Updated: Mar 28, 2018
So, you've finished your work of fiction/nonfiction, either a short or series of shorts, novella, or full-length book. You're ready to begin the important process of editing. Whether you'll be hiring a professional editor or editing it yourself as a self-publisher, you should always be the one to perform the first level of editing to your work. Why? So you can be the first to sight and fix any misplaced plot details in your story, dotting and crossing the initial Is and Ts first before they reach the critical eye of a pro editor.
Don’t start the editing process until you've finished your first draft
Don’t try to edit while you're still working on your drafts; start editing only when you have it completed. I also recommend you print out the manuscript for easier visualization of the work as a whole.
Leave your work for a while
The first thing to do before you start editing altogether, or perhaps after the first draft has been edited, is to leave your work for a while. 'Abandon it' and come back to it after, say, a month, with fresh eyes. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you'll be able to read each sentence completely, catch simple spelling errors or grammatical incorrectness, and make sense of each paragraph as it relates to your topic or theme. In other words, you'll be reading your work like a true editor reading it for the first time, and errors will stand out easier.
It's necessary to always read slowly when editing, especially with this level of editing. Does one sentence flow after the other? Are you jumping from one point to the other in a back-to-back sentence? Are each of your characters making sense when they speak? Are your words making it easy for the reader to connect the dots properly, to understand what happened or what is about to happen? Are there any 'hidden stones' that are still left unturned by the end of the novel? (Perhaps you may have forgotten about it -- it could happen in a work where there are so many mysteries to be solved). Will your book have an open ending, or do you want it to have closure? Does each chapter make sense, i.e. is there a lesson to be learned, a secret to be discovered? Does each chapter flow well into one other? These are the things to keep in mind when doing the first level of editing. Are there paragraphs, sections, or a whole chapter to take out? Are there more facts to add? Do your characters seem real to you? We all know they obviously aren't real; they are figments of our imaginations. But as a writer, it's your job to bring these characters to life in the minds of readers. They're depending on you to make your story look and feel as real as possible. Are you using proper tones, proper singulars – 1st, 2nd or 3rd person as appropriate? Consider all these as you edit and re-write your work.
When you start to feel fairly good about the overall structure of your work, then you can start looking out for incomplete sentences, grammatical errors, typos and wrong spellings. Cut out unnecessary words, redundant phrases, confusing sentences or improper use of certain words. Always have your dictionary on stand-by, some words will seem tricky with its spelling, and your spell check feature might not necessarily tag it as a typo.
Then comes the proofreading stage. This is when all other stages have been done and you're feeling close to confident about your work. Be on the lookout for misplaced commas and apostrophes, missing periods, hyphens, and incorrect spellings. Although I strongly recommend that you bring in a professional editor at this time, it's up to you if you choose to do so, in which case you might not necessarily do the whole editing steps. Even so, I still advise that you sleep on your work again and come back to it after a little while.
Whatever style of work it is, a professional editor is always recommended to go over your work (even if you plan to self-publish). They're professionals for a reason, because they're experts at what they do. Your job is to write, and theirs is to edit. Even if you, the writer, were also a professional editor, a third critical eye wouldn't hurt.
When (or if) you do give over your work to a professional to edit, it's important not to shy away from criticisms or take offense by them. Criticisms are the only way we can improve ourselves and be better at what we do. I understand that criticism isn't really something we humans are wired to accept graciously without batting an eyelid; it's only normal that a part of us tenses up in defense of our works. However, we have to remind ourselves that there's always room for improvement, no one is perfect, and it's okay to accept correction, because that's the only sure way to make our work better.