How to self-edit your draft

Your draft is finished. It’s both a high and a process reaching this point, so congratulations!

Self-editing – being able to deconstruct your draft – is the next natural part of writing and is vital in getting your novel elevated to polished manuscript, presentable for literary agents, if this is the aim you’re readying yourself for.

Read on for tips on how to best organise approaches to your structural editing and copy-editing post-draft.

1: Leave time before you self-edit

Leave time, after you finish writing any novel, before you come back to edit.

Give yourself a break and return to your draft once the story seems less absorbing. This means you can approach your story ‘cold’, more as your readers would.

This time gap before you begin to self-edit is important for the health of your novel, since editing requires a different sort of creativity and energy to writing, so you’ll need to be methodical.

Coming back to edit your finished manuscript a few days after you finished isn’t enough time to give yourself perspective and distance.

Give it up to a month to come back to your novel with fresh eyes for editing.

2: Map your story structure

Make a story map of what you have.

Find the heartbeat of your story by mapping it out before you start editing in earnest.

Copy-edits deal with minutiae of grammar and so on, but structural edits must come first. Structural edits are where you’ll address story action and structure on a manuscript’s completion.

Create a sense of editorial direction for yourself by deciding, first, the ‘map’ of your story.

Does your novel follow a discernible plotline? Is it full of emotional momentum (irreversible and cathartic change), are events meaningful, does your protagonist grow and change?

Deciding on or reassessing your story-shape soon after finishing will help you with the next steps of editing and direction.

Start with sketching your story map, writing out a rough plot outline and the story as it stands to you. Add major landmarks as you see them (from initiating incident, to crisis, through to resolution), as well as minor (but potentially key) landmarks.

You’ll not just see your story’s themes emerge, its preoccupations and insights, but you’ll also pinpoint weaknesses. You’ll see where it lacks momentum, allowing you to address structural aspects quickly.

Once you’ve figured out changes, make them – and if, in mapping out your story, it seems chapters can be cut, combined or condensed, they probably can.

Tightening your story structure will work in its favour.

3: Check your characters

Your characters should be acting consistently (for them), with causal logic and emotion.

We’ve blogged about giving characters a depth and drive underpinning things they do, so check the outline you’ve mapped, the causal linking of events, and compare with character actions and reactions.

Have you captured an implicit string of emotional responses to plot events?

This works for minor responses, too, and for minor characters. If your character has undergone any kind of traumatic experience, for instance, they can’t be over this in a few chapters.

As another example, if your protagonist acts out of character, it’s understandable things may vary with current plot events, and whether those characters you’ve surrounded them with are trustworthy or not. Will your protagonist be pressed to act in unusual or desperate ways? Will it still be plausible, even if their actions are unfamiliar?

Check for characters’ ‘reaction’ shots, be they leading or supporting characters, since these should always read as plausible.

4: Don’t be scared to delete

When you feel you have a sound structure, with logically-consistent characters, and you’re truly happy with your story, move to copy-editing.

Check not just for spelling and punctuation errors, but for writerly tics (i.e. words you repeat too often, we all have them), other unnecessary words in sentences, unnecessary phrasing, passages, scenes or even chapters.

It’s a wrench to delete, but don’t be afraid to lose things to ‘tighten’ your story and your prose. Everything you keep in should drive the story forward, and work in its service.

If there are scenes, characters, sentences that don’t propel your story on, i.e. they detract from its meaning or hinder its pace or block its impact, then be kind to yourself and cut.

As our founder Harry Bingham has noted, it’s not uncommon to lose 20-30% when editing a first draft of a first novel – for more insight into how cutting down can help you, take a read of that blog post.

5: Look for editorial feedback

Leave time before you return to edit.

Are you thinking of submitting a draft to agents after editing? Before you do, who else has read it?

It’s always lovely to hear family and friends praise work, less lovely to hear impartial criticism. Still, every writer needs professional, objective feedback (here is why), and intelligent beta-readers can’t serve as a substitute. The same will be true of every serious author (traditionally or self-published).

Any author benefits from professional editorial help.

Engaging readily with constructive criticism can also make all the difference between your manuscript attracting a book deal or not, too, if you can reflect with consideration on others’ opinions of your work. Perhaps you’ll agree with an editor’s suggested changes. Perhaps you’ll find a different means to fix a problem. Perhaps you’ll disagree entirely and need to (politely) say why.

All this is fine, but working with editors is a part of authors’ careers. Learning to engage with criticism is a strength – and your readers will always have their opinions, too.

Look for those who can give you thorough, honest feedback. A manuscript assessment, for instance, that’s both constructive and rigorous, since a meticulous reading works in your favour. We can certainly give you that sort of editorial feedback – and you may like our self-editing course for in-depth help before you consider feedback, too.

Happy writing!

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The Writers' Workshop is the world's leading consultancy for first time writers.
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