Gretchen’s Extremely Definitive Guide to Self-Editing Success

After about two years of trying, I finally have a draft of Kingmaker that I’d be comfortable showing other people. It’s far from perfect, but it’s also a far cry from the initial 2017 NaNoWriMo draft and actually resembles a fantasy novel now. I’m pretty excited about it, but also neck-deep in preparing for the next part of the publishing process. At the time of writing this post, that’s taking the form of self-edits.

The self-editing process is generally what’s done after you’ve written a draft (and ideally after you’ve waited to pick it up again for a few weeks). The goal is to find and correct as many structure, grammar, or narrative issues as you can on your own before seeking outside help in the form of beta readers or professional editors. It’s not typically considered a replacement for either of those things: beta readers can point out grammar issues but are generally for making sure your book is good and makes sense to the people who are going to be reading it after publication, and professional editors are exactly that (and believe me when I say that I’m the last person you want editing her own work).

In case you were curious about my self-editing is going, I decided to take notes on what I was doing and turn it into a blog post. The results were… interesting. Believe it or not, you’re going to find a few tidbits of information that could prove genuinely useful once you get through the sarcasm and self-deprecating humor. Per usual, I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on what works for everyone, and you should do whatever helps you get that project done.

On to the fun part: here’s Gretchen’s Extremely Definitive Guide to Self-Editing Success (First Edition).

What You’ll Need

Congratulations on your completed manuscript! Before you sit down to self-edit that draft, you’re going to need a few things.

  • A physical copy of your work in progress, in a different font than what you were writing it in. Both of these things put your novel in another context so that you’re looking at it differently. Besides, it’s sort of fun to see the entire thing printed out because it starts to really look like a book. It’s even more fun when you print it on the back of sheets of paper that have old writing projects on them because (1) recycling is great and (2) nothing mortifies and motivates you to be better quite like self-insert fanfiction from middle school.
  • On a related note, a printer with ink and/or toner. This spares you from realizing that the printer just kind of gave up 67 pages in and there’s a big white swath across the remaining pages that means that about one-third of the total words are completely unreadable. A lack of toner means that your pages become useless for self-edits but too printed on to be used as recycled printer paper again. They could still be cut into pieces and pasted into that art journal you’ve convinced yourself you’re going to start sometime, though, so it’s not a complete waste.
  • Pens. You’ll be taking a lot of notes on that printed copy and in other notebooks. I use red because it’s the classic “YOU NEED TO FIX THIS” color, but just about anything that contrasts with your paper and type color will work.
  • A two-inch binder with at least one divider.
  • A three-hole punch.
  • Those reinforcement label stickers that are meant to go around punched holes to keep them from ripping but will end up being used to completely replace the holes when your three-hole punch just ends up eating your paper.
  • A college-ruled notebook with pages that can be torn out.
  • A beverage of choice. I go with tea and sometimes switch to water. I am allowed hot chocolate if I’ve been very productive.
  • Any other resources you need: setting bibles, reference books, more pens and paper, a very understanding partner/family/roommate/friend, a cat, etc.
A part of a desk surface is covered in a binder, notebooks, three-hole punch, large stack of paper, a lamp, and another book with a title that can't be seen in the frame. A cat is sitting on top of the supplies, looking expectantly at the photographer.
Documenting your process is extremely important. So is paying attention to Muffin.

The Process

Now you can start! Follow these steps and you can edit your own work just like I do!

  1. Print out your manuscript. Punch holes into the pages, and apply reinforcement labels to at least a quarter of them. Put these pages into the giant binder behind your divider.
  2. Remove the chapter you’re working on and put it back on the other side of the divider, realizing that maybe you should have done that from the beginning.
  3. Read through your chapter out loud. This forces you to slow down and really look at what the words say, and hearing your novel out loud can help you tell which sentences and words sound off. And, of course, by “read out loud,” I mean “mutter under your breath because you can hear your neighbors talking at a normal speaking volume through the walls most days and you don’t know them well enough to know if they would appreciate story time.”
  4. If you weren’t already doing so, take frequent drinks of your beverage and refill as needed. Muttering to yourself in a corner of your home office for several hours is more dehydrating than you think it will be.
  5. Make notes and corrections on your manuscript in the contrasting pen color. These will be corrected on the computer later.
  6. Remove cat from desk as needed.
  7. In your college-ruled notebook, write down questions you think would be good to ask your future beta readers. Consider that you could also have done this on the manuscript pages themselves. Stick with your current plan because now it’s the principle of the thing.
  8. Once you’ve completed a chapter, tear out your notebook page and put it in the binder after its corresponding chapter. Proceed to the next chapter.
  9. Repeat steps 2 through 8 until you reach the point where the manuscript is unreadable because your printer quit. Switch to the computer. Input the corrections you’ve already made, and then proceed as before, realizing that while it’s not the ideal editing process for you personally that it would have been far more sustainable and efficient time-wise to just do digital editing from the beginning like a person who lives in the 21st century.
  10. Wonder why this is going so quickly. Is there something you’re doing wrong? There’s probably something you’re doing wrong. This shouldn’t be going this fast. You’re a creative, you can’t actually be satisfied with even a small percentage of what you’ve written. Right? Right?
  11. Reach the end. Presumably. At the time of writing this post, I haven’t actually gotten this far yet.
  12. Just to be sure, you should probably go back and read the whole thing again. Some people do this three times. Consider how that sounds really overwhelming and how you’re never going to be able to hit that target publication date of fall 2020 because there are too many things to do.
  13. Go over that publishing calendar you created for yourself like six months ago to refresh your memory on all of the things you need to do before that publishing date. Surely it will be motivating, and there’s absolutely no way that this plan can backfire.
  14. You’ll never feel ready to send it off to your beta readers, but guess what? It’s time to send it to your beta readers. Finalize your actual beta reading process, which will likely be the subject of a future Extremely Definitive Guide.

Did you find any of this useful, even if it’s just in the form of making you smile halfway through the week? I have a tip jar if that’s your style. If not, you’re under no obligation to do so, as I plan for my blog to always be free. Thanks for reading!