Three Simple Stages of Self-Editing

Are there simple guidelines that can help us through the confusing task of self-editing? Let’s face it, it’s downright overwhelming to read through every single line of a novel, mark all the areas that need changing, and then go back through it again to make the corrections.

Surely there is some basic method that can help us through the editing mayhem.

As you know, over the past months I’ve been going through in-house editing on The Preacher’s Bride. During the process, I’m beginning to understand that the structure used by publishing houses is one we would be wise to model in our personal editing.

Publishing houses use three main types of edits: substantive, line, and copy.

1. Substantive (Also known as rewrites, developmental, or macro-edits)

This is the kind of big-picture edit where my editors read The Preacher’s Bride from start to finish to get a feel for the plot, conflict, tension, characters, goals, motivations, and other major issues. They made pages of notes and then shared with me the overall weaknesses of my story and characters, along with suggestions for ways I could strengthen those areas.

I spent approximately 6-8 weeks rewriting (and I mean rewriting), adding and deleting whole scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. After the first major rewrites, my editors re-read the book and then asked me to make a few more rewrites. The second set was definitely not as hard or time-consuming as the first.

Perhaps in our personal editing, we should likewise tackle the substantive edit first, before the other edits. Why bother focusing on word flow and spelling mistakes within a particular scene when we may have to delete it?

First, we should try to see the book from a reader’s perspective. We’ll need to go through it more quickly, without stopping too often, so that we get the flow of the story, see the gaps, catch the loose threads, and see the entire picture from beginning to end. We can scribble ideas into a spiral notebook, put sticky notes on troublesome pages, or jot thoughts on a chapter spreadsheet. Whatever works. The idea is to find the BIG problems first.

2. Line-Editing

My in-house editor began doing line-edits on The Preacher’s Bride approximately two weeks ago. This is the type of edit where she combs through the manuscript line-by-line, studying each page and paragraph carefully.

At this stage, my editor makes most of the changes herself. She emails me when she needs to get my input (usually a couple times a day). Since I write historical fiction, she’s mostly asked me to clarify words or phrases used during the 1600’s. (As a side note, make sure to keep all of your research materials, biographies, and any pertinent information. I’ve had to dig through mine many times.)

In our personal editing, we should begin our line-editing once we're done with the substantive rewrites. We'll need to read our manuscript again, this time slower, searching more carefully and looking for things like: POV issues, showing not telling, awkward dialogue, wordiness, unclear passages, repetition, clichés, etc.

The changes we make during line-editing polish our manuscript and add flavor to each page.

3. Copyediting (Also known as Proofreading)

Once my editor is done with her line-editing, she’ll send The Preacher’s Bride to another editor who will do copy-editing. My understanding is that this will involve checking for the minutest details: spelling, grammar, formatting, typos, continuity errors, detail accuracy, and other small scale problems.

During our editing process, this should be the last type of edit we do in a final read-through. If we have Microsoft Word or a similar word processing program that catches grammar and spelling mistakes, we probably won’t have much work during this edit.

However, just because a copyedit is last, doesn’t mean it’s less important. Taking care of the minor details of our novels helps us present ourselves as professionals and says to the agent or editor who reads it, “I take my work seriously and you can too.”

Do you have a basic method for the self-editing mayhem? How is it similar or different from what I’ve outlined? What other suggestions do you have for self-editing? Please share! We’d all love to benefit.

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