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Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Your Book Like a Pro

"Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Your Book Like a Pro" is a resource for writers who are ready to edit their books but don't know where to start. Check out what Independent Book Review's editor-in-chief Joe Walters has to teach you about self-editing your fiction.

“Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Your Book Like a Pro”

by Joe Walters

This is the featured photo for Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Your Book like a Pro by Joe Walters at Independent Book Review

Congratulations! You’ve written your first draft! Whether it’s a short story, novella, or novel, you managed the most important step in getting your fiction out into the world: putting it on paper. Have yourself a little party. You deserve to celebrate.

But you’re not done yet. It’s time to get started on self-editing your fiction.

In this article, you’ll discover how to approach each round of self-editing to make sure that your manuscript is the best it can be before sending it to a professional. Just like you would in a traditional publishing house, you’ll want to complete the editing process from beginning to end: developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. After reading this article, you’ll have all the information you need to get started on self-editing.

Without further ado, here’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Your Book or Short Story Like a Pro.”


Step 1: Developmental Editing

In this first phase of self-editing, you will address big-picture issues in your manuscript like structure, narrative, characterization, pace, worldbuilding, and more. Leave your clunky sentence structure behind while approaching this first step in self editing; there’s a good chance that sentence might disappear altogether when you’re perfecting your story.

The quote beside me from Jodi Picoult is often used for authors not to stress about their paragraphs and grammar in their first draft, but it applies to developmental editing too. You wrote the first draft of your story to get it done, not to make it perfect. So lace up your boots. It’s time to make your story as effective as possible. 

In developmental editing, you’ll read your whole book and take specific notes about how your characters, stories, and obstacles are affecting you as a reader.

Here are 7 Questions to Ask Yourself While Developmental Editing Your Fiction:

  1. Does your book or story utilize a satisfying structure?
    • It would be smart to pay a lot of attention to your story’s structure. Recognize which sections don’t include forward plot movement. Identify weak obstacles. Ask yourself if your reader has enough time to understand the repercussions of the climax and where it will take the characters into the future.
  2. Is your main character worth following around?
    • Think of your protagonist like a person at a party. Will your reader like paying attention to that character and want to stay for as long as the protagonist is there? Good traits, bad traits, it doesn’t matter. As long as they offer the reader something worthwhile while they are chasing after their goal, you’re in good shape.
  3. Does your main character constantly strive to achieve his/her goal?
    • It’s not enough that your main character is doing things. The reader should know why that character is doing them and why they believe doing them will be beneficial in the long run. Secondary narratives are cool and all, but the reader should never spend much too much time away from the primary story.
  4. Do your side characters provide their own storylines?
    • It’s easy to have your secondary characters become one-dimensional helpers for your main character to achieve his/her goal. Make sure we know what they want and how they’re striving for it, too.
  5. Does your character experience obstacles that have long-lasting effects on the plot?
    • In other words, jot down each obstacle your MC encounters. By the time you get to the climax, those obstacles should all have been part of the reason why they got there. Kick your MC off the tour bus. Make them break their legs. Don’t let them overcome inconsequential obstacles.
  6. Do important events happen at the right times in your manuscript?
    • The inciting incident should start early. The climax should hit when our MC has been through so much that he/she has to achieve it now. Look at your percentages. If you’re 85% through your story, we should be probably be somewhere in the story’s climax.
  7. Is the world of your story recognizable and the foundation clearly established?
    • It doesn’t matter if we’re on another planet or if we’re in a quiet neighborhood, the reader should be able to recognize the types of things that could happen here so that when things do start happening, it feels natural.
This is the featured photo for Joe Walters' article on Independent Book Review: 31 Specific Strategies for Improving Your Novel

But don’t stop there! Check out this article for 24 more questions to improve the big-picture aspects of your novel.

Developmental editing may be the longest editorial process you will go through. It’s possible that you have to go through multiple rounds to get your story where it needs to be, but don’t let it stop you. Take your time. Make your fiction the best it can be.

Step 2: Line Editing

After you have gone through your work to make sure the story is being told in the most effective way possible, it’s time to get down to the paragraphs and sentences. In line editing, you’ll pay close attention to creating a consistent voice, an effective style, and making your language as clear and enjoyable as you can.

In order to line edit your own work, you will open page one and begin reading each sentence carefully, asking yourself questions like, “Is this phrasing ambiguous?” and “Is there a better way to say this?” You’ll be rewriting your work in this phase, making changes to the manuscript in real time to not only improve your book but to become a better writer in the process. 

When going through the line editing phase, you may want to fix the following issues:

  • Sentences that are long and exhausting
  • Redundancies: offering the same information in different sentences
  • Repetition: repeating the same words or sounds in close succession to one another
  • Inconsistent and/or unrealistic dialogue
  • Overusing specific sentence structures
  • Bland language: “very,” “good,” “really,” etc.
  • Passive voice
  • Background information your reader does NOT need to know
  • Too many stage directions
This is the featured photo for NY Book Editor's Article "Inside an Edit: Line Editing"

Looking for more tips? Check out NY Book Editors’ article: “Inside an Edit: Line Editing.”

Step 3: Copy Editing

So far, you’ve paid close attention to solving issues with your story and with your sentences. You’re getting ever closer to a finished product, but you’ve still got to get technical.

It doesn’t matter if you are self-publishing or approaching traditional publication; you should set aside time to read your manuscript and focus on the micro-aspects of your work including grammar, spelling, syntax, and more. Your text should be reaching other readers in its cleanest possible form.

In this phase, you’ll go through your text slowly. You’ll likely continue line editing, but you’ll add an additional focus on internal consistencies, incorrect statements, and the spelling and grammar that’s expected of you to meet industry standards.

How to Copy Edit Your Manuscript:

  1. Take a break and read the Chicago Manual of Style
    • I know you’re ready to get your fiction in front of readers, but it’s not ready yet. You’re going to need to approach copy editing with fresh eyes and patience, so slide the manuscript into your desk and don’t look at it for a while. Instead, brush up on the rules from the Chicago Manual of Style. When you return, you’ll see it with fresh eyes and a readiness to clean things up on a micro level.
  2. Kill your darlings
    • Sometimes sentences and words feel like they’re important or useful to include in your story, but they might be tricking you. Ask yourself the purpose of each sentence and word and if the reader would understand you if you took it out. 
  3. Read it in a different format, font, or background color
    • Print it out. Transfer it to Google Docs. Change the font, spacing, or the text and background color. You’d be surprised at how many easy mistakes you missed from looking at the same thing over and over again.
  4. Read it aloud
    • If you read your work aloud and start stumbling over sentences, consider that there might be a reason behind that. Cut down the unnecessary parts and focus on clarity.
  5. Listen to text-to-speech
    • There’s nothing quite like getting rid of the aesthetic value of your work than listening to a computerized voice. If you don’t catch any accidental repetition with the text-to-speech function, you can email me personally to tell me how wrong I was. Promise.
This is the original photograph by Independent Book Review for Holly Tri's article "5 Tips for Self-Editing for Fiction Writers"

Check out Holly Tri’s “5 Tips for Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” for more on doing a round of self copy editing.

While you might have been told that this is the last phase of editing a book, you’re missing out on one final round. But don’t worry—you’re almost there!

Step 4: Proofreading

Proofreading is your final pass. Like copy editing, authors often print out their book in this phase, but this time, they’re focusing more on typos, inaccurate punctuation, accidental spacing, and more. They’re no longer reading for enjoyment or revision, but they’re going very slowly through each word and sentence to make sure there is nothing they missed the first time around.

This is a shorter process than everything else we’ve mentioned before, so get yourself ready to enjoy. If you’ve already followed the above steps thoroughly, you could go page after page before finding new issues. But don’t worry. If you haven’t started proofreading yet, you will find something. 

Here are some quick tips for what to look out for when proofreading:

  • Consider homophones
    • Words that sound alike but have a different meaning and/or spelling, i.e. – Weather and whether; There, they’re, and their.
  • Understand commas and semicolons according to your style guide
  • Use the correct form of hyphen or em-dash
    • Hyphen: Use to join words or parts of words together.
    • Em-dash: Use this longer dash to take place of commas, parentheses, or colons, oftentimes to indicate an emphasis or tonal change
  • Beware unclear modifiers
    •  If you have a word or phrase to begin your sentence that does not describe the subject and predicate of the sentence, you have an unclear modifier. I.E. – “Now out of bed, the coffee machine made a whirring noise.”
  • Using ellipses
    •  An ellipsis is three dots (…) to indicate omitted material. I would not recommend using an ellipsis for a pause in speech or dialogue, as it could ambiguously indicate that words have been omitted from the speech.
  • Abbreviations and Capitalization

Final Words

If you follow this complete self-editing process, just keep in mind that each phase may take more than one pass. It’s possible that you developmental edit your manuscript and realize the decisions you made still aren’t the right ones, or you might even line edit a paragraph ten times before you actually get the wording right. But don’t worry. The more time you spend on this thing you love, the more it will love you back.

For those of you who are hoping to be traditionally published, following this editing process will put you in the clear to send it to an agent or publisher. Just make sure you’ve gotten your fair share of critique partners and beta readers. It’s not essential to get professional feedback on your manuscript before sending it out, but sometimes services like editorial letters or query critiques could be beneficial to you.

If you plan to self-publish your short story or novel, great! Self-publishing is a difficult world to traverse, but it’s also extremely rewarding. Even if you followed this blog post down to the final line, I would still recommend hiring a professional editor. You may feel like a pro, but you won’t be able to do everything on your own. If you want your book to reach a wide audience and garner positive reviews, professional editors will be one of the most important assets to your production team.

But wait! It’s not time for that yet. Right now, it’s time to pull out that manuscript and get to self-editing. Are you ready?


About the Author

Joe Walters is the editor-in-chief of Independent Book Review. When he’s not doing editorial or reviewing work at IBR, he’s working on his novel and trusting the process.


Thank you for reading “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Your Book Like a Pro” by Joe Walters! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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