So, you’ve finished your novel, let it sit, made some revisions, and now you’re ready to send it to an editor. Not quite. First you need to do some self editing.
But, you’re not good at editing, you say. Well, too bad. Get good. I’m not joking, and I’m not being flip, either. As an author, whether self-published or traditionally published, you need to be a decent self-editor. Does that mean you need to go back to school to get an English degree? Of course not. But, as a reader, you have an idea of what makes a good story. The point of editing is getting it ready for the world to see. That means you want a manuscript that flows smoothly and is free of errors. The good news is good editing is often as much about taking time and care in evaluating your manuscript than it is about being a grammar fiend. Yes, you want a professional editor in the end, but you doing a bang-up job with it first, helps for many reasons. First, it costs more for an editor to work with a sloppy manuscript than it does to work with a fairly clean one. [A big reason many authors send their manuscripts out to beta readers before editors – but you still need to self-edit first.] Second, a particularly sloppy manuscript that requires a lot of work from the editor will lead to editing fatigue. So many errors make the editor lose his or her freshness and certainly prevents them from looking forward to coming back to it.
So, if you’re not great at editing, but want to punch it up, how do you do it?
Ask, is it necessary? There’s that old saying when people want to express something questionable to another person, first ask if it’s kind, if it’s true, and if it’s necessary. When it comes to self-editing, one of the best things to do is cut the unnecessary clutter. As you read through, ask yourself if words or even sentences are necessary. Try to pare down extraneous material to tighten your novel. You can apply this on both a macro and micro level. If you’re reading several pages and find that you’re bored, it’s likely your reader is bored, too. This may be an area where there’s too much unnecessary exposition, or it may be a scene that goes on too long with unneeded material.
Revise Passivity. Active voice is better than passive voice, so go through and rewrite passages in the passive voice to make them active. For example, instead of saying “The nonsensical, wicked blather was tweeted by David,” say “David tweeted nonsensical, wicked blather.” Instead of saying, “The girl was run over by a bus,” say “The bus ran over the girl.” Think of it this way: It’s better to have someone do something, rather than having something done to them.
Check spelling and grammar. Use basic spell/grammar checking software or foot the bill for more advanced software (like Grammarly) to go through your work. That will provide a good baseline for catching obvious spelling and grammar errors. Computer software isn’t perfect, but it tends to catch major gaffes. If you write fantasy or use a lot of original spellings, this will take longer as those words will get flagged as misspellings. You’ll need to ignore them or add them to your dictionary.
Read it aloud. A good way to catch errors in your manuscript is to read it aloud. Afraid you’ll still miss errors because you’ll read what you intended to write, not what you actually wrote? Have your computer read it for you. Most computers have speech-to-text features (even MS Word, here’s our tutorial on that) so they are accessible to those with visual impairments. Listen to what is being read, and when you hear an error, stop, and fix it.
Of course there are many more self-editing tricks, but with these four simple steps, you can improve your manuscript immensely. What are your favorite tips for self-editing?
15 thoughts on “Four Tips to Help You Self-Edit”
I basically lost my editor on this last book. It was a nightmare getting others to proof it and going over it myself multiple times. No matter how many times we go over our own work we miss errors. We see what ought to be there rather than what actually is there.
Good tips on getting it as close as possible before sending it to that editor. Just the same, we still can’t rely on our own editing – or at least I can’t.
Yes, editing your own work can only take you so far. Your labor of love needs the distance of an impartial observer.
Thank you for this.
Glad you enjoyed it, Philip.
Thanks, RJ. Your best tip was probably the last one. Reading a WIP out loud forces us to notice every word and punctuation mark.
Our ears are deft critics that leave no room for error. I am definitely grateful for mine.
Good basic reading for any author!
Another great technique: read it backward. I edit every novel from back to front, one paragraph at a time. It’s a great way to break the flow of the story that causes you to slide past the same errors over and over. Surprisingly enough, reading through backward often makes me pick up logic and timeline skips. Counterintuitive, but it works.
Another trick for later in the editing process, and maybe just because I’m old-fashioned. Get a hardcopy and read that. It’s different. Every book I edit professionally, my final act is to get the softcover version and read it through backward. I always find mistakes I missed.
So Gordon, by reading backward you mean the chapters in reverse order, right? Not word for word?
I agree wholeheartedly on the hard copy thing, Gordon. Even when I edit newspapers, I always run a print after editing electronically and never fail to find things I miss. I always used Createspace and now KDP Print proofs for editing books.
Hard copy editing is great. I do that sometimes, and try to save trees by printing front and back. I think we see the mistakes a lot better when they’re on a sheet of paper, which still, in so many minds, gives the feeling of permanence and finality. It’s like that recent adage of, if you want to find a mistake in your email, just hit send. Something about that final version helps the mistakes pop.
I have heard others recommend reading backwards, but I never found that worked well for me. I’m glad it’s something you find helpful, and it’s definitely a technique folks should give a try at least once.
A good post, RJ.
– Paul Corrigan
A variation on reading backwards is to open pages at random. Read forward for flow and tightness, then read backwards to pick up barnacles (typos, bad grammar, repeated words…). I’ve also found that barnacles in a manuscript are like those on the bottom of a boat – they need many scrapings to get them off.
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