How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript

by Jennifer Harris

The Big Picture – Part 1

Big picture editing—also called developmental editing or the revision stage—can be an overwhelming task, especially if this is your first novel. The big picture edit is where you will start molding your raw material into a polished finished novel. This is the stage of editing where you’ll most likely be making very big changes to your manuscript, taking your sloppy first draft (vomit draft, as some people call it) to a workable second draft. During revision you might remove entire chapters, rearrange chapters, add or remove secondary characters, add key events, fill plot holes, etc.

For example, my co-author and I are just now completing our second round of rewrites for Providence. We removed three chapters from the first half, added two characters, added a few key events, and completely changed the beginning and ending of the book. While the bulk of the story is still there, it reads like a different story altogether—a much better story.

NOTE: Even if you plan to hire an editor for this stage, it’s important that you do a preliminary big picture edit prior to sending your work out.


1 | GET DISTANCE FROM THE STORY: If I’m working on my own manuscript, I make sure to put some distance between myself and the story. Take a few days or weeks away from your project. You’ll have much more clarity on what’s working and what’s not once you’ve had some time away. (This is when I usually start the draft for my next book.)

2 | CREATE A STORY GRID: One of the first things I do when I sit down with a manuscript is to create a story grid. Using Google sheets or Excel, I create a sheet with seven columns: Scene #, Word Count, Location, Scene Event, POV, On-Stage Characters, Value Shift. This process gives me a good overview of the book, looking at continuity of chapter length, making sure there’s no discrepancy with POV, scene location, or events, keeping track of scene events to be sure they’re in the optimal order, and so on.

3 | READ THROUGH YOUR MANUSCRIPT: At this point, you’ll want to completely read through your manuscript. I recommend printing it out (if it’s not too long), or reading on your iPad or Kindle—try to stay away from your computer screen during this stage. It’s also helpful if you read aloud. My co-author and I will do a read-through together, alternating reading chapters aloud. This process helps us to see issues we might not have otherwise picked up on. Be sure to take notes and make changes as you read. It’s easy to forget to check on a possible discrepancy or make a change in the beginning once you’ve reached the end.

4 | DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DELETE BUTTON: I know, trust me…it’s tough to highlight an entire section of words and make them disappear. Those words could represent a day’s worth of work or more! But, when it’s necessary, it will only serve to make your work stronger. And remember, words are never wasted. It may be that you needed those words to get to where you were going.

Developmental/big picture editing can be a challenge, but a good one overall! It’s where you can really see your story taking shape. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Copy/Line Editing!

Jennifer Harris is an editor of both fiction and nonfiction. She is the co-author of The Catalyst Series as well as the standalone novel, Providence (J.L. Harris and D. Rankin). When she is not writing or editing, you can find her running, hiking, reading, or playing the piano. She lives in New England with her husband, two children, two dogs, and cat. You can find out more about Jennifer by connecting with her in our Authors Community Forum where you’ll find her social media information, or visiting her author page.

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