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Self-Editing Techniques to Polish Your Novel

self-editing writing

I’m a firm believer in independently publishing my novels. I enjoy the marketing process since it involves getting out and meeting people. Being a working artist for the past twenty years or more, I find working a table at a convention or being in a booth at a fair to be a normal state of existence. I would miss the experience if I allowed others to do this for me. There is nothing like the personal touch when it comes to learning what your readers like (or not) about your work. Other pluses include retaining complete control over my writing and gaining the maximum profits on my sales.

Part of being an Indie Author is making sure your manuscript is the best that it can be before you release it into the world. Instead of accepting the cover art the publishing house insists upon and using their editor, I take the responsibility to hire people to do the work myself. It can be costly, a good editor doesn’t come cheap (nor should they), but in the end, I feel that keeping control of my work is the better end of the equation. Self-editing can help to reduce the cost of an editor and proof-reader since they will not have to do as much work.

During my self-edit process, I use beta-readers to provide insight into the content. I follow with editing software to catch general grammar, punctuation, passive voice, and adverbs. I spend far more time rewriting and editing a work than I spend in the rough draft. However, there is more I do during self-editing than rely on machines.

Below is a checklist I use to polish a novel, novella or short story before I send a longer manuscript to an editor and proofreader or submit a short story to a magazine.

1. Do not express emotion via mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes. “The horse…is…DEAD!” doesn’t make an equine any more expired than “The horse is dead.”

2. Remove mannerisms of attribution. People speak. They do not wheeze, sigh, laugh, grunt, gasp, snort, reply, retort, or exclaim, ect.

3. Do not use similar names for your characters, it causes confusion with the reader. You should also avoid using the same first initial in names of your main characters.

4. Show, don’t tell. If Alex pounds on the door and demands entrance. You do not need to tell the reader he is angry.

5. Along with showing instead of telling, you do not need to explain the emotions of the characters. Let their actions do it for them.

Alex pounded on the door. “Let me in!”

instead of

Alex was angry at Mary. Furiously, he pounded on the door and shouted at her, “Let me in!”

6. Avoid cliches. This means not only common words and phrases, but also cliched situations.

Examples: Starting with your character waking up. Having a character look in a mirror so you can describe them via their POV. Having future romance partners bump into each other on their first meeting. It has all been done before. Don’t repeat history.

7. Remove stage directions. You don’t need to describe every single action of all the characters in every scene. Leave some of it to the reader’s imagination. We live in an age of television and movies. The reader’s mind has been trained to use similar images when they read about a place or situation. There is no need to describe it as much as authors did 100 years ago.

8. Use adjectives sparingly. Instead, find a strong noun and verb to convey the same information. Keep it simple.

9. Remove the word “that”. It adds extra weight to your sentences without giving any substance.

10. Avoid the words “up” and “down”. Only use them when needed. He started [up] the car. She walked [down] the street.

11. Do not be redundant. Do this in content with your ideas, but also in your sentence structure.

12. Choose regular words over the more unusual. Don’t show off your vocabulary. Make your content and ideas shine instead. Don’t get in the way of what you are trying to say.

13. Start the action right at the beginning. Don’t start it after a couple of pages of descriptive scene setting. Just get to it!

There is much more to self-editing, but this checklist is a place to start. Don’t let revision and editing daunt you. While it is a huge task, in the end it is rewarding to know you have polished your manuscript and made it the best you can.

Prep Your Novel For Self-Editing in Scrivener

As an advocate for the Nanowrimo writing process, I firmly believe that a writer should write the rough draft of their novel as quickly as possible and let the words flow as they will. The most important thing to remember about writing a rough draft is to finish it without letting your inner editor stop you. Once you finish the rough draft, there is still plenty of work to do before you hand your manuscript to a hired editor and begin the publishing process.

Breaking it Down

When my rough draft is completed, I break the entire manuscript into scenes. A scene is defined by a single place and time in the story where action or dialog happens. I write a short synopsis of each scene in a paper notebook that I can remember and I color code it with highlighters. I label “good scenes”and “bad scenes”. Each type of scene is color coded with its own hue.

I understand that many people like to print out their manuscript and then cut up the paper into scenes and lay this out on story boards in their office. Others take the print out and hole punch the pages to fit in a large Filofax or office binder. The loose pages allow them to move the scenes around in the binder as they rearrange the scenes. While I love to use paper in my writing process, I tend to reserve it for outlining and brainstorming. It gives me a hard copy of what I’m working on that I can use as a referral beside my computer.

What I like to do with my scenes is to create a new project file in Scrivener for my revision, leaving my rough draft untouched in its original file. I break each of the chapters into scenes and keep them free of their chapter organization and lay them out in the new project file. Then switch to cork board view and I use the notebook where I wrote down all the scenes and use the meta-data labels to color code my scene files to match what is in my notebook and I type in each synopsis into the scene file’s index card. I like to label each scene with the character POV as well. Naturally, as I go through the manuscript, there are scenes there that I did not remember. I label those as “forgotten scenes” and there are places in the story line that have no scene associated with them and need to be added at a later time. I create a blank scene file, write a synopsis of what needs to be there and label it as a “missing scene”.

The Different Types of Scenes

Good: These are the scenes you feel great about as the author. They are the cornerstones of your plot and characters. They are scenes that are most likely to remain in the book during the editing process.

Bad: These are the scenes that when you reread them you wonder “what on earth was I thinking when I wrote this drek?”. These scenes will either be removed or rewritten during the revision process.

Forgotten: These are scenes that you wrote, but don’t really remember. They could be good or bad, but the fact that you did not remember them as you did your break down means that they are not strong and could probably use rewriting.

Missing: As you reread your manuscript, you realize that there are plot holes in your story without any scene to describe it. Write what is missing into your list of scenes as a synopsis. There is no scene as yet to cover this bit of information, but later there may be.

Building It Up

At this point, my manuscript looks like a huge mess. My 30 chapters are now well over 100 individual scenes. Some scenes are a few paragraphs in size, others are twice as long as a full chapter. Due to Scrivener’s meta-data capabilities, it is easy to see in my cork board where the scenes that need work are due to color coding. I focus on all the red “bad scenes” first. I target them for rewrites or removal. I look over the small single or double paragraph scenes and remove them in order to tighten up the novel over all. Because I have set the meta-data to show me the POV of each character, this is a good time to follow each main character via a scrivening. This means to look at only those scenes that the character appears in. I can read this set of scenes and check for the arc of each character, giving small content tweaks to help shape each character into stronger story arcs. As I work, my cork board shifts from a hodge podge of different colors into being all green “good scenes”.

Finally, I put the scenes into chapters again. Each chapter is a folder in Scrivener’s binder. I move all the scenes associated with that chapter into the folder. Most of the novel will simply go back into their original places, but there are always scenes that end up moving in places that I would have never thought up had I not broken down my manuscript. It is here that I check the chapter’s length and make them all as uniform as possible.

Ready For Self-Editing

So far, all the work that I’ve done in the novel has been for content. Do the story lines flow? Are the scenes all necessary to the plot of the story? Have I removed all those little transition scenes that sometimes clog the pace of a novel? The novel is still not ready to send to the editor. The copy editing stage still needs to be done. However, that is a story for another day.

What are the basic steps you use to prep your novel before you start the self-editing process?