Should you self-edit your fiction? If so, when and how?
Yes, every writer should self-edit. To do otherwise is to be untrue to your stories. No, that last statement wasn’t meant as some kind of high-horsed snobbery. Self-edit and revise are synonyms, but self-edit has a further connotation of “doing it all yourself.” Some writers only self-edit and never use professional editing services.
You’ve written a first draft. Your imagination spiraled and spun, soared and swooped, and left you with a tale of magical mystery, dark dystopia, or something else entirely, and now you’re back to Earth and seeing typos in it. Great! You’ve got exactly what a first draft should be. It’s what all writers get after completing a rough draft. The ones who have written two or three books, the ones trying their hand for the first one, and the ones who make huge amounts of money from writing. It may be a little messy in the margins, and it doubtless contains errors, but it’s not what you’re going to publish. What you will and must do is revise or edit it.
Step 0: Rest your manuscript.
For short pieces, such as a scene or a short story, I recommend waiting until the next day or longer before you begin revising. If you’re going to revise a large chunk at once, I’d recommend leaving it for at least a week.
Step 1: First read.
You’ve written it. Now it’s time to read it. How does it look? How does it sound? How do you feel? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Is it good, but not great? Chances are extremely high that you’ll find errors, mistakes, and yes, plotholes. Make notes of these. Don’t worry about typos for now. This is a right brain “big picture” read. The aim is to determine if you’ve told the story you wanted to tell. You’re very likely going to end up with a long list of things that need to be addressed. That’s great.
Copy your first draft. One of my biggest regrets as a writer is that I didn’t keep the original draft of Wounded Bride before I started to revise it.
Step 2: Implement the changes you want to make.
Copy, paste, add, and delete. If your book is long, this could take quite some time, but there’s no substitute for it.
Step 2.5: Rest.
Repeat step 0.
Step 3: Search and Destroy.
Typos must go. Awkward sentences must vanish. Incorrect words, missing words, and repeat words must be changed, added, or disappeared. Now’s also the time to do what I call “touches.” What that character really say that? Think that? Do that? Feel that?
Repeat steps as necessary until you can’t find any more problems with your draft.
Step 4: To go pro, or not to go pro.
As Bob Dylan once sang, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” If cash is a barrier, don’t feel guilty and do what you can. You can try crowd funding, saving up, or decide not to hire an Editor. You can pay a pro to edit your sci-fi, but self-edit your romance (or the other way around.) You could hire somebody to do the nitty gritty copy editing but do the big picture stuff yourself, or vice versa. You have a field of options, even if your wallet thinks otherwise.
Purchase a punctuation book. It’s a great investment, even if you hire an Editor.
I recommend The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande.
Step 5: Publish and Live with your choice.
It’s live. Your book is out. Somebody will see that missing word on page 33. Whether or not you hired an Editor, they can and do make mistakes. Don’t blame them or yourself. Most Readers will forgive one or two typos per book. Most self-publishing companies and websites offer ways to make post-publication revisions, although possibly at a cost to you, so decide how many typos must be found before you will correct them.
I know I would not do this for any fewer than five, if there was going to be a cost to me, but I would fix even one if I could do so for free.
Whether you call it self-editing or revision, it’s a must for all works of fiction. If you do hire an Editor, they’ll have less work (and charge you less), because you’ll already have found and fixed many errors. If you don’t hire a pro, your story will be a million times better than your first draft.
Oh, and about that punctuation book: Where is it?
“Right there on the new bookshelf Dad built,” you might say.
Or you might say, “I’ve got it on my iPad.”
“Wonderful,” I say. “Just make sure that you read it!”