Rewriting and Self-Editing Guide for Fiction

Or, what you should do before you gather your beta team.

Or, the anal-retentive editor’s guide to self-editing. ūüėČ




… and More

(Coming Soon!)

Before you start rewriting or self-editing, take some time away from the book.

Congratulations!¬†You’ve completed your book! This is a massive achievement! Take a victory lap!

Seriously, though, you need a little time to gain perspective on your work. You will see your book in a completely different way with fresh eyes! Take at least a week off … more if you can.

(NOTE: The beginnings and endings of this and the Guide for Nonfiction are nearly identical, but the middles are very different!)

Stay completely away from the book, if you can.

Play with the dog. Go to a movie. Reconnect with family and friends. Whatever your happy place is … go there … and take a friend. You’ve earned it!

If you can't stay away from the book, work on other parts of it, NOT the text itself.

Keep those pesky mitts off your manuscript, but you can work on other elements of your book … IF you really have to. If you are self-publishing … do you have a cover … have you pulled together the rest of the team (beta readers, editor, proofreader) … have you thought about the channels that will distribute your book? Have you thought about your marketing plan? (I highly recommend Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10K Readers if you want the inside scoop on killer author marketing techniques.) If you are hoping to publish more traditionally … which agents and/or publishers are you going to approach? Now is the time for research of any type needed!¬†

Brush up your grammar, punctuation, and other aspects of good fiction writing.

You’re about to go through several rounds of reading and editing your text. If it seems appropriate, now is the perfect time to brush up your grammar and refresh your memory about other aspects of writing a good story. With fiction, there is much to consider, from broad developmental issues to character arcs and plot structure to well-crafted sentences. I’ve made a list of suggested books to help.¬†I also have boards on Pinterest specifically about self-editing and grammar as well as general writing (which is heavily skewed toward fiction).

When you are ready, first look at your book from a 10,000-foot level.

All right, back to work! We’re going to drill down your book layer by layer. First, we’ll look at it from a very high birds’-eye view.

Before you touch the manuscript, what do you recall...

Yes, I know you want to be reunited with your old friend (or nemesis), but before you open that file, reflect on the book. What was your grand vision of it before you started? Using just your memory, do you think the manuscript follows through on that promise to yourself (and your future readers)? Again, from memory, plot out your book on a sheet of paper. If you have an actual outline (for you planners out there), dig it out; does it match up to your memory of the manuscript? If not, what were your reasons for deviating … and do you think you’ve improved on your original idea?

Finally! Time to dig out the manuscript. Read it or listen ... like a future reader.

Read your manuscript, imagining that you are your target audience. Change the font and use the slider at the bottom of Microsoft Word to change the size … tricking your brain into thinking you are reading something new. Or involve a completely different sense, and have Word read it to you. I love this feature and use it often myself.¬† Find the¬†Speech¬†section on the Review tab, choose its only option (Read Aloud),¬†and press play on the controls that will pop up on the upper right part of your document (just inside the white document area). You can choose from a couple of voices, two male and one female.

The goal of this step is just to read your story like any reader would; require nothing else of yourself at this point. If you see mistakes along the way, go ahead and change them if they are quick and easy or flag them with a comment … but don’t specifically look for them and don’t make any large-scale changes. Mark any problematic passages, but don’t attempt to fix them.

TIP: In Word, to leave a quick comment to come back to later, use Control + Alt + M for Windows or Command + Option + A for Macintosh.

Compare this structure to both your original outline (if you have one) and what you thought the structure was before re-reading it.

Do the perceptions you had in the first step of this section hold true when you actually re-read the manuscript? Does it match your original outline if you had one? If not, is the current manuscript an improvement on your original plan? If your previous outline doesn’t match the current manuscript or if you never wrote one in the first place, write a reverse outline now. Outline each chapter scene by scene.

Analyze your reverse outline.

Do subplots fizzle out? Are there clues or interesting details at the beginning that are never integrated further in the book? Does the villain first show up at the 50,000-word mark in a 75,000-word story? Do what seem like important characters at the beginning disappear? Can you trace a natural progression of the external plot and subplots and internal character arcs? Are you following the expected 3- or 4-part story structure, with defined incidents and turning points?

Ponder major and minor characters.

Does each major character have their own character arc? Is it complete, meaningful, and relevant to the main plot/subplot(s), the story’s theme, and its premise? Does each secondary character pull their weight and perhaps have a mini storyline of their own that illuminates the bigger story? If not, consider cutting or combining minor characters.

Rewrite big-picture items, if necessary.

If you determined in the last step that there are story-level concerns, fix them now. For each major revision, I suggest that you start with a new Save As version of your manuscript. Being able to go back to your previous versions may be crucial. If you are using Word–whether you are using a clean draft or not–I strongly recommend that you use Word’s Track Changes¬†feature available on the Review tab. That way, if you decide you want to change anything back, you can do so easily. If you are adding or deleting large blocks of text, make sure your additions and deletions work in the context of the words around them. For deleted parts, make sure to take out any references you may have made to them elsewhere in the book.

If you’ve made any major deletions, consider using deleted scenes or chapters as reader magnets, something to entice your readers with to join your mailing list.

If you've rewritten major parts of the book, let it mellow and analyze again.

If you’ve made big, high-level changes to your story, step away from it for a few days. Then, come back and read it again with fresh eyes. Have you improved the story? Do the added parts flow seamlessly with the rest of the writing? Were any holes or questions created by deleted sections?

Next, look at the two broad types of writing: narrative and dialogue.

The next round of self-editing is a bridge between the macro editing you have been doing to the micro-editing that is to come. We’ll next focus on two distinct types of writing. If you just look at a random page in your book, notice that on a broad level you see only passages with quotation marks or passages without. Let’s read the entire book again, specifically drilling down into both types of passages used.

Look at narrative passages first.

These are the parts without quotes. There are three basic types of narrative passages:

  1. Ones that show what is happening inside a character’s mind or with their feelings¬†
  2. Ones showing action 
  3. Ones that explain backstory, mark the passage of time, or describe setting or other visual elements (exposition)

For the first type, make sure that you are showing–not telling–emotions and thoughts. If you do let the reader in the characters’ minds, are you doing so consistently throughout the text? Are you showing the reader thoughts and feelings only when relevant and interesting? For the second, are you showing action with enough detail and strong verbs that the reader will be able to visualize the action, perhaps even feeling like they become part of it? For the third, make sure that the manuscript isn’t bogged down by excessive backstory or description at any one particular time. Tell just enough … when you need to tell it. If you find that such passages slow down the pacing of the story, consider deleting or reducing … or shifting bits to different parts of the novel where they might be most effective but unobtrusive.

Then look at dialogue.

Dialogue has to pull its weight. Dialogue in literature should not be a mundane recitation like it often is in real life. We don’t need to be told the minutest detail of dialogue. (Mind those ummms and¬†uhs as well as the¬†hellos and pleasantries!) We don’t need to know every word that would be said in a typical conversation. Use heightened but somewhat spare language. We¬†need¬†to know the important parts of relevant conversations, and preferably, the dialogue should be written in an engaging, character-driven way. Look at your dialogue with an eye to tightening it to the point where it still seems natural while being a convenient shorthand to further the plot, reveal character, or build suspense … or any other reason that the particular piece of dialogue is at that point of the story.

While you’re focusing on dialogue, look at those dialogue tags. Are they really necessary, or can your dialogue pack more of a wallop if surrounded by small actions that¬†show how the dialogue is being expressed? If you feel you must use a dialogue tag, ponder whether you need more than “he said” or “they said.” Other dialogue tags can be distracting. Also, remember: you can’t smirk, snarl, or gulp a line of dialogue. Try it! You might be able to do these actions before or after a line of dialogue but not during.

Consider, too, where to make paragraph breaks around dialogue. One paragraph of dialogue should revolve ONLY around one character, showing his or her words and accompanying actions. When another character starts to speak or act, time for a new paragraph. I once read a book where the author consistently had paragraphs with the actions of one character and the dialogue of another! It took me a bit to figure out this was happening, and even once I understood, it was confusing! You may also want to start a new paragraph at a logical break point if one character has a particularly long piece of dialogue. Readers love visual breaks.

Then, look at each chapter and its scenes.

You’ve fixed any big-picture problems and considered the roles of narrative prose and dialogue in your book. Let’s drill deeper now. Dig out your outline (reverse, original, or both) and any plot or character analyses you may have, and refer to them as you read and rewrite your manuscript slowly chapter by chapter. Look at the relevance and importance of each chapter and its scenes.

Read each chapter in its entirety first.

After you read the chapter, look at your outline or plot analysis. How does this chapter fit into the overall structure of the book? Is point of view consistent throughout … even if you have a different narrator for each scene? Is the chapter necessary to show character, reveal information, and/or move the plot forward? If not, consider condensing and combining with other chapters … or consider fleshing it out so it carries the weight it needs to carry in the story.

Analyze what is happening with the plot in the chapter.

Again, think of the structure you are trying to maintain and build for your story. Does this distinct piece of the puzzle serve its purpose for where it falls in the narrative? What happens in this chapter? Are goals being thwarted? Are problems being defined, heightened … or solved? Is some aspect of theme, conflict, characterization, goals, and/or motivations being shown in action?

Determine what is happening with the characters in the chapter.

Over the course of a book, characters grow and change as they confront the present, ponder the past, and plan the future. In a broad sense, what is happening with the key characters in this chapter? How does that show us who they are? How does that move the story forward? Is anything happening with minor characters as well as major ones?

Break it down scene by scene.

If you haven’t already done so, outline each scene in the chapter. If point of view can change from scene to scene, who has the stage for each one in this chapter? Is any character driving or manipulating a particular scene? If so, to what purpose? If there isn’t such direct influence by a character, which character is the star of the scene … the one we need to find out the most about or the one that we need to see in action?¬†How does each scene move the plot forward?

Rewrite as you deem necessary to fulfill story requirements.

With all this data gathered, rewrite and refine so the chapter and its scenes reveal what is needed at this point to carry the story forward.

Finally, polish the details!

You’ve done the heavy lifting if you’ve gone through all the processes above. Well done! Again, take some time away from your manuscript before polishing the details. Again, I suggest at least a week off. During that time, I suggest you read some of your favorite authors in your genre. Read for enjoyment … but also read with a writer’s eye. Pick apart what you think makes the writer or the particular book a favorite of yours.

When you come back to your manuscript, it’s time to dig deep into the details.

Reread and edit for flow, readability, clarity, and correctness.

Time to view your story at the paragraph, sentence, and word level. Smooth transitions. Correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. (If you need a refresher course, visit the website for the Blue Book of Grammar; following the rules at that site will make your future editor and reader happy!) Tweak dialogue to make it sound more natural. This is an excellent time to use my How to Use Word to Improve Your Writing Instantly cheat sheet (coming soon!).

Run the manuscript through a grammar and spell checker.

None of us is perfect, even if we think we are! I strongly recommend running your manuscript through a grammar and spell checker like Grammarly or Pro Writing Aid. (Pro Writing Aid also has a variety of other tools as well that may give you insight into your writing technique.) Grammarly has free and premium versions; you can even download an add-in to Word for Windows that will seamlessly integrate Grammarly into your documents. No software-based checker will catch everything nor will every suggestion made be correct; you still have to use your judgment. But these aids will almost always catch a thing or two that will make you slap your head, saying, “How did I miss that??”

Writing Improvement Software

Use Word (or equivalent) to improve your writing.

Use Word’s Find feature to improve your writing:

  • Look for any exclamation marks. Is your character that excited?
  • Swap out double spaces anywhere for single spaces using Find and Replace. If you use Grammarly, it will catch double spaces between words for you.
  • Root out potential filler words; consider removing fillers or recasting sentences when you find these words: as, actually, just, that, really, very, so, rather, quite, like, etc.
  • Clean up dialogue tags. This was mentioned in the section on dialogue but bears repeating! Do you need dialogue tags at all? If you are expressing how the character is acting at the time, probably not. If you want to use one … do you really need more than “said”? Remember, too, that you can’t giggle, simper, or guffaw a line of dialogue. If you are using dialogue tags or other prose around dialogue, make sure you are punctuating your choice correctly.
    • Any prose in the same paragraph as dialogue but isn’t a dialogue tag needs to have starting capitalization and appropriate ending punctuation (period, question mark, or exclamation point).
    • A leading dialogue tag ends with a comma before capitalized dialogue.¬†
    • An ending dialogue tag is only capitalized when a proper name starts it (like the character’s name). Otherwise, use lower case.
    • If you use an ending dialogue tag, be sure to use a comma (not a period) within the quoted dialogue. Think of the dialogue tag as completing the piece of dialogue; you wouldn’t have two periods in one sentence. Of course, you can use question marks and exclamation points within the quotation–but never use a period when an ending dialogue tag exists.
    • Comma-bound nested dialogue tags–which interrupt a piece of dialogue–should ONLY occur in the middle of a sentence. If there are full sentences on either side of the dialogue tag, that tag needs a period (not a comma), and the dialogue that follows should be capitalized.
  • Remove crutch words. While favorites are lovely, you might want to mix it up. Want an impartial view of the words you use the most often? Use Textalyser,, or¬†WriteWords to find out your favorites.

Read your story aloud.

… or have it read aloud to you by Word as outlined above. Or do a combination; when your voice gets tired (or you get tired of hearing it), let Word take over for you. It never ceases to amaze me what the ear hears but the eye misses … even if you’ve poured over your manuscript twenty times already over the course of six months. Change small mistakes right away. For bigger problems, take notes or make comments in the text itself at the areas you want to revisit.

Look at all your notes, outlines, etc.

Time for a final tweak. Resolve any problems you’ve identified during your read-aloud or your musings on your book. Are all plot holes filled? Have you delivered on your premise? Do you think it is an engaging read? Are all loose ends tied up? Make it as awesome as you can!

Next Steps

You’ve completed the fully edited second draft of your manuscript! Again … Congratulations! If you think you’re ready, it is time to release the book to people beyond those you know personally …

First, release it to your beta team.

Resist the urge to continue to tweak your manuscript while it is in the hands of your beta team. Wait until you get their analyses back. When you do, take the time to mull over what each has said and determine if you need to change your manuscript. A strong beta team can guide you to better writing and a better story … if you don’t take constructive criticism personally.

While you’re waiting, this is a great time to get your cover and your marketing plan in place, if you haven’t already done so.

After another round of self-editing, consider your editorial needs.

You’ve done another round of revision based on the beta reading analyses. Do you feel like your manuscript is complete, that it reflects your vision, and is something your future readers will love? If not, consider getting a manuscript evaluation by an editor. If you do feel that all is well and good, it is time to consider which level of editing you need.

  • Do you feel like your sentences need tweaking for readability and flow? If so, consider hiring a line editor.
  • I believe every writer should invest in a copyeditor, even though it is expensive. You’ve just labored over your manuscript, first in the writing and then in the self-editing; give your work the best possibility to shine by hiring a good copyeditor. This is not a place to save time or money.
  • If you don’t feel like you can afford to have your entire manuscript line edited or copyedited, consider a First 10,000-word Edit (see more details near the Pricing section of the Edit page), which will both polish those first words and give you an idea of what your common errors and difficulties are.
  • If you feel you absolutely cannot afford a copyeditor at all, at least hire a proofreader to correct glaring errors.
  • If you can afford both a copyeditor and a proofreader, your manuscript will benefit from having multiple sets of editorial eyes on it.

Last--really!--go over changes your editor or proofreader has made, and decide what to accept.

You ultimately decide which editorial changes to keep and which to discard. If you trust your editor, do give thought to why you are rejecting a change. While an editor may explain some changes in comments, she will not explain all. Don’t hesitate to email your editor if you have questions about changes. Be very careful when rejecting a change so that you do not introduce grammar or punctuation errors … I’ve seen that happen more than once.

Every time you or your editor touches your manuscript, there is always the possibility of introducing new errors.¬† So, after you’ve accepted or rejected all of your editor’s suggested changes, run a final grammar and spell check to make sure at least basic errors haven’t been introduced into your work.

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