Self-Editing For Success, Part Three

So, you made it to the hand editing stage.

Welcome to hell, children, I’ll be your guide!


Print off that pretty manuscript of yours and get ready for a trip into the depths of your own work that will leave you with nothing but weariness. You’re going to hate your story when you’re done, but that’s ok; other people will love it for you. Get your red editing pen out and get ready to dive in deep. This is the stage when you really start to polish the style of your story; when you weed out the micro imperfections that make your manuscript good rather than great. Once you’ve done this you move on to the oral edit which mainly helps with flow, dialogue, and style. Together these make the final editing stage.

The following checklist will help you to finalise your manuscript, but also get your document in the right shape to be seen by agents and publishers;

Final Edits Checklist;

  • Identify and cut your crutch words. Scrivener has a frequency function which can help you to do this.
  • Weed out excessive punctuation. As a wise man once said; “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
  •  Check for trouble words like: a lot/alot, affect/effect, can/may, further/farther, good/well, lay/lie, less/fewer, that/who, their/they’re/there, then/than, who/whom, your/you’re. Use the right word in the right context.
  • Omit needless words and sentences.
  • Check speech tags; said should be your main, though other forms, like adverbs, can be effective in small doses.
  • Correct any stilted dialogue.
  • Remove unnecessary dialogue and info dumps.
  • Ensure your document is typed in 12 point Times New Roman.
  • Remove double spaces after periods.
  • Use double spacing.
  • Make sure that your indenting is consistent.
  • Ensure that your numbers are consistent (both page numbers and in text. If you write numbers out keep doing so, if you use numbers keep doing so. Its generally better to write figures than use numbers in fiction).
  • Use page breaks between chapters
  • Once more check for consistency in style, tense, and POV.


Once you’ve done this and made the appropriate changes to your word document, you’re ready to begin querying! Congratulations; you’re officially the proud author of a finished book!


Part one, Part Two


Self-Editing For Success, Part Two

So, you’ve rested your novel and you’re ready to begin the close editing stage, right? If you’re jumping into this series late check out Part One.


Well,  here we go guys; say goodbye to the carefree fun (pain) of #amwriting, and say hello to the agonised screaming of #amediting. The close edit really is the fun part, though, so don’t worry too much. Save your tears, tissues, and tequila for the hand editing stage.


The basics and the bigger picture

When you first start editing you should look at the bigger picture first and foremost and then slowly narrow your focus. There’s no point in correcting the spelling of a manuscript that may well change entirely before you are done, after all!

Start with what I call the foundation features, or four C’s; these are the things on which your whole novel/story hangs. The big stuff. These are;

  1. Conflict
  2. Characters
  3. Consistency
  4. Contributing Style



Any novel or story needs conflict if it is to draw attention and interest from the reader. It should begin with conflict, and progress because of conflict. Consider even the most mundane opening scenes from a successful book and you will find conflict, no matter how subtle or visceral.

Filth (Irvine Welsh, 1998) starts with a protagonist at war with his society, his world, and his colleagues;

“Woke up this morning. Woke up into the job.

    The job. It holds you. It’s all around you; a constant, enclosing absorbing gel. And when you’re in the job, you look out at life through that distorted lens. Sometimes, aye, you get your wee zones of relative freedom to retreat into, those light, delicate spaces where new things, different, better things can be perceived of as possible,

Then it stops.”  Pg 3*


Survivor (Chuck Palahniuk, 1999) begins with a more direct conflict; a protagonist who has hijacked a plane, and is telling his story to the black box;

“Testing, testing. One, two, three.

Testing, testing. One, two, three.

Maybe this is working. I don’t know. If you can hear me, I don’t know. 

But if you can hear me, listen. And if you’re listening, then what you’ve found is the history of everything that went wrong.” pg 289

Palahniuk adds to the sense of conflict and intrigue, as you will have noticed, by having his page numbers reversed; they count down to the end.

When editing look for the conflict in your story, and cultivate it; ask yourself if it does enough, does it provide motivation and tension, is it believable?



Your character is the focal point of your story, whether you have only one main character or a group you need to put real time into making sure they are strong. By this I mean rounded, unique, and living. They need to breath.

A strong, recognisable voice and consistent mannerisms, as well as a realistic understanding of what your characters can reasonably do (don’t make them flawlessly successful!) are key. Example of instantly recognisable character voices can be found in first and third person, but three examples which truly blew me away are;

Lovey Quinn, The Book of the Night Women (Marlon James, 2009),

“People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785.” Pg 3.

Logen Ninefingers, protagonist of The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie, 2006),

“Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s happy. They were leaving, at last. Beyond some vague talk of the Old Empire, and the Edge of the World, he had no idea where they were going and he didn’t care. Anywhere but this cursed place would do for him, and the sooner the better.” Pg 570

Lina Vilkas/Arvydas, Between Shades of Grey, (Ruta Sepetys, 2011),

“The train churned forward. The rhythm of the rails tormented me, screeching and banging. They pulled me away from Andrius, further into an unknown. The metal lamp swayed above like a pendulum, illuminating hollow faces, throwing shadows throughout the carriage. Janina whispered to the ghost of her dead doll, giggling.” Pg 255

Whether you write in first person or third it is essential that you ensure that the characters personality and mannerisms are maintained when editing; you should check for speech patterns, tone, attitude, and reactions. In third person this is less prominent, but, in cases like Logen Ninefingers (Abercrombie, 2006) you can build a sense of the characters outlook through sayings, mottos, and their outwardly reactions to stress and conflict.



Consistency in tone, structure, point of view, plot, and tense are essential when editing. Look for plot holes, sudden changes from past to present tense, slips in point of view from one character to another, or from omniscient to one particular character, and of course in the structure of your story.

Following the “Hero’s Journey” plot structure only to switch to a more stream of consciousness literary structure will be baffling at best, and at worst could cost you readers and opportunities.


Contributing Style

All this means is; does your plot lead your prose, or vice versa.

If a sentence or section becomes so beautifully wordy that it swamps the meat of the scene and jars the reader out of the action it should be cut. I have no doubt you can write beautifully, but the majority of genre fiction readers want a story before they want fluffy clouds of literary prose.

While you will, over time, develop a style all your own you should still endeavour to write in a way which complements your story. Consider Cormac McCarthy; he writes in a style which is undeniably his. His writing is instantly recognisable, and yet subtle changes in style can be recognised between each book, though they are all, arguably, literary fiction. Consider

No Country for Old Men (McCarthy, 2005)

“I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn’t have to go, but I did.” 

The Road (McCarthy, 2006)

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one that what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”

Blood Meridan (McCarthy, 1990)

“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark, turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water, but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.” 


I used the first page of each book for comparison, and though I have no doubt you’ll have noticed the differences yourselves, I’ll run down the basics. You most likely picked up on the lack of immediate conflict in Blood Meridan which is found in the other two; this is an older work which I would say hangs on the cusp between a shift in overall style. Blood Meridan was antiquated in style even when it was published, but now you’d struggle to get this opening scene by an editor worth their salt. Keep that in mind when reading to hone your own skills.

The view point, macro, micro, first person, changes in each excerpt, as does the sentence structure and tone of voice. Even the amount of punctuation fluctuated in McCarthys writing; his works are as much visual as they are literate. He changes their presentation as well as his own voice for best effect. The Road is shockingly devoid of any punctuation other than the period. Commas, semi-colons; these are things left behind. His work is as visually sparse as the world he writes. No Country for Old Men employs less punctuation than the average novel, but is written in clipped, hard sentences where the Sheriff takes up his first-person narrative.

In short, McCarthy’s style contributes to the story rather than taking away from it.

You don’t need to employ such extreme measures yourself, but ensuring that plot, not prose, leads your story is a key element of self-editing.


Once you have thoroughly checked your manuscript for these key features, and corrected the document of course, you can count your close edit done, put the manuscript in a figurative or literal drawer, and crack open that wine so you and your work in progress can rest together. Once you’ve done that check out part three for final push!


Self-Editing For Success, Part One

Parts Two and Three are available!

Not every writer has the budget for professional editing services, this much is a given, and while you lack the experience of a professional editor you can, in fact, successfully self-edit. All you need, really, is the patience and passion to commit yourself to learning how to edit in the same way you learned how to write.

Practice, practice, practice.


This is not a comprehensive, one-stop shop for all things editing, but if you follow the advice in this blog series you will be on your way to a better novel and an expanded skill-set (both good things!).


How is editing different from proofreading?

Some of you will be rolling your eyes, but I can assure you there are plenty of people who don’t know the difference between the two.


While there is an amount of proofreading involved in editing, the two differ hugely; proofreading is the process of checking a document for spelling and grammar errors while editing is much more lengthy and involved.

When you put your editing hat on you are looking for; tone, structure, tense, plot holes, consistency, and even checking facts! In the process of editing you may remove whole sections of the work, or even add new ones if it will aid the story


The Process

Self-editing can be broken down, roughly speaking, into four key stages;

  1. Resting
  2. The Close Edit
  3. The Hand Edit
  4. The Oral Edit

It is so key that, firstly, you rest your work. Some people say a day or two is enough, Stephen King recommends in On Writing no less than six weeks. I’d give it a week minimum, but two or three would  be ideal. Of course, a shorter resting time means occupying yourself elsewhere; the idea is to remove yourself from the project and move on before you return to it as an editor. Ideally you should be reading it as if someone else wrote it. Depending on your emotional attachment to the project and your personality this can mean that resting time varies; you’ll figure out an ideal window as you gain experience.


Once you’ve rested the story you should return to it with fresh eyes and read through it in word document form for the “close edit”. Here you will be looking for the big, glaring mistakes; plot holes, character inconsistency, style errors, and structural flaws. Do this in bursts of one to one and a half hours, depending on your ability to maintain focus, and rest between these bursts to ensure you work to your best level consistently. I find that changing the word document to a pale yellow or mint green helps to mitigate eye strain and helps to pick out smaller errors (though these should not be your main focus at this point).

Screenshot (1)


Then, of course, its time to rest it again.

Next is the “hand edit”; print your manuscript off and go through it with your red editing pen. At this point all the main issues should have been ironed out so you’ll be looking mainly for grammar, spelling, subtle tense and POV issues, and trouble words/crutch words (more explanation to follow). Once you apply these changes to the document you need to, yup you guessed it, rest the story again!


The final stage is the “oral edit” which involves reading your story words for word out loud. Cringe, right? Trust me, this is very effective. Not only will you pick up the small things like dialogue realism and run on sentences, but you’ll get an idea of the flow of the novel. You can do this from a screen, but I’d recommend having a hard copy that you can jot your suggested changes onto rather than faffing with the comments/review features of the average word processor.

*(this is from the first chapter, not the prologue)