Why Self-Editing Your Novel Manuscript on Paper is Best (With 4-Step Process & Free Downloadable Checklist)

close up of crumpled lined paper

Nowadays, most writers do everything on their phones and computers, but when it comes to your first developmental self-edit on your novel, printing it out and editing by hand old-school is still the best method. By using the below 4-step process and FREE downloadable Fiction Developmental Self-Editing Checklist, you’re putting yourself in the best possible position for success!


Edit on paper? But it’s so un-environmental! (Especially since once you print the manuscript, all you’ll do is scrawl all over it or chop it into pieces). Be that as it may, for the good of your sanity and efficacy when you first return to your novel draft to self-edit, doing so on paper is the best method for two compelling reasons:

  • You’re connected to your draft more intimately
  • It upsets the eye to see the work in a new context

By following my 4-step process for self-editing your manuscript and using the free downloadable self-editing checklist (below), you will feel organized, confident, and connected to the heartbeat of your book.

I. Creating a Direct Line from Hand to Brain

When you have your manuscript in your hands, you’re able to have an embodied response to it. Being able to touch the pages, write in the margins, and circle and arrow passages changes the neurological relationship you have to the work and transforms the manuscript from being a theoretical grouping of algebraic symbols on a screen to a heart-beating story come to life of your own making.

Further, when we’re touching the work, our brain makes stronger visceral connections to the ideas of the lines. This may have something to do with the noted benefit of handwriting vs. typing in terms of retention due to something called “encoding hypothesis,” which means the brain is processing while it’s writing- a first layer of storing the material.

It could also be that to touch is to connect to something much more than to not– we feel the world to understand it (notice how kids can’t NOT touch everything), to make sure it’s really there, so it makes sense that we’d have a different, more intimate relationship with our manuscript if it’s physically in our hands.

glasses sitting on book

Credit: James Salter

II. Defamiliarization

If you composed your rough draft on a computer or wrote it long-hand and then typed it, by self-editing the printed copy, you’re jarring the eye to re-see the work in a new context. While you will have taken some time away from the manuscript between writing it and beginning your self-edit, this additional layer of remove really helps provide further distance from the work, which helps you refine its development in notes you make to yourself.

 

Over my many years as a writer and editor, I’ve developed a 4-part self-editing process that makes the early organization of your novel material easier and much more manageable.

 

My Developmental 4-Step Self-Editing on Paper Process

 

Preparation Phase

 

  • Number the pages, double-space the text and use a font you like in standard 12 pt. (or 13 pt. if you’re over 40). The margins should be at least 1″ so you have room to write notes.
  • Paper clip each chapter individually.
  • Get some lovely pens (colored if you plan to color-code by craft element, such as plot, character, and setting or one color if you’re a purist (but even then, I recommend getting some highlighters so you can mark the sections for when you later rewrite the manuscript and need to pay attention to only one craft element at a time)).
color coded writing by writer Rick Wormwood

Photo credit: author Rick Wormwood, working manuscript

Phase 1:

 

  • Dive in! The idea is you read your work like an editor with a critical eye toward ensuring everything is fluid, necessary, and developing properly. Make notes in the margins, underline sections and comment on them.Use sticky tabs to mark sections you want to relocate and write notes to yourself on them (Ex: “begin move from p. 20 to p. 22 before graph 2” and “end move p. 20 to p. 22”).

 

Phase Two:

 

  • Sleep on the draft for a few nights. Then read it again, this time making notes on global issues that weave systemically throughout the book. (This is where your pens and sticky tabs will come in handy).Phase 1 is the micro, which comes before Phase 2’s macro because with the first read, when you’re writing down your initial responses to the play-by-play, you’re also unconsciously absorbing the bigger-picture issues of plot, character development, and pacing, planting seeds.

    By the time you do your second read, your brain will have made some necessary early connections, making you far better able to see clearly how those items lay out. You will now have stronger ideas of what’s not working about them or even how to fix them.

    TIP: To make sure you address every craft element of the draft, download the Fiction Developmental Self-Editing Checklist below. This checklist will keep you organized and help you note observations about each craft element, what you would want to add, remove, need to fix, etc.

 

As a pre-step to the checklist, this author/editor lays out the main areas you should address as you read through the book. Asking yourself these questions as you fill in your Fiction Developmental Self-Editing Checklist will ensure you’re very connected to the evolution of the draft.

 

  • When you’ve finished your second read/note making, let the manuscript rest again.

 

  • The Big Note: Now that your brain has had a few days to sort through its thoughts on the work, write yourself a comprehensive note. Begin by speaking to the theme, the “what the book is about” then use the Self-Editing Checklist to address the issues of the book from large to small.Write to yourself as if you were a fellow writer you respect: celebrate what about the book is working great as well as what you’d like to see adjusted and why, what’s superfluous, clear, not clear, etc.This step allows you to see the book- its construction, shape, and purpose- from the outside as a fellow practitioner who understands the book is at the front end of its development (meaning: with compassion and constructive ideas), and not as a reader who will look at the end result (meaning: not as a critic or nay-sayer).

    In this long note, you’re identifying how the book has been built thus far and what further construction is necessary so the interior is where others would ultimately want to come in and live.

 

After you have your marked-up manuscript and your note to yourself, you’re ready for Phase 3: retyping the whole book.

 

(She seriously did not just say that).

(She totally did).

 

black and white close up typewriter keys

Photo by Peter Lewicki

Phase Three:

 

  • Re-read your note then set it aside.
  • Pick up the very messy draft, and retype it using your notes as a guide.

 

Phase Four (Optional but Recommended):

 

Print this newly typed-out draft. [Yes, I know by this point you will have used a terrible horrible amount of paper. You can compensate by printing on both sides, filling your own containers at the local bulk shop, and switching to bar shampoo and Castile soap. There, balance (mostly) restored!]

Phase Four is a very picky but exacting phase when you re-read the draft multiple times, each time looking exclusively and specifically for one craft element only (plot, character, setting, tone, point of view, etc.) in order to follow the development of those elements and make notes on the development of each of those items.

This is a long process but a very worthwhile one. Some authors at this point begin scissoring up the pages by scene or transferring key elements of each chapter onto index cards to pin them on the wall in order to see how to lean out and maintain a tight structure.

 

Where some authors stop at Phase Three (such as this one who holds all craft elements in mind as she re-types)*, others do Phase Four to ensure consistency in a conscious way that may not be done as effectively during the Phase Three retype.

 

Post-Phase Four:

To organize your self-editing process that much more, you can also develop other self-editing aids such as chapter/scene summaries, a style sheet, and character keys (more on those soon … ).

When to Bring in a Collaborative Partner: a Writing Coach & Editor

This first developmental self-edit of your book is hard sweaty work. To prevent feeling overwhelmed and tangled, many authors bring in editors at this point to brainstorm and collaborate on the developing draft. This self-editing method is excellent for going through your own draft, but it is also a wonderful collaborative tool as it enables you and your editor to fast-track the book’s evolution and progress in order to get to your novel’s essential heart.


If we can help you with a writing coach and editor, so you don’t have to undergo this process alone, please reach out- our entire purpose at One Lit Place is to help writers through the process in order to reach all your goals. Publication can be yours- and we’re here to support you however you need.

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