Tips for Self-Editing Your Manuscript
You have finished your first draft, but before hiring somebody to edit, you want to prepare your manuscript to the best of your ability so that you get the most out of the editing process. Don't worry if grammar is not your strong point—most self-editing looks at the big picture anyway, so don't get too caught up in the little details.
How can you switch from writing to self-editing your own project?
Take a break from the project. This is pretty common advice, and you may have already heard it from me in another blog post. It bears repeating because it helps you view your own work with a fresh perspective. As a creative writer myself, I can't tell you how much my perspective has shifted when I go just one week without looking at my writing and then I return to it. After you finish the first draft, let it rest. Work on some other projects or read for fun—just get your mind off of the project.
Read dialogue out loud. Reading all of your book out loud will help, as it helps you catch awkward points in the narration or descriptions. It is especially important, however, to read dialogue out loud. As you read, just imagine the characters actually saying the words out loud. If the dialogue sounds stiff and forced, that's a sign that you may need to work on making the dialogue a bit more natural. If this is a challenge for you, pay attention to the way your family members and friends talk as you interact throughout the week. Notice that everybody has different ways of saying things or different speaking mannerisms. Notice that most people don't speak in super formal language. Keep those notes in mind when writing the dialogue for your characters, and give characters a touch of personality in the way they speak.
Look at the presentation. Open up a couple of published books (or any genre similar to your project) and consider how they look to a reader's eye; then compare that to yours. Do your paragraphs go on for pages without a break? Are your paragraphs too short and choppy? Does your dialogue run on endlessly? If you notice anything in your own project that could be unappealing to the reader, such as huge blocks of text, this could be a signal that you need to focus on the presentation of the project.
Reach out to friends or writing peers who may be able to help. If you're part of a writing group or have friends who enjoy reading, reach out to them about critiquing your work. You could even offer an exchange where you read their work in return. If you get feedback from your peers, take time to evaluate it. If you receive critiques from friends with minimal experience, don't apply their suggestions without taking a moment to consider the impact it would have on your story and whether it is actually good advice. On the other hand, don't dismiss all critiques right away. Even if you don't end up implementing all the changes that your peers suggest, it is important to note that everything they have a problem with could be a problem for future readers as well. It is necessary to consider all points of view.
Fact-check your project. If you're writing nonfiction, be sure to fact-check the dates, names, locations, and any other information that requires accuracy. If you are writing fiction, you can practice fact-checking within the fictional world you have created. You can help yourself out by keeping a list of facts that you make up, including the names of characters, the birth dates of characters, the physical descriptions of each character, the different locations that each scene takes place in, and more. As you write your first draft over the series of several months, it can be easy to forget that in Chapter 2 you made a character's eyes brown, and in Chapter 10 they have blue eyes. We want to focus on consistency, so as you're reading through your project, fact-check all the details that you mention.
Make necessary cuts. By the time you finish the first draft, the plot may have changed directions a few different times, and now the entire third chapter (or just a scene) is no longer necessary. Don't be afraid to cut stuff that is not necessary to the plot or development of the story. The same goes for unnecessary characters as well if you find that a character adds nothing to the story except pointless dialogue.
Keep notes of plot holes. As you read through your final draft, keep a list of anything odd or missing that jumps out at you. Maybe one character was prevalent in the first four chapters but then completely disappears from the story. Write that down and keep reading, keeping an eye out for places where you might be able to bring that character back into the story (if they're even necessary). If you notice a plot point that you never resolved, write down the page numbers where that plot point is mentioned and start brainstorming solutions to resolve. Making specific notes will help out your future self when you go back to fix the problems.
While this is not an entirely comprehensive list of everything you can do to self-edit, I don't think that there is a comprehensive list out there. That being said, these seven steps are a great place to start. If you still feel like your project is lacking after you've gone through these initial steps, there are dozens of guides available online to help you focus on specific aspects of your writing, such as strengthening the character arcs, implementing emotions, editing the tone, and fine-tuning the exposition. You can always reach out to other writers to see what they recommend for self-editing.
If you aren't sure whether you're ready to hire an editor, check out this article for a few words of advice.