Can you edit your own writing?
More importantly, should you edit your own writing?
The answer to both these questions is yes. Self-editing is a valuable skill that will help you produce better work, get better, faster feedback, and ultimately become a better writer.
That said, self-editing is not a substitute for working with an editor or proofreader. Getting a fresh, objective set of eyes on your manuscript is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing and its chance of success in the marketplace. There are editors out there for every genre and every budget, so please don’t skip the vital step of working with one (or more than one).
Still, it’s well worth polishing your manuscript as much as you can before sending it to editors, beta readers, and proofreaders. Self-editing will save time (and maybe money) by enabling your editor to work with fewer distractions; mistakes will be less likely to slip through; and you’ll be better aware of your weak points and less likely to make the same errors again.
What Is “Editing,” Anyway?
“Editing” is an unfortunately broad term that covers everything from organizing the overall structure of a narrative to picking up minute spelling and punctuation errors. They’re actually very different tasks, and they require different approaches (and in most cases, different people, once you get to the hiring stage).
I’ve divided the suggestions here into the three broad stages of editing: Developmental, Copy, and Proofreading. Entire books have been written about each of these stages, so this won’t be a comprehensive look at each one. Rather, I’ll just note a few key points that will help you to better assess and improve your own work.
Before that though, here are some tips to make your editing more effective regardless of what stage you’re at:
Self-Editing at ANY Stage
No matter what type of editing you need or where you are in your process, there are a few tricks that always come in handy.
Take a break between writing and editing.
The longer the manuscript, the more time you should take before picking it up again. Obviously, deadlines and other life pressures may make this impractical, but to the extent that it’s within your power, schedule your writing so that you can let it sit anywhere from overnight (for, say, a blog post) to several weeks (for a full-length book).
Optimize your editing environment.
It should be quiet and distraction-free, of course. Also make sure that you’re working in good light, are mentally alert, that your posture is good, and that you are physically comfortable.
Take regular breaks.
Staring at a computer screen for five hours in a row will only strain your eyes and tire your brain, making you less likely to catch mistakes. Get up every 25–30 minutes and move around a bit before getting back to work.
Enlarge your display.
I suggest reading at a minimum of 200%. This limits the number of words that you’ll see on your screen at any one time, making you less likely to skim, and literally helps you see errors more clearly.
Change your font and/or font color.
Sounds silly, but it will help you see your manuscript in a fresh light.
Self-Editing at EVERY Stage
You’ve finished (or are working on) your first full draft. At this point, you want to be sure that your manuscript meets reader expectations for your genre/subject, includes all the information it needs, doesn’t include extraneous or distracting material, and has a clear, well-supported theme.
Here are ways you can improve your manuscript at this stage:
Learn the “beats” for your genre. One of the biggest issues I see in fiction at this stage is that authors don’t have a solid grasp of narrative structure. They end up with long passages that go nowhere, distracting subplots, or multiple climaxes (fine in a sex scene; not in a narrative).
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of beats, check out Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (and don’t worry about the fact that it’s about screenwriting; the same principles apply). Study successful books in your niche and note when and how important action takes place—is there a particular rhythm that books in your genre use?
There’s plenty more to say about story arc and character development, but learning how to hit the beats is an excellent place to start.
Hook ’em on the first page. If the first page—heck, the first sentence—doesn’t compel readers to keep reading, they won’t. Does your opening give readers a tantalizing glimpse of what to expect from the rest of the book? If not, keep trying.
Check your chapter endings. These are some of the best places to create tension and compel the reader to keep turning pages, but all too often they simply cut off randomly in the middle of a scene or fail to leave the reader with a burning need to know what happens next. Use your chapter endings to showcase an important insight or action.
Know your theme and be able to define it in a single sentence. Your theme is not the subject matter; rather, it’s your opinion about the subject matter—why it’s important and how it will help the reader. Once you’re clear on it, make sure that everything in the book supports your theme.
Follow a chapter template that organizes the information for each chapter into a consistent format. Each chapter should have its own theme, and everything in the chapter should support it. Chapters that more or less follow the same pattern will make for an easier and more enjoyable experience for your readers as well as being easier for you to write.
Watch your tone. Be clear on the mood you want to convey (authoritative, humorous, relatable, etc.) and make sure that it’s consistent and appropriate for both your subject matter and audience.
At this point, you’ve more or less nailed the content of your manuscript; now you want to be sure that the language flows—that it’s appropriate for your audience, conveys the right feeling, meets grammatical standards, and isn’t confusing or redundant.
Listen to your writing. One of the best ways to “read” your writing objectively is to hear it out loud. Invest in some text-to-speech software (or download a free app), or get a friend to read it out loud to you. (You can also read it out loud to yourself, but this may not be as effective.)
Tighten it up. I bet you’ve included information or scenes that don’t really need to be there. Look for ways to shorten paragraphs, sentences, and even words.
Watch your metaphors and similes. When used badly, they can be confusing or unintentionally humorous. Double-check your descriptions to make sure that they’re in line with the tone you want to convey.
Fiction writers: check dialogue and actions scenes carefully, as these are common areas for confusion. In dialogue, make sure that it’s clear who is saying what, either from context, accompanying action, or dialogue tag (e.g., “he said”). With action scenes (including sex scenes), carefully block out the action in your head (draw diagrams if you have to!) to make sure that all your characters are where they are supposed to be and that the action is physically possible.
I really can’t stress the importance of having another person (ideally someone with proofreading experience) look over your work before you publish it. At this point, you’ve read your draft through too many times to be able to reliably catch tiny errors.
But it’s still a good idea to send as clean a copy as possible to your proofreader, so here are some tips:
Use your word processing program’s grammar and spell check. No, it won’t catch everything—and many of the things it catches won’t actually be errors—but it will almost certainly find some mistakes you’ve overlooked.
Use the find-and-replace function. You can change your straight quotes to curly quotes and your double hyphens to em-dashes (so, — to —) in a snap and far more accurately than if you do them one at a time. While you’re at it, replace all your double spaces with a single space—this is in line with current standards and will help the final product look more professional.
Just remember that find-and-replace is a double-edged sword; make sure that you replace only what needs to be replaced.
Use the Search function. If you know you have a tendency to make the same errors over and over again (typing “from” for “form,” for example, or spelling a character’s name different ways) do a search for those mistakes and check them one by one to be sure they’re correct.
Print out your work, if possible, and proof on paper. Time-consuming and not always practical, it’s still one of the best ways to see your manuscript in a fresh light.
Go Forth and Self-Edit
These are just a few of the many ways that you can improve your own manuscript before sharing it with readers and editors. I hope you’ll be able to put them to work for you.
Care to share your own self-editing tips? Please comment below!
For more on editing your work, read on:
- How to Find an Editor for Your Book with Step-by-Step Instructions
- Getting the Most Out of Your Relationship with Your Editor and Cultivating Beta Readers
- How to Write Better Fiction and Become a Great Novelist
Sarah Barbour is a book coach, editor, and author. She has been working with self-publishing authors since 2011, and is the author of Edit Me! How to Find, Hire and Work with an Editor and The Copy Editor’s Guide to Working with Indie Authors. She also writes fiction under the pen name Thea Dawson.