10 Self Editing Tips Every Writer Should Know

Your writing is your own work and the best person to edit is none other than you because you know more about it than anyone else. Self-editing will require you to put to use all the things you learned in English class even the most basic spelling but it's possible even if English isn't your native language. It's a necessity and while difficult at first, it will certainly impress editors and publishers that you did an extra task by yourself. Furthermore, it just goes to show how dedicated you are to your work.

Stephen King once said, "To write is human, to edit is divine," which just goes to show that editing is equally important as writing. Many writers aspire to become bestselling authors yet they can't be bothered to know the difference between it's and its, effect and affect or even know when to use they, their and there. It is simple errors like these that turn off publishers and readers.

Hiring a copy editor is necessary to proofread work but if budget is an issue, self-editing is an option. Even if you do have the means to hire a proofreader, doing some self-editing on your own work can go a long way in impressing publishers and literary agents.

1. Read Aloud
By reading aloud, you'll be able to hear which words or lines doesn't sound right. You'll also sense which paragraphs or words need improvement. Have an audience like your spouse, a friend or a fellow writer hear you out so they can share their own opinions. If reading aloud is not an option for you, download a software that will allow your computer to read your work to you.

2. Don't Forget Formatting
Yes, formatting can also be a part of editing. Pay attention to page numbers, indents, spacing, and margins. Make your work presentable, professional and easy to read. Use a clean and simple, appropriately sized font. Unless you follow a certain writing standard, play it safe by sticking to the basics.

3. Print Out Your Work
Get scrap papers and start printing out your work. Relying on Microsoft word to find errors for you is simply not an option. Use highlighters and different colored pens to underline or correct errors. Rewrite and go through it again until you cannot find any more mistakes.

4. Show, Don't Tell
A good story is one where readers are allowed to clearly picture in their heads what's going on in the story. Rather than telling readers an antagonist hated his brother, wouldn't it be better to effectively describe it? "He hated his brother" vs "With each passing day, he imagined different scenarios of his brother dying in the most brutal way possible." Which is better? The latter description doesn't even need to tell how much the antagonist hated his brother, it already shows. Let readers feel on their own.

5. Avoid Word Per Word Instructions
In the same way, as the show-don't-tell rule works, there is no need to elaborate word for word describing something a reader already knows. For example, you'd like to say that "she went upstairs." However, you go word per word and tell the readers a longer version for better imagination. "She lifted her feet, one by one on each step, bending her knees while holding on to the stair rail until she reached the first landing." Readers do know how to climb stairs so further elaborating a sentence does not make the story better. If any, it just serves to unnecessarily lengthen it.

It's a different story if the subject is in pain and she is going to great lengths to reach the landing because there is something important up there. Know the difference between showing and telling.

6. Pay Attention to Punctuation Marks
"I love cooking, family and my kids." Imagine if there was no comma between the words "cooking" and "family." The reader will come to understand that you love cooking your family and your kids which just doesn't sound right. Unless you're writing about cannibalism and flesh-eating zombies, you do not want to intentionally let your readers think characters are eating other characters.

In the same way, don't overdo the use of punctuation marks. Having too many question marks and exclamation points is never a good thing. Instead, let the sentence construction indicate whether the subject is asking a question or shouting a phrase.

7. Pay Attention to Spelling
Never trust spellchecker. If you put in "She drives different scars every day," Spellcheck will just go ahead and give it a thumbs-up because although the word should be "cars," "scars" is still a word spelled correctly. Rather than just focusing on spelling, see if the words are grammatically appropriate for a sentence. Learn to differentiate homonyms and if a word is bothering you, go with your gut instinct and check the dictionary.

Also, remember when to use it's and its and their, there and they're.

8. Make the First Chapter Interesting
It's a given rule that to capture the interest of an audience, you always have to make your first page interesting. Ensure that those pages will create a plot which will pique the interest of the readers and inspire them to keep flipping through the pages.

9. Stop Using Flowery Words
More often than not, the use of unnecessary words just makes the passage complicated and difficult to understand. "Said," "shouted" and "asked" is often better than "interjected," "questioned," "quizzed" and "exclaimed." It's as simple as that.

10. Check Your Tenses
The past, present and future tenses can be tricky and confusing but should never be neglected. "Beth was floating in the ocean for three days." should be "Beth had been floating in the ocean for three days."
Replace passive voice with an active voice

An indication that you're using passive construction is the abundant presence of "was" and "were" words.

Passive voice example: "A horde of zombies were gunned down by Henry."
Active voice example: "Henry gunned down a horde of zombies."

Which sounds more active and exciting?

Do you have other self-editing tips to share?

- Lane, Janet, and Ellen Lange. "Writing clearly: An editing guide." (1999).

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Last review and update: August 30, 2021
About the Editor
Ben Benjabutr is the editor of BookWorm4Life. He holds a Master's Degree in business with 10+ years of work experience and 8+ years of experience in blogging and online content production. He enjoys reading books about business, lifestyle and literature and he loves to share what he learns from books. You can drop him a line via e-mail.