I’m not going to lie to you – editing your own creative writing is damned hard. But it’s not impossible.
I’ve done freelance work as an editor and proof reader and I’ve learned something that all writers probably know. Spotting issues in other people’s work is so much easier than spotting them in your own work. It’s so much easier to see what works and what doesn’t in someone else’s work, and it’s always easier to see what they could add or remove to make it stronger.
Why? Because you’re often too close to your own work.
That character who’s too one-dimensional? In your mind, he’s a flawed, interesting character with a cool backstory. But your reader doesn’t see any of that.
That line that’s worded awkwardly? You know what you’re trying to say. Your reader doesn’t.
It’s also easier to spot typos, grammar errors etc. in someone else’s work. I’d be willing to bet there will be at least one error in this post that I don’t spot. But I can read a 500 page book and spot the one error.
Why? Because you know what you’re saying and your mind reads what it should say rather than what it does say.
So how do you get around all of that? Below you’ll find some tips to make self editing easier:
It can be tempting to jump right into editing the moment you finish your first draft. I’m terrible for this because I just want to get on and get the book ready to be published. But this can be a huge mistake.
While the story is still so fresh in your mind, it’s harder to be objective as you still feel like you’re in that world.
Take at least a month, longer if you need it, where you don’t even look at your first draft. You don’t have to waste that month – start on your next book, write a short story, or go outside and enjoy some fresh air.
When you come back to edit the draft, you’ll have a bit more distance which will help you to see the pages from an outsider’s point of view.
Learn to be Ruthless
As Stephen King puts it, “kill your darlings”. That doesn’t mean kill off a character (as I incorrectly thought for longer than I care to admit). It means cull your word count.
Do you really need a two page description of your character’s front garden where none of the action in your story takes place?
You might have spent a long time painting a picture of flowers dancing in the sun, but your reader doesn’t care. That might sound harsh, but it’s true.
Re-read every paragraph and ask yourself these questions:
- Does this paragraph move the action forward?
- Does this paragraph give an important insight into the way your characters think or why they act a certain way?
- Does the reader need to know about this?
If you answer no to all of those questions, it’s time to be ruthless. Cut the parts that you say no to. It might feel strange at first, and you’ll no doubt be nervous about doing it at first, but it will make your story so much stronger and keep your reader turning the pages.
Get Your Structure Right
Now you’ve gotten rid of all those extra words, go through your manuscript as a whole. For now, ignore things like awkward wording, grammar errors etc. and concentrate on the big picture.
- Plot holes
- Characters acting way out of character for no explainable reason except moving your plot forward
- Conflict and resolution
Let’s break those points down a bit more:
Plot holes can destroy even the best story. If something is just wrong, or too far-fetched, it can lose all credibility with your readers. To an extent, of course your book is fiction and some things may be slightly exaggerated. Particularly in the case of fantasy books, readers may have to buy into concepts that aren’t necessarily real – but when you build your world, you build it’s rules – and you can’t just go and change them midway through your story.
Let’s take an example – we’ll use Harry Potter. JK Rowling builds a world that’s very different from the world as we know it, but that world has rules. One of those rules is that if you disarm or kill another witch or wizard, their wand becomes yours and will answer to you.
Voldemort wants the elder wand to work for him, so he kills Snape to get it (remember Snape killed Dumbledore who was the owner of the elder wand originally). He can’t figure out why it still doesn’t respond to him. We later learnt that the wand now answers to Harry, because it was originally Draco that disarmed Dumbledore and Harry then disarmed Draco.
This fits the rules of the world. JK Rowling couldn’t just decide the wand was going to belong to Harry because she wanted it to – she had to figure out a way to make it happen.
So looking at your own manuscript, are there any places where you’ve broken the rules you’ve created just to suit yourself? You might think your readers won’t notice. They will. It can be harder to close plot holes and make it work, but it has to be done if you want your story to be the best it can be.
Inconsistencies can really throw a story out. Look for anywhere you contradict yourself.
Another major thing to check is your characters – do their physical descriptions remain the same? Or if they change, is this explained?
The most famous example of this I can think of is Friends. Ross is 29 in seasons three, four and five. And people still talk about it ten years after the show ended.
You don’t want that to be the reason your book is remembered.
The same goes for the way your characters act. We can all act out of character sometimes and that’s great if you explain it well – it makes your characters seem more real. But you can’t just have them act out for no apparent reason. Your readers will know immediately something is wrong.
How many times have you read a book or watched a TV show and commented “so and so would never have done that”. It can ruin an otherwise good story.
Conflict and Resolution and Your Ending
Does your book have enough conflict to keep it interesting. This doesn’t mean it has to be full of physical fights – the conflict could be a character choosing between two hard options, wrestling with their own morality.
Your main conflict should be the central theme as it’s the backbone of your story, but introducing secondary conflicts is a good way to keep your readers interested and also to bring secondary characters to life a bit more.
Make sure there’s plenty going on, but not so much that the central conflict becomes diluted.
Double check that each conflict is resolved as the story moves along – it doesn’t have to be a neat resolution. Life is messy, but it does have to be resolved or your readers will feel cheated. It also has to be done in a realistic way. Your reader will feel just as cheated if the conflict kind of fizzles out.
It’s the same with the ending of your book – does it resolve the main conflict? It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, and you can leave the odd loose thread to keep the reader guessing, but in general, the ending should resolve the conflict. And as the climax of the book, it should be done in a way that makes your reader feel like reading all of the rest of the book was worth it.
Check Each Sentence
Now it’s time to look at each sentence individually. A good way to isolate your sentences without reading ahead is to do it backwards. Start with the last sentence and move forward through your manuscript. If you’ve completed the structural step, you already know that the story flows well and coherently. Here. you’re only interested in how each sentence sounds as a stand alone sentence.
Check that each sentence is as strong as it can be. Work on changing passive voice to active voice, check your tenses and re-word anything that’s awkward or weak.
Change any slang words (unless it’s dialogue and that’s the way your character speaks) for stronger choices.
Proof Read: Stage One
Now is the time to proof read your manuscript and make sure all of your spelling, punctuation and grammar is on point. Correct any obvious mistakes with a read through, then move onto stage two.
Proof Read: Stage Two
This stage is where you really finesse your grammar and punctuation. Some people find printing out their manuscript helps – personally I find it’s a waste of paper and it also means twice the work because you have to make notes on the paper copy and then change it on the actual manuscript.
Here, you want to read the text aloud. This will really help you spot anything that’s wrong. Read it as the punctuation directs you and you will spot any errors easily.
This stage might not sound important, but it is. Remember the power of the comma – it can be the difference between you helping your uncle jack off a horse or helping your uncle, Jack, off a horse.
Take Another Break Then Have A Final Check
Once you’ve completed all of the steps, take another break. Two weeks is usually enough, but take more if you feel you need it.
Now read that whole manuscript again and make any little tweaks.
Congratulations – you now have a completed manuscript!
A Few Things to Remember
- Your manuscript won’t ever be completely perfect
- This is your baby – don’t edit your voice out
- Be patient – it won’t all happen in a day
Do you edit your own creative writing? Do you have any tips to add? Why not share them in the comments and help each other out 🙂
Want more writing tips? Join The Writer’s Den Facebook group, a supportive group sharing tips and encouragement for writers.
I would just like to point out that this guide is in no way meant to replace a professional edit. It’s intended use is to polish your manuscript as best you can before sending it to a pro (which should mean your editing work is a whole lot cheaper as the editor doesn’t need to focus on the little things you’ve just fixed). It can also be used if you really can’t afford an editor – a self-edit is still better than no edit at all!