A Writers’ Guide to Self-editing Fiction

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The sense of completion, wonder, and elation when you finish the first draft of your story is often followed by a deep sense of uncertainty. Is it any good? What needs work? What happens next?

Whether you are considering traditional or self-publishing, you want to ensure your story is the best it can be before taking the next steps. Following a systematic self-editing process will give you confidence that your story is ready to share.

Before you self-edit


Before you begin self-editing your fiction story, consider the following.


Know your audience


Consider your readers. As you work through the self-editing process, your understanding of your audience will inform your choices. In the end, your deeper understanding can help build a more authentic connection with your reader.


Know your story


You are already the master of your story. Self-editing will help make you more confident in your choices. As you embark on the process and get feedback from others, your knowledge of your story will help you make changes that can deepen and improve the narrative.


Stay open to learning


Self-editing fiction offers opportunities for growth. A deeper understanding of writing techniques and your genre will inform your future writing. Indulge in the craft of editing — you may even discover you love it! There are a plethora of craft books and resources; devote time to researching and find inspiration.


Use technology


One of the most difficult aspects of self-editing fiction is keeping an objective view. There are technological options that can help you stay objective, save time, stay organized, and make steps in this process easier. Take some time to explore some of the great options in editing software.


Prepare for a professional edit


Your experience with self-editing can be hugely helpful when you work with a professional editor. You will better understand their feedback and will be more capable when it comes to turning their suggestions into revisions.

From finished draft to reader-ready

Self-editing fiction follows three essential steps:

Prepare. Set yourself up for success

Focus on story. Strengthen the structure

Focus on prose. Edit language and style


Step 1: Prepare


Take a break

The first thing you should do is step away and give yourself space from your work. You and the story have spent a lot of time together. Celebrate this amazing achievement, just do it away from the story. Finding objectivity will be easier with some separation from your finished manuscript.


Remember your readers


Before you dive into your self-edit, take some time to better understand what your readers enjoy in the books they choose. What other books does your target audience enjoy? Have you read one of those lately? Use this time to change your perspective from writer to reader. What moves you as a reader? What’s keeping you turning the page?


Set a deadline


It can be easy to find reasons why you think your story isn’t ready to be shared — don’t let this time away cause you to lose momentum. Working with a set deadline will help you stay focused and motivated. Even if the deadline you set is only for you, use it to keep you on track.


Step 2: Evaluate your story


Grab your objective editor hat and your creative writer chapeau. Keep them close. This step is hard work, but it’s where so much of the magic happens and is where you’ll gain confidence that your story is structurally strong and ready to captivate your readers.


Before you make any changes to your manuscript, construct a revision plan. This document will help you keep track of structural issues and include notes to make each scene stronger. Make notes of all the places where you could move, add, revise, cut, or split scenes and chapters.


Make note of any inconsistencies you find or scenes that don’t work. Jot down every new idea and change you could make to improve clarity or add depth. Don’t do anything yet. You are just making a plan and coming up with creative changes.


How you do this is up to you. Some writers have one document with all the larger structural issues and a separate one for specific scene notes. Some like a fresh new notebook full of post-it notes they can move around. Others like to track changes in a spreadsheet. Fictionary works for me. I’ve let go of spreadsheets and post-it notes thanks to this software that gives me control and support through my structural edit.


Make a promise (well… two)

There are two promises that will set you up for success as you travel through this edit.

First, promise, I will keep my editor hat on until my revision plan is complete.

Editing is about evaluation. It’s about analyzing the overall structure and the scene-level structure to see what’s working and what needs revision. When you are editing, you are not revising. They are two different steps. Do not yet make changes to your manuscript. You are a READER.


This promise is going to help save you time and make your story strong.

Your second promise is your story promise.

At BookFuel, we call it your skeleton blurb. Your skeleton blurb is not for your readers; it’s a tool that will help you stay laser-focused as you self-edit. It is your story at its very essence.

A skeleton blurb looks like this:


(Protagonist) must (story goal) otherwise (story stakes).


Don’t let its simplicity fool you: this is a powerful tool. Let’s examine J.R.R. Tolkien’s skeleton blurb for “The Lord of the Rings”: Frodo Baggins must destroy the ring of power, otherwise Sauron will rule Middle Earth. Or, Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”: Katniss Everdeen must win the Hunger Games, otherwise she will die and her family will starve without her.


Keep your skeleton blurb close while you edit. You may refine it while you are editing if you think you have it wrong—it is another touchstone for you and your story.


Story Arc When Self-Editing Fiction


As writers, we sometimes balk at formulas and rules. We are creative! But, just as we depend on the bones that make up our skeleton to support our bodies, a solid framework helps all great stories stand strong.


There is a wide range of structures and frameworks to choose from, and this is where I think BookFuel really helps. What makes the BookFuel Story Arc stand out is its simplicity, flexibility, and strength. Based on extensive research on story structure, the BookFuel Story Arc uses five pivotal plot points to weave your narrative around.


Inciting Incident: The event that disrupts your protagonist’s ordinary world.

Plot Point 1: When your protagonist accepts the story goal.


Middle Plot Point: Where your protagonist shifts from reactive to active engagement.

Plot Point 2: Your protagonist’s lowest moment; all hope seems lost.


Climax: Your protagonist addresses the story goal, either successfully or not.


Scene-by-Scene Editing


Once you are confident that your overall story arc is hitting all the right beats, it’s time to start looking at your scenes. Think of every scene as its own mini-story with its own beginning, middle, and end.

Here are some key questions you should be asking in every scene:

  • Is it clear whose point of view (POV) this scene is from? If you have multiple characters telling your story, you need to make sure your reader knows whose voice they are hearing.
  • Does that POV character have a clear scene goal? Their goal should be tangible and there should be some risk that they won’t reach it. By the scene climax, the reader will know if the character attained the goal.
  • Is your POV character getting closer to their overall story goal? Every scene should move your character closer to or further from their overall story goal; otherwise, why is it there?
  • Is this the strongest scene goal? Just like your story skeleton blurb, a scene blurb shows the strength of your scene. The POV character must (scene goal), otherwise (what if goal fails/stakes). Write your scene blurb for every scene.
  • Is there tension/conflict? Consider the journey of your POV character. What obstacles are put in the way? What tension and conflict are encountered on the way to that goal?
  • Is your scene structure strong? Just like those story arc scenes build the framework for your story, these elements show the strong structure of your scene.
  • Have you immersed your reader in the story world? In each scene, notice what senses are being used. Using at least three senses builds the world for the reader. The POV character is guiding us through the world in this scene.




It’s time to get back to writing! Follow a plan for your revisions. Start with the larger issues first. If you are cutting scenes, changing protagonists, or altering your POV strategy, do this first. Then, work through your scenes and revise only the weak areas. At this point, don’t worry about beautiful prose. That’s coming soon. Following your revision plan will help you know that you have implemented the necessary structural changes.


Step 3: Focus on Prose


Your revised manuscript is structurally strong. You focused on strengthening weak areas without worrying about the beauty of your prose. Now you’re ready for the next step. Take time to enjoy another pass through your story with that writer chapeau sitting jauntily on your head. Enjoy reading each scene and adjusting your prose. Take a moment to hear your characters’ voices. Make changes and feel your writer’s voice throughout the story. Let your reading and writing flow.


Now, you are ready for the wonderful world of copy editing. In full creative mode, we sometimes lose sight of correct grammar and usage. Bring out your editor hat and your red pen. It’s time to analyze every sentence carefully.


Consistency and Correctness

Take the time to brush up on your grammar rules and decide on the style guide you will use. Take advantage of the many technological tools out there to help you perfect your prose. I use ProWritingAid to give me the support I need in knowing the rules, offering options, and helping me to be consistent in my choices.


Style and Word Choice

As you delve deeper into copy editing, keep track of your personal style choices. A professional style guide like the Chicago Manual can be a start. Clean prose makes the reader’s experience seamless. They can get lost in your story. Copy editing ensures you are communicating cleanly and clearly.


Embrace the Self-Editing Process

I believe we write the first draft for ourselves — it is the story we want to read. Sometimes, characters whisper in our ears. Snatches of moments, scenes, and settings urge us to write, to build a new world. Driven to create, we find ourselves holding pages of a story pulled from our minds, and often, our hearts.


Editing and revision are how the story grows and matures. This is for your readers. After all, writing is communication. Sharing will give your story life, and we want our characters to find their people, we want our story to touch others — to entertain, enlighten, terrify, and touch hearts and minds.


You have the creativity and the power to shape and shine your draft into a polished story readers will love. Self-editing fiction is a necessity for your story and your readers, and gets your manuscript ready for a final professional edit and proofreading.


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