10 Simple Tips for Self-Editing

writing tips self-editing

Writing tips for self-editing.

If you’re the token writer at your office, among your friends, or in your family, then you are probably asked on a regular basis to edit, review, or proofread written documents.

Academic essays, business letters, and resumes will land on your desk with the word “HELP!” scrawled across the top.

Or, maybe you’re like me, a professional who offers editing services to writers and business people who want their text to be squeaky clean and irresistible to readers.

Most of us are happy to help. After all, it feels good to help people, especially when it involves doing something you love, like writing or proofreading and editing other people’s writing projects. And the good news is that practicing editing other people’s work makes you more proficient at editing your own work.


Editing Your Own Work

I spend most of my work hours editing other people’s work and self-editing my own writing. In fact, I spend more time on self-editing than I do on writing. So I thought I’d share a few of my favorite writing tips for self-editing.

1. Accept Favor Requests for Editing

When a friend, family member, or co-worker asks you to look at a draft, do it. Even if you’re busy, even if you don’t feel like it or have your own projects to write and edit, take it on. The more editing you do, the better you get at it, and that means you become better at editing your own work, too.

2. Know When to Turn Off Your Inner Editor

There’s a time and place for editing, and often, the first draft is not it. Some writers craft sentence by sentence, perfecting each paragraph before moving on to the next. If that works for you, great. But if you spend hours stuck on word choice or sentence structure and you can’t move forward with the project, turn off your inner editor, blind yourself to typos and grammar mistakes, ignore bad writing, and just let your fingers fly.

3. Make Sure You’re Wearing Your Editing Hat

When you do edit, make sure editing is really what you’re doing. In other words, be aware that editing is not scouring the text for typos and stray punctuation marks. Editing is when we strengthen story, sentences, and paragraphs. Proofreading comes later. That’s not to say we don’t do a little proofing while editing or that we don’t do a little editing while proofing. I know I do. However, I always do a full revision focused on editing and another on proofreading. For more complex pieces, I do multiple edits and proofs.

3. Edit On-Screen and Track Changes

Many writers and editors swear by the printed page. But that’s a messy and inefficient way to edit. If you start editing on-screen, you’ll adjust to the new format and soon find it’s much easier than marking up print. If you’re making big revisions (as you should during editing) and you’re worried about losing the original text, use Microsoft Word’s feature, Track Changes, which does just what you’d expect–it tracks all the changes you make as you edit. Then you can go through and review every edit and accept or reject those changes individually or collectively later. This is also a great way to edit twice–once to make the changes and again to approve them.

4. If You’re Not Sure, Look it Up (and Know What You Don’t Know)

Your greatest wisdom as an editor is knowing what you don’t know. Having resources in your arsenal is one thing. Using them is something else entirely. Don’t be lazy! Remember that every time you look something up, you learn something new and expand your own writing skills. Plus, the more you look things up, the less you’ll need to look them up in the future. Eventually, they become natural for you and part of your own writing process.

5. Keep a Grammar Manual and Style Guide Handy

When you’re proofreading and editing, you need to be meticulous. Don’t cut corners. If you’re not sure about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or context, you need to be able to open up a grammar manual or a style guide, so make sure you have the right resources handy. Be vigilant, be correct, and use good judgment, keeping in mind that sometimes it’s best to bend the rules (but only if you know what the rules are and why you’re breaking them).

6. Run Spell Check and Grammar Check First

Before you do anything, run spell check and use your word processing software’s grammar checking tool (if it has one). Automated checkers don’t catch everything, but they can catch a lot, and that means you’ll have more time and brain energy for manual editing. Also, use the find-and-replace feature, which allows you to quickly find or replace a single error multiple times. For example, many people are still in the habit of using a double space after a period. I always do a find-and-replace to replace all those double spaces with the modern standard–single spaces after every period or terminal punctuation mark.

7. Read Slowly and Out Loud

The most crucial aspect of proofreading and editing is reviewing every single word and examining the written work at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels. Plus, you should be able to assess every document or manuscript in its entirety to check for readability, organization, and flow. This means you’ll have to go over each piece numerous times. To separate yourself from the content so you can better evaluate the writing, read slowly and read out loud. You’ll catch a lot of minor mistakes and typos this way.

Bonus Tip: Don’t forget to check titles and subtitles!

8. Listen for Wording and Rhythm

Editing involves more than checking for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When you read the piece out loud, pay attention to the rhythm. Does it flow smoothly? Do the sentences alternate in length or are there a series of really short (or really long) sentences that have a droning rhythm? Break up some of those longer sentences and join some of the smaller sentences together to give the writing better rhythm and more musicality.

9. Pay Attention to Formatting

Formatting is actually separate from editing. This involves things like font (size, face, and other formatting options, such as bold or italics), paragraph and line spacing, and indents. Chapter titles and subheadings, for example, should have the same font and spacing. Citations should be formatted the same (and preferably, adhering to a style guide). Just keep an eye out for inconsistencies in this area.

10. Review to Perfection

I like to follow a five-step process for editing:

  1. Read the entire text
  2. Second pass focuses on wording and readability.
  3. Third review focuses on editing for word choice and sentence structure.
  4. Fourth pass is proofreading (check for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typos). This is where I read out loud, slowly.
  5. Final review and polish.

I repeat step five until I can’t find anything to improve.

Good Luck with Your Self-Editing!

If you have any self-editing tips of your own, please share by leaving a comment.

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

40 Responses to “10 Simple Tips for Self-Editing”

  1. Kelvin Kao says:

    I chuckled at the phrase “token writer”.

    What? One space instead of two spaces after the period is the cool thing to do now? I am so yesterday. In fact, I am still doing that while typing out this comment.
    .-= Kelvin Kao´s last blog ..Puppetry Classes =-.

    • It took me a couple of months to get used to typing one space instead of two spaces after each period. But it makes sense. I mean, you don’t need to set off sentences with a period, a capital letter, AND an extra space. Anyway, it takes some getting used to… but it can be done! Overcome the habit!

  2. Deb says:

    Ditto the “token writer” phrase.

    This is really useful. I’ll be printing out and adding it to my notebook. Yes, I do like a few things in hard copy.

    @Kevin – When I was switching from typewriter to word processing the explanation I was given about why only one space instead of two was not a trend thing but had to do with word processing having scalable fonts whereas on a typewriter that metal slug is what it is. But it still took almost 2 years to retrain my thumbs not to hit the spacebar twice.
    .-= Deb´s last blog ..NaNoWriMo Week 3 Update =-.

    • Hi Deb! Hope NaNo’s going well. From the sound of your Facebook updates, you’re on track :) I didn’t know the switch to one space had to do with scalable fonts, but that totally makes sense. Thanks for explaining.

  3. Meredith says:

    This is very helpful in many ways. I think I’ve heard or read all these tips at one time or another, but I’ve never seen them all in one place, so succinctly.

    This is one to keep and savor.
    .-= Meredith´s last blog ..Must Read Post: Writing Advice From U2 =-.

  4. Walter says:

    I kind of mess up when it comes to editing. I don’t know the proper approach. Thanks for providing me with directions here. :-)

    • My pleasure! There are a variety of editing strategies that you can apply. These are the ones that have worked for me or that I’ve heard work well for other writers and editors. Good luck editing!

  5. Cath Lawson says:

    Melissa – You mentioned the one space thing ages ago and I still haven’t managed to get into the way of doing it. But I have a 24 year habit to break.

    I’m hopeless at editing my blog. If I type it in Word first, I get all those horrid characters in the html. Wish there was a way to spell check directly on your blog post.

    • Yep, it’s a tricky habit to adopt after typing two spaces for so many years. Don’t you use WordPress? Mine doesn’t have spell check exactly, but it puts a red underline beneath words that are spelled incorrectly. Still, I find the best way to edit and proof is to simply read over each post a couple of times before publishing. Sometimes I even go back and proofread posts that I’ve already published, and I do occasionally find typos that need fixing on posts that are already live!

  6. Great post. However, I do think it’s important for writers who are looking to get published professionally hire an editor and/or proofreader to catch any mistakes or wordy passages.

    • I agree for the most part, but it depends on the writer and the publication they’re targeting. Some writers have outstanding grammar skills, and any mistakes will be caught by the publisher before it goes to print. I wouldn’t recommend a writer with excellent technical skill hire a proofreader before submitting a short story to a lit mag, for example. Usually lit mag editors will clean up any typos. But lots of writers are not focused on grammar so they never gain strength in that area, and that’s fine, but they should definitely think about hiring some help. Also, young and new writers can benefit immensely from working with an editor/proofreader and studying to improve their grammar skills.

  7. proofreading & editing says:

    “As close to perfect as possible” is probably the best way to say it.
    When one is satisfactorily content, then it is time to hit “publish”.

    • I’ve heard so many writers and artists say “It’s never really done…” I think many rely on intuition to “just know” when it’s time to share the work.

  8. Deborah James says:

    Very useful article.

  9. Phyllis says:

    My “inner editor” is stopping me from writing my novel! I have no problems with the story line and/or the characters but my grammar skills have suffered over the years. How will I be able to proofread my work, if I don’t know how to use proper grammar or punctuation?

    • Hi Phyllis, May I suggest you take a little time to revisit grammar? If you strongly feel that grammar is a big weakness for you, then the only sensible recourse is to brush up on it. I recommend The Elements of Style as a starter, and then Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, which is packed with awesome grammar in an easy-to-digest narrative.

      Many writers don’t edit as they write. You can try writing a little more freely, and worry about revisions and editing later. Good luck!

  10. Sophia says:

    Hello, in what sequence should I put the following verbs with an adverb? Adverb first and then verbs?

    She never could have?

    She could never have?

    And is it still true that in formal writing you must never write could’ve?

    Many thanks!

    Sophia

    • There might be some wiggle room with this one, but I would go with “She never could have.” It sounds more natural. I would refrain from using contractions (like “could’ve”) in formal writing, such as academic or business writing. Good luck!

  11. Lisa Wells says:

    Thanks for the tips. They are wonderful.

  12. Courtney Hosny says:

    Great tips…comes at a much needed time for me! Retweeting you on my twitter…my fellow writer followers will be happy to have the advice! :)

  13. Great post, Melissa.

    I find the frequency of my editing on-screen as I write to be increasing. It’s almost as if I can recognize a mistake more quickly than I could when this whole writing thing started. But, I still go through the steps you’ve outlined. However, the printed copy edits continue to be an integral part of the process. This is when I sit and read aloud, perhaps three or four times, using a red pen – as if I’m editing for another person – before heading back to the keyboard with my now-bloody print.

  14. Icy Sedgwick says:

    I often change the font and size of my text so even if I’m proofing on screen, it tricks my eye into seeing it as something new!

  15. Sometimes pushing the delete button on your words is hard, so every time I start a new round of edits I copy the whole document and paste it into another word file. Then I can delete away and know that if I change my mind my old file is still there.

    • Ryan Jay says:

      I do likewise, Jessica. After writing the first draft, I’d save it with the name, First Draft. Then I’d copy-paste it to another word document where I’d work on the second draft, save it with the name Second Draft, and the process goes for the next drafts.

    • Me too, but only for major edits and rewrites. Then I go through and clean them out every couple of years.

  16. Good ideas, like the one about looking at a piece in a different font or size, got to try that. I find I edit a lot for trite words or phrases that make writing seem stale. “inform your work” is one I jumped on yesterday. “Platform” is starting to get a little rank around the edges as is “lean in”. Our culture goes so fast, stuff ages quickly.

  17. K.R. Morrison says:

    Loved the post. I have to admit, I’m still a hold-out on the double-space after the comma. It just looks weird otherwise. Good to see the ol’ Oxford comma used here. Thought I was the only one who used it any more.

    • I’m the opposite–the double space now looks weird to me because I’ve gotten used to the single space. Most editors are going to remove it anyway. I’d say it took me about a month to adapt to the single space and another couple months before it became habitual. I’m a big supporter of the Oxford comma simply because it’s necessary sometimes for clarity; therefore, it should be used all the time for consistency :)

  18. Rebecca Vance says:

    I just discovered your site, and I am so glad that I did! I am an aspiring author working on my debut novel. This is great information. I’ve just subscribed to your blog. I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now. I have a review blog for debut authors. I look forward to seeing your other posts.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Rebecca! I’m glad you’re finding the information here useful. I wish you the best of luck with your blog and your book.

  19. Eden Mabee says:

    Another double-spacer after the end of a sentence here (as far as I know it is less that it is “standard” and more a case of what works best for certain media–eg. a proportional, serifed font looks better with a double space). Consistency is key whatever format you use.

    Otherwise, a great list. And I agree, for most short pieces, editing on screen is the way to go. For anything book-length, I would still rather work with red-pen and a printout.

    • I work mostly with short pieces, which is why I rarely print anything. I don’t even have a printer hooked up in my office! I’m all about the red pen when I’m editing a book-length work!

  20. Jodi Woody says:

    Thanks again, I hate editing!!!