5 Editing Strategies for the Self-Published Novelist

Editing text can make you feel like Sisyphus, but it doesn’t have to.

We self-published authors don’t have the luxury of a team of editors, a crack commando unit of wordsmiths that go through our rough drafts and snipe away at the roguish bad writing, errors, type-os, and other problems that will drag down our work and make it look less than professional.

I have taught writing for over 14 years at the high school level at least, and have been working on my own writing for over 20.  I can tell you that writing is indeed hard work.  It is not something you do as a hobby and it is not to be taken lightly.  It takes effort, blood, sweat and inky tears.  However, I have discovered some practical ways that the self-published author can edit down a text in a short amount of time (roughly three weeks or so depending on the length of the text) and save themselves the trouble of being embarrassed when their book hits the digital shelves.

Before you edit, some thoughts:

  • Don’t edit until you are finished.  Write the entire novel first.  Don’t eat up time editing while you write.
  • Don’t edit your text more than three times.  If you do any more to it, you will start over-analyzing and ruin the original idea.
  • Don’t forget to jazz it up.  Go through the text and add descriptive adjectives, similes and metaphors.  Describing ideas through metaphors is the highest form of description and readers love it.

1.  Read Aloud – I know this sounds funny, but reading your text aloud to yourself is probably one of the best ways to “hear” what your reader will read.  Sure it all sounds good in your head, but what does it sound like.  As a child our brains were force fed hundreds of grammar rules that are often forgotten when writing one sentence after another.  Sometimes the sentences blend together in a way that might sound great at the time, but upon further examination are full of naughty errors.  If we read the text aloud, at least the difficult passages that give us the most trouble, our brains usually switch the grammar engine on and we find our problematic sentences.

2.  Read Backward – I have introduced this technique before on another blog post, but it is probably one of the best methods for finding problematic sentences that we may have missed at first glance.  Take your book chapter by chapter so as not to become monotonous, or do this with chapters that are most problematic.  Read the last sentence by itself and see if it works or needs work.  Read the next to the last sentence, then the one before that and so on, repairing any errors you see.  When we edit forward through a text, sometimes our brains will skip over sentences that are in error because we tend to fill in the gaps that are not there.  Read the following if you don’t believe me: The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? You never realize what your brain skips over.

3.  Voices – One of the problems that some writers have is shifting in and out of narrative voices.  Maybe your novel only has one voice, but most writers will use several different perspectives whether it be written in third person or first.  I use Scrivener, a fantastic little program that has the ability to split up the document into scenes.  It also has the ability to tag each scene with notes in the margin or an outline for what is happening in each scene and also what characters are speaking.  I am then able to read only the scenes with those particular voices so that the voices have the same sound throughout the entire novel.  For example: Each chapter in my latest novel is titled with the name of a character and then that character’s voice is heard speaking about the action of the main story, each character adding his or her point of view about what is happening.  When the editing process begins, I will simply read only Clayton’s chapters, then Amy’s chapters, then each of the others to make sure that when readers encounter them, they all sound like they should, complete with accents, tone of voice, attitude, and all the things that make a character come alive for a reader.  If your novel uses multiple narrators at least in third person limited, go through the text and read only their voice to make sure that they have the same style and voice throughout.

4.  A Second Set of Eyes – This is one of the most important editing tools you can have.  Get involved in a writing group, find friends who will read your text (take them out to dinner, give them a free copy of the book, put their name in the dedication page) and listen to their advice when they tell you the truth about your writing.  You will need people who preferably have an English degree (teachers) or people who are meticulous readers.  I have several people upon whom I rely for this task.  I am blessed to have colleagues who love to read my work and tell me what is wrong with it.  I also have several “average reader” types chosen specifically because they are like the test audience that sees a film before it hits theaters.  I listen to them as well.  They say things like “these three chapters were really hard to read” or “I just didn’t get this character”.  Some people have hidden talents.  My mother’s is finding every last type-o in the text.  She is very good at it, and diligently works at finding these nasty bugaboos.  If you don’t have any friends who can be relied upon for this task, then hire someone.  You need professional help.  Here is an article about finding a paid editor.

5.  Take a Class/Read a Book – I see tons of writers uploading their texts to Kindle without any formal training in writing.  This is a mistake.  Sure, there are those prodigies who make it to the best seller list without one.  Good grief, it may not matter since Stephanie Meyer has an English degree, and have you actually read her?  But I digress.  There is something to say for a little education in writing, specifically training in fiction writing.  Many junior colleges offer short courses in composition or creative writing.  These classes will give you the tools you need to become a better writer and a better editor.  I also recommend reading some good books on the subject.  Here is a list of some I have read that have helped me considerably:

  • Self Editing for Fiction Writers – Browne and King’s book is full of examples from classical literature, fantastic exercises and step by step checklists.  It is a must for anyone who wants to polish their novel to a high sheen. (There is also a Kindle edition).
  • Revision and Self Editing – Bell’s book is also a must.  It is a little more academic, but gets down to the quick of problems that plague most writers.  It is one of my favorites, and I refer back to it often.
  • Self Editing – Lori Handeland put together this online article which outlines the brass tacks of what you should do to your text once you finish writing it.
  • Dan Curtis has put together a lovely list of 10 Self-Editing books that are a must read for any self-publishing writer.  Pop on over to his website and check it out.  Great list.

As always, if you have any tips to self-editing, by all means post them.  I’m sure we’d all love to have more ways to tackle this Herculean task that seems sometimes to be more like that madness Sisyphus had to deal with in Hades.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

11 thoughts on “5 Editing Strategies for the Self-Published Novelist

  1. Another excellent writing post, Roger; thanks so much for sharing your extensive knowledge! 🙂

  2. You say: Don’t forget to jazz it up. Go through the text and add descriptive adjectives, similes and metaphors. Describing ideas through metaphors is the highest form of description and readers love it.

    I think you should add that, as some writers are prone to do this in the original writing process, there is likewise an opposite case for going through the work and removing bunches of adjectives and adverbs. Brevity, says the Bard, is the soul of wit.

    The rest chimes well

  3. As always some very sensible and solid advice! I found out about ‘backwards proofing’ many years ago from via an American journalist and writing teacher named Kate Contos. Don’t know what became of her since.

    A brilliant technique. You see your work in a different and de-contextualised frame.

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