Monday, September 16, 2013

Improving on Perfection: Self Editing the Independent Novel

Writing a novel is often a transcendent experience. Words flow from the writer onto the screen of their own free will. The author becomes possessed by their muse. The process itself might be a blur when you reach the last page, because your characters took you someplace that you never intended to go.

Once the dust settles and you regain your sanity, you need to go back and find out if your muse made any damn sense when it was in control. Very few books can go out into the world after the first draft (See Is the Self-Published Book Always Inferior?). I'm working on a self-editing process that will hopefully improve the quality of my work without collapsing into a cycle of endless rewriting. I have four levels of self-editing, each with its’ own form and function.

Step 1: Take a Step Back

The first thing I do after a novel is done is to leave it alone. This idea has been echoed by publishing icons like Stephen King and writing manuals of all types. We wait to give our brains a chance to distance themselves from the text. As soon as the book is done, you know what you wanted to say. If you try to edit too soon, you won't read what is on the page. You will read what you meant to write. This leads to missing all sorts of structural and narrative mistakes.

Other authors recommend rest times of anywhere from a couple days to a couple months. I wait four to six weeks, because that gives me time to put some projects in pre-production (See Building a Better Novel) and other novels in post-production (See Marketing the Independent Novel). By the time I go back to the manuscript, I'm anxious to rediscover the work, like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while.
Step 2: Plugging Holes

When the words are flowing well in the first draft, I hate to interrupt myself to look up a bit of trivia. I also get ideas for events in later chapters that require setups earlier in the narrative. Whenever I reach one of those moments (and it happens quite a bit), I make a parenthetical note and keep going.

The first thing I do when I start to edit is deal with all these notes. I simply do a word search for every "(" and take the time to flesh it out. Sometimes it's something simple like looking up what kind car a character should be driving or what wine she should be drinking. Other times I have to find the proper place to insert a setup that will feel natural when the payoff comes later. When this step is done, the manuscript should have consistent details that help paint the picture in the readers mind.

Step 3: The Audio Review

The third and most important step for me is to read the story from start to finish out loud. I don’t mean silently to myself or mumbling under my breath. I read it out as if I were reading it to a crowd. Unless you are into improvisational theater, you might want to do this step in private.

Reading the story out loud helps in several ways:
  • It reveals what is actually on the page, not what you think you wrote.
  • It helps you see where you are telling instead of showing.
  • It helps you focus on which character perspective you're working with at any given time to ensure you’re not inadvertently mixing them up
  • It helps you hear when sentences are too long, too convoluted or unclear.
  • It helps you identify cases where you use the same word too often or if a particular word breaks the flow of the sentence.
  • It helps you alter dialogue that doesn't sound natural or isn't the right voice for a particular character.
  • It will show you if the story makes sense.

Out of all these steps, I've found this one to be the most helpful. It also takes the most time, so you need to be comfortable with the sound of your own voice. I love to hear myself talk, so this isn't a problem for me.

Step 4: Spell Check

The last major editing stage is a grammar check. At this point, you’ve probably dealt with most of the grammar and spelling issues in the previous stages, but it doesn't hurt to take one more pass. Spell check doesn't catch everything, but again, it doesn't hurt.

No Rewrites

The one editing step that I don't do is a rewrite the story. In my writing method (See Articles on the Craft of Writing) I plot out every beat in every scene before I sit down to write the manuscript. If a story fails (and many of them do) it fails in the pre-production phase, not after I spent months writing. After that, I trust the inspiration of the muse to see where the story goes. I have at least four novels scheduled for release in my publishing plan between 2012 and 2015. I don't have the time or the patience to rewrite an entire novel. The book might get crushed during the beta test (See On Beta Readers), but as a rule I don't second or third guess myself when it comes to the story.

Time Frames

The self-editing method I use takes about twelve weeks assuming a 50,000-75,000 word manuscript:
  • Rest period: 6 weeks
  • Notes: 1 week
  • Audio check: 4-5 weeks (assuming 20-40 pages per writing session)
  • Grammar: <1 week

You might have more steps or different steps, but three months seems to be a reasonable period in an independent publishing program to polish a story before it goes deeper into post production.

Next Steps

Post Production in my company involves several steps after the self-editing:

Each step polishes your novel until it is a work that you are proud to put your name on and release into the world. Self-editing isn’t the only quality check that you do, but it might be the most important because it allows you to solidify your vision before other eyeballs read your work. Only you can fully be sure of what your muse was trying to tell you during your creative trip. Self-editing can ensure you got the message.

So what editing techniques do you use? Comment below and let me know.

Have fun.


  1. It sounds a lot like the process I use, except for the reading out loud part. I might try that- thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading. I highly recommend the reading out loud part. But if you're like me, just don't do it in front of people because you'll be stopping to change sentences and re-reading the same passage several times. You don't want to put your friends and family through that. ;-)

  2. The reading aloud tip works with all types of writing, not just novels. For those of you who love to fire off a heated email, please read it out loud to yourself before pressing send (I'm just saying..) Great Tip!

    1. You are absolutely right.

      I used to work for a guy who had a really bad temper. Whenever our business partner would annoy him, he would unplug his computer from the internet and write the most abusive and profane response he could imagine. Wars have started with less hatred than what was in those pages.

      But then he would read it, laugh, delete the email and plug his computer back into the modem.

      Everybody won.

  3. Would be interested to know if you use an editing tool like AutoCrit Pro Writing Aid? I've followed a similar method to yours and was almost ready to send to a professional editor when I came across these two programs. They've slowed me down because they're a lot more detailed than the Grammar check and painstakingly labour intensive but they really do tighten up my writing.

    1. Thanks for the tip Teagan. I've never used advanced editing tools, mostly because I still rely on a professional editor to go through it after I'm done. Maybe I'll look into AutoCrit and test it out on one of my short stories.

      Thanks again.