Hands down, one of the hardest things you’ll ever do as a writer is edit your own work. How can you possibly kill your own darlings?
But kill them, you must.
You’ll have to face the scenes you’ve loved, slaved over, stayed up at night plotting out, and then, get rid of them. It’s brutal, it’s bloody, there will be tears, or at least a few sighs and a whole lot of bargaining.
But if you want a lean manuscript that doesn’t stumble over itself and delivers a satisfying story to your readers, you’ll have to get well acquainted with the “delete” button.
It’s important to learn and implement some of the best tips for editing your manuscript yourself before submitting it for a professional edit.
1. Give the Draft a Chance
I know some writers who edit as they go, within the same writing session. If that works for them, great. But most writers aren’t nimble enough to write and edit at the same time.
Tempted as you may be to go back and start editing what you just wrote, or even what you wrote yesterday— don’t! You don’t have the emotional distance. But, you’ll also limit your creativity by editing too soon.
I’m a big fan of writing freely and unchecked. You never know where your mind might take you— and that’s a good thing when writing creatively. However, it you start editing yourself and judging the quality of your work, your creativity is sure to get squandered.
2. Give Yourself a Break
After you finish your manuscript, don’t immediately start editing.
Give yourself distance from your writing. I recommend taking no less than two weeks away. Do something completely different to change your frame of mind, such as go on vacation (you deserve it).
It’s also a good idea to immerse yourself in other forms of creativity. For example, visit art museums, take in a show or go to the ballet. Other forms of art can help inspire your own.
3. Tackle Your Editing One Type at a Time
Once you’re back from a break and you’re ready to tackle your edit, I recommend breaking your editing into categories.
Typos – Check for spelling, grammar and awkward phrasing.
Plot – Verify that all questions posed in your story have been answered.
Pacing – Check that there are not parts of your story that drag it down and feel out of pace.
Characters – Give every character a purpose. Are they believable? Do they have a completed arch?
Scenes – If the scene isn’t developing a plot or character, it needs to be axed.
4. Read It Aloud
By reading your manuscript aloud, you’ll inevitably catch some spelling and grammar problems. One of the best reasons to read aloud is to check for pacing and tone. Sometimes you can auto-correct when you are reading silently, but reading your manuscript in your own voice at a normal speed will help you catch errors you weren’t able to detect before.
If you don’t want to read your entire manuscript aloud, consider using a text to speech reader instead. This way you can listen for errors and unnatural pacing with ease. Here are a few text to speech readers you may want to check out:
5. Give Your Manuscript to Someone Else to Read
You (or an app) can’t be the only one to read your manuscript during the editing process. You should definitely give it to a trusted friend or family member to get an outside opinion on coherency, flow and character cohesion.
Give them permission to tear it apart piece by piece. They won’t want to do it, so insist. You have final say in the editing process; however, another perspective should always be welcome.
6. Consider Editing Away From Your Computer
Instead of editing on your computer, why not edit in a completely different place than your creative zone?
Print off your manuscript, then take the printout with a red pen and head to your most comfortable chair. You may find that editing in a new place will help to change your mindframe.
7. Use an Editing App
Check out Hemingway Editor. It’s definitely not perfect. It’s also no substitute for human editors. But, Hemingway Editor can help you identify a lot of pesky grammar problems, such as:
- An over-reliance on adverbs – Stephen King once said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
- The readability of your sentences – Although I don’t suggest relying on this completely, it can help you detect and eliminate needless wordiness.
- Passive voice – You need to write in the active voice to keep the content easy to understand.
By the way, you can download Hemingway Editor for offline use on your desktop.
8. Turn on Spell Check
A lot of writers prefer to write with spell check off as a way to tamp down that editor voice that can sometimes creep in and sideline your creativity. However, in editing mode, turn the spell check back on.
Those red squiggly lines are painful but a necessary part of the editing process. You need to address those before getting into the real meat of your editing process.
9. Target Repetitive Words
Do you have words that you repeat over and over again? If you’re a writer, the answer is yes. We all go through periods where we’re addicted to one word or phrase. You’ll find this word or phrase used over and over again in your manuscript.
It may not stand out to you, but it will stand out to your readers. So, you owe it to them to search and destroy needless repetition in your manuscript.
The good news is that it’s easy to find your most repeated words and phrases. If you’re using Scrivener, you can find word frequency by going to “Project” and selecting “Text Statistics.”
If you’re not using Scrivener, there are free tools you can use online to check frequency usage, including:
10. Delete Extra Words
And since we’re killing off words, let’s talk about excess. You really need to get rid of any words that don’t move the story forward. There’s only so much exposition and world building you need.
If you’re not careful, you can slow down a story by being too descriptive and exegetical. If the word, sentence, paragraph or even chapter weighs down the pace of the story, don’t be afraid to cut it.
Remember That It’s Only Your First Draft
Your first draft is precisely that– your first. Your first draft should never be the only draft of your story. Why?
The first draft is often an explosion of ideas with a basic story. It’s in subsequent drafts where you’ll carefully carve the raw ideas into a compelling story.
So, shoot for two drafts or three drafts before you get serious about editing.
Before you go, don’t miss these extra resources to help you edit your own manuscript:
- Instantly Improve Your Writing with These 11 Editing Tools
- Don’t Submit Your Manuscript Until You’ve Read This Post
- Limits of Self-Editing