Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ten Tips for Self-Editing

You’re faced with editing your first draft. Where do you start? What do you look for? Here’s an overview to get you started.
  1. Remember that writing comes before editing. On the first draft, don’t worry about making the prose perfect—just focus on getting your ideas on paper (or screen). You’ll have plenty of time to improve the work after you’ve written something to improve.
  2. Whenever possible, allow some time to pass between finishing your first draft and beginning to edit. You’ll see your work with fresh eyes if you haven’t been struggling with it for hours or days. Depending on the deadline and the length of the piece, I like to focus on other things for a week or more between writing and editing. Often, that isn’t possible, but even a few hours will help.
  3. First, read the entire document for the big picture. Look at the content, organization, and flow. Have you included everything you intended and nothing that isn’t needed? Does it make sense? Is it organized in a logical way? Does the text flow smoothly or is it jerky? Add or delete material, move things around, and insert transitions.
  4. Correct any grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors as you find them, but don’t spend time proofreading for these mistakes until you are satisfied with the content.
  5. As you edit, be aware of your pet problems. I’m notorious for leaving out words; some people tend to repeat certain words and phrases frequently; other writers have trouble with spelling or grammar or punctuation. You can improve your writing quickly by looking for and correcting these problems.
  6. On the next edit, look at your word choices. Could you have chosen a stronger verb or written a better description? Are there superfluous words that can be eliminated to strengthen the writing? Can you revise sentences or paragraphs to make them clearer or more interesting?
  7. Next, proofread for grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation.
  8. If time permits, put the document aside again—for a few hours, days, or weeks—to clear your mind and give you a fresh perspective. Then edit again—and again—and again if needed.
  9. Read the work aloud. I am always amazed at how many mistakes, awkward constructions, and overused words jump out when being read aloud. If you have a critique partner, fellow writer, or friend who will read the work aloud to you as you follow on a print copy, you will hear where they stumble and sometimes even read something different than what is written on the page, alerting you to areas that need to be changed.
  10. Get another qualified opinion. Ask someone else to read your manuscript and give you their advice. Find someone who can really help you—a professional editor, a published writer, an avid reader in the genre—someone who will give you an unbiased opinion. Your mother will tell you it’s wonderful; your best friend who doesn’t read your genre will nod and smile; a jealous competitor may tell you it’s awful. When you receive feedback from unbiased, knowledgeable readers, consider their advice and use what you determine will make your manuscript your best work.

Now that you're off to a good start, keep reading this blog for great editing advice to help you along the way.

Lillie Ammann, A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye


  1. Great ideas Lillie. I especially like number 9. Finding a partner willing to read a full manuscript aloud could be a trick, but the two of you could work on a chunk at a time. That's a great idea.

  2. This is a great article, Lillie. A perfect checklist for self editing.

  3. And to add to the partner read idea.... make sure they work off of a printed copy. I'm in the middle of a computer read right now, and the second-read is really going slowly because I'm having to make page/paragraph/word notes in a separate notebook, not having comment capability on this pdf and not enough ink in my printer for 300 pages. "Be prepared, that's the girl scout's marching song...." Well, that's only possible if you KNOW what works to begin with... live and learn. For me, first read is great on the computer, but then I need a printed page to do the job.

    Good post!


  4. Haha, this is much better than my list which reads something like this:

    1. Write story
    2. Read story, make better
    3. Repeat!

    However, the thought of reading my 60,000+ word manuscript over and over again really makes me groan. Could it be that editing is harder than writing the book in the first place?

  5. Your item #3--read for the big picture--can't be emphasized enough. It took me a long time to learn not to tinker with word choice, grammar and punctuation on the second, or even the third draft, but to edit for story and scenes. I used to spend a lot of time, and I know other writers do to, on sentences in scenes that don't even make it to the next draft.

    I would like to know more about your thoughts on the editing process. Do you develop an editing plan for multiple drafts? If so, what does the plan look like?

  6. Helen,
    It can be difficult to find a partner to read the entire manuscript aloud. My editing clients come to my office for a read-aloud edit if they are local. It becomes more of a challenge if they are not here.

    Thank you for the comment and compliment.

    Reading from a printed copy is an important point. Although I work mostly on the computer, editing a paper copy is an important step. Things that aren't obvious on the screen always show up in print.

    Your list covers the basics, just not much detail. :-) I think many writers agree that editing is a lot harder than writing the first draft.

  7. Mark,
    I know writers who never get past the first chapter because they try to perfect that chapter before going further. But, you're right, much of what they are obsessing over may never make it into the final draft.

    My editing plan is fairly loose and varies somewhat with what I'm working on. I spend more time editing other people's work than my own, but since this article is on self-editing, I'll address that. The first edit is the big picture edit. Do I need to fill in gaps, move scenes around, flesh out a character ... I may not do all those things—just note that I need to add a scene, work on a character's motivation, etc. On the next pass through the manuscript, I work on those things I found in the first round. That may be done all at once or in several passes, depending on how much needs to be done. I correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation as I come across them because I can't deliberately leave a mistake. :-) But I'm not focused on those elements, just fixing what pops out at me. The next round (sometimes more than one round) is looking at word choices, checking for passive voice, trying to improve sentence structure, changing telling to showing. How many edits I do for that depends on how much I find. If I start finding a lot of passive voice, I'll focus on that. After I've done all that—and that might be half a dozen or more rounds of editing—then I look for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage. Then I put the work aside (usually not for long, but the longer the better) and read it on the computer again. Then comes the read-aloud edit from a printed copy. Depending on how much I find on that edit, I will probably read again for flow and clarity.

    The main reason for setting the work aside between edits is to have a fresh perspective for better editing. Another reason is so I'm not completely sick of it after reading it a dozen times back to back. :-)

  8. Hi Lillie, just wanted to say thanks for letting us know about the new blog and sharing these great tips. One to bookmark for later!


  9. Great tips! I have never had the luxury of someone reading my ms to me, but my sister will be here today, and before she heads home I hope to have her do just that! After all can a true sister say no?

  10. As an alternative to having someone read your manuscript to you--which can sometimes be difficult to find a willing soul--cut and paste the link below for a FREE reader, then go in and download it and begin. This is a fantastic tool that I use all the time. You simply cut and paste portions of your manuscript into it, a little at the time. It reads the words to you, and then you can go back and modify. Good luck! let me know if you have trouble finding it online.


  11. Excellent. I use all these techniques. It's especially important to separate yourself from your writing for a good period of time before trying to edit it. As authors we get so into our writing and re-reading, sometimes we can't even "see" it anymore. A few days off or even a week or two brings fresh perspective. I also just started the reading it aloud technique on my last ms. VERY enlightening. I found that I was out of breath trying to say my sentences - I had to chop them up into smaller more impactful bits.

    Good post!

  12. Joanna,
    I'm sure you'll find this blog enjoyable and informative.

    Thanks for the link for ReadPlease. That's a great alternative if you don't have another person to read aloud.

    It's amazing what we discover when we read aloud.

  13. Thanks for the tips, Lillie. And thanks for stopping by my virtual book tour stop today. There you asked if my book was available for Kindle, and it is not. At least not right now. Will have to look into that down the road.

  14. Maryann,
    Thanks for letting me know about your book and the Kindle. I hope it does become available—now that I have a Kindle I want to get lots of use from it.

  15. I'm sending the Kings County Writers and Whodunits of Fresno to your blog site for the 10 Tips of Self-Editing. Excellent advice!

  16. Sunny,
    Thanks for telling the Kings County Writers and Whodunits of Fresno about the tips post. I hope they find it helpful.

  17. That's good advice. There's also a new blog devoted entirely to self editing:

    Self Editing Blog

  18. This is a brilliant list, Lillie! I agree completely about the value of reading the manuscript out loud to yourself. It never sounds the same out loud as it does in your head.

    For #8, I want to note that it is possible to over-edit. You have to know when it's time to stop. I have had material that I loved dearly, but by the time I'd made it 'perfect' I'd killed the scene. It lay pretty and dead on the page, perfect in verse, but the heart, soul, and that little bit of grit that makes it real were gone.

    How do you determine when you've finished editing?


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