Self-Editing Tips: Because No One’s Perfect

See full issue for 2017 09-25

Editors are a writer’s best friend, as I’ve said many times. I love editors, even when I hate them for pointing out how awful I am at this writing thing. The work they do isn’t just about correcting spelling errors and chasing down rogue commas. An editor can look for a multitude of unrelated errors in a single pass, and best of all, a good editor will find those errors and give you hell for them.

But it’s impossible to do a good job if you’ve handed that editor a steaming pile of first draft shit.

When an editor reads, he addresses grammar, style and voice, syntax, POV, continuity, pacing, word usage, and many other issues at the same time. We lesser mortals can’t even figure out what half of that is, so we generally just wade through it, checking one thing at a time. After seven or eight rewrites, we still haven’t got it all.

Now, I’ve heard writers ask: Then why not just send the draft to the editor? They're paid to fix it, so let them fix it. Sigh. If you follow only one rule in writing, it should be to polish the manuscript to the best of your ability before submitting to anyone. You want to get the most bang for your bucks out of your editor, right? Well, having to stop at every other line to correct typos, grammar and syntax errors, missing words, etc., makes it extremely difficult for even the best editor to concentrate on bigger issues like plot, continuity, pacing, tension, and characterization, which is what you really want them to look for. That’s the stuff you should be paying for, not the small stuff that any writer with an ounce of skill should be able to take care of on their own.

Clean up your mess. Then show it off.

I have a “procedure” I follow when I self-edit. I’m not perfect. God, I'm so far from perfect it's kind of depressing when I think about it. I don’t catch everything. I don't catch half the things sometimes. However, I have been told by several editors that my manuscripts are refreshingly clean, which means the editor is free to focus on finding the important things, like plot holes and such. (I do have issues with rogue commas, but I’ve improved my dialogue tag/attribution game, thanks to a patient editor.) My method is effective for me. Maybe it'll work for some of you.

So, here we go:

Write the first draft

Duh, right? When I write my first draft, I don’t pay attention to anything beyond getting the story on paper. Of course, obvious errors I’ll correct along the way, but I try not to backtrack or pause (I do read the previous day’s writing to get myself back in the “groove”). This step for me, though, is just about vomiting everything in my head. I simply write and worry about the mess I’ve made later.

Let it be

This is the hardest part of writing for me. Leaving that potentially awesome bit of my imagination alone for at least a week (two is better), I work on a new project, write a synopsis and query for the ones I’ve finished, shave my legs, paint my toenails, whatever keeps my mind off all of the things I want to do to my brand new baby. (Note: It’s okay to make notes about all of the things you need to change. Just do not open the document.) I don’t even glance at the draft during this time. Trust me. This is extremely helpful. We must clear the sludge of ego that tends to muddy the editing waters. To do that, it’s best to focus on anything BUT that story.

Read and make notes

After a week or two, I open the document and read it. Using track changes or a notepad and a pen, I make notes on major changes and problems I want to address, but I don’t make any changes to the story itself. I just make the notes about issues, errors, POV changes, tense issues, plot inconsistencies, and mark areas where I want to add to or remove scenes and why I want to do such things (because I forget why I do what I do a lot), and then the real work begins.


My notes are prepared, my brain is cleared of the dreamy “I just finished a book” glow, so I can now address each note I made and make the changes I think will improve my story. I also correct glaring errors, such as typos, dialogue issues, punctuation errors, grammar horrors, etc. However, I don’t go out of my way to look for these. That comes later.

Walk away again

By this point my legs are hairy again and my nail polish is chipped, the kids have gone feral and the animals have gotten themselves fleas, so I set the manuscript aside again, and get my life shit together. Sometimes, I even shower. Again, I don’t look at it for at least a week. Catch up on Netflix, clean out my closets. I do whatever keeps me from doing the one thing I want to do most, which is keep editing.

Read and tweak

The week (or two) passes and I open the document again. That first look is kind of orgasmic to be honest, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, this time, I look for specific things like spelling, grammar, POV issues, repetition, etc. Hopefully, with the first revision, I’ve picked up the worst of it, but sometimes I don’t. That’s okay. I’m not looking for plot issues anymore, because I did that with the first pass (I hope). I’m just fixing the small things.

First edit

What the hell? Didn’t we just edit? Not really. We revised. There’s a difference. With your first edit, you’re going line by line to fix issues, not reading it as a “whole.” Just read each line, working from the end to the beginning. Sounds crazy, but try it. Start at the end. Work backward. You will find SO MANY overlooked errors by doing this. My next article explains this process in detail, for those of you who think I'm nuts.

Find some beta readers

Now, bundle that little beauty up and send it to a couple (I like a minimum of three) of trusted readers for feedback. Beta readers can catch all kinds of sins, from grammar and spelling errors to character issues and plot inconsistencies. The key is to a good beta read is to AVOID giving them direction. Don’t tell them what you want to see. Just give them the manuscript, and then walk away. The reason for this is, if you give them direction, they may only see what it is you’re hoping they find. For example, you tell your readers you’re just looking for obvious errors like grammar issues or typos, so they’ll just see those errors, but they may not point out the fact that your main character is a total bore or the antagonist’s motivation is kind of lame. Those are way more important, and are things we rarely see, because we’re too close to it.

Address beta reader feedback

When I receive the beta readers’ feedback, I address every comment. Some, I might think are silly, but I make a note anyway. If more than one reader makes the same comment, or a similar one, I consider the feedback more seriously, because clearly, I’ve done something wrong. I never brush off a comment or suggestion without considering the reader's reason behind it first. Oh, and I never defend anything to my readers. I just thank them and move along. They don't need to know why I did this or that I'm not using their suggestion for that. Doing such things is a good way to ensure they won't read for you ever again. Just saying.

Final edit

Once I’ve addressed the readers’ suggestions, I make a final pass to clean up the manuscript. During this pass, I correct formatting, punctuation and look for anything that isn’t perfect. Cross the t's. Dot the i's.

Netflix and chill

Or break out the booze Whatever it is you like to do to celebrate, do it. You’re done. That baby is ready for an editor’s eyes. Go for it.



Renee Miller

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