How to Self-Edit: For Non-Pantsters

The timing for this week’s topic is perfect. I just finished edits on last November’s novel and considered writing this same post for my own blog. So, we’ll do it here, instead.

I failed to note that I also bought an awesome box so my index card collection has a permanent home.

First of all, I should warn you that I’m a little spastic in the planning department. My brain needs something tactile to work with to get things moving, and let’s be honest here, I have a serious addiction to office supplies. In order to really understand my self-editing process, you might want to first see how absolutely ridiculous I am with the writing process. You can check it out on my blog here: How to Write a Novel: For Non-Pantsters.

Got it? Terrifying, isn’t it? I fully accept that there’s something more than a little off in my head.

Like the planning I do before I write, there are several steps I take for editing. They’re probably just as time-wasteful and self-indulgent.

  1. Do absolutely nothing with the novel for at least a couple of weeks to a month. This is important. Let it breathe. During this time, I let a few critiquers have at it, with the understanding that it was a raw first draft.
  2. Read through the critiques and set them aside to marinate. (You’ll KNOW when the advice is right. If you’re not sure about something someone says, let it go for now.)
  3. Once out of the post-novel-writing coma, open the document back up. Puke if necessary, but come right back. This needs to get done.
  4. Time to get out my beloved index cards! Yay! While I have a stack of events and chapters from when I was writing, they aren’t accurate anymore. Things changed, scenes happened I hadn’t expected. It’s okay. Start a new pile, one card for every chapter as it’s currently written.
  5. To celebrate the sale of my first novel, I bought a bigger whiteboard, as well as a big container of magnets. I put all the cards up on this big whiteboard, pinned them with magnets, then leaned the whole thing against the wall to examine it. With it all laid out in rows, I clearly saw a few plot holes, as well as a lack of tension in the middle.
  6. Rearrange the cards, write new cards to fill holes and put them where they need to go in the lineup. Leave it for awhile while you pace back and forth mumbling.
  7. Take the cards down and put them in a stack. Starting from the beginning of the manuscript, work through all the cards, in order, making the changes according to the new plan. Don’t skip any passages, even if you think no structural changes need to be made. Every change you make causes air bubbles in the future which must be smoothed as you go.
  8. Send it to your most brutal critiquer.
  9. While you wait, go back over all the critiques you had in the beginning to make sure you didn’t miss anything. I was shocked at how many typos and inconsistencies they caught that I STILL hadn’t fixed. Fix All the Things. Keep going over everything until your eyes bleed.

Here's the inside, complete with all the cards from two books. Notice how book two has nearly twice as many cards. My addiction is growing.

By this time, I’ve actually gone through the entire manuscript four or five times, at least.

So, I go through it again.

And you know what? It’s still not perfect. There are still typos I missed.

The point to the entire thing, no matter how you go about doing it, is not to make it perfect. The point is to make it the best novel you possibly can. Sloppiness isn’t cool. But the need to be perfect will freeze you up.

I know this post doesn’t give you any handy tips about what words to weed out, how to build better tension, or even what mistakes to look for in an early draft. There are plenty of books and websites teaching craft. My weird methods aren’t necessarily the most efficient, but they do one thing all the how-to books in the world might not help with: they give you a place to start.

And sometimes, that’s all you need to go off and find your own way to do it.

Rachel is the author of the urban fantasy Monster Haven series from Carina Press. She believes in magic, the power of love, good cheese, lucky socks, and putting things off until stress gets them done faster at the last minute. Her home is Disneyland, despite her current location in Kansas.


  • Nancy Cayton Myers says:

    Thanks for this Rachel. Never having edited my own novel from first draft to ‘final’ I only have a pseudo-method and I think it’s starting to turn into a procrastination technique! I’m going to mix it up by trying your method, I need a jump start..

  • R.L. Naquin says:

    I hope it helps, Nancy. I suspect I add a lot of extra work with my methods, but it gets the job done. Good luck with your editing!

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