The Beginner’s Guide to Self-Editing Your Novel
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In this beginner’s guide to self-editing your fiction or nonfiction book, I lay out the steps of the editing process.
You’ve written your first draft: hooza! That’s absolutely a great accomplishment, and you should be very proud.
But quickly, you feel that sinking feeling creeping up on you, and you wonder: now what? How do you self-edit your writing?
Do you hire an editor? Do you edit this book yourself? Where would you even start?
It’s okay: take a breath. In this article, I will tell you exactly which steps you can take to start self-editing your novel and at which points you might want to consider hiring an editor.
Whether you’re a fiction or nonfiction writer, the below steps will help you whip that manuscript into good shape.
The steps are:
1. Determine your main plot and value
Each story has a main plot with a value attached to it. For a fiction novel, the main plot can be action, crime, enemies-to-lovers romance, western, society, rags-to-riches, and so on.
If you’re unsure what your main plot is, look at your story's climax (the final climactic moment at the end of your book). What’s at stake there?
Is the hero fighting against the villain? Then it’s life – death, which means your main plot is action.
Does the protagonist bring a criminal to justice? Then it’s injustice – justice, so you have a crime story.
For an overview of the possible values and genres, you can check out this article.
For a nonfiction novel, it’s usually more straightforward. You’ve written either a how-to book, an academic book, a big idea book, or a memoir/biography.
You’ll probably know you’ve written a how-to book, as it details the steps on how to do something. For instance, how to grow your own crops or how to do yoga. A memoir/biography will detail stories of your life or someone else's life. An academic book will introduce an academic concept with many papers cited within the book. A big idea book contains a little bit of everything: it has some practical how-to’s, will feature some personal stories, and introduces a concept with some academic sources.
2. Evaluate the conventions & expectations
Each type of plot has certain conventions and expectations. You just need to figure out what the conventions and expectations of your story are.
By reading books or watching movies with the same type of plot. For nonfiction, this will more likely be limited to reading books, as documentaries tend to be different in how they’re structured.
Read a few and then note down everything they have in common: certain archetypical characters? Specific types of scenes? A certain order in which things are presented?
Then those are your conventions and expectations.
For instance, a romantic comedy tends to have a “meet-cute” scene at the start: the moment the two lovers meet. There’s also usually a “goofy best friend who gives advice.”
A detective story will have a scene with a crime and a scene at the end where the detective outsmarts the criminal. A plot about a competition will have rival characters and training scenes.
A how-to book will have procedural steps that go from preparation to completion (or from easy to hard). A memoir will also have a certain underlying theme, such as romance, career, or personal development. A big idea book will have an introduction to the concept and a chapter where the reader is ready to apply this concept in their life. An academic book has chapters outlining specific studies and will have a concluding chapter where everything comes together.
If you read and study at least two books within your chosen plot, you will figure out the conventions and expectations. Then, you can see within your own manuscript whether you’ve applied them. And if so, consider how you can make them better.
3. Break down the structure of your novel
I like to break it down into four acts: The Beginning Hook, Middle Build I, Middle Build II, and Ending Payoff. However, if you prefer three acts, then that’s also fine.
First, I will go through this step for fiction. Within each of these acts, identify the five elements of story. These are the:
Then for each act, answer the following questions:
Do all these points turn around the value I’ve chosen? If not, that’s a sign that the scene needs to be changed to reflect the value of the main plot.
Do the inciting incident and climax mirror each other? The climactic actions should be foreshadowed in the II. In addition, the climactic decision should show how the protagonist has changed compared to the II.
Does the II progressively leads to the TP? With the II, the protagonist has a certain strategy. This strategy will fail over time, progressively increasing the stakes, until the TP happens. The protagonist will have no choice but to change tactics to face the crisis decision.
Is the crisis coming from the TP strong enough? You want a good dilemma—if the choice is too easy, it’s not a crisis. In addition, you want the stakes for both options to be very clear.
Is the inciting incident resolved by the end? In the resolution, the question or challenge posed within the inciting incident should be resolved. There may be a new II or some part of the II may continue, but largely, it should be resolved so the reader has a sense of completion.
Are the consequences of the crisis decision delivered in the resolution? There are consequences to the decisions in the crisis. The consequences of the chosen climactic action should thus be given in the resolution. If the protagonist doesn’t experience any kind of consequence, things will feel too easy or unrealistic.
Do the TP, crisis, and climax follow the same protagonist? If this is not the case, the arc will break. If another character acts in the climax, for instance, it will take away the power from the protagonist and we don’t get to see their change.
For nonfiction, the acts come down to the following: A concept introduction, making sense of the concept, demonstrating the concept, and integrating the concept. In my opinion, memoir follows the structure breakdown of fiction more closely than nonfiction. This is because memoir, while nonfictional, is still a story, whereas the other nonfiction types are more geared toward teaching something or enhancing someone’s knowledge.
The five major elements then become:
Inciting incident: proposing and proving a concept (through academic or anecdotal information or through experience);
Turning point: Using a type of instruction to make sense of the concept. The turning here is going from unknowing to knowing or something similar;
Crisis: not necessarily there. The crisis lies more with the reader as they need to choose between internalizing and accepting the proposed concept or going against it.
Climax: Real-life perspective: shows the concept in action through narration, anecdotes, or experience to help ingrain the concept and acceptance of it.
Resolution: recall the shift from beginning to here and what the reader gains from learning this concept. This prepares the reader to move on to the next concept.
Then for each act, answer the following questions:
Do all these points turn around the same or similar concept? You want them to be related to each other, after all.
Do the inciting incident and climax mirror each other? With the II, you show the reader the concept and in the climax, you want them to see it in action once they have a better grasp of it. It’s possible, for instance, to have an anecdote at the II and continue it at the climax.
Does the II progressively leads to the TP? With the II, the reader will need some support to understand the concept. For this, you need to have explained enough about the concept and what it can do for the reader before you give them steps to complete.
Is the inciting incident resolved by the end? You have a concept introduced at the II, and this should be fully grasped (or a part of the larger concept) before continuing to the next act.
4. Analyze your subplots
Nonfiction (apart from memoirs/biographies) doesn’t tend to have subplots. So you can skip this step.
For fiction, you likely do have subplots. Usually, your main plot is an external one and you have an internal subplot. Often, there’s also another external subplot (if the main plot isn’t romance, the subplot is often romance).
If you have even more subplots, consider whether you need them. The more subplots you have, the more complicated the story will be.
For your subplots, you can do the same steps as for your main plot. The difference is that the conventions and expectations don’t need to happen on the page—as long as they’re mentioned, it’s fine.
Try to weave in the subplots with your main plot as much as possible: how does your subplot increase the stakes of your main plot?
5. Evaluate your character arcs
You may think you can skip this step as well if you’re doing nonfiction.
Only, rather than a character arc, you’re looking at your reader’s arc. They’re the ones completing a transformation. So, you want to make sure that you’re guiding your reader from one state at the beginning of your book to another state at the end of the book.
Look at the steps or anecdotes you’ve lined out at the start. Where is the reader at this point? What choices does the reader make? Then look at the ones at the end of the book. Where is the reader at that point? What choices does the reader make there? Is that where you want them to be?
For fiction, you also want to look at the start and end points of your characters. How have they changed? How did they act at first and how do they act by the end? For instance, did they refuse help at the start and by the end actually ask for help? How did they change? What forced them to change? Is the change logical and flowing from external forces? Or was it a very sudden change that came out of the blue?
If your protagonist doesn’t change, consider why this is. Do you want them to stay the same? Or did you want them to change in one aspect but it doesn’t quite show in their actions?
At this point, if you haven’t already, you can take the changes you want to make, and start to implement them in your manuscript.
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6. Spruce up your writing
This is where line editing comes in. But how do you make your sentences flow nicely?
There are generally two things that disrupt the flow the most.
Similar sentences/sentence length;
Lack of transition words.
You want your sentences to have differing lengths. Whenever you have too many sentences in a row that have the same length, it will start to sound monotonous. The same is true for sentences with a similar structure. Change up the order of your sentence, and you’ll notice an instant difference.
Another common disruption is repeated words. Especially when the same word is used in succession. For instance:
He picked up the pen. The pen was heavy and had a beautiful engraving.
The use of “pen” in succession makes it awkward to read. So, to change it, make sure you don’t mention the word again. For instance:
He picked up the pen; it was heavy in his hands, and his eyes were drawn to the beautiful engraving.
Finally, use transition words. This is specifically true for nonfiction. You want your sentences to be connected, especially if you want to make an argument. Tell the reader how the sentence relates to the previous one. Use words like “therefore,” “moreover,” “nonetheless,” “additionally,” however,” and so on.
If you’ve done your line editing and still feel like it’s not quite right, you might want to consider hiring a line editor.
7. Correct your grammar
You’re almost there! Now it’s time to look over your manuscript and correct that grammar. This can be a tedious job (but someone’s gotta do it).
I would recommend using a grammar tool such as Grammarly (they have a free version and a free trial). It won’t pick out all your mistakes, and you still need to check to see whether the correction is right. Still, it will save you time and will certainly show you errors you would’ve missed otherwise.
If by this point you’re a bit tired of reading your manuscript, you can also read it backward for this. And I don’t mean to read the sentences backward, but to start at the last page and continue going to the first page. This way, you’re less distracted by what you’ve written.
If grammar isn’t your strong suit, you might want to hire a copy editor at this point.
8. Proofread your manuscript
Finally, you’re ready to proofread your manuscript!
You may wonder: why? I’ve already corrected it in the previous step.
And you would be right. However, it’s very likely you missed some final mistakes. Especially typos, spelling errors, minor punctuation issues, and formatting consistency can be missed easily.
So, do yourself and your manuscript a favor and read it again, looking specifically for those minor mistakes.
As with the previous step, you might want to try starting at the final page and moving to the beginning.
Don’t want to do your own proofreading? Then you can also hire a proofreader.
And that’s how you self-edit your manuscript!
It may seem like a lot of work, and it is. But, ultimately, it will be worth it.
Whether you’d like to hire a professional or not, I would always recommend self-editing first. This will help you tremendously in improving your skills as an author and editor, and it will save you money. Yes, really.
Think about it: the less flawed your manuscript is, the less time it will cost to fix the mistakes. Hence, cheaper service!