8 Tips for Self-Editing Your Novel

by Kemari Howell Posted May 14, 2014


As a book editor, I’ve edited my fair share of novels, with clients that have ranged from self-published authors to international bestsellers. I’ve even worked as a contract editor for Amazon’s Publishing Imprints. And while I recommend hiring an editor for anyone seriously considering publishing as a source of income, I know that it’s not always financially feasible to hire an editor—at least until that first book sells like hotcakes.

So, whether you hire an editor or not, here are a few self-editing tips to help you polish up that novel for publication:

  1. Read your work aloud – This is the most important tip! You’d be surprised how much this helps…and how many people don’t do it. It’s one of the easiest ways to spot errors—spelling, syntax, and other grammatical issues. Read it aloud to yourself or a critique partner. Read it more than once. Use inflection when you read. Ensure it all makes sense, that the story moves forward, that your grammar and spelling are correct, and that the language doesn’t sound weak or repetitious.
  2. Use spell check…but don’t rely on it – Spell check is great for finding spelling errors—most of the time. But what happens when you spell a word correctly—but use it incorrectly—and spell check doesn’t catch it? You end up with a sentence that reads: “Check your infection” instead of “Check your inflection.”
  3. Eliminate unnecessary words – Unnecessary words, such as fillers, zombie nouns, adverbs, fish heads, and fish tails should be eliminated…stat. There are some common culprits that can usually be deleted without worry (as long as the sentence/meaning still makes sense without them). Words like: was, were, had, that, and, really, then, and then, just, about, so, but, like, against, all, little, totally, suddenly, just then…and many more are just fillers. Read the sentence aloud without the word. If it still makes sense without it, delete it.
  4. Check your tenses – Whatever point-of-view you choose to write in, make sure that your tenses are consistent with that POV. If you write in First Person Present Tense, ensure that your usage reflects that consistently. You don’t want to write about Johnny Sexypants with: “He looked longingly at her lips as she bit them, so he grabs her arm, pulled her to him, and kisses her passionately.” That’s all kinds of wibbly wobbly timey wimey messed up.
  5. Beware your dialogue tags – First of all, you don’t always need a dialogue tag. If you set up a scene well enough, your readers will be able to figure out who said what without you saying “he said” or “she asked” after every piece of dialogue. In addition, try to avoid using dialogue tags that aren’t necessary. If your character says, “How dare you, you harlot!” you don’t need to say she screamed. Nor should you use an adverbial dialogue tag—“How dare you, you harlot!” she screamed angrily. The exclamation point, word choice, and inflection already let the reader know that a) she screamed and b) she did it angrily. And “show, don’t tell” works well with dialogue. You can show how a character is speaking through their accompanying actions (did she cross her arms, roll her eyes, tap her foot?). Use dialogue tags wisely and sparingly.
  6. Repetition – Check for repetition. Check for repetition. No, really, make sure you aren’t using the same words over and over again. A classic example of this would be “mercurial” and “inner goddess” a la Fifty Shades of Grey. Repeating words too many times makes for a poor read—and it stifles your story, limits your characters from growing, and tells your readers you lack a varied vocabulary.
  7. The words were written in passive voice – Please, for the love of all that is scrumdiddilyumptious, do not write in the passive voice. When you write in the passive voice, things happen to things, instead of things doing things. “The chair got kicked by him” gives that darn inanimate chair capabilities it actually doesn’t possess. “He kicked the chair” flows better, is more immediate, and gives the action to the person or object causing it.
  8. Sentence Structure – Make sure your sentences are varied, without weird syntax or odd rhythms. Try to change up the start of every sentence. “He jumped. He fell. He was in pain. He died. He went to heaven.”—this is repetition, and it makes your language weak. Watch out for present progressive verb tenses, -ly adverbs, possessive pronouns, prepositional phrases, and those silly dangling modifiers.

These tips are just a start to help you polish and tighten up that writing. Consider hiring an editor if you plan to publish for any reason other than the gratification of having your name in print. A book worth writing is worth writing well, and sometimes that means outside help.