Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Seventeen Tips for Self-Editing by Lillie Ammann

Ask a dozen editors how to self-edit your work, and you’ll get a dozen different opinions. There is no magic formula, but the following tips may help you streamline the process.

1) Recognize that editing is a process, not a single activity. Every author has her own process—this is mine. Not everything you write requires all of these steps. An e-mail to a friend may need just one quick read-through to check for errors while a book manuscript may require all of these steps repeated more than once.

2) Understand that writing comes before editing. Often beginning writers want their first draft to be perfect so they write a little, edit a lot. This may work for some writers, but in my experience, most of us are more creative if we write the first draft before we start to edit. Writing and editing are distinctively different activities, requiring different parts of the brain. If, like me, you are a seat-of-the-pants writer, you could waste a lot of time editing a chapter for grammar only to decide later on to delete that chapter or revise it extensively.

3) Before or as you write, create and update your own style sheet or information guide. You may think you will remember your heroine’s eye color or the correct spelling of a secondary character’s unusual name, but by the end of a long manuscript, you may have to look up that information. You will find it much easier if you have consolidated the details in a single document than if you have to search through the entire manuscript.

4) Set the work aside and allow some time between writing and editing. I prefer several days or longer if possible, but if you have a deadline to meet, you may not have the luxury of that much time. You don’t need to allow as much time for short pieces as for book-length manuscripts.

5) When you are ready to start editing, first read through the work and make notes. Don’t edit on the first read-through. Your goal is to get a new perspective on your writing and to determine what works and what doesn’t. Mark any areas that don’t make sense or that don’t flow smoothly. Note gaps in the plot or problems with character development. Highlight any paragraphs or chapters that need to be moved. Write down any questions you need to research. Many people prefer to read a print copy. I like to transfer the work to my e-book reader to read. I can make notes directly in the reader. Read the way that is most comfortable for you.

6) Set the manuscript aside again.

7) Next, do the first round of editing—a content/structural edit.

  • Save your original file and give the edited document a new filename. I like to include the title and current date in the filename, but use whatever naming convention makes sense to you. You want to be able to return to an earlier version if you make a royal mess of revisions.

  • Some people recommend doing a light edit first, but I prefer to spend my time making major revisions at this point. Determine if your book starts in the right place. Novelists are often advised to delete the first four chapters of their story because most of us tend to put too much backstory into the manuscript at the beginning. Readers don’t need to know everything about the characters’ history from the start. If the information is important, weave it into the story as it’s needed. Create a new file for deleted material, especially if you eliminate a lot of backstory. You can draw from that file to add details as needed later in the book.

  • Make sure the work meets the conventions of the genre. A romance novel must have a happy ending; a mystery must end with the mystery being solved; a how-to book must teach the reader how to do something.

  • Delete points or scenes that are repetitious or unneeded. Every scene in a novel should move the story forward or develop character. Every paragraph in nonfiction should provide valuable and necessary information or illustrate a point.

  • Evaluate the structure and order. Does the book make sense or is something missing? Should paragraphs or chapters be moved for better flow?

  • The amount of revision you need to do depends on how well you structured the first draft, but this initial step can involve major rewriting if you find serious flaws in your manuscript.

8) Set the book aside again.

9) Do the next round of editing—a copyedit. Read the entire manuscript and edit line-by-line.

a. Read the document on your computer and make the corrections as you read for the greatest efficiency, but print the manuscript and work on paper if you aren’t effective editing on screen.

b. Refer to the information guide you created earlier (and that you update as needed) to ensure consistency.

c. Correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage errors.

d. Look for your own common errors (such as overused or incorrect words or—my bugaboo—leaving out important little words like not).

e. Check for passive voice, telling rather than showing, vague descriptions, and overuse of adverbs and weak verbs.

10) Set the book aside again.

11) Do the next round of editing—a copyedit on paper. You’ll see errors in print that you missed on the screen.

12) Set the book aside again.

13) Do the next round of editing—a read-aloud edit.

a. Read the manuscript aloud and notice where you stumble over the words or where the phrasing is awkward. You’ll find errors that you missed in previous edits. Mark the manuscript to indicate where you need to make changes or edit as you read, if you prefer.

b. Listening to someone else read your work aloud can be even more effective. Not only will you hear where she stumbles, but you will hear what you actually wrote. Even reading aloud, we tend to read what we meant, rather than what we wrote, though we do it less reading aloud than reading silently. Another reader may also catch spelling or punctuation errors that you have missed.

14) Set the book aside again.

15) Continue to repeat the above steps (or some combination of them) until you are confident that your book is finished, realizing it will never be perfect.

16) Get another opinion. As an editor, of course, I recommend that writers consider professional editing of their manuscripts. However, you can get valuable input from many others as well. If you are a member of a critique group, you will probably have been getting suggestions from your critique partners throughout the writing process. Other people who can provide helpful feedback on your work are avid readers within your genre, English or writing teachers, and other writers. Evaluate what they tell you and incorporate the suggestions that you agree will make your work stronger.

17) Proofread your manuscript. Read the manuscript line-by-line to check for errors and to confirm that all previous edits have been made correctly.

Seventeen steps from first draft to edited manuscript, and six of those steps are setting the manuscript aside for a period of time to give yourself a fresh perspective when you edit. You can find more detail about the other steps in a seven-part series on editing on my blog.

Now you know my editing process. What’s yours?


Lillie Ammann writes and edits as a freelancer for authors, publishers, and business and nonprofit organizations. She is also Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Your Information Center, a company that publishes short, practical free online guides on a variety of subjects.


  1. I love the idea of having a separate sheet to keep track of the details. I'm already struggling with that, and I'm only on the 3rd chapter!

  2. Your article is very timely for me as I just started my final edit before the ARCs are printed for the second novel in my Rock & Roll mystery series. I went through the first novel 20 times, hitting on several of your points, but in a much less organized fashion. I'm in full agreement with your emphasis on allowing time in between edits. I bookmarked your blog and look forward to future tips.
    RJ McDonnell
    Rock & Roll Homicide

  3. Lillie, I'm also a big fan of your #3 advice - I have wasted to much time in the past trying to skim through previous chapters to figure out what color eye, hair, etc., a specific character has. All in all, a wonderful article with great advice for all writers!

  4. Oh, and the above being said, I am currently writing for a publisher with very quick turnaround on deadlines, so I'm stuck with editing as I go along... but my murder mystery had about 10 edits all told and it made it a much better book!

  5. Ronnica,

    That tip came from experience. I've had to go back and look up information more times than I'd like to admit before I finally figured out I should record it. :-)


    Aspiring writers are often surprised to hear about 20 rounds of edits, but most of us need to edit a lot.


    You have to be a well-organized writer to edit as you go. I can't see myself being very effective at that—it's good that you are.

  6. Lillie,

    I have to agree having a seperate sheet is a great tip. I will be using it in the future. I also believe reading out loud. I bought a software that reads to me. It helps a lot to catch mistakes.

    Thanks for your advice.

  7. La Shaunda,

    The software sounds like a good idea. I like to read my clients' work to them or have my editor read mine to me, because another person reads what's really there rather than what we, the author, think we wrote.

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