How to Self Edit: 10 Top Tips for Making Your Writing Shine


04 May 2022
womanwriting-55729.jpg How to be a better writer
Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process – this stage is when you make your writing truly shine.

You may think you need to hire an expensive professional to edit your writing. But while an editor can certainly make editing easier and more effective, you might not have thousands of dollars to spend hiring a professional. The good news is you don’t need to!

By following a set editing process and using tools like grammar checkers to supplement your knowledge, you can self edit efficiently and effectively. In this post, we lay out ten tips for self editing your writing. Let’s get started!

10 Self-Editing Tips Once You’re Finished Writing a Masterpiece

Ready to start self-editing your work? Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

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#1: Approach Self-Editing in Stages

You didn’t write your book in one sitting. You won’t edit in one sitting, either.

Editing is best approached in stages. During each stage, focus your attention on specific types of improvements.

There are many schools of thought on what stages make up the editing process and what happens at each of those stages, but to keep it simple, here are three types of edits that you should always do:

  • Content edits: These edits look at the big picture of your writing. If you’re writing fiction, you’ll look at pieces like plot, characterization, and setting. If you’re writing nonfiction, you’ll look at the strength of your argument and the evidence you’ve used to back that argument up.
  • Line edits: These edits look at your writing line by line. Once you’ve solidified your big picture during content edits, it’s time to look carefully at word choice and sentence structure. During these edits, you’ll pay attention to grammar, style, spelling, readability, and more.
  • Proofreading: While not technically a phase of editing, proofreading is important if you intend to self-edit as you prepare for publishing. During proofreading, you’ll ensure consistency of spelling and formatting and make last-minute checks to ensure your work is polished and ready for readers.

#2: Remember Writing and Editing Have Different Goals

Writing and editing are different. For many writers, writing is explorative. While writing, they learn things about their characters, test new ideas, and often produce more content than they really need to tell the story.

Editing‌ is about synthesizing your writing into the best possible story. While you’re constantly thinking about how to add content while writing, you’re often thinking about how to cut content while editing. That’s okay! That’s all part of the editing process.

If it pains you to cut scenes, sections of scenes, or even entire plots or characters during editing, try starting a “cut content” document where you can move all the work you’ve decided doesn’t fit in your new, tight story.

#3: Use Software to Support Your Editing Process

Self-editing is challenging. Editing is a skill set that you don’t just suddenly have because you’ve learned how to write. While it is possible to effectively self-edit your work, software can help make the process easier. 

Often, it’s hard for us to judge our work or see our bad habits because we’re simply so close to what we’ve written. That’s where technology comes in. 

Tools like Fictionary can support the content editing process by mapping your story to key plot points so you can see where your work matches or misses expectations. ProWritingAid, on the other hand, can support both line editing and proofreading with dozens of reports that flag everything from repeated words and phrases to style improvements.

ProWritingAid offers style improvements that make your writing more effective.

Software is often much cheaper than hiring a professional editor and can give you the extra set of eyes you need to judge your writing realistically.

#4: Read Aloud

Not sure if your writing sounds any good? Try reading it aloud. When you read aloud, you’re more likely to notice inefficient sentences, awkward phrasing, and unclear sentence structures. Reading aloud separates you from your work and forces you to consider how it will actually sound to a stranger.

We recommend reading every section you edit aloud to ensure it makes sense.

#5: Show vs. Tell

Every sentence you write is like a mini movie that your reader will play in their head. Therefore, when editing, it’s important to make sure those movies are accurate.

Consider the following sentence:

Mary was sad.

That would make for a pretty boring movie, right? Not only that, but that example sentence doesn’t present a vivid picture. Different readers may see Mary behaving differently, because “was sad” doesn’t tell us a lot about how Mary actually looks or feels.

Here’s a better example:

Mary’s cheeks flushed red and her chin quivered, her eyes filling with tears.

This second example says the ‌same thing as the first sentence, but it does so by showing, not telling. The movie readers of the second sentence will play in their heads is likely much more accurate to what the author actually intends.

When self-editing, read passages and ask yourself, “Is the movie a reader playing in their head accurate to what I’m trying to show?” This question will help improve your writing.

#6: Use Strong Verbs and Adjectives

Verbs and adjectives add description to our work. But many writers use weak verbs and adjectives instead of strong ones.

For example, a writer might say:

“James ran quickly to the car.”

This sentence, while grammatically correct, relies on a weak verb + an adverb (ran quickly) to get the author’s point across. A stronger verb like “dashed” would make the sentence more evocative and unique:

“James dashed to the car.”

While self-editing, look for places where you’ve relied on adverbs to improve your verbs or adjectives. Replace those with stronger words that say exactly what you mean.

ProWritingAid identifies instances of weak verbs or adjectives in your writing and suggests stronger alternatives.

#7: Ensure Consistency

Nothing takes a reader out of a story more than obvious errors from the writer. And consistency is one area where many writers often make inadvertent mistakes.

When writing, especially when writing something as long as a book, it’s easy to forget how you’ve punctuated a specific acronym or hyphenated a particular word. These errors in consistency can create confusion and mistrust in your readers.

Consistency errors can also affect your plot. Did you end a scene with a character in one place and start the next with that character in a totally different place without ever addressing their change of location? 

These types of mistakes are easy to make when writing but you should clean them up while editing.

#8: Consider Your Audience

During the editing process, keep in mind your potential audience. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What does my target audience like in stories?
  • What does my target audience not like in stories?
  • What background does my target audience have with my story or genre?

These questions can cause you to make many types of changes during the editing process. For instance, during content editing, you may decide that your particular science fiction audience doesn’t care much about romance, so it makes sense to cut a romance subplot to tighten your story and eliminate potentially alienating content.

Or, during line editing, you may realize that you wrote your middle grade story at a much higher reading level than your audience can easily enjoy. You may choose to remove complicated words, make your sentences simpler, or eliminate extra phrases. 

ProWritingAid identifies readability improvements that can make your writing more clear.

Understanding who your audience is and what they expect from your writing can help ensure your readers actually want to read your work.

#9: Eliminate Echoes

Nothing can take a reader out of a story faster than a repeated phrase. Repeats set off an alarm bell in a reader’s mind: “Didn’t I just read that?”

Repeats are a common mistake many writers make during their first draft. Upon editing, you may find that you’ve repeated certain words or phrases or even that you’ve repeated entire themes or plot points that you don’t need to include in your final draft.

Keep a sharp eye out for repeats as you self-edit. Reading aloud can help identify repeats as you’ll likely pay closer attention to your words when speaking them. Tools like ProWritingAid can also help you find all repeated words and phrases with just the touch of a button.

#10: Ask For Help If You Need It

Finally, remember that it’s okay to ask for help when self-editing. You may find after a few rounds of self-edits that you need to bring in a professional. That’s perfectly normal! Many writers self-edit their work, completing the stages outlined in our first tip, before bringing in a professional to run through their work again.

Hiring a professional doesn’t mean your self-editing efforts have failed. In fact, you’ll likely save time and money by hiring a professional after you’ve already self-edited. By completing a round of self-edits first, you’ll ensure the professional is spending time on the most important parts of your manuscript, instead of fixing minor errors you could have fixed yourself.

Conclusion on How to Self Edit Your Writing

Self-editing is an important part of the writing process. We recommend that all writers self-edit their work, regardless of whether they intend to pay a professional editor in the future. By completing at least one round of self-edits yourself, you will clean up your manuscript, make your content more clear, and ensure that it’s ready for whatever comes next: whether that’s publication, another round of self-edits, or a trip to a professional editor.

If you’re looking for a tool to support you on your self-editing journey, the folks at ProWritingAid have kindly offered a 20% discount for you to try out their software. Use code WRITERSONLINE20 to save 20% off a ProWritingAid yearly or lifetime membership.


Author Bio

As Head of Education at ProWritingAid, Hayley Milliman focuses on building engaging, helpful learning content for the millions of users who rely on ProWritingAid to make their writing clear and effective. Hayley has a robust writing portfolio and has written for dozens of publications on topics related to education, marketing strategy, history, entrepreneurship, and more.

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