Self-Editing in 7 Easy Steps

Successful writers know that the best writing comes from rewriting, and successful writers spend more time rewriting than anything else. (Remember Nora Roberts’ famous words: “You can’t edit a blank page.”)


How can you become a successful writer? By recognizing that the period between writing and rewriting—self-editing—is the most critical element of the writing process. One that can’t be skipped, rushed, or ignored because “you just don’t feel like it”. 


Step 1: Write First. Edit Later 

You can’t edit until you have something written. Don’t even think about self-editing until your first draft is finished. Self-editing as you go does not save time. Give yourself permission to have some cheese puffs in the first draft so you don’t get hung up on potential problems. 


Writing and self-editing are two different skills that require two different mindsets. Writing—right brain; editing—left brain. Get your story down first with your right brain, then self-edit with your left. Self-editing takes considerable patience, so cowboy up and just do it.


Step 2: Avoid Grammar Checkers and Editing Software

Danger, Will Robinson… No matter the hype or sales pitch, a grammar checker is not a substitute for self-editing revisions yourself. Most checkers are geared to business writing, programmed with hard and fast rules and won’t recognize a literary style or voice.


No computer-generated program can tell you where your writing needs editing. Like any skill, tightening your writing requires practice. Exercise those self-editing muscles to avoid a bloated manuscript. Be your own grammar checker.


Step 3: Change Typeface, Size, or Color, Then Print a Hard Copy

You read differently on screen versus hard copy. So, before you print out a hard copy of your manuscript, change one thing like the typeface, type size, or type color. 


Remember what I said earlier: Writing and self-editing are two different skills that require two different mindsets. As a writer, you saw your manuscript formatted on screen. As a self-editor, you need to see it differently. Changing one thing forces you to look at your writing with a fresh eye. Make sure to leave plenty of margin and paragraph space for notes and changes. 


Step 4: Read Your Prose Aloud. Read S-L-O-W-L-Y

Read like a reader, not a writer. We know, harder said than done. However, this is exactly what we mean by “with a fresh eye”. Pretend you’re reading someone else’s writing. Give your inner critic the day off and pretend you’re reading the latest best-selling novel.


Hearing your own words aloud alerts you to logic problems, grammatical errors, cadence, and awkwardness issues. For example, you can hear when a word needs a stronger emphasis, meaning you need to move it to the beginning or possibly the end of a sentence.


I know, reading aloud is a big problem if you like to do your self-editing at the local coffee shop or library. However, if you’re serious about your writing, read aloud… at home… in your office with the door closed… in your car… at the park… in a empty classroom… someplace people won’t look at you funny as you babble away.


Step 5: Mark Up Your Printout. Fix Issues Later

Red pen, pencil, yellow highlighter, post-it note… anything you want to use to identify items that need your attention is personal-preference. 


Don’t stop self-editing on paper to fix anything on the computer. Remember what I said earlier: Writing and self-editing are two different skills that require two different mindsets. If you have a great idea on how to fix and/or rewrite a section and just can’t wait until you’ve finished self-editing, flip over the page and write your great idea longhand on the back. Do not jump on the computer. Do not change your mind set.


Step 6: Note Sections of Struggle

Note areas in your manuscript where you seem to have more problems than others, e.g., dialogue, male POV, fast action, character description, etc. For example, if you have trouble writing love scenes, you may discover that your sentences tend to be short, stilted, and often contain purple prose and hokey euphemisms—all easily fixed in the self-editing stage.


Knowing your problem area(s) means you won’t waste any time in the draft stage of your next manuscript because you know you can fix the issue(s) later in the editing stage.


Step 7: Take a Breather Before Cutting Fat

After marking up your manuscript, take a breather before heading back to the computer. You need time to settle yourself, to tell the inner critic in your head to knock off the “see, I told you you weren’t a good writer” nonsense. You need to give yourself some distance to think about what needs fixing and what doesn’t.  

For specific items to look for within your manuscript, consider reading one of these excellent books:

  • "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers," by Renni Browne and David King.
  • ​"Revision and Editing," by James Scott Bell.
  • "The First Five Pages," by Noah Lukeman.
  • "Woe Is I," by Patricia O'Conner.
  • ​"Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction," by Michael Seidman.
  • ​"Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford To Ignore," by Elizabeth Lyon."

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