Indie Author Jenni Sauer provides her best self-editing tips for taking your book to the next level!
Editing. Either your best friend or biggest enemy, am I right?
Writers tend to run— or at least cringe a little— at the idea of editing. When you write your rough draft, you get to immerse yourself in the story, to write poorly but get out the structure of the story. You can write on a caffeine high, while insanely sleep deprived, in a 3 am frenzy as you scramble to meet a goal.
The magic of the first draft is just to exist. But then, after you’ve finished that messy, glorious draft, what next?
Editing can seem like a daunting task because, suddenly, existing isn’t enough. Now it needs to be pretty, to make sense, to be all the things it definitely isn’t yet.
So, where do you start?
Give Yourself Space:
Writing a book is hard and you lose yourself in the story in a way that makes you too connected to it. So, take a step back. I recommend a week at the very least, but it can be as long as you need. As long as it takes for you to put space between yourself and the project. Get a little disconnected from it so you can come back to it with an objective eye.
Read Through It:
When I’m ready to edit again, I copy my entire document into a new doc and I don’t save it (this works for me because I use Word). You can also save it as a PDF or put it on your Kindle (if you aren’t sure how to do that, Google has lots of great tutorials). The important part is putting it into a format that I can’t tweak. Because the first thing I do is read it from start to finish without making any changes.
This helps me see how it reads— does it flow well? What is the pacing like? Do I introduce a plot point that’s never tied up? How is my character’s growth? I try to read it as best I can as a reader, rather than the writer. To see how it reads not to me, but to someone new to the story.
As I read, I make notes of all my thoughts and questions (I use an actual notebook, but it could be in a different doc, the notes app on your phone, whatever is best for you). This is usually pretty messy and unorganized with things like “this scene slows down the flow” or “what does her dress look like” or “add a description of the house.”
I like to start with big picture stuff. Not tweaking specific word uses or sentence structure yet, just turning the book into a readable draft that has the solid foundation of the story I’m telling.
This word gets used a lot for the stage before drafting. But, especially for writers who don’t outline before they write their book, I’ve found an outline can be helpful in this stage. Write out the bullet points of your story or a few sentences to summarize each chapter. This is also when it’s a good time to start looking at the three act structure and how your novel follows that (if you aren’t familiar with the three act structure, Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody is a great resource that breaks it down in a really comprehensive way).
An outline can help you get a good feel for what the story looks like and how it flows. Are the stakes being raised in each chapter? Do you have enough internal vs external conflict? Is your character arc chartable or all over the place? Being able to look at the story from start to finish, all laid out, in this stage, is invaluable.
Organize Your List:
Once I’ve finished my readthrough and have my messy notes, I turn them into a checklist. You can organize them by “most pressing to least pressing” or “most amount of work to least amount of work” or any order you want. I personally just put them down in the order I think of them, which works for me, but make it your own, do what works best for you.
Get to Work:
Start picking items off your list and tackle them as best you can. This is the scariest step because there’s no right answer on where to start.
I like to pick and choose based on what I’m in the mood for— some days I’ll want to tackle the big stuff, other days all I have the energy for is deciding what color the main character’s dress is in a certain scene. Just work your way through it until all the items are either checked off or you’ve reevaluated them and decided not to incorporate them.
You can also mix line edits in as you go— this is where you go through and tweak your sentences and word choices and grammar. Or you can do your check list and then do line edits as a separate stage. Whatever works best for you.
When working on line edits, a few good things to look out for are:
1) Vary your sentence structure so that you have a nice mix of compound and simple sentences, you don’t start too many sentences with the same word close together, and you structure your sentences in a variety of ways so that they flow better.
And 2) taking note of words you fall back on (looking up a list of “common crutch words for writers” is a good place to start, but you can also note your own on a readthrough).
Rinse and Repeat:
Once you do your once through and/or line edits, do it all over again. And again. And again. Until you have the story you want to tell.
It won’t be perfect, but you’ve gotten it to the place where you feel like “this represents the story I want to tell and I’ve gotten it to that place as best I can on my own.”
It’s important to recognize where your weaknesses lie. After you’ve edited your draft several times, have another writer read it (if you’re willing to read and give feedback on their work as well, it’s fairly easy to find someone willing) or consider hiring an editor. Earlier in this series there as a great post on Alpha Readers, Beta Readers, and Editors that you should definitely check out for more info on them.
Let’s Take a Sec to Breathe:
Still with me? Good. I know it’s a lot and honestly, it’s so overwhelming. Don’t be discouraged. On the days when it feels like too much remember that’s normal. Every writer gets tired. Take a step back, talk through what you’re feeling with a friend, engage in a non-writing related activity, and give yourself room to breathe. I’ve found on the days I give myself space to rest, I’m more inclined to come back with renewed excitement and inspiration the next day.
Okay, Back at it:
While I’ve already given you my editing process as a whole, there are still pitfalls that are easy to fall into and staying motivated can be hard. Some things that help me stay on track are:
Goals can be hard to set because if you’re like me, they’re too open ended and I don’t stay on track because “I have time…”
When setting a goal, I try to set deadlines with actual consequences if I don’t meet them. This can look like asking an alpha reader if they are available to read the book in two months. Now you have two months to finish the book and you have someone actually waiting for you to do that. I have an editor booked for May so am working hard to finish my book by then. Obviously, things come up and sometimes life happens, but this helps me stay on track and keep the reason I didn’t get it done from being “because I just… didn’t work on it.”
A lot of writers use rewards as a motivator. This usually looks like “When I reach this goal, I will do or buy…” They can be for daily goals or larger goals like finishing a project. Two notes on them:
First, a word of warning: it’s easy to use things like rest and relaxation for a reward but that can be dangerous. Rest and taking care of yourself never have to be earned. Rewards should never be something you need— “when I finish this, I’ll let myself rest” or “when I finish this, I can take a walk,” etc.— and always something you want.
Second, while rewards can be something like “when I hit this goal, I will buy…” I’ve found practical goals are much more effective for me. If you’re planning to publish, you can say “when I finish this round of edits, I’ll start designing preorder goodies” or “if I get x amount done today, I’ll introduce my main character in my IG stories tonight.” When I was working on my last round of edits for my upcoming release, I had some aesthetics I’d made in Canva that I sat on for a week before I posted them because I told myself I couldn’t share them until I got two key scenes written.
Take Another Deep Breath:
The thing that makes editing easiest for me is to take a deep breath and remember this: nothing is set in stone until the book is published.
No matter what I write, no matter how I edit it, it’s all fluid and changeable. I can explore whether adding a certain plot element works or not. If it doesn’t? I can take it out again. I can change things and change them back again and change them more. I can write and rewrite. When working on my science fantasy Cinderella, I rewrote a scene about nine times because I just… couldn’t get it right.
Hold Tight to Your Joy:
And lastly, writing is hard, grueling work. Burnout, being overwhelmed, and discouragement are a given. They will come and go and there will be days when you wonder if it’s worth it. Editing is hard. You’re taking something you’ve made and molding it into something better, and it’s no easy task.
If I can give you one piece of advice, it is this: remember why you love this story and hold onto it. When doubt says “this is too much work” or “this isn’t worth it” engage with those thoughts. Acknowledge them and say “but this is the story I needed as a girl” or “but I love these characters” or “but this story is the one on my heart right now.” It doesn’t have to be deep or profound. But take hold of that joy and don’t let it go. Even on the days that it’s hard. Even when you want to give up.
The doubts will come, that’s inevitable, but don’t let them steal your joy. Because I can promise you this: the doubts will go away again, but the joy doesn’t have to. The joy remains.
And in the end? You have what it takes to make your book spectacular. And whether you think it will connect with readers across the globe or just need to write it for yourself, it’s worth it. It’s always worth it.
Jenni Sauer is a 20-something city girl from New York (but no, not The City). A pragmatic optimist, she writes fairy tale retellings woven with realism and laced with hope, striving to offer light that shines in, rather than denies the darkness.
When not writing she spends her time nannying, overanalyzing stories, and drinking too much tea. If you’re looking for her, she’s probably bent over her laptop somewhere plotting her next step in world domination- er, the next book in her series- or procrastinating on that by investing in the #bookstagram and writing communities.