10 Steps for Editing Your Own Writing

By Mark Nichol

You’ve done it. You’ve finally, triumphantly, typed out “The End.” Congratulations! Now comes the hard part: revision.

Revising is often more laborious than the writing process itself, but it’s essential — assuming, that is, that you want your writing to get published. Whether you write nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you must evaluate your own writing and transform it from something that is complete but nothing more to something that is completely compelling. The process will involve multiple task-specific passes (not necessarily in the order presented) intended to achieve various goals. Let’s get you started:

1. Wait

Oops — hold on. Not yet. You deserve a break. Step away from the computer. Give yourself a few days to let your win sink in. Pursue another writing project, perhaps, or catch up on the rest of your life, before circling back and manipulating your manuscript.

One exception: If you have not written a synopsis or an abstract, do it now, before you revise your work. If, after reading the manuscript, you realize that you didn’t write out what you set out to write, decide whether the precis is precisely what you wanted, or whether the finished product is the real deal.

2. Hands Off

Read the entire manuscript without changing anything — or, at the most, make notes about major fixes or other key corrections for later attention. Shift from your writer mode to your reader setting. Remember, you tackled this writing project because nobody else would (or you thought you could do it better, or at least differently), so now it’s time to read it from cover page to conclusion (because you followed my advice from a previous post to not do that until you were finished, right?).

Some people recommend printing your piece out in hard copy because they claim that you notice the details more when you read your work in print, but that’s impractical for a 100,000-word novel, and some people are more comfortable with on-screen reading than others, so take or leave that advice.

3. Parts of Speech

Focus, one type at a time, on the parts of speech: Notice nouns, and choose more precise terms and employ elegant variation. Is one of your characters a pirate? Refer to them as a corsair, a buccaneer, or an adventurer now and then. Use a dictionary with synonyms listed, or a thesaurus or a synonym finder.

Veer from your verbs, finding opportunities to use more vivid, compelling action words. Resist the urge to go overboard, especially with variations of “he said” (which you should minimize in dialogue as much as possible anyway by using narrative to identify the speaker), but don’t let your characters get away with walking — have them stroll, strut, stalk, amble, caper, or mince instead. Search for forms of “to be” (is, are, was, were) and strive for more active sentence construction: “She looked in and saw that he was idly handling the device” becomes “She peered in to find him fiddling with the gadget.”

Attack adjectives and adverbs. Don’t omit them without justification, but do make sure they’re not a crutch for your unwillingness to enhance descriptive language in other ways. Instead of referring to a hazy sky, describe how it reminds the character of when she used to play around the house as a child wearing a veil. Rather than mentioning a slowly flowing river as such, tell the reader about how it doesn’t seem in a particular hurry to get anywhere.

Are you sure you know the precise meaning of every word you use? As you read, be alert for terms — whether newly acquired or long since adopted — that may not express what you think they do, and look them up to confirm or deny your suspicion.

4. Sentence Structure

Are your sentences particularly complicated and convoluted, or notably short and stubby? Don’t strive for a strictly limited word range, but minimize outliers: Sentences with a word count you can tabulate on the fingers of one hand should have a punctuating purpose. Sentences that last an entire paragraph need to be snipped into palatable pieces.

Are your sentences generally active? Passive sentences are used by great writers, but you and they both know that too many sentences structured that way produce an enervating effect. Also, parenthetical phrases are better inserted mid-sentence than tacked on at the end; save the last position for the impact. The same goes for paragraphs — which, by the way, should be cloven in two if they’re more than ten or twelve lines in a Word document — half of that for Web-bound words.

And unless you’re consciously incorporating iambic pentameter, beware of sentence rhythms that may subconsciously sap readers’ energy. Too much alliteration (guilty) or assonance can weary the most dedicated reader. You’re writing prose or poetry, not constructing an obstacle or dog-agility course.

5. Deemphasize Emphasis

Do you use “scare quotes”? Frighten them away. Italics? Too many are an eyesore — and weaken the cumulative impact. Exclamation points? Omit unless OMGs are also part of the package — an exclamation point can be a crutch that takes the place of high-impact prose.

6. Tone and Voice

Eloquent literature has been laden with slang, and serious nonfiction writing can be laced with humor. But honestly appraise your writing for its personality. If you’re writing a how-to, you can be conversational, but don’t throw away your authority with your austerity. If you’re writing period fiction, be alert for anachronisms.

Do a word check. Are you concerned that perhaps you use a particular word too often? Do a search, and if you find it liberally sprinkled throughout your manuscript, cull it so that it appears with reasonable frequency.

7. Reconstruction

You may find as you read for some other purpose that a major structural flaw exists: In fiction, you may decide to add an adventure or subtract a subplot or alter the sequence of plot elements — or at least the order in which they appear if you shift from one plot thread to one or more others. Your nonfiction piece may cry out for a major reorganization. You might decide to insert instructions or develop details, or discard a digression.

Don’t hesitate to undertake significant revisions like these. Yes, you’ve spent a lot of time getting your manuscript to where it is now, but that doesn’t mean it’s where it should be. Go with your instincts.

8. Keywords

Now is the time you really search inside yourself about whether your hero’s name really fits them, or whether they kick back with one too many sidekicks or could really use a new nemesis. Or maybe a place name seems out of place, or the term for a talisman is too tortuous. Are your chapter titles or subheadings really working for you, or are you trying too hard to line them up with some grammatical gimmick?

9. Recite Makes Right

Just when you think you’ve finally nailed it, read it one more time — aloud. A recitation lets you listen to the rhythm of your writing and catch any clunky or laboriously long sentences you missed or words you omitted.

10. Editor’s Notes

Now, it’s time to send your manuscript out into the world, but unless you’re self-publishing in print or online, an editor is in its future — and, likely, so is a revision on your part based on the editor’s comments. But you’re also likely to get focused requests for rewrites, so though you may feel by now that you never want to read it again, take heart that you have some direction.

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17 Responses to “10 Steps for Editing Your Own Writing”

  • Rebecca

    Editing your own writing is a fabulous idea. If you’re a freelance writer, you can offer editing services. Who knows, you can land a client who’ll be as big as J.K. Rowling.

  • Truthfully

    This is a great post. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I was just thinking about how I’d tackle editing and revisions when it popped into my inbox ten seconds later. Lots of helpful tips here.

  • Traci Kenworth

    Great tips!!

  • Martyn Winters

    What an excellent article. Thank you.

  • Michael

    1) Reading backwards—helps a lot with the parts of speech.
    2) Increasing the font size like to 15 or 16.
    3) Print on color paper.
    4) Use a ruler with long documents. I do this when I am reading through a screenplay.

  • Nina Pierce

    When I do final edits I read scenes completely out of order. (Sort of reading backwards advice.) It’s easier to make sure each scene is important and written well. It no longer depends on the one before or after to give it impact.

  • Lauren I. Ruiz

    @Rebecca That’s only practical if you’re a writer who’s a voracious reader and who has taught herself about grammar and usage. Being an editor isn’t all that easy: not just anyone can do it. 😉 Trust me, I know.

  • AmaT

    Thank you for the suggestions. I am one who dislikes the revision process, but it is always worth it in the end. I also prefer to be the one ‘cutting’ my own work before an editor gets to it.

    I print out a double-spaced hard copy and use colored pens and pencils for my notes and markings.

    And especially since I write for children, reading the whole manuscript aloud lets me hear what the children will hear.

  • b2j2

    At least some computers (including the first Mac) can speak. I have used this feature to help proof technical documents.

  • R.D. Allen

    I use Open Office, which is a free word processing program, and it allows me to directly export it into a pdf file. That way, I didn’t have to print it out, AND Adobe Reader has this cool little tool where it reads it aloud for you — which is better than the author reading it aloud, in my opinion, because then it doesn’t skim over things that you might accidentally connect in your head.

    Though, since there are Japanese words and names in my book, it often sounds atrocious. xD But it’s still very useful.

  • Pradip Gharpure

    Really superb post on editing our own writing. Editing is most important part before publication, and if it is done well, naturally the published material will be also free from mistakes and liked by all. Thanks for such a valuable post.

  • Katie

    Point nine is so important. Reading my writing aloud (or even just under my breath) has helped me so much with sentence structure, rhythm and dialogue. Every writer should try it!

  • Business Logo Design

    Thanks for sharing nice post.

  • JK Brennan

    This is a post I’ll read over and over. Very useful. Personally, I have little choice when it comes to reading outloud as I am blind and depend on a screenreader to use my computer in all cases. It has its drawbacks though, such as words sounding right although they are not, some voices, during a “say all” function will sometimes pause where there is no real break in the text. On the other hand, when it is set up right, it uses different pitches and/or tone during quoted, italic and bold text and that really gives life to the text and it’s easy to spot punctuation errors. I have a short story just now that i am almost ready to publish and after reading this, I will listen to it again and see what I might have missed. thank you. ,

  • Brenda Benedict

    I am a literacy coach in a middle school which means I assist teachers in finding ways to increase their students’ reading and writing skills. This article would be very helpful to young writers to help them understand the process of editing. Could I share this with my teachers with proper credit to you?

    Thank you.

  • A. K.

    Thanks for the post. Is is not always impractical to print a 100,000 word document. If you are self-editing, you are probably self-publishing. Order a proof copy from the publishing service.

    Also, you can hire your own editor through various freelance marketplaces.

  • Alan

    I write nonfiction, but have found professional editing very helpful. My first book would have been self-published with much fewer errors had I enlisted an editor.

    I do find most of these steps above very helpful for self-editing. Varying sentence length, using active voice, avoiding slang or colloquial phrases, reading out loud, printing a hardcopy, and reading as a reader and not a writer, are all useful during self-editing.

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