Self-Editing Basics: 10 Simple Ways to Edit Your Own Book

Self-Editing Basics: 10 Simple Ways to Edit Your Own Book

Writers’ victories are short-lived indeed.

For a brief moment after completing a first draft, writers sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, post a self-congratulatory humblebrag about finishing our manuscript, and then immediately think about that one character whose arc we forgot to complete, or that we’re pretty sure we overused the word “that,” or that those squiggly red lines scattered throughout our manuscript are surely incorrect.

In other words, the joys of #amwriting give way to the trials of #amediting.

As a strong (and biased) believer that every author needs an editor, your first line of literary defense shouldn’t be a professional editor. Rather, you need to learn how to self-edit before sending your manuscript off to be edited.

As a full-time editor, I witness dozens of simple mistakes authors constantly make. If only they’d take the time to learn and incorporate better self-editing techniques, they would become better writers, endear themselves to their editors, and maybe even save money on a professional edit.

Furthermore, beta readers and early reviewers will be grateful for the creation of a readable early draft.

If you’re ready to self-edit your book, consider these 10 tips:

1. Rest your manuscript

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” — Henry David Thoreau

When you’ve finished typing the last word of your masterpiece, set it aside for a few days. If you can stand it, set it aside for a week or more. In On Writing, Stephen King relates that he places his finished drafts in a drawer for at least six weeks before looking at them again.

Why rest your draft for so long? You want to try to forget everything you’ve written so that when you do come back to self-edit, the book almost seems as if someone else wrote it. You want fresh eyes, and the best way to do that is to rid your mind of what’s been filling it for so long.

2. Listen to your manuscript

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” — Dr. Seuss

Hearing your words spoken makes mistakes glaringly obvious. You can enlist a (very patient) friend to read it to you, or you can go the friendship-saving route, which has the benefit of being free: use your computer’s built-in speech synthesis function.

If you’re a Mac user, click the Apple logo at the top left of your screen, select System Preferences, click Accessibility, then click Speech. Choose a System Voice and Speaking Rate you can tolerate, then select “Speak selected text when the key is pressed.” If you want to change the keyboard combination, click “Change Key” and follow the directions. I prefer Option+Esc.

Once you’ve enabled your preferred shortcut key, simply highlight any text (within any program) that you want to hear read aloud. Then hit your shortcut keys and follow your words on-screen as your computer reads them aloud.

For PC users, make use of Narrator, part of the system’s Ease of Access Center. Press “Windows+U” and click “Start Narrator.” Since the program is intended for blind users, it will automatically begin to read any text your mouse encounters. To turn this off, hit “Control.” To have Narrator read a paragraph, place your cursor at its beginning and type “Caps Lock + I.” To have Narrator read an entire page, press “Caps Lock + U.”

3. Search for troubling words

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” — Mark Twain

All writers have specific words and phrases that (which?) always cause them to (too?) second-guess whether (weather?) they’re (their?) using them correctly. If you know what your (you’re?) troubling words are, use your word processor’s search function to locate every possible variant of that word or phrase.

To help you consider what your troubling words might be, here’s a good starting list, excerpted from the first chapter of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing:

  • a lot/alot
  • affect/effect
  • can/may
  • further/farther
  • good/well
  • i.e./e.g.
  • into/in to
  • it’s/its
  • lay/lie
  • less/fewer
  • that/who
  • their/they’re/there
  • then/than
  • who/whom
  • your/you’re

If you’re unsure of how to properly use these words, there’s no shame in looking them up. Grammar Girl likely has the answer, or check The Write Life’s post on 25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy for invaluable tips.

edit books

4. Remove or replace your crutch words

“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” – Dorothy Parker

Do you know the top 10 words you use most frequently in your manuscript?

Outside of necessary articles and prepositions, you may be surprised at what words you tend to use over and over. One client of mine used “suddenly” too often, making every action seem unnecessarily rushed. Personally, my crutch words tend to fly in the face of the age-old encouragement for all writers to “eschew obfuscation.”

In other words, I tend to cash in ten-dollar words when five-cent words suffice.

Scrivener makes it simple to discover your crutch words and is available for Mac, iOS, and Windows users. In Scrivener’s top menu, go to “Project > Text Statistics,” then click on the arrow next to “Word frequency.” If necessary, click the “Frequency” header twice to sort your words by frequency. You’ll then be presented with what could be a jarring list of the words you might be overusing. (To include your entire manuscript in the frequency count, be sure to have your entire manuscript selected in Scrivener’s Binder.)

For Microsoft Word users, there’s a free Word Usage and Frequency add-in, but other, less technical online solutions may also help, like TextFixer.com’s Online Word Counter or WriteWords’ Word Frequency Counter.

No matter how you determine your crutch words, go back through your manuscript and see where you can remove or replace them.

5. Remove all double spaces at the end of sentences

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” — Elmore Leonard

If tapping two spaces following your sentences is an age-old habit ingrained into you since before the dawn of modern digital typography, may I suggest ingraining another practice?

Conduct a find-and-replace search after you’re done writing. In Word, type two spaces in “find” and one space in “replace” and hit enter. Voila! You just time-traveled your manuscript into the 21st entury. (If you’re interested in why you should only use one space, read Slate’s Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.)

6. Search for problematic punctuation

“An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Are you a comma chameleon, adapting that otherwise innocent punctuation mark to do work it was never meant to do? Or does your manuscript need a semicolonoscopy — a thorough check-up on proper semicolon and colon placement?

If you know you have trouble with certain punctuation marks, conduct a search for that mark and figure out whether you’re using it correctly. If you’re still unsure, let your editor fix it, but make a note to ask him why.

7. Run spell check or use an automated editing program

“Be careful about reading health books. Some fine day you’ll die of a misprint.” — Markus Herz

I think writers become too accustomed to the colorful squiggles under words and sentences on their digital pages; I know I do. In an effort to get ideas on the page, we might run rampant over grammar and usage.

Yet those squiggles mean something. At the very least, run spell check before sending your manuscript to an editor or beta reader. It’s a built-in editor that I’m not sure every writer uses to their advantage. You may not accept every recommendation, but at least you’ll save your editor some time correcting basic errors.

You might also consider trying out automated editing programs. The Write Life’s From Grammarly to WordRake: A Review of 6 Automatic Editing Tools provides a great overview of six top editing services. I have yet to try them all, but I’m a fan of Grammarly.

8. Subscribe to The Chicago Manual of Style

“To write is human, to edit is divine.” — Stephen King

When an editor returns your manuscript, they may cite particular sections of The Chicago Manual of Style. If you’re unfamiliar with this Bible of the publishing industry, you may not be aware of precisely why the editor made a certain change.

By subscribing to CMOS (it’s only $35 a year), you’ll be able to look up issues on your own before sending your manuscript off to an editor or beta reader. Sure, you shouldn’t get too hung up on some of the issues (editors have their jobs for a reason), but learning more about the mechanics of writing can only help you become a better writer.

You can also buy the hardcopy version of The Chicago Manual of Style, but I recommend the online version for its ease of use.

9. Format accordingly

“The Real-World was a sprawling mess of a book in need of a good editor.” — Jasper Fforde

While preferred styles may differ from one editor to the next, you can show your professionalism by formatting your manuscript to conform to industry standards.

Such formatting makes it easier for beta readers to consume, and editors prefer industry-standard formatting, which allows them more time to edit your actual words instead of tweaking your formatting. Here are some basic formatting tips:

  • Send your manuscript as a Word document (.doc or .docx).
  • Use double-spaced line spacing. If you’ve already written your book with different line spacing, select all of your text in Word, click Format > Paragraph, then select “Double” in the drop down box under “Line spacing.”
  • Use a single space following periods.
  • Use black, 12-point, Times New Roman as the font.
  • Don’t hit tab to indent paragraphs. In Word, select all of your text, then set indentation using Format > Paragraph. Under “Indentation” and by “Left,” type .5. Under “Special,” choose “First line” from the drop down menu. [Note: Nonfiction authors may opt for no indention, but if they do so they must use full paragraph breaks between every paragraph.]
  • The first paragraph of any chapter, after a subheader, or following a bulleted or numbered list shouldn’t be indented.
  • Use page breaks between chapters. In Word, place the cursor at the end of a chapter, then click “Insert > Break > Page Break” in Word’s menu.

10. Don’t over-edit

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage — as long as you edit brilliantly.” — C. J. Cherryh

Set aside an hour or two to go through this list with your manuscript, but be careful about over-editing. You may start seeing unnecessary trees within your forest of words, but you don’t want to raze to the ground what you’ve toiled so hard to grow.

A middle path exists between exhausting yourself in a vain attempt for perfection and being too lazy to run spell check. Do yourself and your book a favor and self-edit, but be careful not to go overboard.

If you’re creating a professional product, your self-edits shouldn’t be your last line of defense against grammatical errors. In other words, I don’t offer this post to write myself out of a job. Even in going through the self-editing steps above, you’ll still need an editor to ensure that your manuscript is as polished as possible.

Plus, going through the editing process with a professional editor will help you become a better self-editor the next time you write a book.

Do you self-edit? What tips and tricks work best for you?

This post originally ran in December 2014. We updated it in December 2016.

This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!

Photo by Tammy Strobel under Creative Commons

Filed Under: Craft
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100 comments

  • I have been writing for years. I find your tips very helpful.
    Writing is a solitary endeavor and writers suffer often of isolation and lack of feedback.
    So thank you

  • Jim says:

    Love this Blake–the Scrivener feature for overused words is awesome. Im going to jot down what words could be potentially overused and reread with those in mind.

  • PJ says:

    This is an extremely helpful article – especially since copy-editing one’s own writing is difficult for any writer. A pair of fresh eyes (the more the merrier) is always a good idea. Number 6 focuses on semi-colons, but I think the most important punctuation is proper placement of apostrophes. AND keeping the tense consistent throughout the paper/essay.

  • Neil Larkins says:

    Since I always need to learn, I read lists like this. This one is a definite keeper for me. Thanks for the early Christmas present.

  • Thanks for this post! I’m usually decent with spelling and grammar, but have the tendency to use my favourite words over and over.

    I’ve found http://www.wordcounter.com/ is another good side for listing your most commonly used words.

    Thanks again. Great post!

  • Liz says:

    Hi Blake, thank goodness I read this article before sending my manuscripts to an editor. I have quite a bit of work to do! You have saved me from myself. As a new writer I have happily and excitedly soaked up all your wonderful information. I am so grateful to you for sharing your knowledge and expertise.

    Many best wishes,

    Liz

  • SJ Franics says:

    Wonderful insight in this valuable article!! I’ve been writing for a very long time, free lance and lately, novels. I’m currently editing my second novel and this came at a perfect time for me. I particularly like your first point. When I finish a book, I always let it sit for a week to 10 days. Sometimes, we must take a break to see the forest from the trees.
    Thanks so much for sharing.
    Regards,
    S.J. Francis

  • I would make a few amendments:

    1. Reviewing a first draft is not editing. It’s revising. Self-editing doesn’t happen until after major revisions. For me this is somewhere around the fifth draft. I don’t believe it should be anytime before the third draft for anyone.

    2. Reading aloud is really only useful when proof-reading, and maybe sometime during edits. Except for writers who have particular rhythm issues, it’s not useful before edits by an editors because the sentences are still likely to change a lot – unless of course the writer is happy to rinse and repeat this step, which of course they can, but it is a time-consuming step.

    4. As well as crutch words, writers should look for repetition of words, phrases, thoughts, sentence openers, and paragraph openers. Auto Crit is a brilliant automated tool for this. I think this is actually THE BEST thing a writer can do in the way of self-editing before sending a manuscript to an editor.

    Th rest I more or less agree with (with the exception that the Chicago Manual of Style is not the universal style guide for the entire world). I would however also add:

    11. None of these is a substitute for a professional editor

  • Enoch Chang says:

    Self-editing a great way to help writers save money. I have heard many writers tend to sign checks for their works polished; they say it’s hard to revise one’s own work. But this post recommends to “rest the manuscript so that the book almost seems like someone else wrote it”. Editing IS part of writing, and for writers who find it hard should learn, instead of finding editors for the rest of their career.

  • Winston Chen says:

    I’m the developer of Voice Dream Reader. By the way, I have a new app, Voice Dream Writer, which is a Markdown editor for iPad and iPhone with built-in proofreading. Check it out: http://www.voicedream.com/writer/

  • Excellent tips, I have incorporated many of these very suggestions in my regular writings. Thank you for sharing!

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Glad to hear they helped you, Taylor. Anything else you would have added to the list?

      I find that the more I write (and have an editor look over what I’ve written), the more I learn what blind spots I still have.

  • Alicia says:

    I think that this post was very informative. I’m a first time writer and I’m not at all into the finishing stage. I’m still in the re-read and revising of first drafts. but I have problems with some of the plots. Thank you for the advise. It was very informative and it gave me just the thing I needed to look over everything, slow down and correct what I was doing. Again, thank you for the advise.

  • Joyce Lamela says:

    Awesome tips, very informative! I am currently structuring and polishing my book and I need to do the self-editing process because I’ve no budget to hire for an editor. It’s a very challenging process and hopefully I am doing the right thing 😀

  • Thanks Blake,
    I am just finalising my manuscript for submission to my editor. Your article is a great help for me.

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