Self-Editing Tips & Why It is So Important

Last week, I explained the different types of editors you may need on the path to publish your book. This week we are focusing on why you should self-edit your manuscripts (and how to do so). The bottom line for most writers is this: The “cleaner” your manuscript is when it goes to an editor (meaning the fewer errors it has), the less work it needs. The less work it needs, the less time it will take the editor. The less time it takes, the less editing will cost you and the sooner you can get published!

So how do you practice the art of self-editing? Let's start with some general tips:

First, and most importantly - step back: Give yourself as much time as possible away from the manuscript as you can. That may be a couple days; it may be a couple weeks. Anything you can do to come back with a fresh set of eyes will greatly benefit your work. Even reading another book will allow you to look at your topic with a new perspective when you return to it. You'll be amazed when you see typos jumping out at you, words you left out, and sentences that aren't quite clear. This leads me right into the next tip.

Self-edit in stages: Just like an editor won’t catch everything the first time through, neither will you. Once you have taken time away from the manuscript, read it once for the big picture (macro level), then read it again while looking at the minute details (micro level). Reading for the big picture allows you to ensure the manuscript flows as a whole unit. You may recognize sections that need to be re-written to help the reader transition to the next topic or section, or this step may show you a different way to structure the chapters, topics, etc. When reading on the micro level, be on the hunt for grammatical errors. These errors may seem small and insignificant, but eliminating them shows that you care about your work down to the smallest detail. It lends a sense of professionalism and seriousness to you and your work. (Think about how you feel as a reader when you see a typo or mistake.) With each pass of the manuscript, you should find fewer and fewer errors.

Read the manuscript aloud: Your brain knows what you want that paragraph to say, but by reading it to yourself out loud, your eyes will tell you if that's what you actually wrote. Reading aloud provides another way to make sure your manuscript is ready for the next stage of the publishing process. I would even suggest reading the paragraph backward, starting with the last sentence, to catch any lingering errors.

Those are the three big self-editing tips. Now here are a few specific, micro-level tips:

  • Learn some basic grammar “rules” (Don’t panic! There won’t be a test.) - who vs. whom, that vs. which, between vs. among.
  • Almost always delete really and very.  - It's rare that either word adds anything of substance to your work.
  • Avoid absolutes where possible (e.g., always, never). - There are exceptions to just about every statement you could make. Add a qualifier if you aren’t using specific numbers (e.g., usually, almost always — like I just did in the previous points when talking about really and very!).
  •  Eliminate passive voice - Which reads more smoothly? Julie confirmed the dinner reservation. OR The dinner reservation was confirmed by Julie. The second sentence sounds clunky. Your audience wants to be where the action is!

Following these tips won’t ensure that your manuscript is error-free and won’t need any sort of edit at all, but it will put you in a better position to require less work and less time from an editor. That means you’ll be on the road to publication even sooner. (By the way, these tips apply to all sorts of writing, not just books. You can use them to edit blog posts, articles, or even Facebook posts on your business page.) If you do any other self-editing tasks, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.