5 self-editing tips to polish your manuscript
Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Because of waylaid travel plans over the summer, I'm in the middle of two full work weeks off, totaling 17 days in a row (including holidays and weekends). While I’m sure I could fill that time with cookie baking, reading, binge-watching, and napping, I’m planning to make some headway on editing my current work in progress as well.
Though I edit other people’s work both as part of my day job and for members of my writing group through hope*writers, editing your own work is a much different animal. While the typos and missing words in published books or other writers’ work may jump off the page, they’re much easier to miss in your own writing. Because you’re so familiar with the work, the plot, the characters, your brain simply glosses over the issues, filling in holes and rearranging letters as necessary.
Despite the trouble it poses, editing your own work is an essential part of the writing process. Generally, it’s best to give your book (story, article, etc.) a thorough going-over before passing it off to a trusted peer, family member, or friend. This way you’ll have (hopefully) sorted out the little annoying issues and solved any gaping plot holes to the best of your ability, freeing up your readers to catch the issues that may only occur to someone unfamiliar with the work.
To a certain extent, everyone develops their own editing process to suit their particular needs. We can always learn from others’ experiences, however, so I’ve put together a few of my favorite self-editing tips I’ve gleaned from reading, conversations with other writers, and personal experience. I hope they can help you polish your work too!
Tip 1: Let the work rest before editing.
I can tell you from experience that it will rarely serve you well to finish a project and then instantly turn around to begin editing it. Even if it’s been weeks or months since you wrote the first sentence, you need to give the whole completed project some breathing room before you begin editing again.
When you first finish a project, you’re too close to it, too used to seeing the words and the story laid out in a particular way. If you begin editing too quickly, you’ll likely miss the aspects that don’t make perfect sense because your brain knows the work intimately and can compensate for any holes, missing words, etc. In my experience, a day or two is sufficient for a shorter article or short story, but I like to give longer projects at least a week to percolate before turning to them with my proverbial red pen. Experiment a little and find a timeline that works for you.
Tip 2: Focus on one issue at a time.
While there’s certainly a place for an all-encompassing edit, an edit focused on one particular issue helps to finetune your manuscript at a line level that may be missed with a broader edit. Here are a few examples of focused edits:
Repetitions in syntax and paragraph openings: Scan down the page and note how each paragraph begins. Do they all start the same way or very similarly?
Formatting errors: Scroll through the manuscript and fix any obvious issues with formatting (e.g., added spaces, paragraph breaks mid-sentence, etc.).
Geography/location and character descriptions/names: Double check that a character described as having blue eyes doesn’t get described as having brown eyes in a later chapter, for example. Make sure if you say a town/location name, you continue with that same location unless the characters/story actually moved.
Historical details: If your story takes place in the real world, you’ll want to fact-check that the details you included actually make sense for the time period and the geographic location in which you set the story.
Emotional descriptions: How do your characters react to information and their environment? Do you frequently repeat or reuse the same descriptions to show their emotions? If so, edit the manuscript to vary that language. I’ve heard The Emotion Thesaurus is a helpful resource for these edits.
Tip 3: Use ctrl+f frequently.
This tip goes along nicely with the previous one in that you can use the ctrl+f function to help you focus your edits. For example, one of my biggest pet peeves is when people put more than one space between sentences. Because this hold-over from the typewriter days bothers me so much, I can spot a double space from a mile away. When I notice one in a manuscript, generally that means there are more to be found. I can fix them with a quick ctrl+f search to find and replace all instances at once.
This functionality can also be helpful if you’ve decided to change a character’s name and to see how many times you use a phrase you’ve noticed repeated in the work.
Tip 4: Run your work through an online grammar checker.
One of my last self-editing steps is always to run my manuscript (generally chapter by chapter or scene by scene) through an online grammar checker. While such programs are not 100% accurate and foolproof, they will still catch the little issues you may have missed in your previous rounds of edits.
The two programs I personally have found helpful are Grammarly and the Hemingway App. Grammarly is especially helpful at finding missing words, plural/singular mismatches, and misspellings. I also like that there’s a handy Google Chrome add-in. Just a warning that it can make programs like Google Docs a little slow, so I turn it off until I’m done writing and then flip it on to scan the whole manuscript at once. The Hemingway App is particularly helpful for detecting instances of passive voice and overly confusing sentence structures, though you do have to copy/paste sections into the interface manually.
Tip 5: Read everything aloud.
I know it feels like torture to read your work out loud, but it is essential. I can promise you that you’ll catch mistakes and wordy syntax that would have otherwise gone undetected. Because it’s so time-consuming and admittedly a bit unpleasant, I like to save this particular form of editing till my last round of revisions. This ensures my work is as close to done as possible and I’ve already caught most of the obvious errors already.
Generally, the issues I find most frequently when reading my work aloud are related to clarity and syntax. For example, overly long and complex sentences, repeated words in a given section, vague pronouns, and unnatural speech patterns. You may catch some of these issues in a regular edit, but reading something aloud is like seeing it with a reader’s eyes for the first time. It’s easily the tip I recommend most frequently.
Have you tried any of these self-editing methods before? How do you revise your own work? What methods work best for you?