Let’s Write – Basics of Self-Editing

Something about the editing process has always intrigued me, and I’ve wanted to take an editing course or two for ages. Yet, I’ve always had an excuse why not to take that course.

I sent off A Trial of Sparks & Kindling to my editor at the end of September, which meant I had nothing pressing to complete and no excuses. The time of the editing courses had arrived.

Of course, much of what you learn while learning about editing is obvious. Glaringly obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to realise you could apply many of the principals of editing to your own manuscript, before hitting send and filling your editor’s inbox with a manuscript riddled with needless mistakes.

I guess many of us skimp on the self-editing because we don’t know what to look out for. Let’s change that, shall we?

Self-Editing is Important

Writers, as a group, are not made of money. Sure, the Kings and Rowlings of the world have it pretty good, but most of us still have to turn those pennies.

What does this have to do with self-editing? Well, friends, many professional editors charge by the word.

If you manage to cut out some of the problems in your manuscript before you send it to the editor, you’ll end up saving some cash. You’ll also make an editor’s day.

At the very least, if you send her a tight, self-edited manuscript, she won’t feel the need to bash her keyboard against the wall while cursing your name.

Now, some people will tell you that self-editing can cut out the editor altogether. To that I say this: If you’ve landed a traditional publisher, they’d have one of their editors work on your manuscript before publishing it, whether you self-edited or not.

Readers expect a certain level of quality from traditional publishers, which means they won’t skimp where it counts–tightening the story and looking out for grammatical gremlins.

Indie authors must do the same. As it is, readers judge us more harshly than traditionally published authors. Too many indie books floating around the interwebs never received the editing love they needed, and stigmatise the lot of us.

Having said that, a bit of self-editing can go a long way, even for those authors who choose not to have their manuscripts edited for whatever reason. Do keep in mind that there are many indie editors out there too, looking for authors to help out.

I must add here that it’s typically best to send the document to beta readers somewhere during the writing process. Some authors prefer to do a mini self-edit, then send off the manuscript to the beta team. Others don’t edit at all until they’ve heard from their beta readers.

I do a combination of both. The alpha team is clued in on the entire story, as it is in my head. Major spoilers here. They read and brainstorm as I write, and give immediate feedback. Once I’ve heard their thoughts, I self-edit, then send the manuscript to the beta team, and once I have their feedback I edit again before sending anything to my editor.

The Four Steps of Editing

You’ve written your manuscript. Great! You want to self-edit, but you have no idea where to start or what to look out for.

Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. The irony is, it’s pretty easy.

Editing can be broken up into four main steps.

  1. The structural edit (also called developmental edit)
  2. Refining and reviewing
  3. The line edit
  4. Proofreading

Simple, right?

Now, since each of these steps has plenty of content to discuss, we’ll come back to each of them in-depth in another post. First, a summary.

1) Structural Editing

This is the step where we search for anything that damages the logic of our story, anything that hinders us from telling the story in the most effective manner, and anything that might confuse the reader.

Specifically, we’ll be looking at:

  • Plot and setting
  • Characters
  • Flow and pace
  • Conflict and resolution
  • Style
  • Voice

You’ve heard of ‘killing your darlings’, right? Well, the structural edit is typically where they get killed.

2) Refining and Reviewing

In this step, we reread the manuscript to make sure we didn’t miss any of the changes from the previous step, and add or subtract from the text where needed. You want to work at a paragraph level, strengthening the overall story.

Of course you can and should fix grammatical and stylistic errors as they pop up–if it doesn’t break your stride. I know some authors lose their focus on the bigger picture stuff if they worry about grammar too early in the editing process. Other authors (like me) can’t not fix the grammatical and stylistic issues they find immediately. We all write differently, do what works for you.

Concentrate on:

  • Consistency (in plot, characterisation, tense, and style)
  • Voice
  • Eliminating unnecessary wordiness
  • Alternatives to cliches
  • Removing intensifiers, redundancies, and weasel words
  • Finding stronger verbs
  • Turning passive voice sentences to active voice

Once you’ve completed this step, it’s a good idea to take a break from the story. Distance from something you’re *SO PASSIONATE ABOUT* is the absolute worst, I know. But I promise it’ll be worth it when you come back at it with fresh perspective. Use this break to send the manuscript to the beta team, or to be edited by a pro.

3) The Line Edit

This, my grammar fanatics, is where we edit the story on a sentence level. Get out your dictionaries and grammar bibles and go to town on your manuscript.

Since the list of grammatical errors to look out for is longer than Gandalf’s beard, I’m not going into detail about any of that now. I will, however, do a follow-up post with a few common errors I know I find in my own writing all the time.

Now, we often confuse line editing and proofreading. Sure, the two stages of editing are similar, but not the same.

During the line edit, you also want to check out your word choices, think about the flow and rhythm of your sentences, and ensure your metaphors and poetic writing are packing a punch.

4) Proofreading

Think of proofreading as line editing on super saiyan level.

Your proofreader’s job is to catch all the little grammatical, spelling, and punctuation gremlins that somehow manage to squeeze through the cracks and make it into the final, to-be-published draft of your manuscript.

For this reason, proofreading usually takes place after your manuscript has been formatted for print. Why? Sometimes, glitches in the formatting process can cause sentences to be broken off in weird places, punctuation to go missing, or other weird things to happen. Those errors will be found and dealt with before the book is printed. Nifty.

During this step, you (or the proofreader) should also check for consistency of style. If a word was hyphenated the last two times it popped up, but lacks a hyphen in the next two instances, a common spelling must be found and applied throughout the manuscript. If the author uses UK spelling throughout the book, but includes an instance of US spelling somewhere, the word must be changed to UK spelling (if the spelling differs, of course). The same with capitalisation, spelling of made-up words or names, tenses, etc.

Phew, that was a mouthful. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information in one post, so I’ll stop here.

But don’t worry–I plan to expand on each of these points during the next week or two.

Until next time.



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