How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript

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We’ve talked a lot about writing your manuscript, but what about editing it? Editing is just as important as writing because even the greatest works of literature were once first drafts, and rest assured they weren’t the masterpieces we now know and love. Even the world’s best authors make typos, write ambiguous sentences, and overlook minor plot holes. 

If you’re planning on publishing your written work, you should definitely have it edited by a professional before you self-publish online or pitch it to an agent or a publisher. In the latter case, you’ll never land a book deal if you present an unedited manuscript, and in the former case, your readers will rip you apart. 

Whether you’re looking for manuscript critique, developmental editing, or proofreading, our services for authors have your back. Nevertheless, self-editing is a crucial step in the writing process and one you should follow before sharing your first draft. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself

First drafts are supposed to suck. Also known as barf drafts, they’re meant to get your thoughts on the page, not to be prize-winning works of literature, so don’t be too hard on yourself if yours is less than perfect. Think of it more like a guideline that provides a detailed account of your story; once it’s finished, you have to tie everything together into a book that people will be proud to display on their bookshelves. 

Focus your first edit on polishing the structure and story arc, fixing plot holes, and developing your characters rather than obsessing over spelling and grammar—that will come later. Worrying about spelling at this stage is just a waste of time since the writing may change dramatically to accommodate modifications to the plot. Always remember that you can improve a bad draft but not a blank page.

Preparation is key

Editing can be a daunting process, which is why preparing for it is essential. First, let your mind rest before you sit down to edit. When you’re too fresh off the writing process, you might not have the objectivity necessary for a good first edit, so even if it feels like you’re wasting time, take a break and give yourself at least a few days away from your first draft before you begin. For a meaningful edit, you need to be able to look at your work from a different angle.

Big-picture editing

After taking a break from your manuscript, a good way to dive back into your story and analyze what’s working and what’s not is to read your entire draft without making any in-line edits, focusing on the structure alone. Do you need to move any paragraphs around? Are there any glaring plot holes? Are your themes clear? Is your pacing on point? Is the dialogue awkward, forced, or cringy? Is the story you want to tell the one you’re actually telling, or did you stray from your original intention? 

Also, take this opportunity to reassess your chapters, their order, and their opening and closing lines to make sure you’re milking all of their storytelling potential, thus keeping readers turning the page. You want to avoid being too critical, though—there’s always room for improvement, so if you’re always striving for perfection, your story will never see the light of day.

As you read, make notes of what needs to be fixed, especially any inconsistencies or incoherences you might have missed while writing. Every author has their own method and order, but you just want the notes to be clear to you, or you’ll have to go through more rounds of developmental editing. Once you’ve finished this step, we suggest going back and making the necessary structural changes before moving on because there’s no point in editing your word choices and grammar if you’re going to make significant structural changes or even rewrite your draft. 

In-line editing

Once you’re happy with your structure and character arcs, you’re ready for your first round of in-line editing. Many authors prefer to do their in-line editing on paper, which requires printing your draft and getting a red pen. Using recycled paper and printing on both sides of the page will help reduce the environmental impact; alternatively, you can edit on your computer or tablet. If you edit digitally, you may want to temporarily change the size and font of the text since this can help you detect typos you’ve overlooked. As always, do whatever works best for you.

We suggest reading your draft aloud or having your word processor do it for you while you read along because hearing your story in spoken word is a great way to spot unnecessary repetition, check your pacing, and identify awkward phrasing. This is when you should focus on word choices, eliminate any superfluous descriptions, study your sentence structure, and cut out anything that isn’t adding to your story; basically, be brutal with your in-line editing. 

Stop and outsource

It’s easy to fall into the trap of perceived perfection and its seemingly infinite black hole of endless edits. At some point, however, you just have to let go, be brave, and let someone else read your work. It’s daunting, we know, but it’s the only way to move forward and keep improving your writing. There will always be things you wish you’d changed, but perfection is an illusion, and your goal is to make your writing tangible, right? 

While it’s good to edit your work yourself, you shouldn’t publish it or pitch it to a publisher without having the pros look it over first. It’s difficult to edit your own work—you know what it’s supposed to say, which makes it easy to overlook mistakes. Besides, let’s face it: You’re probably not quite as skilled at the grammar game as a professional editor is. Also, a fresh pair of eyes can provide invaluable insights into your story and writing, including whether anything is unclear or you’re overusing certain phrases. 

So, whether you’re recruiting beta readers or hiring a professional editor, you’ll eventually want to outsource your next round of editing. If you need a hand with big-picture editing, in-line editing, or proofreading, our services for authors will help you get your writing to the next level. 

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