A messy first draft might sound like a problem, but it’s actually a beautiful thing. Trying too hard to get things ‘right’ the first time stilts your ability to immerse yourself in your work and gives undue weight to your inner critic’s disapproval. Completing a chaotic first draft, on the other hand, means that you’ve allowed yourself to write freely and without self-judgement, in spontaneous pursuit of the right next words.
Your next step will be to revise your manuscript to improve it and take it closer to the final version you envisioned.
Self-editing can be tough, forcing you to reckon with everything that’s ‘wrong’ with your manuscript. The more awareness you have of your work’s flaws, the better equipped you’ll be to work through them. The key is to self-edit thoroughly, patiently, and with equal amounts of mercilessness and self-compassion.
But let’s start from the beginning.
What Exactly Is Self-Editing?
Self-editing is the type of editing you do yourself, without the assistance of anyone else. These will be the first changes you make to your novel’s first draft, so the self-editing stage will typically involve radical edits. Expect to erase or rewrite entire chapters or scenes, insert additional scenes where necessary, change the subject matter or tone of particular dialogues, and generally work on exercising greater control over your writing.
Much like working with professional editors, a thorough self-edit will begin with big-picture elements and gradually focus on more minor details. Typically, writers perform at least three rounds of revisions, with some projects taking as many as nine or ten rounds.
In addition to spurring specific changes, self-editing works as an exercise in reflection. After re-reading your manuscript (ideally after a little time away from it), you’ll encounter the words you actually wrote. This is the moment to bridge the gap between the book you wrote and the book you want to write. (Note that it’s completely fine if the book you ended up writing isn’t the one you set out to write — plans change.)
If you haven’t ever had to edit a manuscript-length project before, the many moving parts involved may end up overwhelming you. Some degree of frustration is probably inevitable, but by self-editing in an organised, strategic, and methodical way, you can prevent panic.
Below, I’m listing seven important questions you should ask yourself while you edit your own writing — the idea is that these questions can help you stay focused on one thing for each editing iteration while ensuring you do a thorough job.
1. What Do I Honestly Think Is Wrong With This Manuscript?
To embark on this process with a sense of control, take stock of where you are right now. Begin by reading through your work one more time, and making a note (but stopping yourself from editing on the go) of everything you aren’t happy with.
Maybe a certain plot point comes too abruptly — note that down. Maybe a character’s development feels too slow and elaborate, and you’d like to include another scene, where change is more decisive. Maybe the opening doesn’t feel like it’s highlighting the right things anymore. Maybe the middle is too slow, or a specific scene needs rewriting.
When you’ve got a big list of everything you’d like to improve, you can use it to decide what to edit next — and writing things down will help quieten down your mind, helping you feel less overwhelmed.
Ideally, start by looking at your plot’s major arc. If there are truly fundamental plot points you aren’t sure about (e.g. “the protagonist should not have ended up with character A, character B was the right one for them”), start there, because those adjustments will bring about a series of changes throughout the rest of the book.
2. Which Element Of The Manuscript Will This Editing Round Focus On?
Before you begin each round of edits, identify what your focus will be. Making a plan can help you resist the temptation to multi-task editing several things at once, and trace throughlines to ensure satisfying big-picture arcs for your characters or overall plot. There’s always time to return to a specific scene to improve the minutiae.
A disclaimer here: there isn’t really a right and wrong way to self-edit, so if multi-tasking is the path that feels right, feel free to change up several things at once. Just make sure you return to check that arcs or plot points add up to a bigger structure that helps your story make an impact.
3. Is This Paragraph, Scene, Or Chapter Necessary?
Part of the fun of first drafts is the freedom you have to write without restraint. At this stage, asides, tangential jokes, and elaborate descriptions are all allowed — but that doesn’t mean they get to stay in your manuscript for eternity.
Every part of your manuscript should be contributing something. If it isn’t, you’ll either have to figure out how to make it contribute, or get rid of it. Either way, your manuscript will be more focused or more concise, and stronger.
Here’s an exercise to help you identify redundant chapters: when you’re working on your big-picture structural edit, spend some time listing out every chapter — either in a numbered list or in a spreadsheet. Try to summarise each one in a few words (e.g., “Keiko locates the murder weapon,” “Jon begins to doubt the loyalty of the AI bot”), then read through your summaries and try to determine whether each chapter contributes something of value in the form of character development, theme exploration, or plot progression.
Next, when you’re editing each chapter with more detail, do the same for the scenes comprising a given chapter. Ask yourself if you’re slipping into accidental script writing, narrating every single action your character takes. Contrast these two examples:
|“When she got downstairs, Cathy opened the cupboard, drawing out a jar of rolled oats. She measured the right amount of oats and then gathered the rest of the ingredients she needed to make her porridge. As always, she topped her breakfast with cinnamon. Then she opened the curtains and sat down to eat her breakfast, before phoning her sister.”
|“In the morning, Cathy phoned her sister while she was having breakfast.”
Unless Cathy’s breakfast is about to be part of a crime scene, there’s really no need to zoom into the minutiae of her meal in that much detail. As the writer, you can fast-forward to the important part. The same applies to the beginning and ending of dialogues: there’s no need for characters to engage in extended small talk. Use your novelist powers to lead the reader where they actually need to be.
Another example, to illustrate my point:
|As soon as the lab results came back, Martha picked up the phone and rang Janice, a private investigator. “Hi, Janice, it’s Martha from Forensics. How have you been?” “Great! How are you, how’s Georgia?” “Fine, thank you. We saw a fantastic play over the weekend, you should check it out. It’s called Green.” “I definitely will do! Can I help you with anything?” “Yes, I’m calling about a case I’m working on. The thing is, the evidence is not consistent with…”
|As soon as the lab results came back, Martha phoned Janice, a private investigator. “Janice, I’m working a case, and I’ve got some evidence that isn’t consistent with …”
Before you hand your manuscript to a professional editor or send a sample to literary agents, you’ll also have to spend some time with each sentence, dwelling on the necessity of each individual word. If there are turns of phrase you’re sad to lose, by all means cut and paste them into another document, where you can return to them for other projects. Right now, focus on the needs of the manuscript at hand.
4. Does The Ending Conclude The Book In A Satisfactory And Logical Way?
Often, having trouble with the ending is a symptom of plot issues earlier on in your book. If you feel like something doesn’t quite click right with your ending, try to trace it back to the rest of the book, and see where it is that the problem really begins.
What ‘flavour’ does your book end on? Is this consistent with what you were working towards? Have you built up to that feeling throughout? End with a feeling of regret if it makes sense given what you’ve written before, but not if it’s an inexplicable change in direction.
If you’re choosing not to fully resolve every narrative thread and leave part of the story open-ended, try to write a few versions of the ending, each with a different degree of open-endedness. If you still feel like your original ending provided the right degree of closure and openness, that’s great — if not, this exercise can help you zoom in on what isn’t working in each version.
This being the self-editing stage, do your best to sharpen your ending, while remembering that there may be some more changes coming to this significant part of your book once you’ve heard back from beta readers and your editor.
5. Does The Opening Hook The Reader And Emphasise The Right Themes?
You probably wrote your book’s opening first or early on in the writing process, and it’s likely that your project has evolved quite dramatically since then. Re-read your first few chapters and reflect as honestly as you can on the pace of the opening — are you doing what you can to ensure your reader will keep on reading? Is your first sentence grabbing their attention? Many writers find that the real opening of their book is a few chapters into the story, as it sometimes takes a little while to find your feet.
Though many books open with suspenseful, highly-dramatic first sentences (e.g., “The day my life changed forever, I had forgotten to pack my torch”), that level of drama is optional. Works of literary fiction in particular tend to opt for a low-key first sentence that introduces a problem, conflict, or personality, and works well without showing off.
Compare these two ways to open the same scene:
|“It was a Tuesday like all Tuesdays, and autumn leaves were scattered all over the pavement Robin was walking on.”
|“With every homeward step, Robin felt more and more like he didn’t want to get back home.”
The latter example isn’t about to win any Nobels, but it introduces Robin as a character, gives readers a sense of something he doesn’t want to do, and tells them he’s doing it anyway — whereas the former sentence is more generic and unmemorable.
You’ll also need to ask yourself whether your opening scene still embodies the themes that have led your book to its end. If not, you may have to reconsider an altogether different opening.
6. Do The Characters Feel Like Real People Who Have Both Positive And Negative Traits, As Well As A Motivation And Backstory?
Skim through your manuscript and make a note of every major character’s trajectory through the story. Is it all adding up, and does each character feel like they’ve naturally arrived where they’re supposed to be at the end of the book?
If you can’t really see them as people, that’s probably a sign they deserve a little bit of fleshing out. Here are a few aspects of characterisation to think about:
- Your characters’ goals
- Your characters’ flaws
- Your characters’ backstory
- How they interact differently with other characters
- Where they’re going to go next, after the book is over
- Whether major characters are dynamic or static
One way to get to know your characters better is to complete a character questionnaire, which provides some playful prompts to help you imagine their inner lives and behaviour.
7. If I Read It Aloud, Does It Still Sound Good?
Asking yourself this question will help you evaluate your work’s tone. Many writers sometimes slip into purple prose when they can’t hear their own writing, but quickly regret their choice of words when those same sentences are read aloud.
Ideally, you should read your entire book out loud to yourself — but if you don’t have that much time, read out passages containing extensive descriptions of characters or landscapes, as well as dialogue. If you’re planning to work with an illustrator or cover designer, you can put those descriptions in another document so you can include them in your design brief. In the meantime, listen out for words that you’re embarrassed to say out loud (a classic purple prose flag), as well as sentences that sound a little off tonally.
A tone check can help you identify passages where you’ve tried too hard to make the writing sound good, ending up with overly elaborate vocabulary or convoluted syntax, or instances where humour doesn’t carry across successfully.
Once you’re sure you’ve done the best you possibly can, it’s time to begin sharing your work with other people — be that informal beta readers, a professional editor, or literary agents reading a sample of your work. Whichever it is, it’s important that you know that self-editing is simply phase one of editing, and your manuscript will still undergo many revisions informed by external feedback. Approach the next stage with openness and courage — you’ve come a very long way already!