Whether you edit as you write or write till the end then edit, there is definitely a point in time where you self-edit.
I’m sure we all (or at least, I do) want our manuscripts to be as polished as possible before we let another pair of eyes look through it.
Here’s how I usually self-edit my fiction manuscript.
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1. Use Spelling & Grammar Checker
So long as you have a tool to help check your spelling and grammar, you’ll greatly minimize mistakes. These tools will help catch basic errors like capitalizing the first letter of a sentence and singular/plural subject-verb agreement.
Nevertheless, you should not rely on this checker completely. It might not catch mistakes like “bear” (which is spelled correctly but means different things when used as a noun or verb).
2. Double-Check Fictitious Names You’ve Made Up
Don’t be surprised if your manuscript is littered with red squiggly underlines.
This is caused by the use of fictitious names (character names, places, creatures, spells etc.). Your spell checker will flag them as errors because these names are not included in any dictionary.
As such, you might skim through them due to the assumption that these names are spelled correctly.
But you never know. Some of them could really be misspelled. Or worse, you might overlook other spelling errors. Can you spot the misspelled fictitious?
Thus, always check the spelling of these made-up names!
Copy them from a list if you need to. I have a glossary of terms (with the correct spelling) in my Evernote and I always copy the names from that list.
The last thing you want is a review criticizing how you spelled a character’s name wrong. Like referring to “Araceli” in the first few chapters then calling her “Aracelis” in the second half of the book. That’s just embarrassing!
3. Be Specific
Make all those “things”, “stuff” or “it” in your draft more specific.
What are those “things”, “stuff” and “it” exactly?
Identify and describe them so your readers know precisely what you’re referring to.
4. Eliminate -ly & Use Stronger Verbs
Rather than saying “move quickly”, use “run” or “sprint”.
Cut out those “really” and “very” and replace them with a stronger word.
5. Rectify Dangling Modifiers
Dangling modifiers is where you modify a word not clearly stated in the sentence. As a result, this grammatical error often confuses readers.
This is an example of dangling modifier:
- Waking up late, class started before he arrived.
It’s grammatically incorrect because it says that the class woke up late.
You can fix this by stating clearly who woke up late.
- Waking up late, he arrived after class started.
Besides naming the doer of the action, there are also other ways to correct dangling modifiers.
6. Vary Paragraph/Sentence Length & Sentence Structure
If you have a really long paragraph that spans more than one page, break it up!
Intersperse long sentences with shorter ones.
The point is to let your readers breathe. Create pauses in your manuscript so that readers have room to breathe.
Do vary your sentence structure too.
Don’t start every sentence with “he/she/they did something”. That will be plain boring and predictable.
7. Edit Dialogue
a. Punctuate Dialogue Correctly
First, check that you punctuated your dialogue correctly.
I highly recommend that you read through this article. Or at least, note down the rules that you tend to forget and stick it somewhere as a reminder. You can even make an editing checklist!
For instance, you could note down that question marks (?) and exclamation marks (!) are similar to commas (,) in that there is no capitalization.
- “How are you today?” he said.
- “Terrific!” he said.
b. Mix Dialogue, Dialogue Tag & Action
Let’s define what each of these terms means.
- Dialogue: The part that is spoken.
- Dialogue Tag: The “he said” or “she screamed” part.
- Action: The part where characters do something.
You can always mix them up to create variety in your dialogue.
Such as adding actions to express a character’s emotion or removing all dialogue tags completely so the conversation is going back and forth quickly.
You can also spice up your dialogue tags by replacing “said” with “asserted” or “elaborated”. But this is a personal preference. There’s a heated debate on whether to always use the simple “said” or never use “said”.
c. Read Dialogue Aloud
Finally, read your dialogue aloud!
Does it sound natural? Like the way a person will speak in a conversation?
You need to make sure that the dialogue fits the character saying it. Whether what he or she says matches his or her personality, gender, age, education level, accent etc.
If she’s a timid person, make her stutter. If she is super smart, add complex words in her dialogue.
Don’t just limit to dialogue. You can read the narrative aloud too!
Just recently, I was in a dilemma of whether to use “consume” or “devour”. Though I love “devour” more because it’s a stronger verb, I chose “consume” in the end because the sentence sounds nicer and flows better.
8. Revise Out-Of-Character Moments
A few out-of-character behaviors and actions are okay. Where characters are forced by circumstances to do something they usually don’t. These moments might even drive the plot forward!
However, if your characters always act out of character, it becomes confusing to your readers.
Say for instance, your protagonist is a smart guy. You show him acing the mathematics examination in the first few chapters. Then, he suddenly doesn’t know what is 2 + 2 in the next chapter. Isn’t it ridiculous?
Of course, you don’t see such blatant mistakes in your draft. They will be subtler like using American or British slang in dialogue.
Hence, do look through your manuscript and check whether your characters
- Do things that are in character: Would a person with such personality react the same way as your character?
- Say things that are in character: Does it sound like them? Does it seem like something they would say in such a situation?
- Think things that are in character: Is it right for your characters to think like this? Would they think of such smart, rash, timid etc. solutions?
9. Adjust Pacing
a. Intersperse Mundane Activities With Conflicts
Your novel shouldn’t be filled with mundane activities chapter after chapter with the conflict only occurring at the end.
There should be some action or adventures in between these ordinary days. Spread them out so that your readers get a taste of both: adrenaline rush and calming peace.
For example, I try to include something interesting in each chapter. It could be as simple as a short dialogue between two characters. But this dialogue could be an argument between friends or a sudden love confession.
I sprinkle my draft with mundane scenes (how days are usually spent for my protagonist) and exciting scenes (how some days are not so ordinary like meeting a non-human and the troubles that come with it).
b. Revise Writing To Slow Or Quicken The Pace
To slow the pace, you can use
- Long paragraphs & sentences: create a sense of time dragging
- More narrative & less action: add detailed descriptions and have fewer things happening
- Less & long dialogue
On the other hand, you can use the following to quicken the pace.
- Short paragraphs & sentences: they’re punchy and thus, makes the story more fast-paced
- More action & less narrative: short, tight action scenes with lesser details make it seem like they’re moving fast
- More & short dialogue
10. Fix Plot Holes & Inconsistencies
It isn’t just time travel novels that have paradoxes.
Even a simple romance book might have plot holes and inconsistencies.
Let’s say your protagonist has a deep cut across his arm. You describe him bleeding in one scene and the wound miraculously healed in the next. Unless your protagonist is a vampire, this shouldn’t be happening.
There shouldn’t be such illogical events (especially if they contradict earlier events in the storyline).
The key is continuity. You don’t want to jolt your readers back to reality.
It’s almost like a movie where the actors and actresses wear the same clothes throughout the scene (even though it’s filmed on different days).
The greatest problem with plot holes and inconsistencies is that it might not be obvious to you, the author who wrote the book. There are times where you might overlook them. Therefore, it might be better if you ask another person to help catch these errors.
Plot holes occur due to many reasons, from losing track of details to lack of thorough research. When you do spot them, you can fix this by removing them, changing them, providing more explanation so that it works and more.
11. Scrutinize Your Writing Style, Voice & Tone For Comprehensibility
Every author is unique. Where his or her novels are crafted with their unique writing style, voice and tone.
The combination of an author’s choice of words, sentence structure, literary techniques, use of rhythm etc. which also conveys the author’s attitude, personality and character is what makes each story unique.
When you just started writing, it might take a while to develop your writing style, voice and tone. I’m working on this too (even now when I’ve written quite a few stories).
But when you’ve established this, you should embrace your writing style, voice and tone.
Note that not all readers will love your writing style and that it’s impossible to please everyone. So just write in a way that’s comfortable for you.
When you revise your draft, ensure that the story is comprehensible. That you understand what is going on.
If you don’t understand your own story, don’t expect your readers to understand.
Check that your writing style doesn’t make your story hard to understand.
For instance, whatever you’re conveying shouldn’t be lost in your flowery language. Just like how a heart-to-heart talk between characters shouldn’t be weakened by an emphasis on narrative rather than dialogue.
12. Show, Don’t Tell
Almost every renowned fiction author will say this.
Show, don’t tell.
Show is where you tap into your 5 senses and create a realistic image in your reader’s mind.
Tell is where you get to the point and concisely convey it to your readers.
And the most commonly cited example would be “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Okay, I’m sure all of us are striving for this. I’m no exception.
But I admit that I don’t show every time. There are times where I tell because I want the story to move faster. To quickly jump to the parts that matter.
Hence, balancing showing and telling is another key point to look out for when editing your manuscript.
Tell when the details of a scene are negligible.
- mundane activities of everyday life
- eg. how your protagonist get from home to school
Show only when the scene is important
- crucial event in your character’s life that shaped who & how he is today
- scene that moves the plot forward
- scene that builds tension or conflict
- action scene itself
- eg. emotional breakdown when your protagonist’s parents passed away
Bear in mind that showing and telling are not mutually exclusive. You can always blend them together so the story feels more vivid.
Now It’s Your Turn
I’m not a super good writer who won literary awards. Just someone who loves writing.
So this is not a comprehensive list. Feel free to point out other things you look out for when editing your draft~
Do consider getting an editor to check your manuscript before publishing. You can find such editing gigs on Fiverr. But remember to check their reviews and ask for editing samples. Or you can get them to edit only the first few pages or first chapter then rehire them if they did a great job.