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Ask the Editor: Tips for self-editing burnout

Nicole Langan asks: "What are some helpful tips on how an author can train their own editing eye even when they've read their own work a million times?"

Kathryn Craft replies:

When looking at my own work for the umpteenth time, here’s the problem I run into: no matter how steely my intentions for self-editing, I am immediately caught up, once again, in my protagonist’s plight. I may have started out looking for continuity issues (Continuity issues! Continuity issues!), but by page four or five I am seduced once again by the story’s central drama.

Sound familiar? The way to counter this is to engage your inner critic while simultaneously disrupting your reading response. To do this I find it imperative that I not read my story through in order. Your word processor’s “find” function can help you by targeting select issues while keeping you out of the intention-bending mire of your own prose. When the word processor plunks you down on a new page, address the issue it found and then read the whole page to look for anything else that pops up.

Here are some favorite methods that keep me from falling under my own story’s spell.

Overused words. We all have favorite words we lean on. As you identify yours, put them into a special list to check for. But you can start with these: even, just, there, that, well, so and very. These words can often be removed to the betterment of the prose. While you’re at it, check for nondescript words such as beautiful, pretty, handsome, ugly, and delicious, whose meanings are often too subjective to be useful, and add evocative description to support your claim. Many writers overuse adverbs, so run a search for “ly” and see if the adverbs that float to the surface could be skimmed off if you chose more specific verbs.

POV filters. Search for words such as realized, thought, saw, noticed, glanced and see if the prose works without them. Such words can often exhibit a lack of confidence in one’s ability to establish point of view. If you put us into a character’s head and stay there, we’ll know whose observations and opinions are being put forth without attribution.

Melodrama: Scan for quirks of emphasis such as italics, all caps, or exclamation points. See if you can evoke drama through true conflict instead of trying to convince your reader through typesetting histrionics. Scan for emotion words—happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc.—and see if you might have already evoked that emotion without having to name it outright. If you haven’t, give it a try. If you write emotion as biology, you might check for words like stomach, toes, pound, tears or temple and see if you can find a way to use setting to indirectly evoke the emotion instead.

Spacing errors. You do know that you shouldn’t be putting two spaces after your periods anymore, right? That’s a throwback from the mono-spaced fonts of the typing era. It is no longer necessary—and in fact, it’s improper (self-publishers, beware!). But this isn’t merely an end-of-sentence issue. Double spaces have a way of infiltrating the center of our sentences, too, usually because we’ve used the cut-and-paste feature and left behind a souvenir. Did you know you can use the “find” function in Word to locate double spaces? When the dialogue box comes up, type in two spaces. You won’t be able to see a thing—but when you hit “find next,” the word processor will direct you to double spaces. This is a fun way to edit sentences for concision as the processor drops you into new pages. Since for some reason this method doesn’t catch all double spacing errors, I always double-check the old-fashioned way, by tipping each page away from me to look for uniform rivers of white on the page.

Tension edit. Flip open your manuscript to random pages and see if you can find a way to increase the tension on that page.

Character edit. Put a character's name into the "find" function and read only the parts of the story pertaining to him/her. This is a great way to check for redundant scenes and to see if each character has a believable growth arc.

Structural edit. For this I suggest you work back-to-front to avoid the narrative’s hypnotic pull. From the end, flip back to the beginning of the last scene. Read until you identify your protagonist's scene goal and write it down. Back up a scene, and do the same, writing down the results at the top of your page, repeating until you come to the climax. From there forward you’ll also want to make sure that each scene includes some obstacle that keeps your character from achieving his goal (whether or not that obstacle is surmounted). When you get to the opening, analyze your inciting incident and write down what story question it raised. When you are done you will have a story outline created from what you have actually written—not what you had hoped to write. Read it through and look for places where you might have drifted from the story question raised in your opening. And of course make sure you opened by putting the right question in your reader’s mind!

Chapter endings/beginnings. Flip through your manuscript and check to see whether each chapter ends with resonance and tension, and whether each new chapter opens with a hook.

Critique partner/editor. Let's face it: by the time you're on round five or six with your manuscript, all previous versions co-exist in your head. You can no longer be a good judge of how things are adding up on the page. At this point, the best thing for your manuscript might be a fresh perspective.

I realize that this post reads like a table of contents—each suggestion could be a post, a chapter, perhaps even a book of its own. But because Nicole’s question was such a good one, I wanted to put these all in one place so our readers can pop it into their toolkits. If you have additional methods for countering self-editing burnout, please leave a comment! 

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her novel based on true events, The Far End of Happy, releases on Tuesday (May 5). She is the author of The Art of Falling, also by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. Kathryn,you continue to wow me with your sage advice. Thank you!

  2. Fabulous tips! I'm cutting and pasting them into a word document for all future revisions. And I'm sharing this one on my FB page.

  3. I love your suggestion about a character edit (using a find function). This is great! I will definitely do it as I plug away at my current work-in-progress.

    Thanks also for the reminder about adverbs and "LY". Seacrh for these and then replace them! Choose a stronger verb and then you can get rid of the modifier.

    Self-editing is not fun, but necessary, and the best advice I ever got was "be smart enough to follow good advice when you hear it."

    I'll be smart enough to keep your points in mind as I type away and revise and edit and write some more....

    Thanks, Jill
    Check out the "Blood and Groom" book trailer:

  4. Thanks for this post! Great tips! I never would have thought to go out of order on my revisions. I think I'll try that on my next round.

  5. Super tips! I especially like your comment that all the previous versions still exist in your head. And boy, does it get confusing in there!

  6. Excellent tips! I especially liked the tips about working on the MS out of order so I don't get caught up in the story, and working backwards. Thanks!

  7. This is great!

    I love the idea about creating an outline working backwards. It seems to me that would not only help spot problems with the plot, but also give a huge leg when it comes time to write a synopsis.

    I'm saving this for future reference. I might event print it.

  8. Excellent stuff!

    Thanks for sharing :)

  9. Great tips! I have problem with one of them. A publisher in setting up your book uses different spacing so that in print the right margin is straight like the left one. This is true except for the last sentence of the paragraph.

  10. "Weaver of tales": are you referring to my advice about looking for rivers of white to identify spacing errors? It is true that a published page is typically justified, meaning the spacing is forced so that the right edge will appear as straight as the left. Since some of you might use this advice with galleys, let me make clear that the "rivers of white" advice is for use with standard-format manuscripts that are left justified (ragged right edge). I urge you to try to find spacing errors at this stage, because once the manuscript is reformatted and justified per your publisher's specifications, I agree that it does get trickier to identify spacing errors.

  11. Starting a chapter with a hook! So often people concentrate on trying to end a chapter with a cliffhanger, that they don't realize that it's really the beginning of the next chapter that matters in keeping the reader reading.

  12. Thanks so much for answering my question!

  13. I was recently interview for my new novel Gone Away Into the Land.

    The Question was:

    How does poor editing effect book sales?

    My answer may interest some people. Never again will I attempt to edit my own work;

    My answer:

    It makes or breaks it. Poor editing effects an author’s self esteem. It effects a reviewer’s review, and ultimately it kills a book that may otherwise have been successful. I found that out the hard way. Up until I was picked up by my new publisher, I was involved with a publisher who could not print a clean book. No matter how many times I edited it, or his editors edited the book, there were always mistakes. And the worst was that no matter how many times he went back to the drawing board to reprint the book there were always printing errors. Here is an example of how frustrating it can be. The third galley copy I received had no page numbers. My advice to new authors is to find a good editor and pay the price. It is almost impossible to edit your own writing because you are too emotionally attached to every sentence. You will never really read your book as others will. So, it is imperative to search out an editor who relates to your style and cares enough about your work to be outspoken and relentless in the pursuit of perfection.

    Jeffrey B. Allen
    Author of: GoneAway Into the Land

  14. Excellent job, Kathryn, as always. So much is written about what to edit, but so seldom is the "how" explained.

  15. Spacing error tip. Use find and replace. Find ^s and replace with one space. That finds non-breaking spaces. They happen when pasting from another program. Then when you find spacespace and replace with space, it'll get them all.

  16. When self-editing my work, I face the challenge of getting drawn into the storyline instead of focusing on continuity issues. To combat this, I engage my inner critic and use my word processor's "find" function to target overused words and adverbs.


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