How to Self-Edit Your Novel

There’s no right or wrong way to write and edit a novel. Plotters will tell you to make detailed outlines of each chapter, where pantsers will say to just start typing. Still, there are some basic steps that need to be taken, especially when it comes to editing.

Here are  seven basic steps you need to take to write and self-edit your novel:

  1. Write down everything you know about your story.
  2. Write the first draft and keep it rough.
  3. Edit as you work on the second draft and polish the story.
  4. Put the novel away for a few weeks.
  5. Ask a friend to read your story and give feedback.
  6. Make the changes and read it again.
  7. Go over each line meticulously from start to finish. 

If you’re totally new to being an author, check out my post, Novel Writing Tips for Beginners: Part One, for the basics. But if you’ve got a story or two in mind already, things will be a little easier.

1. Write Down Everything You Know about Your Story

Every story starts with a spark of an idea. It could be a full synopsis, including blow-by-blow fight scenes, or just a simple idea with a few key details.

The story for my first New Adult Urban Fantasy novel, Lightborn, came to me in a dream. From that dream, I knew the following:

  • It would be about evil men with magic
  • It would be set in the modern-day, if not the slight future
  • The hero would be female
  • I didn’t want a typical happy ending

From that point, I sat down and figured out what else I knew. For example, did I want the protagonist to be older, younger, in love, tortured…you get the idea.

Even if you’re a pantser - you write by the seat of your pants, not making specific plans - it will help a great deal to get down everything you know about your story to start off.

Even if it just helps you get those first few words on paper - which are often the trickiest! - you’ll be thankful you took the time to make these initial notes.

2. Write the First Draft and Keep It Rough

I’ve talked about this a lot in my other posts, and it’s as true as ever. Your first draft will be and should be rough. Nobody can pen a bestseller in one go, and chances are, your first draft will be littered with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and gaping plot holes.

But that’s what the second draft is for! And the third and the fourth. The truth is, you could have a hundred drafts if you wanted - though I don’t recommend it.

The key to keeping your first draft concise is to not overthink it. Work through, chapter by chapter, but don’t get bogged down on the nitty-gritty stuff. If you don’t know how something is going to happen just yet, make a note and move on.

Unless it’s absolutely integral to the story, you can always fill it in later.

Check out my post on How to Write a Novel in Four Months for more on your first draft and making it fast!

3. Edit as You Work on the Second Draft and Polish the Story

The second draft is your chance to start filling in the gaps and polishing the story. It’s also time to start your editing!

At this point, I recommend taking the story chapter by chapter. Depending on how rough that first chapter is, this might take a little longer. But at least you have the overall story written, and now you’re just fleshing it all out.

As you work through the story, take notes on anything that feels off, strange, or confusing. While you’re reading and writing, you’ll come across plenty of editing opportunities.

That could be anything, including but not limited to:

  • Useless side characters
  • Sub-plots that provide nothing to the main story
  • Confusing elements that need better explanations
  • Descriptions that give too much information - aka, info dumps
  • Awkward dialogue

Of course, this second draft will need to be followed by a third and maybe a fourth. But the more you read and write and edit, the better it will become.

4. Put the Novel Away for a Few Weeks

After the third or fourth edit, I highly recommend putting the novel away for a few weeks. Though it might seem extreme, it’s a great way to come back with fresh eyes - fresh eyes that can and will catch errors.

Even though you wrote the story, when you leave it alone and then re-read it after a few weeks have gone by, it will be like seeing it in a different light. When you’re writing and editing, you’re so focused on it, and it can be hard to spot minor mistakes.

Similarly, it can be hard to spot continuity errors or confusing aspects. This is because you know everything so well, it’s hard to differentiate between what’s in your head and what’s on paper.

So, let it sit for two to four weeks and then take some time to sit and read. Make notes on anything you feel needs tweaking and, of course, any mistakes you missed before.

5. Ask a Friend to Read Your Story and Give Feedback

Once you’re happy with it, there’s no substitute for a second pair of eyes. Not paid eyes! I know; we’re talking about self-editing here.

But a friend, colleague, partner, or family member will be invaluable to you when it comes to making sure the story, plot, characters, and pacing are on point.

The only thing here that could be tricky is finding someone willing to read and critique honestly. You ideally want someone that reads the genre you’re writing - a romance reader might not be the best person to ask to comment on a gory horror story.

If you can’t find anyone - or don’t want to turn to your family and friends - there are hundreds of groups online (Goodreads and Facebook) with readers that will read and critique your work. Just be prepared to hear the negative as well as the positives!

6. Make the Changes and Read It Again

Hopefully, any feedback you receive is minimal, surface-level stuff that you can fix pretty fast. Just remember that these readers aren’t there to spell-check you. Great if they happen to catch something and can mark it down - but you want them to focus on the story.

However, if you give your story to someone and the feedback isn’t great, it’s up to you to continue or take a few steps back.

Maybe they just thought a character was a little unbelievable. In this case, you can quickly tweak them in a few key scenes.

Maybe they didn’t think something was explained properly. Great! Time to add a quick conversation between characters to help give a bit more info to the story.

So many little things can be changed at this point. But, if they came back and had more significant issues, I highly recommend taking a step back and looking at your story from their perspective.

They’re not being rude or trying to hurt your feelings, and you do need to know if the writing feels lazy or is not the best it can be.

7. Go Over Each Line Meticulously from Start to Finish 

This final step is really several steps. Editing is a tremendous job, and it’s something you might feel will never end. But if you take the time and go over each line with a fine-tooth comb, you should be able to get away with doing it yourself.

What Are the Steps to Edit a Book?

Again, there is no right or wrong way to edit a book. But, there are some ways to make it a little easier. These include:

  1. Read your book cover to cover. This should be done a few times over the course of reading and editing.
  2. Listen to your book with text-to-audio software. Hearing your work read aloud will help you to pick up on small mistakes, and in some cases, the software will highlight the words as it reads. 
  3. Search for and replace filler words such as “that,” “just,” or “really.” Certain filler words and “crutch” words are necessary and should be left in - especially if you want your dialogue to sound natural. But many can be taken out without affecting the work at all. 
  4. Check your punctuation. Did you over-do it with exclamation points? Is all the dialogue in quotation marks?
  5. Run the story through multiple spelling and grammatical programs. If you’re serious about writing, I highly recommend purchasing a pro-plan to get access to all the editing features. 
  6. Read over every line slowly. This will take a lot of time, but it will be worth it in the end!
  7. Format according to where/how you’re going to publish. KDP uses Kindle Create to make publishing super easy, but you can’t upload from a Pages file. Check the publishing information to see if you need Word or PDF.  
  8. Don’t over-edit. It is possible to go too far, so you need to know when to stop. 

How Long Does It Take to Self-Edit Your Novel?

There’s no easy way to quantify this, as each novel will be very different. My two novels are both just under 98,000 words, but I’ve edited some under 80,000 and others over 120,000. Obviously, the latter will take far longer to edit, no matter how good the writing is.

It can take anywhere from a month to a year to self-edit a novel, and it will depend on the length of the story and how much time you can devote to editing. If you can commit to editing one chapter per day, you can be done in a couple of months. But if you’re busy, it will take much longer.

When it comes to editing, it will go as fast as you can read. In general, I like to try and edit one chapter per day. This way, I can take it slow and read each line carefully.

For my second novel, An Easy Target, I managed to self-edit in just under two months. Sitting at 40 chapters, I worked on one at a time, taking a couple of days off here and there. But I got it done by putting in the work, no matter how tired I was!

Editing Tips for Authors

We’ve heard it time and again: you need to hire an editor for your novel if you want it to be a success. And sure, that’s true up to a point. But what happens when you can’t afford that extra few grand?

To self-edit your novel, finish the story to the point you have something you can share with the world, and read it through a few times to ensure the plot makes sense. Lastly, go over every line a few times until you know it’s as perfect as possible. Beta-readers are very useful for editing also.

Obviously, this makes it sound pretty easy, and needless to say, you can’t self-edit your novel in a few days. So, I’m going to go over everything from writing your novel to editing and the best ways to go about it. Finally, I’ll talk about the cost involved should you choose to hire a pro.

How Much Does It Cost to Have Someone Edit Your Book?

If you’ve made it this far, you’ll know that editing is no joke. It’s a time-consuming process that requires a lot of concentration. So, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn that getting your book professionally edited will be expensive.

It will cost between $2,000-$4,000 to have someone edit your book. This will usually include developmental, line, and copyediting, along with proofreading, which are four different aspects of editing done by various editors. Most editors will charge between  $.04-$.09 per word, or $5-$15 per page.

However, there is a huge number of editors available on sites such as Fiverr who will edit for less. Just remember that it will likely only include one aspect of editing - not the whole package.

Therefore, you need to decide on which kind of editing you need:

  1. Developmental editing will include the big picture and overall story, not the spelling or grammar elements.
  2. Line editing will include the language you’re using and the overall content.
  3. Copy editing will include spelling, grammar, and deeper dives into the manuscript as a whole with the goal of making it more professional.
  4. Proofreading is usually the final stage in which an eagle-eyed editor will check for everything from spelling mistakes to awkward phrasing.

Final Thoughts

To write and edit a novel, you need to start with a solid idea, writing down everything you know and want to include. Once you have a basic outline, start on your drafts until it’s finished. Next, read and re-read, going over every line and word meticulously until you’re sure there are no mistakes.

Self-editing your own work is not an easy task, but it is doable if you’re willing to put in the work. Start your editing once you enter the second draft stage, and be sure to work chapter by chapter, taking it slow and steady.

The key is to read and re-read your work, along with letting it sit for a little while before you come back with fresh eyes. Remember, another set of eyes is always going to be helpful!