25 Writing and Self-Editing Tips for Indie Authors
By: Derek Murphy
Years of publishing has taught me that a book written and published quickly can be just as good (or better) than one that took ten years to polish. Even though I have a PhD in Literature and spent nearly a decade as a book editor, I’ve seen far too many beautifully edited books fail; I’ve also spent times editing projects that I knew deep down weren’t commercially viable.
That’s why I strongly urge writers to self-edit as much as possible, whether or not they hire an editor or proofreader, so they can improve their writing. A great editor will always make things better, but they won’t change or rewrite the story for you. They may identify crucial plot holes or character development problems, but they won’t fix them (unless you’re paying them for ghostwriting, most editors will fix and improve but won’t rewrite your story).
So here are 25 self-editing tips you can use to check your own work before you look for beta readers or outside help. These are based on common writing mistakes myself and the editors at BookButchers encounter most frequently in new writers.
PS) If you write fiction, I also just made a video about my 5-step book revision process (here).
Like this video? I also made a free course about editing books, with my recommended writing books for authors.
No self-published author should publish their work without paying a professional to edit it first. But what if you don’t have the money to pay for an editor? Or what if you want to keep your costs down by doing as much editing on your own as you can?
Before you spend money on an editor, work your way through this 25-point checklist. Because the better you can make your novel on your own, the better your editor can help you make it together. Think of it like football: Get the ball as far down the field as you can, then pass the ball to your editor. Together you can go for goal.
SELF-EDITING TIP #1
Does the world need this book? If so, why?
Every year, millions of books get published. Most get ignored. Ask yourself: Why does the world need your book?
This is not an argument to self-censor. Rather to think about what you’re publishing and why. Talking to hear the sound of your own voice may be amusing, but does little to attract an audience. Talking, writing, speaking—it’s all about the audience, not about you.
Sharpening your focus at this stage will make self-editing much easier. Because if you don’t know what you have to say or why you’re saying it, then how can you sharpen your prose to achieve those goals?
SELF-EDITING TIP #2:
How’s Your Hook?
Readers have short attention spans these days, and an ocean of ebooks to choose from. You need a strong hook in your opening pages to persuade readers to cross your palm with silver.
Pretend that you’re a reader, and ask yourself: Why should I care? Why should I invest my money—not to mention my time, which is even more valuable—in reading your novel? I could be watching Game of Thrones. Are you telling me your novel is more entertaining? Make me care!
And hooking the reader doesn’t end after the first five pages. There is no point at which you can relax and rest on your laurels (either within the pages of a book or during a literary career). Every word sells the next. Every sentence sells the next. Every paragraph sells the next. Every chapter sells the next. Every book sells the next.
Because as a reader? I owe you exactly squat. Zilch. Make me care. Make your writing so irresistible that I can’t help but want to read on.
That’s how you write a book. That’s how you build a career.
SELF-EDITING TIP #3:
Who’s Your Hero?
Reading a novel means donning an avatar’s skin. When we enter the pages of your book, we become, in our imaginations, at least, your hero. And we’re not going to be very comfortable if your hero is a jerk.
Your hero needs to be someone we can relate to, who we can understand. We don’t necessarily have to like him, but we have to care. This doesn’t mean your hero should be a goodie two-shoes, because that’s equally irritating. Instead, write flawed heroes and complex villains. Hannibal Lector may be a cannibal, but boy can he keep me turning the pages!
SELF-EDITING TIP #4:
What Does Your Hero Want?
A novel is just this: Who is your hero? What does he want? What’s stopping him from getting it?
Character is just another word for what the hero wants. Give us a sympathetic hero with a goal we can relate to, and the strength of will to pursue that goal at all costs, and you’ve got the makings of a great story.
SELF-EDITING TIP #5
Who’s Your Villain?
You needn’t go all Hollywood here, but your hero needs obstacles. If your hero wants a ham sandwich, and all he has to do is go to the fridge and make one, that’s not a very exciting story, now is it?
Note that by “villain” we mean the opposing force working to prevent the hero from achieving his goal. The villain and hero are sometimes the same character—for instance, a story of an alcoholic or drug addict fighting to get the monkey off his back. Or it could be nature—sailors fighting to stay afloat during a hurricane.
If you go with a human villain, be sure to give the character a touch of goodness. Evil is not cartoonish, but rather a misguided attempt to do good. Melodrama went out of fashion when the last vaudeville hall closed its doors.