6 steps of self-editing

I am buried in the throes of editing my latest novel, THE PRINCE’S PROTEGE, #3 in the Five Kingdoms series. Having had an interesting conversation this week with a visiting relative about my editing process, I thought I’d share it here as, perhaps, helpful guidance to writers at an earlier stage of their career.

Whilst I certainly don’t advocate this for beginner writers, (or, indeed, for many others!), I freely admit that I don’t use an external editor. 

Gasp! Shock, horror! Such a terrible sin, a faux pas, a completely irresponsible approach to indie publishing, do I hear you say?

I know my choice is not for everyone, but for some, this might be the way to go, especially if you struggle to afford an editor as well as paying for an awesome cover (always pay for a great cover, unless you are incredibly skilled at graphics and well-versed in book cover design). I know all the advice is to employ an editor, but on a personal level, not using one doesn’t seem to have hurt my sales, or my reviews.

I will point out that although my grasp of the English language isn’t perfect, it is above average. I have been writing for publication in magazines for decades (without editing), and I have worked with editors on my two traditionally published books, so I am not without experience.

So, what is my ‘secret’?

A fabulous writer’s group, most of whom are published authors many times over.

We’ve worked together for years, and the group serves as my alpha readers, the starting point for my editing process.

  1. Alpha readers. My novel is submitted for critique in blocks of around 5-6 chapters at a time, as it is written. The feedback tells me where I might be going off at a tangent, doing something out of character for one of my characters, or making a complete boo-boo as I once did, writing a day that lasted 36 hours! This way, my novel stays on track, stays consistent (in world building and terminology) and story errors are caught before they go too far off track, meaning I won’t have major restructuring to do at the next stage.
  2.  Beta readers. My betas consist of around 5 volunteers: a couple of author friends, and a handful of reader volunteers from my newsletter subscribers. These lovely people see the book in its entirety, after the first draft is completed. I send it out with a set of questions, such things as: did any part confuse you? Did the timeline work for you? Were any of the characters annoying, or in need of more fleshing out? What did you like best, and what did you dislike/hate? Were any sections too slow, or too quick? Once that feedback returns, I will do final structural edits, according to the answers. I may not address every point raised, but if more than one person says the same thing, I know that’s something I need to sort out.
  3. Line edits. Having taken a bit of a break so I can approach the manuscript with fresh eyes, I now go over the book trimming and pruning out excess words and phrases (that’s another beta question: did I use a word or phrase so often you noticed it?), and re-wording anything that feels clunky. If I’m unsure of a passage, I use the text-to-speech facility of Microsoft Word to read it aloud, and then I can hear if it needs reworking. If you want to know how to switch this facility on, see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyP89pQWaBU 
  4. Eliminate crutch words. Next, I search for the words and phrases I know I overuse, and replace or remove them. I have a fairly extensive list of these, and add to it with each book as I notice I’m lazily using the same expressions. I’m not too worried about doing that in the first draft, as I know I will pick them up at this stage. Examples of some of my crutch words are: wondered, felt, little, thought, realised, knew, somehow, found, looked, swallowed, nodded (I just discovered 68 instances of nodding in the current book!). You should put together your own list – every writer has them! It was pointed out by my alpha readers that I was overusing (although not in the same wording each time) the idea of ice running down the back/spine, each time my characters were afraid. So that’s become another of my searches. This stage takes quite a long time, but is essential for a strong, well-written book.
  5. Final read through – time to catch any clunky or unclear writing on this final polish. It might also involve changing some words, for example, for stronger verbs, or for fresher and more varied vocabulary. I also pay close attention to punctuation, to ensure a smooth and logical read.
  6. Final, final pass – get the whole thing read out loud, to catch any lingering typos, which will really stand out when verbalised. This still might not catch every last detail, such as homophones and missing speech marks, and if you can get a final read through by a fresh set of eyes with good proofreading skills, now is the time to do it.

That’s my process in a nutshell. I’m fortunate that I adore editing – I just love to watch a strong read emerge from the comparatively amateurish first draft. My biggest problem is to stop editing; it’s something I could carry on tweaking at without end if I don’t give myself a deadline, which is what I have done this time.

THE PRINCE’S PROTEGE will be available at the end of March, definite date to come very soon now. As a guideline, I gave myself 8 weeks from sending the novel to my beta readers to publication, and I rely on my lovely volunteers to get back to me within 2 – 3 weeks, leaving 5 – 6 weeks to complete the editing process.

Anyone have other steps they use? I’m always open to suggestions to strengthen my work, as I hope you are.

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7 comments

  1. Wonderfully helpful. I do lots of the same steps though I use a professional editor in place of the reliable critique group (I have one but not as polished as yours). I grabbed your list of words to search for–my list is similar. I do have a wonderful book called the Writer’s Lexicon. It gives me options for oft-repeated words like ‘nod’.

    1. Glad it was helpful, Jacqui. I’m a bit lazy with the alternate word thing – I have half a dozen different thesauruses on my book shelves, but I always run to https://www.wordhippo.com/ first, as it means I don’t have to leave my computer! I resort to the books only when wordhippo (or my brain) doesn’t offer a suitable alternative.

  2. Great tips Deborah thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Thanks for dropping in Marje 😀

  3. Thank you so much, Deborah. I have a critique group and have several author friends helped me with my first book. I edited and edited before going to them. Your tips are very helpful.

    1. Excellent! Glad to help – this is the very best thing about authors: we are there to help each other, not to compete!

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