Self-Editing: How to Improve Your Writing

Self-Editing How to Improve Your Writing

An effective editing checklist is crucial for good writing.

Have you ever written a paragraph in your book, rewrote it, written another paragraph, and then went back and rewrote that too?

And on and on and on…

An hour goes by.

You realize you haven’t written anything at all. All you’ve done is rewrite the same part of your book.

Feels like writer’s block, right?

For years, I wrote like this. I worked on my stories and ideas, and I spent hours tinkering with my sentences, moving the nouns around and looking for the right verbs. This is a terrible way to write.

In this post, I’ll offer you a printable self-editing checklist and explain how to use it. 

Here’s what I will cover in this post:

When you try writing and editing at the same time, you’re doing TWO different activities.

The left side of your brain that needs to write and get ideas out of your head and onto the blank page – your internal writer – shies away from your inner editor.

The right side of your brain that takes your first draft and turns it into something that shines – your internal editor – does its best work when you have a complete first draft.

To engage both parts of the brain at once is to indulge in the myth of multitasking. So, allocate one portion of your day to writing (I like to wake up early) and another part for editing your work (I like the afternoons).

Separating the writing process and editing process into different activities for different times will help you write first drafts faster and finish writing your book.

It’s also what most writers do before they send their work to a professional for review.

Get your free editing checklist PDF

Editing Checklist: Two Pre-Editing Tips to Consider

If you want to get the most out of your time spent editing, consider the following two tips. 

Add them to your usual editing process, and you are guaranteed to see a monumental difference in the effectiveness of your editing.

1. Getting Ready to Edit Your First Draft

Take Time Off

After spending weeks or months writing about a topic or story, the work becomes too hot to touch, let alone edit.

When you finish your first draft, let it sit in your computer for a few days (or longer depending on the length of your work).

Swim. Run. Meditate. Eat steak in an expensive restaurant. Take the dog for an overdue walk. Do something that has nothing to do with writing.

This is essential to any writing process.

Your ideas will cool, and your memory fade. Later, when you open up that messy first draft, you’ll look at it and think ‘Oh yeah, I remember this.’

Change the Format

Now, change the line spacing of your work to double-spaced, change the font to Courier New and the size to 12.

Many professional journalists and sub-editors format their work this way because it’s easy on the eye and takes approximately one minute to read a page.  This simplifies spotting mistakes in sentence structure and punctuation. It also gives you plenty of space for writing on your manuscript.

Better, yet download the font Courier Prime. This revised version of the Courier font looks better on larger screens and has all the benefits of its older brother.

Font choice aside, print out your work, sit down at a quiet table and read your first draft in one go.

Confession: I feel guilty about the paper I use while editing, and I have great intentions to plant a small forest one day.

2. Marking Up Your Manuscript

Let the Ink Run

Remember using peer editing checklists in school? You’d ravage a classmate’s essay and rip apart their thesis statement until the paper covered in red ink. 

This editing process is the same, except you are combing through your work to find and fix common writing mistakes.

Please don’t feel disheartened if your first read-through disappoints. The American editor Sol Stein likens the process of reviewing the first draft to performing triage on a patient, and that’s what you’re about to do with a red pen.

To get the most out of this self-editing technique, strike through words with your pen, use arrows to indicate where you want to move your sentences and write in the spaces between each sentence.

Your markups don’t have to make sense to anyone but you, and if you’re in doubt about a change, circle the sentence or word with your pen, and decide on this edit later.

Read Your Writing Aloud

Unless you have access to a writing center or some eagle-eyed friends who can write and edit, read your work aloud.

I sometimes read my work aloud and record myself using the voice memo app on my phone.

Then, I listen back to this recording and mark up the manuscript. The act of saying something aloud helps identify problems in a way my eyes can’t.

Now that you have a sense of your manuscript, you’re going to edit it in at least three different ways.

Round 1: Editing the Structure of Your Book Chapter

During this round, concern yourself with how you’ve organised your book chapter as a whole rather than the finer points of grammar.

For example, during this edit, I like to read the introduction and conclusion and see if they gel with each other.

Ask yourself:

  • Does my introduction and topic sentence invoke curiosity in the reader?
  • Do I have an engaging thesis statement?
  • Do I invoke at least one of the five senses on each page of my work?
  • Are there visual elements in my chapter?
  • What’s the weakest part of this chapter? Now, can I cut it?
  • Have I included metaphors or similes that, upon reflection, don’t stand up in the narrative?
  • Is each of the key paragraphs and sections in this chapter of an appropriate length?
  • Have I suitably broken up each section in my book chapter?
  • Do I need to reformat my work or source images?
  • Am I happy with the tone of this chapter?
  • Are there obvious gaps in my research or stories I need to flesh out?

Round 2: Editing Your Book Chapter in Relation to Other Book Chapters

Like a general surveying the battlefield before marshaling his troops, it’s your job to take stock of your book chapter in relation to the rest of your book.

Address the big problems by asking yourself:

  • Do I need to interview an additional source for the chapter?
  • Does the central argument stand up?
  • Have I told an emotional story that resonates with my reader?
  • Can I strengthen my arguments?
  • Have I brought an original insight into the narrative?
  • Is the central idea or story specific to this chapter alone or do I elaborate on it elsewhere?

Ideally, your book chapter should fall naturally alongside the preceding and proceeding chapters in your book and be of a similar length and have a title consistent with the tone of your book.

It’s also sometimes pleasing to sign-post or reference different chapters in your book at this point too, i.e. “I’ll talk more about this in Ch.5” and so on.

While editing my book The Power of Creativity, I stepped back and looked at my book as a whole before dumping two unnecessary chapters and writing a new one.

I was less concerned with pretty little sentences or usage of the passive voice than I was with arranging my book in a way that agreed with readers.

Round 3: Line-editing Your Book Chapter

Line-editing is like polishing your car. You can spend hours doing it and still be unsatisfied with how it looks. That said, it helps to know the basics.

The rules listed below are crucial for editing any introduction, body paragraph, or conclusion. Therefore, I will explain this section in detail.

Here are 20 rules that all writers should add to their self-editing checklist:

1. Use the active voice 

The post was edited by me.

Oh dear.

I hired an editor to fix my book.

That’s better.

The active voice keeps your writing consistent and crisp. If “were” and “was” frequently appear in your work, you are likely using a passive voice.

The passive voice often fails to engage your reader, and also sounds clunky. To use the active voice place the subject at the beginning of the sentence. 

2. Choose a consistent verb tense

Are you discussing the past, present, or future? Try sticking to one verb tense when possible. Instead of saying, “The documents are filed by the employees,” say, “The employees file the documents.” 

3. Avoid Telling the Reader What Isn’t Happening

I’m not stating this rule for no good reason. Here are some examples:

  • “She didn’t speak.” – “She stayed silent.” 
  • “He didn’t go.” – “He stayed home.”
  • “The coffee shop never opened.” – “The coffee shop remained shut throughout the day.”
  • “I’m not stating this rule for no good reason” – “I’m stating this rule for a good reason.”

4. Revise unnecessary words

Look closely for unnecessary adverbs (there’s one) and pointless adjectives (there’s another). 

Adverbs typically appear as “-ly” words, like closely. Adverbs add unnecessary fluff to your writing and can tire your reader out. Instead, opt for a precise noun or verb. Here’s an example – He hastily grabbed the hammer off the table. He snatched the hammer off the table. 

Further, avoid the words ‘up’ and ‘down.’ “He jumped up in the air.” “She sat down in the hallway.” 

5. Eliminate Redundancies

Trust your reader’s knowledge enough to leave out redundancies. They will know what you mean.

“He blinked his eyes.” – Instead, “He blinked.”

“She grabbed it with her hand.” – How else would she grab it?

“He nodded his head.” – Instead, “He nodded.”

6. Eliminate clichés like your life depends on it.

Clichés include words, phrases, and events. Don’t be too predictable. 

For example – A woman drops her pen only to be met by the eyes of her future love interest kneeling to pick it up. – We all saw that coming. 

7. Simplify clunky language

Reading your work aloud helps. If you stumble over a sentence, it probably contains clunky word choice.

8. Attributing dialogue tags? Just say, ‘said.’

She gesticulated. He grimaced. We giggled. “That’s not how people talk,” your editor said. Instead of using a verb to describe a character’s dialogue, use ‘said.’

9. Spot moments of lazy writing

Do you make a living from your books? Or do you earn a living from your books? This rule also applies to the use of which, that, who, whom, can, may, lay, lie, less, fewer, further, farther, in to, and into. 

10. Avoid using the same word over and over and over…

Scrivener and Grammarly will help overused words. A thesaurus is useful too.

11. Kill your mixed metaphors

Your readers are watching you like you’re a hawk. If you’re going to use a metaphor, it needs to make sense. The purpose of a metaphor is to make a concept or idea more understandable.

12. Avoid complicated word choice 

Because your exasperated readers won’t have the inclination to ruminate on your warblings. Your academic word choice may look smart, but you will lose readers faster than you can search for your thesaurus.

Complicated language can further distract your reader from the narrative and disrupt their reading flow. 

13. Use suitable formatting

Put key words in italics and bold, and break things up with lists like this.

14. Review your punctuation

Unless you’re tweeting like Donald Trump on social media, those exclamation marks have got to go!!!

Review all punctuation, including semicolons, commas, single quotation marks, double quotation marks, hyphens, and apostrophes. Speaking of commas…

15. Love the comma

“Let’s eat, grandma.” isn’t quite the same as “Let’s eat grandma.” Commas are crucial to correct sentence structure. With that said, avoid comma splices, or rather, connecting two independent clauses with a comma instead of a colon, semicolon, or conjunction. 

16. Remove your modifiers

You possibly include them because they simply sound good. And your reader’s reaction? Really?! Similar to adverbs and unnecessary adjectives, modifiers provide fluff and lead to chunky sentence structure.

17. Check for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors

Them thar ttypos keep me up at nite. 

Note – Spell check won’t catch grammatical errors like the accidental use of ‘a’ instead of ‘as,’ or not using capital letters for proper nouns, nor will it find the wrong use of words like ‘their,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘there’. If possible, have a second set of eyes edit your spelling and grammatical errors to ensure the use of the correct word.

Need help? Check out my review of the best grammar checker tools.

18. AVOID CAPITAL LETTERS

Unless you are using capital letters to capitalize proper nouns or the first word of a sentence, AVOID using them. Capital letters appear dramatic and abrasive. 

19. Cut It Down

Brevity is clarity. Cut 10% of your work. Slashing through adverbs, adjectives, modifiers, and unnecessary sentences is a great place to start.

20. Write compelling subheadings

Please, don’t begin your work with a dull “introduction” and end it with a stereotypical “conclusion”. Headings are the first thing a reader’s eye will spot. Use headings and subheadings as an opportunity to intrigue your reader and lure them in.

Oh, and don’t forget to run the Alien from Mars test.

Get your free editing checklist PDF

How Many Rounds of Editing Is Enough?

Great writing is rewriting.

You may write, review, edit and rewrite your book many times. Or you may go through this cycle once.

Take it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and chapter by chapter. As you self-edit and write (but not at the same time!), your book will teach you how to finish it.

While working on your second or third draft, enlist the help of a family member, friend and ask them to provide frank feedback.

Later on, enlist a professional editor (and proofreader) and ask them to help you turn your self-edited draft into something you’re proud to publish.

That said, some writers rework their work up until it goes to the printing press, and thanks to self-publishing, you can even rewrite your work after publication.

But please, don’t get stuck on a merry-go-round of reworking your book without an end in sight.

Diminishing returns will set in. Instead, accept that while your work will never be perfect, it’s as good as it can be.

And that’s all your readers can ask.

What Else Should You Edit?

The self-editing checklist above doesn’t include checking for run-on sentences (besides comma splices), sentence fragments, subject-verb agreement, or the proper use of page numbers. 

Why?

Well, there are hundreds of elements to check for while editing a manuscript. Therefore, engage a professional editor and proofreader after you have finished self-editing.  

As the writer, it’s your job to rid your writing of run-ons and sentence fragments. Learning how to do this is part of the writing process. 

That said, the tips included in the self-editing checklist will help you identify writing and editing mistakes many writers are unaware of. 

This process involves checking for grammar and punctuation mistakes, and also checking for spelling errors, as these are critical elements while editing and proofreading.

Helpful Writing Resources

Editing Software for Writers

For grammar, style, and proofreading:

For improving your writing:

  • Autocrit is a critiquing tool for fiction writers. It costs USD29 per month.
  • Hemingway Editor – this tool will help you figure out which words to cut and which sentences to shorten. It’s free.

Want more? Check out this list of writing apps.

Books To Learn About Editing

The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne

Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies by Sol Stein

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk JR. and E.B.White.

Get your free editing checklist

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14 thoughts on “Self-Editing: How to Improve Your Writing”

  1. ” She gesticulates. He grimaces. We giggled. β€œThat’s not how people talk,” your editor said.” One of my biggest issues with writing. I always feel like I use too much “say”, but when I edit my writing with gesticulate/grimace/giggle it sounds even worse. I have to stick to “say”.

    Also would like to say that I love Hemingway Editor and highly recommend it. It’s great!

    Thanks for wonderful tips, Bryan!

  2. The human brain is the best editor πŸ™‚ A good writer follows his talent and intuition but a professional one uses some extra tools. Hemingway, Autocrit and After the Deadline are MUST for writers and bloggers, these tools save time and money. There are plenty of excellent editing tools like Unplag or Smart Edit (by the way, the former service provides a brilliant online free plagiarism checker that runs fast). Check them out, Bryan, I bet you won’t be disappointed!

  3. Wow! This is one of the best post a newbie writer can read. Thank you for sharing these great tips. And I agree that we need use different word and not repeat the same.

  4. Yes, I have written and rewritten stuff, a lot. Although I say I am a writer, I do not feel like one. I am always afraid I would make a mistake, being a non-native English speaker I fear being judged for my mistakes.

    And this fear takes away all the creativity and passion that I have for storytelling. The Social Media judge and jury is one of the toughest things writers have to face.

    I think separating the two activities of writing and editing at different times might work for me. I will have to give it a chance.

    Thank you. πŸ™‚

  5. Great post, Bryan! I love Grammarly, it makes editing SO much easier. Plus, their professional proofreading service is great for writers on a tight schedule. Anyhow, bookmarking this post so I have a good checklist to come back to the next time I’m editing πŸ™‚

  6. Creating a good manuscript is really hard if you do not have any idea what you are writing it. You have to be equipped with the knowledge of what the topic is all about. And sometimes you have to get those creative juice flowing but being inspired and sometimes there are online help to help ease some of your problems when it comes to writing.

  7. Brilliant tips, Bryan! I especially like those question that should have been asked after completion of the writing process. This a really nice way to make no doubt the result is good. To make certain the article is good, people often use different online services. Unfortunately, you didn’t mention any plagiarism checker, so could you suggest which one do you use?

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