Advice for Writers: How to Self-Edit

Despite often being our own harshest critics, we writers often have a mental block on editing a piece of our own work. When you’re reading something you’ve written, you remember the reasoning behind every choice, so talking yourself out of a change is far too easy.

While editing yourself can be an almost-impossible task, it’s imperative to successfully placing your work with an agent or publisher. A large part of the decision to publish something is dependent on how much work it needs. By no means does this suggest the publishing world won’t accept a challenge, but if something clearly needs more time than an editor can give, it’s not going to make the cut; so it’s important you give your work as much of a chance as possible!

Here are a few tricks to make sure you approach your manuscript with everything you need to tweak it to perfection:

Take a break

By the time you type your final full stop, you’ve probably spent months (maybe years?) with the story you’ve just written. You might have old ideas, new ideas, latest updates and subplots that never came to be floating around your head all at once, which can all create a noise that blocks seeing your manuscript for what it is. You start reading what you meant to say, rather than what you’ve actually typed. The very first step to editing yourself is to take a huge step away and push everything out of your mind for a while. That way, when you come back to it, it’ll almost be like you’re reading it properly for the first time.

Read it aloud

When you’re reading silently, word predictability kicks in, meaning we often actually skip over reading a good chunk of words in each sentence because our brains can just assume it’s there. This is great for when you’re trying to speed read, or for when a book starts to get really good and you want to figure out what happens as soon as possible. But it isn’t helpful at all when you’re trying to meticulously edit. Reading something aloud slows you down and makes sure that you’re acknowledging each presented word. This method is a great way of finding sneaky typos, or, if you’re stumbling over a sentence, could indicate what needs to be reworked.

Get away from your computer

A change in environment can often breed a change in perspective. You’ve been staring at your manuscript on a computer for so long that, you guessed it, predictability can kick in again and inhibit you from reading properly. Print out your manuscript, sit in a new area, and give your story the fresh read it deserves.

Write an outline

It’s likely that outlining your story was one of the very first things you did. It’s an easy and obvious part of novel planning. But it’s also likely that your manuscript has now taken on a different shape entirely. As you’re reading through your completed story, jot down the gist of what’s happening: character introduction, character development, big revelations, and big resolutions. Having everything listed in front of you in the order they happen in the book can help you catch any continuity errors or big plot gaps. It’s important to dedicate a good chunk of time to structural edits before you dive into some of the smaller bits.

Search for repetition

We all have our favourite words and phrases. Recently, I’ve been really keen on the word ‘rogue’. Do I fully know what it means? No. Do I sneak it into as many topics of conversation as I can? Yes. Sometimes, our brains just get stuck on something. While this kind of repetition is often unnoticeable or even admissible in everyday conversation, it becomes much more apparent when it’s written over and over in front of you. Do a word search in your document to see which ones you use excessively throughout, or even which words have somehow concentrated themselves into a smaller passage. Thesaurus, meet your new best friend: the novelist trying to self-edit.

Run a spell check

I know this sounds incredibly obvious, but trust me. You would be so surprised how many manuscripts we receive with typos galore. Run a simple spell check within your document to catch the obvious errors and then maybe even think outside the box a little. When you really get going with your typing, does your ‘this’ occasionally turn into a ‘his’? Does your pinkie ever slip and throw an apostrophe into an ‘its’ where it has no business being? Don’t forget that there are typos that can evade a spell check, so you may have to whip out another word search for common mistypes you know you’ve been a victim to before.


As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with your tips on how to edit your manuscript yourself!