How I Self-Edit My Novels: 15 Steps From First Draft to Publication

E. B. White declared, “The best writing is rewriting.” In other words, the best writing is editing. We find all kinds of info on how to write. But editing can be a little more slippery. Basically, this is because good editing skills are no different from good writing skills. If you know how to write a good plot, you’ll know how to edit one. If you know how to edit a great beginning, you’ll know how to write one. The storycraft is no different in writing than it is in editing.

And yet we all know the analytic editing process is totally different from the creative writing process. When I ran a poll a few months back, asking what subjects Wordplayers would like me to write about, one of your most frequent requests was for more info on how I self-edit my novels. Today, I’d like to share my top-to-bottom editing process: from first draft to publication.

Step #1: The Outline

Okay, I admit, at first glance, that header probably makes no sense. But outlining is a crucial part of my editing approach. Why? Because if I put the time in up front to get my story right from the very beginning, I save myself a ton of editing effort later on. One of my most intensive editing excursions was on the only story I failed to outline at the outset.

Step #2: The Daily Edit

Before I dive into my daily writing sessions, I always take the time to run through a little warm-up. This warm-up consists of reviewing research notes, reviewing character sketches—and editing what I wrote the day before. Usually, this will be a section of about 1,500 words, which will take me about twenty minutes to run through. I’ll fix any problems that jump out at me, but for the most part, I’m focusing on correcting typos, cleaning up prose, and fact checking.

If I know something I wrote the previous day created an inconsistency within the earlier story, I also take this opportunity to go back and correct it. I can’t stress enough the importance of not over-censoring yourself during the first draft. But, at the same time, the tighter you keep this draft, the less editing you’ll have to do later on. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but try to keep on top of inconsistencies before they get out of hand later on.

Step #3: The 50-Page Edit

One of my favorite editing tricks is what I call the “50-Page Edit” (James Scott Bell calls it the “20,000-Word Step Back”). The number is just a rough estimate. What I’m really doing is stopping every quarter of the book (after every major plot point) and going back to edit the whole thing. Sometimes I’ll print it out; sometimes I’ll just read it on the computer.

As I read through the manuscript, I’ll stop and correct anything that jumps out me—mostly just rough prose. But the true reason for this edit is to halt my mad dash to “the end,” regroup, and regain a focus on the story’s big picture. Over the many weeks, or even months, it takes me to write fifty pages, I can get so caught up in my story’s minutiae that I lose sight of how the whole thing is hanging together—or, worse, I forget about little details or even whole scenes that went before. Stopping every quarter of the book not only allows me to stay on top of my story, it also makes the first big edit at the end of the book that much easier.

Step #4: The “Final” 3 Edits

Once I’ve finished the first draft, I immediately print it off and start editing. I do this three times in a row. At this point, thanks to my outline and my earlier partial edits, my story should be pretty much how I originally envisioned it. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, so I am open to making any large changes necessary at this point (a recent WIP required I rewrite the ending six times).But the real point of these “final” edits is to, first, gain an overall view of how the story turned out, and, second, to clean it up for critique partners. If I feel the manuscript is particularly sloppy in the typo department, I may use my third edit to have my computer or Kindle read aloud to me while I read along. This is, bar none, the best way I know to catch typos.

Step #5: The Beta Readers Round One

After I’ve finished my three post-first draft edits, I ship the manuscript off to my first round of critique partners. This group consists of four people, one who is a freelance editor, two who are critical readers, and one who is a superfan (guess whose opinion I like best?). As their responses trickle back in, I will go ahead and make minor changes, while writing notes about any big changes they suggest.

Step #6: The Rest

Once I’ve sent the manuscript to the first round of critters, I don’t even think about it for a while. Let me say that again: I do not even think about it. This is a tremendously important section. When in the heat of writing and editing (and rewriting and editing and rinsing and repeating), we will inevitably lose all objectivity about our stories. We have to give ourselves some time and space to let go emotionally and to stop seeing through the rosy lenses of what we think we’ve written, instead of what’s really there. I’m often amazed by how differently a story looks after a few months of away time.

Step #7: The First Big Edit

Depending on my schedule and what other big projects I have going on, I will usually pull the manuscript out of the closet about six months after sending it to the beta readers. I go over my notes from their edits as well as any thoughts I’ve had during the intervening time, and I organize them chronologically within the story. Using Track Changes in Word, I will write the notes in as comments and attach them to the pertinent points in the story. If I have any notes that apply to the story as a whole, I’ll list them in order of importance and stick them on a blank page at the beginning of the manuscript.

I’ll usually do this edit on the computer, since it often involves big changes. Before each editing session, I’ll review the overall ideas I want to keep I mind. Then, starting at the beginning, I’ll read right on through the whole thing, stopping where necessary to heed my notes. Depending on how messy the story ended up being, this edit might be anything from a basic read-through with a few tweaks or a massive rewrite that takes months.

Step #7.1: The Proofread

If the previous edit/rewrite was particularly massive, I may print off the manuscript and proofread it one to three times to clean up any resulting typos and inconsistencies.

Step #8: The Beta Readers Round Two, Rest Round Two

Once that big edit is over, I send the manuscript on to the next round of readers. More than huge, critical plot tweaks, what I’m looking for from these readers is simply answers to the questions, “Does this work for you?” “Does this make sense?” “Do you like it?” If I’m on the right track, these readers provide a boost of confidence, which is always nice at this point, after the major critical responses from the first batch of critiquers. During this period, I’m once again ignoring the story and letting it “rest.”

Step #9: The Second Big Edit

By the time I get my beta readers’ responses back, probably a year and a half will have passed since I completed the first draft. I stop and do another full read-through of the story. Again, this could be quick pass or a major rewrite.

Step #10: The Beta Readers Round Three, Rest Round Three

I send the manuscript out again, this time to two or three readers. But this time, I don’t send the manuscript out to all of them at once. I’m now nearing the beginning of the end of my editing schedule. The book’s scheduled publication is only a year away. If the book is ever going to be good enough to publish, this is its last chance. If one of these readers suggests major changes, I want to be able to have the next reader read the refreshed manuscript and tell me whether or not I aced those changes.

This round of beta readers are hard-hitting, critical readers. At this point, I want to make certain I’ve either fixed all the major problems or know what to fix. I schedule six months per reader (hoping they’ll be able to get the manuscript back to me sooner than that).

Step #11: The Third Big Edit

After receiving the manuscript back from the last of the heavy-hitting critters, I run through it one more time to polish it up. This is do or die for the book. If I feel it’s good enough to publish, it’s full steam ahead from here. If not, it gets a swift bullet in the head and I move on.

Step #12: The Editor

If the light is still green on the publishing schedule, this is where I hire the services of a professional editor. CathiLyn Dyck has worked on two of my books, and I heartily recommend her services.

Step #13: The Fourth Big Edit

Once I receive Cat’s critiques, I do one more pass. This is the last of what I consider the “big” edits. By this point, I’m probably only six months away from the scheduled pub date.

Step #14: The Final Clean-Up Edits

Depending on how much time I have until the pub date (and how long the book is), I will go through the manuscript two or three more times just to clean up any remaining  inconsistencies or rough spots. By this point, there shouldn’t be too many problems, but, if the book has undergone major changes, there are always problems that stick around until the very end.<

Step #15: The Copy Edits and Beta Readers Round Four

Finally, I call it good on the tweaks, tell myself I can’t change anything big unless it’s crucial, and start typo hunting. I use several methods to help me track down those sneaky typos. My favorite is the one I mentioned above about reading along as my Kindle or computer reads aloud to me. I also read the manuscript aloud myself (with plenty of lemon water on hand to soothe my throat). Finally, if the stress injuries in my wrists aren’t acting up too bad, I will print off a hard copy and, as I read, use a highlighter to put a dot beneath each word, to make sure I’m reading what’s on the page—and not what I think is there.

During this section, I also like to send the manuscript out to as many as four final beta readers who are willing to lend me their objective eyeballs in helping me catch any further typos.

James Michener famously said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” As you can see, I take that approach to heart. A novel is a tremendously complicated undertaking. Very few of us can get it spot-on perfect the first time around, no matter how excellent our grasp of storytelling techniques. To create the best story possible, we have to commit to the long haul with our books. This means not just spending the time to prep and write a book, but also the months and even years necessary to smooth out all its rough spots.

Tell me your opinion: What does your self-editing process look like?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I am a new author. I finished my first draft of my first novel about a week ago. I felt so accomplished, but I now realize how much goes into the editing process. This article has been deeply insightful and enlightening, but it shows me that I still have a very long way to go. At least reading this article gives me some direction instead of blindly stumbling through it. Your method is comprehensive, but it sounds like you have a method that works for you and that is what matters. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    Sincerely,

    Jaclyn

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t discount the tremendous accomplishment of finishing that first draft! That’s the hardest and most important part. Editing is involved and not without its challenges. But you’ve already climbed the mountain!

  2. Hi,

    I joined nanowrmo one year (it was actually almost 4 years ago now) to attempt to write a novel in one month (the month of November). I had already written a first novel at this stage, which I edited in much the same way as you describe above.
    With this second novel, because there was absolutely no editing from beginning to end (the aim was to write a novel, just working forward the whole time) I now have a very daunting editing job ahead of me (hence why I have left it for so long to edit). I started out doing it for fun with just one idea but the ideas grew and grew and I ended up with a story that I feel could be great. I just don’t know how best to break this editing task down now. It’s always in the back of my mind that I need to do this, but I need to come up with a plan. Any ideas?

  3. Mikayla Martin says:

    First time on this site. Great advice. I’ve written two first drafts, but I fall into the Editing Blues, and I never know how to properly edit them while keeping positive about the project. I’ll be reading your website more often. Thanks for sharing your great advice.

  4. Different writers have different editing strategies. Personally, I cannot re-read my writing few times as I simply am not as attentive towards my writing mistakes as I am towards others. For this very reason I prefer my significant works to be checked by someone else.

  5. Ah, thanks for putting this together! I’m already envisioning a long editing process for the novel I just wrote as part of NaNo 2016, so this is helpful. I’m sure I’ll be printing out my drafts multiple times.

    Here’s to all the forthcoming editing hours!

  6. I think this is a great process. Whenever I write a book, I think about what I want, how I want it to start, and where I want it to end up. I then write out my characters, their names, their quirks, their personalities, their relationships, their fears, they become people. Then I write the outline for every chapter, then I look over the outline and edit it. Then I write a chapter, and every time I finish a chapter I read through it and edit it. Once I finish the book, I make a chart. I write out every chapter number, and then put three boxes by each number. I then read through each chapter, quietly and aloud, I run some of the biggest scenes by 3+ people. I edit every chapter 3 times. I also read through the book and write out my timeline I double check and make sure everything adds up, age, dates, weather, lengths of period between situations. Then I run the word spell check, and then I consider it possibly done. I can’t imagine people thinking you can do less…

  7. Danielle Pays says:

    Thank you for posting. My editing process has been taking a long time. One manuscript has gone to an editor twice (fairly big rewrite after the first time). She recommends after the next edit I send to beta readers. The problem is I don’t have any beta readers. I need to figure out how to get some. Not knowing how to find them has stopped me in my tracks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When searching for beta readers, I recommend looking amongst the online writing community. I’ve found most of my beta readers and critique partners through online writing forums (google writing forums for your genre), Twitter, Facebook, and writing blog.

      If you can form relationships and discover someone with similar tastes to yours, invite them to swap manuscript critiques. Most people are hunting for beta readers just as hard as you are!

      I’ve curated a list of places you can start looking for beta readers: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/find-your-next-beta-reader/

  8. Hannah Killian says:

    During this April’s Camp NaNoWriMo session, I avoided editing what I wrote the day before because when I edit as I write, I tend to not finish. Save for flash fiction. That’s all I’ve ever finished, up until last week when I FINALLY finished the first draft of the second book in my trilogy!

    I haven’t started revising it yet, but I’ve been going through one of the copies I made and adding comments on what to expand, catching inconsistencies, etc. And when I do revise it, I’m hoping it’ll reach novel length by the time I’m done.

Trackbacks

  1. […] want it to become. One excellent suggestion to keep these structural edits on track (provided in 15 Steps From First Draft to Publication) is to stop at each main plot point and evaluate how effectively it was executed, and how to better […]

  2. […] of my day is taken up by thought-intensive work: write a blog post, edit a novel, balance the budget, pay attention to story structure while watching a movie. Unlike when I was a […]

  3. […] fast??? For me, edits take the bulkhead of my time. So I did some Internet research, and found K.M. Weiland’s many-step editing process, a few of which I’m now testing in my own writing. Like starting the day by line editing what […]

  4. […] Weiland has a wonderful 15-step self-editing process she uses for her […]

  5. […] want it to become. One excellent suggestion to keep these structural edits on track (provided in 15 Steps From First Draft to Publication) is to stop at each main plot point and evaluate how effectively it was executed, and how to better […]

  6. […] of story and narrative. But saying their skill sets are one and the same is not quite accurate. One guide to self-editing began by […]

  7. […] third method means creating the plot before you begin writing your novel, and sticking to it until you’ve finished. The benefit of this method is that you will never […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.