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How to Self-Edit and Edit Your Novel or Short Story Like a Pro

Kristen Howe is an author with three novels under agent and small pub consideration. She's been self-editing for years and knows what works.

Learn how to take your manuscript from first draft to final copy.

Learn how to take your manuscript from first draft to final copy.

Rough It Out With the First Draft

If you're a serious writer of fiction who has finished writing a novel, novella, or a short story, congratulations! Whether you wrote it during Nano, Camp Nano or Julno, or on your own, that's only the first stage of writing a book or a short piece of fiction. So before you want to submit it to fiction markets for short stories, or agents, editors and/or publishers for novels and novellas, there's a lot of work to do to get it polished and ready. Take a break from your novel and set it aside for a few days, a couple of weeks, or a month or two. After some time had passed, you can go back to it and look at it with two fresh eyes.

Whether you do it via hard copy or on your computer, there's a couple of ways you can self-edit and edit your novel for free . . . or with some optional choices. While best-selling authors love the editing process, I tend to hate it, since it would take longer for me to get it done than when I write a novel alone. With a couple of tools of the trade, I'm going to show you how to self-edit, revise, rewrite, rework, edit, copy edit, proofread, spell check, etc., your manuscript or short story with these handy tips. So get ready to take plenty of notes to use for future reference!

The Tools of the Trade

For any beginner writer, it's best for us to do self-editing alone with the rough draft and the right tools of the trade. For hard copy, print out your novel and put it in a binder. Bring plenty of red erasable pens and pencils to make notes with. For those who work on the computer, make sure you have a word processing document like Word or Scrivener that has a compare-merge function. Get ready to use the delete, backspace and strike-through keys.

It's highly recommended to check out or buy Strunk and White's Elements of Style, Renni Browne's Self-Editing For Writers, and Stephen Kings's On Writing at your local bookstore or library. You can also find back issues of Writer's Digest magazines on editing and revision, if you don't have a subscription, and check out their online articles at their website and blog, too.

You should also have a checklist by your side on what you need to cut or add in your story. Make sure you show more than tell, watch out for passive words that need to be active, make sure it's realistic and logical and flows well, check for any head-hopping POVs, and cut out any extraneous fluff that doesn't move the story forward. You might have to "kill our darlings" at some time, depending on your genre and word count, except for short stories. Don't forget to read it out loud to yourself. Or you can find a text-to-speech program for your computer, too!

One-Pass Revision

Most of us don't want to edit our manuscript many times to get ourselves into an over-editing rut. If you want to try to do it in a one-pass revision to get it done in one cycle, here's some borrowed and shortened tips from Holly Lisle's website. (This works best for hard copy, since it's way harder on your computer. I've tried it a few years ago. It doesn't work.)

You would need a print out of your novel, a cheap notebook, a couple of smooth-writing pens, stack your ms on a steady table in three piles, and plenty of good lightning.

Part One: Discovery

  1. Write down the theme of your novel in 15 words or less.
  2. If you know what your sub-themes are, write them down.
  3. In 25 words or less, write down what your ms is about.
  4. Write a one-story arc for your main character in one line.
  5. Write down the main characters and a 250-word paragraph describing the story.

Part Two: Manuscript Slog

This is when we focus on the scenes with a checklist.

  1. Does the scene belong in the story?
  2. Is the scene a story in miniature?
  3. What's the conflict?
  4. Does it contain elements that doesn't fit?
  5. Go to your notebook and write down what threads you've killed.
  6. Make notes on what new direction you took your story in.
  7. Offer suggestions about evolution and theme.
  8. Is it well-written?
  9. Does it fit logically in time and space?
  10. Is it full of weak words?
  11. Is the word count right?

Part Three: Type-In

This is where you open your notebook, look at the scribbles, and type it in your manuscript, starting with the first page. If you have new story ideas, write them down and save them for your next book.

Tips for Self-Editing 101

Whether you're planning to self-publish your own book or do it traditionally with big-name publishers, indie publishers, small publishers, or even e-publishers. There are tons of editing and self-editing tips online, if you need where to find them. Over the past year, I've compiled a list of words you can eliminate and cull your word count. On the computer, you can use the find/replace key to delete them. Also, watch out for word echoes--that's when you repeat the same word twice in the same sentence. Just change a word or take it out. Remember, the thesaurus is a writer's best friend!

Watch out for these weak filter words to prune and weed in your stories and novels! As for those -ly words, use it in moderation.

  • About
  • Able
  • A Lot
  • Almost
  • Always
  • Am*
  • Amazing
  • Anxiously
  • Any infinitive for to walk
  • Anyway
  • And
  • And then
  • Appear
  • Approximately
  • Are
  • As
  • Basically
  • Be
  • Being*
  • Been*
  • Believe
  • Best
  • Big
  • But
  • By
  • Can
  • Causing
  • Could
  • *Did/Does/Do
  • Eagerly
  • Even
  • Every
  • Feel/Felt
  • Finally
  • First
  • Frequently
  • *Got/Get
  • Had (had been)/Have/Had/Has *
  • Hardly
  • Heard
  • His/Her
  • -Ing words starting a sentence
  • *Is
  • It is/it was
  • It seems to be/It seems to me
  • Just
  • Kind of
  • Like
  • Look as if
  • -Ly words esp. to modify said
  • Made
  • May
  • Merely
  • Might
  • More or less
  • Must
  • Nearly
  • Need
  • Never
  • Not
  • Notice (verb)
  • Oddly enough
  • Of
  • Often
  • Only
  • Pretty
  • Put
  • Quite
  • Rather
  • Realize
  • Really
  • Roughly
  • Said
  • Saw
  • Seem
  • Several
  • Shall
  • Short
  • Should
  • Small
  • Smelled
  • So
  • Some
  • Sort of
  • Still
  • Such
  • Tall
  • Tasted
  • That
  • Then
  • There was/is/are
  • Thing
  • Think
  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to touch
  • to wonder
  • to realize
  • to watch
  • to look
  • to seem
  • to feel (or feel like)
  • to decide
  • to sound (or sound like)
  • to notice
  • to be able to
  • to note
  • to experience
  • Touched
  • Tried to
  • Used to
  • Utilize
  • Very
  • Was/were
  • Wearing/wore
  • Went
  • When
  • Which
  • Wonderful
Scroll to Continue

Quick tips: If you want some extra work, you might want to check out Autocrit.com (see link below). I've found out about this website a few years ago. It can help you fine-tune your ms or short story into a polished form. It's free to join to create an account. It can look over up to 500 words (2-3 pages) a day and would highlight any errors in red. When fixed, it can bring the number down to zero. It's perfect for those who do short stories! If you want to invest on self-editing on your partial or full manuscript, it depends on what membership you need it for. I haven't been to the website in two years. Update: I've made a mistake on the membership pricing when I went to the website two years ago. They were updating the monthly membership to $12/month for the annual price of $144. Sorry about that inconvenience.

I did find another website that can give you free 100% analysis for your manuscripts or short stories, say for a chapter. It's called ProWritingAid.com. They would give you suggestions on improving your writing in your summary report. Their memberships are a bit lower than Autocrit's for a year: $35 for a year, $55 for 2 years, $70 for 3 years, and $120 for a lifetime license. Check it out!

For those who do Nano, Camp Nano (spring, summer or both), Julno, there's Nanoedmo every March for free. You can sign up and register for a free account and have your own widget to keep track on your editing word counts. When I first heard about it, I knew other Nanoers prefer not to do it, since they prefer to edit at their own pace. But I've done it for a couple of years to get me started. It takes the same concept of Nano of writing 50 K or more words a month and applied it for logging in 50 hours or more of editing a month. Say if you wrote 2 hours a day for Nano, you would log in 2 hours a day for Nanoedmo. (And yes, you did get a certificate at the end, if you logged in 50 or more hours to print out.)

Editing and Revising Poll

Partner Up With a Beta Reader or Critique Group

After you've done the first pass revision on your own, you're going to need a fresh pair of eyes to help you out to give you honest feedback. There are many free ways to find someone to help you out. Ask a sibling or a friend, or even your parents to help you out. If you have a close relationship with your high school English teacher or college English/Creative Writing professor, you can ask them for help. (My mother was a teacher who helped me out for three long years, before she died last spring.)

There are many benefits of working with a beta reader, critique partner, an accountability partner, or joining a critique group.

  • Beta reader: This person will look after your work and give you comments on story flow.
  • Critique partner: This person will give you honest feedback from POV to grammar errors.
  • Accountability partner: If you never heard of an accountability partner, I never did either, until I've learned about it a decade ago. This person will help you keep track of your editing by word count and support you.

Sometimes your beta reader/critique partner can be the same partner, too. (I love my beta reader! She helped out finish editing my ms, after my mother died, and will help me with future projects.) You can also find a beta reader or critique partner online, if you check the website and a couple of blog. I know one of my egroups--RWCList--posts a critique partner list via email, twice a month. If you do social networking, you can ask for one via Twitter or Facebook.

A critique group is also great to give you more feedback from fellow group members. They're free and usually meet at your local library once a month. They might meet in the morning or at night. You do have to bring your short story or chapter excerpt in person, or if it's via email, just email it over to them. If there's not one near you, try the nearest town. If not, there's another option for you to get feedback and that's joining critique email lists and websites.

For the past decade or so, I've gotten tons of feedback from free various sources to get critique on my chapter excerpts. Feel free to check out Youwriteon.com or Forwardmotion.com. It's free to join as a member. As long as others help you, you have to critique others in return. I've been a member of the Internet Writing List for a decade ago. As long as you meet the monthly quota of two per month for a critique/submission for Fiction and Novels, you would be in good standing. Just sign up to join to get approved, and then send out a chapter excerpt. (Revised chapters excepts also count, too.) Everyone's there been real nice and friendly to me over the years. There's the Writing E-List for everything that's writing-related, which included editing, too. {The only caveat for Youwriteon.com, your work will be graded on a scale from one to five stars per editing criteria on a member's review. There's also a chart of where your work would land, when you get four reviews.)

You can also join online forums for free to get tons of feedback for the first pages or so. I know that Agentquery.com, Querytracker.com, Forwardmotion.com, and Youwriteon.com. You might find some help over here at Hub Pages, too!

Hire an Editor

If you have the money to have it looked after by a professional editor, that might be a good investment for the final phase of editing. An editor, line editor or copy editor would charge you by the word, by lines, by pages, or by chapters, from the first pages to the whole manuscript.

Other paid options to have it looked it and critiqued, is by sending it to a contest to get feedback on. It's a good way to get feedback, whether you won an award or prize, and use it as a published credit for your queries in the future. Other there's a submission fee to enter your story or novel in, but it's something to look into. Otherwise, if you're attending a writer's conference that has an editing session, you might consider that, too, if you want to pay the fee.

One last option is to join a local writing conference, like Sisters in Crime or Romance Writers of America. They do have local charters that meet each month to get feedback. You do have to pay for membership and attend two meetings before you can join as a member. Local charters have free online crit groups, if you can't attend or afford their meetings.

So now you have the tools of the trade, get out there to edit like a pro with a pen or the delete button. You can take as much time as you need to get it done. Don't worry about deadlines, until you've landed an agent and a pub deal! Good luck writers!

Writing and Editing Resources

Comments

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on June 29, 2020:

Thanks.

Matt Richards on June 29, 2020:

Great site

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 16, 2020:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting MG. Good luck to you in your edits.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on February 08, 2020:

This is a fascinating and informative article. Thank you

Ijeoma Peter from Lagos, Nigeria on July 19, 2018:

Thanks Kristen for your kind response, i really appreciate.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on July 18, 2018:

You're welcome. Never give up. Find writing circles on Twitter and Facebook, online, or even at your local writing group.

Ijeoma Peter from Lagos, Nigeria on July 17, 2018:

I might as well dust up my drafts and start writing again. Thanks for sharing, it was really helpful.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on April 02, 2018:

You're welcome Mike. Its autocrit.com not autocrat. Give it a go .Try Grammarly and HemingwayApp too.

Mike Hardy from Caseville, Michigan on April 02, 2018:

Thanks for the autocrat.com tip. I will have to check it out. I struggle with the final “fit and finish” of my articles. I always go back and tweak.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on January 26, 2018:

Aww thanks Fatimah for your kind words and stopping by.

Fatima Memija Bahtic from Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 25, 2018:

You have a keen eye for writing skills. One of the best articles I've read recently. Thanks for these practical tips.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on April 29, 2017:

Thanks Audrey for your kind words and comments.

Audrey Howitt from California on April 28, 2017:

Still an excellent article Kristen! Good luck with stuff in your world!

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on March 02, 2017:

Thanks Deborah for stopping by and commenting. Go for it!

Deborah Demander from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on March 02, 2017:

Great tips. Thanks for writing these suggestions. I will definitely give them a try.

Namaste

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 22, 2017:

Okay. I would change it to something else other than passive. Maybe words to avoid and cut.

Kate Swanson from Sydney on February 22, 2017:

Kristen, like I said, your list is fine. It's the WORD "passive" that is wrong, if you apply it to all the words like you have been doing. The word passive only applies to those particular examples in your link, so you need to stop using it to refer to the whole list.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 22, 2017:

I see. But I've bookmarked similar writing websites that state the same words to cut in the same lists. But I guess I have to disagree with you here. Words ending in -ing should make active by making them end in -ed. Plus weak filter words like saw/heard/up/down aren't necessary Marisa. Check out this link: examples.yourdictionary.com/...active-and-passive-voice.html

Kate Swanson from Sydney on February 21, 2017:

The word "passive", in writing, refers specifically to the use of the passive voice in verbs. In that passage you've quoted, there's only one small section talking about that (Passive voice: Over-use of words like “was,” “were” and “that” indicate your writing MAY be too passive. Reconstruct in active voice). The rest are not passive and therefore changing them does not make them active. It may make your writing better, my point is that you're using the wrong word to explain why.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 21, 2017:

I know what passive words are--words ending in -ly, was, to be verbs, started to, etc. Weak words are filter words like saw/felt/heard. This is what I've learned in conferences and from reading magazines like Writer's Digest, books like Elements of Style, etc. This is from a website from one of the contests hosts I've entered on her writing advice: So how do we do this? Here’s a checklist of things to consider cutting:

→ Adverbs, especially those with “ly” endings. Ask yourself if they’re necessary.
→ Adjectives. Often people use two or three when one or none is better.
→ Gerunds. Words that end in “ing.”
→ Passive voice: Over-use of words like “was,” “were” and “that” indicate your writing may be too passive. Reconstruct in active voice.
→ Passages that are overly descriptive.
→ Passages that describe characters’ thoughts and feelings in too much detail (i.e. long sections of narrative or interior monologue).
→ Passages that tell the reader what they already know.
→ Unnecessary backstory.

Here’s a list of words to watch for. Carefully consider their necessity and effectiveness:

about, actually, almost, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, just then, kind of, nearly, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, truly, utterly, were.

(Make use of the “search and replace” function in Word to help with this process if there are specific words you tend to overuse.)

Once you go through this exercise, you’ll find your manuscript remarkably cleaner. Try to have fun with it!

And remember, no matter how many words you’re able to cut, your editor will always find more.

See? Her list is the same as mine, only smaller, Marisa.

Kate Swanson from Sydney on February 20, 2017:

I'm not sure if I made the comment earlier, but I also recommend you Google "passive voice" to understand the difference between passive words and weak words. None of the words you listed is passive. It's a very, very common misconception which, thanks to the internet, is now widely repeated on writing advice sites.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 20, 2017:

You're welcome.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 20, 2017:

That's a good rule of thumb. I've read it somewhere too. Then I read you can remove was and that to make a stronger sentence. I'll amend it as a caveat.

Kate Swanson from Sydney on February 19, 2017:

I think that's the point with those words - people get too worried about them, you don't have to get rid of them all. For instance, I met one writer who spent hours getting rid of every single "was" in her story. Whereas I've been told by a couple of professional editors that a good rule of thumb is, no more than three on any single page. Which, when you multiply it out to a whole book, means quite a lot!

Robert Sacchi on February 19, 2017:

Thank you.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 19, 2017:

Hmm. I thnk it would be best to try to avoid those passive words and make your writing count by being active. Use them sparingly in moderation. Read books in your genre and see how they do it. Watch out for weak filter words too.

Robert Sacchi on February 19, 2017:

Would it be a good approach be to write the story with the words you want then write the same story obeying the "Forbidden Words" rule?

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 19, 2017:

Thanks for stopping by Marisa. Good points here. You can use those words sparingly like the -ly words or make them active in order for it to work. I can amend this article with your comments in mind.

Kate Swanson from Sydney on February 18, 2017:

Some good advice here, but I worry about the "forbidden words" list. They are words to look out for, yes, because they can be a signal that you MIGHT be able to write the sentence in a better way. But I've seen writers take the list to heart, and end up creating horrible convoluted sentences in a desperate attempt to avoid the words, and that's completely the wrong approach. They're just a yellow flag, not a red flag.

The other thing I worry about is recommending people ask friends or family to crit. You're never going to get a really honest answer from those people, so I think it's better to save them up and use them as readers of the final version, especially if you're self-publishing. Then they can write you a review!

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on May 23, 2016:

I've heard it's very recommended but I haven't read it. You're welcome. I might add a new list of words like filters to remove this summer. Happy editing!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on May 23, 2016:

I love Stephen King's "On Writing". It's a must for writers. I appreciate your list of passive words and the different sources for feedback and critiquing that you list. This is a timely article for me. Thank you!

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on May 20, 2016:

My pleasure.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on May 20, 2016:

These are wonderful tips on editing. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise:)

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on May 20, 2016:

Thanks Heidi for sharing my friend. I appreciate your support.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 20, 2016:

Was glad this popped up again in my feed! Great tips. Sharing again on HP and Twitter!

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on May 19, 2016:

You're welcome. I can't wait to meet you in 2 weeks at the conference. Did you get the email for query critiques recently?

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on May 19, 2016:

This is great information! Thanks for compiling it in a comprehensive hub. This is one I will refer to often.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on March 10, 2016:

Chris, thanks so bunch for stopping by. Good for you! I hope you get those shorts published. Fingers crossed.

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on March 10, 2016:

Kristen, thanks for all the great information. I'm pulling some short stories together for publication and your article gives me more good ideas for getting the stories into shape.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on March 10, 2016:

Thanks Mary for stopping by. I'm glad you've learned about editing tips.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 09, 2016:

Kristen, this is really worthwhile. I have learned so much here about editing and especially appreciate the specifics of what to do.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 18, 2016:

Thanks Vespa! You're welcome. Thanks for bookmarking it for future use.

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on February 18, 2016:

Your list of unnecessary words will be very useful when I edit my manuscript. I also plan to check out some of the sites you mention. I'm glad you mentioned Stephen King's "On Writing". He also edits a hard copy and offers more details about his process. This is a great resource and I've marked it for future reference. Thank you!

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on January 21, 2016:

Thanks Moonlake for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it. I hope it helps.

moonlake from America on January 21, 2016:

You have lots of great tips on here. I will be back and forth to check your suggestion. I know once I leave here I will completely forget what you said.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on January 21, 2016:

You're welcome Robert. I'm so glad it's useful.

Robert Sacchi on January 20, 2016:

Thank you. There are a lot of good tips there. Like the list of words.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on December 24, 2015:

Thanks Audrey! I can so relate to your editing woes. Thanks my friend!

Audrey Howitt from California on December 24, 2015:

Editing is the bane of my existence--This is a wonderful article on though!

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on December 16, 2015:

Thx Breathing for your kind words and comments.

TANJIM ARAFAT SAJIB from Bangladesh on December 15, 2015:

To write a great novel in one chance is something very much rare. Almost every novelist prepares a draft first, then revise it, make necessary editions and then the final copy is launched. But here the author described the whole process in a systematic manner and also how the writer can do it on own. Yeah, hiring a professional editor is always a good idea but that is also a bit costly! So if the writer can do the processing successfully on own, then it will save both time and money. Also as the work will be like a pro, the resulting copy will also be great.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on November 21, 2015:

Thanks Rabadi for the kind words. I will next month and next year.

O from New York on November 21, 2015:

Awesome tips! Keep these awesome and helpful hubs coming!