How to edit your own novel in 8 steps

Rewriting is the essence of writing well – where the game is won or lost.

–  William Zinsser

Whether you agree with the above quote or not, the first draft of any novel is only part of the process. Same goes for the second, third and fourth. But a lot of work goes into revising and editing those drafts. And it ain’t easy.

Some will advise you to hire a professional editor for help. But what if you can’t afford it?

Others will say to just do it yourself. But where do you even begin?

#1 – Take a break.

If you don’t do anything else on this list, do this one!

After the crazed word-vomit of a first draft, give yourself the time to get a little distance from the project. I like to recommend at least a month if not two. Make some aesthetics, read the books you’ve been putting off. You can work on something else in the meantime or just relax!


But coming back to a project with fresh eyes will let you spot the issues you were too close to before.

#2 – Send to beta readers.

While you’re taking a break is the perfect time to send your novel over to beta readers to get their feedback on the story. That way your novel is still moving forward in the process even if you aren’t actively working on it. And their feedback will be invaluable as you start to identify your manuscript’s issues.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept or are unsure of how to find beta readers, check out this post from Jane Friedman.

#3 – Gather your supplies.

I know everyone has their own method of editing, but for me, it’s so important to print the latest draft of your manuscript. Editing on the computer just doesn’t have the same affect for me. I like to mark it up, write things down, hold it in my hands.

I also prefer to color code for different items. Maybe red is for copy edits, blue is for character development and green is for pacing. Then you just need to make sure you have all the pens, highlighters, tabs and Post-It notes you may need.

If you do prefer to edit on the computer, I highly suggest trying Scrivener. It’s unique features make the process so much easier!

#4 – Reacquaint yourself with your novel.

If you’ve taken a break like I suggested, it’s most likely been a while since you looked at this particular story. Maybe you’ve even been working on something different!

So next you need to read it again to refresh your memory. You’re not editing as you go, you’re not even thinking about the issues. You are simply reading it like any other reader might: to enjoy the story!


#5 – Read it again – but as an author this time! 

Stick a tab anywhere you see one of the above problems: your plot lines get muddled, your pacing slows down to the point of boredom, your character could use a little extra depth, your interactions need a little more context/tension, or you see a chunk of text that needs to be cut.

#6 – Identify your issues + create your spreadsheet.

I know what you’re thinking… Spreadsheets? That’s for budgets and monthly reports not writing. BUT if J.K. Rowling does it, then it must work!

Full instructions can be found here, and trust me… This is going to totally change and improve how you approach revisions!

#7 – Make a plan AND a schedule.

Starting major edits is incredibly intimidating, and I often find myself procrastinating or altogether avoiding. But goals and deadlines will not only split it into more manageable chunks, it will also hold you accountable.


#8 – Get to work! 

Now it’s time to actually start revising! If you decide your novel isn’t quite ready for beta readers, this can be hard because you aren’t operating off of tangible feedback. But I think the majority of changes needed in any manuscripts fall into one of five categories. And most of the time, fixing these will often be enough! In fact, I did a series on these exact issues last year when I embarked upon a huge revision of my first novel. So instead of briefly summarizing them here, check out the full posts for all the details and resources.

The most important thing to remember is that not all of this will happen overnight – or even in one draft! You may have to go through the above steps three or four times. But progress is progress, and each draft will leave your novel stronger until it’s ready to publish or submit.

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