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I just finished writing my first draft of my novel, and I don't quite know the states of self-editing. Right now, I'm not looking for advice on professional editors/proofreaders, I just want to know how to do it myself. I don't believe I'm going to be publishing this book, either professionally of by myself. I've read a few blog posts on The Write Practice but the rest of the steps are unclear to me.

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    Congrats! I hear the first draft is the second hardest one to write! – corsiKa Sep 7 at 8:10
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    A possible first step towards finding the answer could be reading Self-editing for fiction writers. There are quite detailed instructions there. – user6696 Sep 7 at 9:01
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Whatever gets you to a final state that you like. You're not handing in drafts in English class.

Some steps that various writers have found useful:

  • Put it aside for a month to let it cool. This helps you read with more objectivity.
  • Work from the big picture to the small details. It does you no good to carefully polish every sentence in a scene if the truth is that the scene is superfluous and should go, and no good to ponder whether a scene is superfluous when the beginning and the end belong to different genres and so the entire section with the scene will have to be jettisoned.
  • Consult beta readers at some point. There is a trade-off here -- on one hand, you will never get a second chance to get a first impression from the readers, and you might waste them on problems you could fix yourself, and on the other, you don't want to get useful feedback after you are so sick of your story that you can't bear to revise it one more time.
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  • Thank you! This was really helpful. One more clarifying question-- do I have to put it aside for a whole month? I just finished yesterday and I'm super excited to start editing. (FYI this is also the first novel I've written). – AnnWriter19 Sep 7 at 1:48
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    A lot of writers find it helps to edit in a cooler frame of mind. But if you're too excited to wait, you may have to do another pass later. – Mary Sep 7 at 1:49
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(Mary's answer feels spot-on to me. I wanted to comment to shade setting it aside a bit, but I had just a hair too much to say...)

The point of setting it aside is to make enough distance to get around (or over) yourself and see the text closer to how it is. A month is a good place to start, but there's no one-size-fits-all gap.

Low-level editing may not take as much distance as coming to the conclusion that a scene with one of your favorite lines of dialog doesn't otherwise pull its weight. A task like cleaning up dangling references to a cut scene may be easier to get right when you're very familiar with what happens where, but spotting references that fell through the cracks may take very fresh eyes.

Letting it sit is sound advice (and a very common practice), but a big part of distance is getting your mind to move on (read a few books, or start a new project).

If you're itching to dig in and don't think you'll be able to keep yourself from chewing on it, I wonder if it might help to frame it as a learning exercise:

  • mark a few chapters (or the whole thing, if you must) without making any of the changes
  • set it aside and find something to keep your mind busy
  • return to a fresh copy and repeat the exercise
  • compare what you caught and wanted to change each time
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I highly recommend The Paramedic Method, which is what I now use to edit all of my drafts. To summarize:

  • Cut out passive voice. Passive voice is sentences where the subject is obfuscated and there is no clear action, i.e. "The machine was fixed" or "The decision was made." Passive voice makes for weaker, less deliberate writing. After cutting out the passive, you rewrite the affected sentences to use simple, active verbs, i.e. "He fixed the machine" or "I made the decision."
  • Remove adverbs and unnecessary words. Nine times out of ten, you do not need words like "suddenly," "quickly," "very," "really," etc. Cut them out - they just clutter up your sentences. You can also get rid of unnecessary adjectives. Read through sentences before and after to see if the flow has improved, and make additional adjustments if these changes altered the rhythm.
  • Remove bad "rhythms" from your sentences. This means removing places in your draft where sentences drag on with no clear direction or are too repetitive - i.e. sentences like "He went to the door, and opened the window, and looked outside." Can you hear the ba-da, ba-da, ba-da? It's boring, and needs fixing to make the sentence more exciting to read.
  • Keep subjects and objects clear. Make sure your reader always knows who is doing what, or who is saying what lines of dialogue. Don't confuse subjects or make the reader unsure of what is going on in a sentence.
  • Put the action first, and remove wind-ups. Sentences that take a long time getting to the point are not good for keeping your reader's attention. Make sure the action comes first.
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    I've heard a revision metaphor where these steps would be the cosmetic fixes at the end, and the 'paramedic' bit would be the overall structure (in the sense of why bother fixing sentences in a scene that might get completely cut / why do a nose job on someone who's bleeding out). Interesting that different methods use the same word for completely different things! – DM_with_secrets Sep 7 at 7:39
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    @DM_with_secrets I guess maybe I took "revision" to mean revising sentences rather than the whole novel, but I read it wrong. Hopefully it's still helpful, oops. – Sciborg Sep 7 at 7:50
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    'needs fixing to make the sentence more exciting to read.' I'd be wary of the idea that every sentence needs excitement, mostly the reason to avoid sentences like your example is that they are annoying and distracting. – Spagirl Sep 7 at 9:23
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Get the Hemingway program for computer. Copy and paste passages into Hemingway and it will instantly highlight issues like adverb use and lots more. Its a program that has been used by journalists to make their articles 'pop.'

You can even just use the online version at hemmingwayapp.com but it is an unsecure site according to Firefox

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