I make notes on how I think I can improve it. At this phase, I do not update my complete outline journal or my story bible. This is the phase for changing things. That means everything I put into these two journals might be changed during edits, so I save myself the hassle. I do try to catch all of the inconsistencies that I can.

I can't sit here and tell you exactly what to fix. Every manuscript is different. What I can tell you is the things I tend to look for as I edit:

  • Do the sentences flow?
  • Does each sentence make sense?
  • If I have a sentence fragment, does it serve as an impact point? If not, fix it.
  • Are my characters behaving in a realistic fashion?
  • Can I improve the word choice?
  • Does this event or scene cause a plot hole? If so, note it down and resolve it during transcription.
  • Have I dropped a character off of the map without justification?
  • Can my characters be where they are at now realistically? (You can't have a character in Location B at Time B if they're also at Location C at Time B…! This is something that is difficult to track but should be watched out for.)
  • Note grammar and spelling errors.
  • Watch for character development and progression.
  • Eliminate passive writing
  • Eliminate telling when inappropriate. (Not ALL telling is bad!)
  • Eliminate unnecessary exposition — exposition is the killer of pacing when it's overdone!
  • Check pacing
  • Check tension
  • Check conflict

There are many things I also look for, but they vary depending on situation.

Finally, it is time to showcase one of my most important tools. These are note card books. Essentially, they are standard note cards bound with a 1 or 1-1/2 inch metal ring. I found the first set at the dollar store that had covers, so I plundered the back covers to make extra ‘journals' for editorial to-do lists. The covers are reusable and all it takes to add new ‘pages' to the ring is a hole punch and extra note cards.

There are some big-ticket edits that just don't fit well on the manuscript for transcription. I put these in the note card journals for ease of reference. When I edit, I then go through each item and make sure it gets done. As it is bound with a ring, I can toss it in my briefcase with the manuscript. It's easy to stash, takes up little space, and very simple for me to work with.

If I don't use the note cards from a journal, I just transfer them to a new journal or keep them for when I use that specific book again. Used cards are discarded when edits are complete.

Editing can be overwhelming, especially if you don't have a lot of practice at it. Don't get discouraged. Start with a small goal of a couple of pages a day until you get used to editing. I find the deeper into edits I get, the faster it goes, as I learn to ‘bulk edit'. By that, I mean, I start recognizing repeated errors, so I can just circle or highlight them for resolution. That makes it a lot easier for me to get the edits done quickly.

Once I'm done with the paper edits, I transcribe them into scrivener. Then, I start the entire process again, but without the office supplies and directly on the computer.

I hope that this helps you to find your own editorial process, and shine a little light on what I do to try to get my writing to the highest possible level.

Leave a Comment:

Jürgen A. Erhard says March 10, 2013

I’m pretty sure you misquoted your husband. Or maybe he misquoted the ninety-ninety rule. It says that the first 90% of the project takes 90% of the time. And the final 10% takes the other 90% of the time.

Doesn’t add up? Well, that’s the whole point. ;D

    RJBlain says March 10, 2013

    Nope, I didn’t misquote him. He was being serious when he was talking about work when he said it. Maybe that’s where they got the base of it from, but, he doesn’t tend to parrot quotes, especially not when having a serious discussion on how long things take to get done. That’s pretty much how they calculate the time frames for projects.

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