Writers experienced or amateur all find themselves facing the task of self-editing at one point in their writing journey or another. Self-editing plays a vital role in making sure that a manuscript is ready to see an editor and can entail days of work going through and picking apart your story to ensure it's in tip-top condition. This brings about a whole new set of challenges. For those of you who just completed your first novel, the question becomes: How does one self-edit? What sort of mistakes should you be looking for within your work? For writers who have been through this phase of the process before, your question might be: How can I improve my writing and elevate the quality of my overall work? How can I showcase my growing skills to the best of my abilities?
While we can't promise that you'll be able to catch every one of your mistakes, we can share 12 self-editing tips that you might be currently overlooking.
#1 Take A Break In-Between Writing And Self-Editing
In a nutshell, you just finished one behemoth of a task. You've written your book start to finish and your brain (as well as your eyes) are tired. You also probably spent the last several months or maybe even years reading and re-reading what you wrote, and could probably perform at least half of it verbatim if asked. Before you start staring at your novel and stressing over every little phrase, it's wise to take a break. This let's you refresh, adjust, de-stress, and gives you time to forget what you wrote so you can view it from a more objective place.
The amount of time you let it rest is up to you and often depends on your publication timeline. It can be two weeks, two months, or longer. Fighting the urge to immediately dive into edits serves one very important purpose: it solves the issue of book blindness. This is a real phenomena. Essentially you've spent so much time with your own writing that you become immune to your own mistakes. Taking a step back and allowing some separation gives your mind time to forget some of the finer details so that when you do pick it up again, it's almost like reading it for the first time. It's the closest you'll ever get to a genuine reader experience and that can help you see things more clearly in the long run. It can also help you overcome hindrances like self-doubt and over confidence by allowing space for you to evaluate your work based on how a reader would versus you in your writer form (as we're much more critical of ourselves than a reader will be).
#2 Employ The Buddy System
Not confident in your ability to fairly judge your own work? That's okay! Most of us aren't qualified to be completely objective and no matter how hard we may try, we never will be. Even if you're an editor yourself, there's a reason why the reigning advice is to never be your own professional editor. The reason is because you're not qualified to find every mistake you make. You're simply too close to the writer.
Have you ever noticed how your writing tends to sound different when you read it aloud versus in your head? If you've ever tried it, you've unwittingly stumbled into the next self-editing technique. Reading out loud to yourself when you're editing is a good way to catch things like strange-sounding phrases, choppiness, if you use the wrong word or miss a word, etc. It is also useful for dialogue. The best way to see if a conversation you wrote flows is to have someone else verbalize the lines with you, as if you're actors reading over a script. This will help you tell for sure whether your words are realistic and whether or not anything needs to be changed. Don't have a helper? No problem! An alternative option is to use the speech function on your computer. Typically it allows you to select the tone and reading rate of your choice, which can then be applied to anything written in your Word document. It'll read your writing back to you, which is pretty cool. If you're still unsure, you can also send out your manuscript to beta readers who can help weigh-in.
#3 Double-Check Words With Multiple Meanings/Spellings
It never fails. The English language is filled with pitfalls and word traps. There's a reason why it's one of the hardest languages to learn and one such reason is that many words have multiple meanings and/or spellings. Even for native speakers, we still manage to get things wrong. On average, when we self-edit we're only able to pick up about 75% of our own grammar mistakes, which is why hiring an editor is so important in the long run. Here are a few commonly confused words to look for in your draft as you self-edit. Another helpful tip is to pick one type of grammar problem to search for at a time, rather than trying to catch them all at once. Sometimes this helps the brain focus and see more of those pesky errors than it does trying to focus on all of them simultaneously.
Here is a list of common problem words:
The best way to eliminate these errors is to print out your manuscript and highlight any of the following you find in your draft. Once you're finished highlighting, go back through and make sure that you've used the right one. If you're in doubt about how to use any of these words or which might be appropriate for the situation, don't be afraid to Google it.
#4 Flag Your Crutch Words
Your next self-editing task is to flag all your crutch words. Crutch words and phrases are those that we tend to overuse when we write because we like them and they help fill in the gaps when we don't know exactly what we want to say. These are the fluff and filler words that worm their way into our writing when we're tired, or when we aren't paying close attention. Words such as "always", "right", "okay", "that", "just", "maybe", "uh", "very", "because", "if", etc. It's important to do a separate run-through of your draft to find and eliminate these extra words. They up your word count and cheapen your writing. Plus they make your editing bill more expensive when you do hire an editor. To learn more about crutch words, consult this guide from Hubspot: So, Um, You Really Need to Stop Using These Crutch Words.
#5 Fix Your Formatting Errors
In the world of publishing, formatting matters. Awkward spacing, gaps, or incorrect formatting within your manuscript can spell the end of your author career before it's even begun. This type of mistake tends to happen when we start a train of thought and realize we need to do more research before finishing it, when we intentionally want to create a division between chapters or titles, and when we accidentally get trigger-happy with our space bar. Utilizing the find-and-replace tool in your Word document is a quick and effective way to fix this mistake. To use it, type two spaces in “find” and one space in “replace” and hit enter. This will allow you go go through your work and fix this promptly. If you prefer a less "tech-y" approach, simply go through by hand and manually delete the extra space as needed.
Depending on which publishers/agents you query to, their specific requirements will change and it’s something you’ll have to adjust your manuscript sample for each time you submit. These specifications are typically listed on the publisher’s website submissions page. It’s vital your manuscript meets them to be considered; if it doesn’t there’s a good chance whoever you submitted it to will not read it, no matter how awesome it is. Listed below is the general standard of what publishers look for.
· Double or 1.5 line spacing
· Standard font (Times New Roman)
· Font size 12
· Standard Margins
· Chapter breaks marked by page breaks
· Page numbers centered in footer
· New paragraphs indicated with indents
#6 Scan For Character Names And Variations
One mistake that editors see a lot of are characters with inconsistent character names. When you have to write the names of your characters a million times over, often late at night, variations, nicknames, abbreviations, and placeholders start creeping in. Mr. Darcy becomes Darcy, Mr., Mr. Prejudice, Darc, Dar, and Mr. D which arguably are all still the same person but it's no less confusing to read. Characters can have variations such as more formal versus casual in Regency novels, their full name versus a nickname a loved one calls them such as Elizabeth and Mrs. Darcy. The key is to limit the number of characters with multiple variations and to stay consistent throughout your novel. If your main character has two names, then these should be established at the beginning of the book and appear interchangeably throughout. If the main character's name changes mid-way through your draft, it's a good sign that it found it's way into your draft due to laziness rather than intention and should be fixed.
#7 Eliminate Uncertain Punctuation
We all do it. We overuse commas and put semicolons where they don't belong. We misuse ellipses and think that we can get away with extra apostrophes. We think we're improving our writing and being more "creative" by doing so, especially when trying to create dialects in dialogue. The truth is that that is a misconception. Think of punctuation as a recipe. When you add too much salt to a batch of cookies, you end up with an inedible dessert. It's the same with writing. Using too much or too little punctuation not only harms the quality of our work, but hurts your chances of being published in the process. The best way to avoid having this become an issue is by going through and circling any punctuation in your manuscript that you're unsure of. If you have even the slightest doubt that you may have used it wrong, it qualifies. Once you identify them all, spend some time looking up how to use them properly. Then correct the ones you did use incorrectly. Taking the time to learn things now will save you (and your editor) time during future projects, thus elevating your writing overall.
#8 Run Spell Check or Use Grammarly
Writing is the time to throw caution to the wind and let the typos reign. But when the freedom comes to an end and the real work begins, one of the easiest ways to catch those spelling and grammar errors is to get some help. While your editor will smooth them out for you, it's not a free pass to not self-edit simply because you don't feel like it. Unfortunately being blinded by the page after a while is a reality. The more you stare at a Word or Scrivener document, the harder it becomes to read. This is especially true if you've read the same paragraph about five hundred times. Thankfully, we aren't expected to become champion spellers (though we should strive to become one!). That's where the wonderful world of spell check comes in. Whether you use traditional spell check or a browser program like Grammarly, using them guarantees you'll have a cleaner draft and you'll know better for next time.
#9 Scan For Perspective (POV) Inconsistencies
Another tip straight from the editor's toolbox is to check for inconsistencies in whatever narration you've used. It's common in lengthier novels for POV to become an issue, especially if you're narrating from multiple POV's or have a large supporting cast, such as those you see in fantasy novels. This might be a little confusing, so here's an example. Say you've written your draft in first person, but have three different characters who take turns narrating. Where the error comes in, is when you write a chapter for your main character that includes one of these other POV characters and the thoughts of the that extra sneaks into the conversation. For instance, your main character asks a question and the second character reacts. But rather than verbally responding or the main character inferring what their facial expression means, the reader is told what that second character is thinking instead. This is a POV error because the main character isn't a mind reader, and can't know for sure what the second character is thinking without them directly saying so. Another example is when the main character is with the secondary character reacting to a situation and rather than only being shown the scene from the limited scope of the main character's senses, we're then shown a piece from the senses of the second. For instance, the main character and secondary character are in a garden marveling over the blooms. The main character describes in detail the overall splendor, but then the second goes on to detail the smell of a particular rose. This is an error because only the main character can give these sensory details.
#10 Writing The Way You Speak
Even in dialogue, there's a difference between writing properly and writing the way you speak. With speech, words and phrases take on a new form. Slang, dialect, culture, abbreviations, acronyms, and the differences in the way words are strung together alter their proper English forms. While this is still understandable in real life, it doesn't necessarily translate the same way in a novel. Filler words also tend to sneak into our daily speech patterns, and these we know don't work in a manuscript. One way to catch this in your self-edits to specifically scan for it. Read chunks of your dialogue aloud. These types of mistakes are easier to catch verbally because we can hear them as opposed to read them. If your flow is disrupted by a lot of "uhms", slang that has unclear meaning outside of a particular group, abbreviations that make the meaning of the sentence unclear, etc. it's time to revise.
#11 Inconsistent Timelines
The structure of a novel matters. Having a timeline of events that makes sense to the reader may be more difficult than it sounds to achieve, particularly if your novel's structure is nonlinear. But one thing you can do in your self-edits is to consider timeline alternatives if you're unsure of how yours flows. Sometimes switching a chapter or two can change the entire story for the better, so if you know you have a timeline issue this is where we recommend starting. If you're not sure what combinations might work best, break out the note cards or Trello boards and write down each chapter with a brief summary. Then play musical plotline and rearrange at will until the new timeline makes sense.
#12 Beware Over-Editing
While it's a good idea to self-edit, it's important not to over-edit. Knowing the difference is a little like walking a tightrope but it's good to keep in mind that the pursuit of perfection is overrated. No one is perfect and that includes writers. That's why we hire whole teams of people to help us clean, correct, polish, and sell our work. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll be able to catch all of your mistakes. It's impossible and believing you can perfect your writing by yourself is a little like believing in Santa Claus as an adult- too good to be true. While you absolutely should self-edit, you should also invest in an editor to catch the rest of your mistakes, both known and unknown. If you want to give your work its best chance at success, an extra set of eyes never hurts. Avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism and if you feel yourself clinging to your revisions, feeling like it'll never be good enough for readers, and generally being afraid to publish, it's time to stop self-editing and finally hire that editor.
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