At its core, revision is about re-seeing a manuscript and coming at it with fresh eyes. Yet, it’s incredibly difficult for most writers to gain the necessary distance and perspective on their manuscripts. As with any process, doing so gets easier with experience. While content and language editing can happen at the same time, it’s generally best to tackle each area separately and with multiple passes for each type of editing. This post will only focus on how to self-edit a manuscript for content. A post on how to self-edit for language will be published at a later date.
This year, I will be covering types of editing, choosing an editor, understanding editing fees, the value of beta readers, as well as self-editing for language. Feel free to explore Word Bank’s archive of editing posts. In particular, you may find Track Changes and Comments in Word of interest.
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How to Self-Edit a Manuscript for Content
A minimum of three passes should be completed when self-editing for content, and it’s best to make your manuscript the best it can be before handing it off to others to assess. Even with all the ways a writer can go about self-editing, there always comes a time when it’s appropriate to seek the feedback of critique partners, beta readers, as well as a professional editor (ideally for both the content and copyediting stage). It’s a given each new round of readers will find a new crop of issues to address. How much time and budget can be allotted for this process varies widely. What’s important is to be strategic about finding a process that allows you to produce work you are proud of in a timeframe that allows for consistent publication suited to your goals.
Allow the Manuscript to Rest
As much as it may be tempting to start revisions right away, the best thing a writer can do in the process of how to self-edit a manuscript for content is to allow some distance to develop between themselves and the manuscript. In his writing memoir On Writing, Stephen King tells how he lets his drafts sit for six weeks before tackling them anew. In this resting period, take the time to write a short piece or two to submit for publication, market an existing book, or start outlining a new book. Though everyone’s process is different, at this point, a manuscript may be too raw for many beta readers to purposely give feedback on, but you may have a trusted reader or two who always get to read the first complete draft.
Pass #1: Read with Fresh Eyes
One the manuscript has cooled, so to speak, either print it off or load it onto your Kindle to sit down and read it through. If it helps, change the spacing to single and justify the text to better mimic a published work. In any case, do not read with a writing utensil in hand to mark on pages or take notes. The same goes for not making any highlights or notes if reading on an ereader. Simply read your own book as if sitting down to enjoy a book by one of your favorite authors. Though it’s impossible to fully shut off one’s yappy inner-editor, try to do your best to immerse yourself in the story for the sake of entertainment rather than wallowing in critical mode. One the read-through is done, take a day or two or three off before diving in to revisions.
Pass #1 Follow-Up: Assess Big Picture Issues
Even with a fair amount of outlining done in the pre-writing stages, plot holes tend to inevitably crop up and issues with various literary elements arise. Does the main plot have a clear beginning, middle, and end? A story without a coherent structure will only result in frustrated readers. Getting a firm grasp on narrative structure is the essential building block of any manuscript. Are the main character’s motivations in both their outer and inner journey sufficiently clear or too muddled? Does each character serve a purpose? How readily is the theme or main message coming across? Do various side plots and characters support the main story or act as filler or flights of fancy? Using an Excel sheet or note cards can be an effective way to see how all of these big moving pieces are fitting (or not fitting) together.
Pass #2: Read to Cut the Fat
Chances are, a lot of crazy stuff happened in the drafting process, but now comes the time to evaluate each scene. Great stories come from the ability to hone what is serving a purpose in the story and what ultimately is not. Kudos to you for pounding out a draft, but now the hard part starts. Based on your notes on big-picture assessment, it will start to become clear if certain characters can be cut or combined. That girls’ night out bender the protagonist goes on after dumping her ex might be funny, but ultimately is fluff that serves no purpose. Alas, you had fun in the writing of such shenanigans, but realize it’s time to let that scene. Overall, cutting the fat is a necessary evil, but one most writers can accept for the sake of effective revisions.
Pass #2 Follow-Up: Kill Your Darlings
Cutting the fat from a story is perhaps easier than killing one’s darlines. With the fat gone, it’s time to zero in on what can further be cut. And more can always be cut! To kill your darlings is a phrase thrown about in the writing community that is made in reference to eliminating aspects of a story that an author absolutely loves because they’ve worked so hard on them. For instance, your protagonist might love to take sensual bubble baths, but by the time the reader reads about the fourth such indulgence, chances are they are going to roll their eyes no matter how much work you’ve put into crafting such a scene. What seemed like a good idea at the time doesn’t serve the story, and so a writer must often kill what they love for the sake of bettering the story. It happens. Letting go of such attachments ends up being best for a story in the long run.
Pass #3: Read to Refine
Now that you’ve sliced and diced the manuscript, it’s time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Now is the time to note areas where missing elements can be added to bring out the best in the story. Refinement at this stage often comes from carefully reading each sentence to ask if each line carries the story forward. When first drafted, dialogue is often rife with empty phrases. Though it may be like that in real life too, dialogue exchanges on the page need to be stylized of the real thing. Other area to refine can be overly detailed physical actions. Readers don’t need to be subjected to the tedium of the ten steps required to open and close a car door. Characters might utter or think certain things over and over again, or your narration may be reminding readers too often of what has already taken place. Keep tightening things, and then tighten them some more.
Pass #3 Follow-Up: Tackle Literary Devices
While the initial passes allow a writer to address essential literary elements like plot, setting, character, point of view, theme, and symbolism, a multitude of other literary elements and devices may need attention to help the manuscript truly shine. Have backstory and foreshadowing been skillfully incorporated or are the attempts clunky? Does the manuscript tell rather than show the reader what’s going on? Does the modd fit each scene? The list goes on and on, and each manuscript inevitably call for different areas to be addressed. The point is to give revisions your best shot, not some halfway attempt at tweaking a line or two here and there.
While three passes is a bare minimum when considering how to self-edit a manuscript for content, how many literary elements a writer can effectively tackle on addressing at one time comes into play as well. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ll need six passes to address all that needs to be addressed. Just remember, the process does indeed get easier with time. It’s also worth keeping in mind that one writer can only do so much. Pass that puppy off as soon as the major kinks have been worked out so other sets of eyes can spot what your closeness to your work doesn’t allow you to see.
What other advice or examples from personal experience would you add when it comes to how to self-edit your manuscript for content?
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018. Post may contain affiliate links. Image credit: Baby with a Laptop.
Great list of suggestions! Hopefully, I’ll be at the point soon where I can pull it up again and check things off as I go. 🙂
Loni, I know you will. You are always making progress on your writing, sometimes a lot and sometimes a little, but you always keep at it and take life’s interruptions in stride.
Excellent article Jeri. I’m adding it to my Writer’s Links post this Friday. 🙂
Thanks so much Debbie for sharing my posts to often. I’ve been stuck in the editing cave lately and it’s been hard to come up for air. I’ve actually gone five days at one point without tweeting! It’s a good sort of busy though.
There’s so much to think about. I find it difficult enough to edit my blog. I can’t imagine doing so for a longer story. I like how you outlined the steps. Even in my blog, I’ve had to cut things I really liked. It’s always so difficult, but when it doesn’t fit into the bigger picture, it sadly needs to go.
Erica, cutting what doesn’t fit into the bigger picture can be so hard, even in shorter pieces. We grow so attached to what we work on at times.
Fabulous breakdown of the self editing process and what it often entails. I found the resting and putting away of the manuscript for a month or two very helpful in giving me fresh eyes. I’d also say that it can begin to feel like the editing will go on forever until it begins to ‘click’ and the refinement and cutting seem to make total sense. Then adding more detail where needed can get really fun toward the end. Thanks for this informative and educational post, Jeri.
Lisa, starting the editing process can be so daunting, but you’re write about how fun it can get toward the end when all that tweaking starts to fall into place.
I totally agree about giving it time to breathe! We’re too far into the manuscript to see it with objective eyes otherwise. Great tips on self-editing!
Christy, I think no matter how much experience a writer has, a certain degree of objectivity is always lacking. At times, I’ll critique a manuscript and the writer then shows interest in a copyedit. I say, sure, but please no not skip the beta reader process!
So well said, Jeri. I’ve also printed out each chapter and laid them out–all over the living room–and then looked at the order they’re in. That’s helped me rearrange a manuscript.
I couldn’t agree more about setting it aside before starting to edit and the absolute critical need to hire a professional editor (my pick: you).
Thanks as always for picking me! I can imagine what your living room must look like when it’s covered in paper.
Wonderful list to help writers with the editing process.
Thanks, Denise. I think you do a pretty good job of self-editing your own work, but you also know when to heed the advice of others as well.
Thank you for this list Jeri, I absolutely agree with reading with ‘fresh eyes’ as all other tips can only be followed if we are ready to eliminate the words and situations we love. I have recently read a book with repetitive sex scenes that serve no purpose and put me off to the point of almost dropping it. Then I scanned through those pages.
Balroop, isn’t it the worst when our eyes just start to gloss over parts of a book? It’s an all-too-common occurrence. Every piece of a story needs to move things forward, not stall.
I very much agree on the letting it sit, but sometimes there is no time for this–based on deadlines. That’s when we really do have to rely on an editor to take up the slack.
Crystal, editors can definitely save writers a lot of time.
Self editing is so hard! But necessary. I like your phrase “serve the story” that you mention in the section about killing your darlings. That’s a good way to evaluate the merit of each part of the story.
Meredith, writers tend to overwrite, so the trick to revision is to be able to slash all that doesn’t carry the story forward. It can be an agonizing process the first couple of times, but it gets better.