17. Self-Editing

In this lesson we will begin the process of preparing your extract for submission. In the lesson I will explain the principles of editing and show you how self-editing will help you to produce the best document possible. Effective self-editing will help you to avoid submitting a manuscript that is riddled with obvious typos and silly errors.

Agents and publishers are inundated with manuscripts on a daily basis. In fact, they see so many manuscripts, and have so few publishing slots available, that they are in fact looking for reasons to say no, not yes. It is easier for an agent/publisher to discover fault with a book and find an excuse to reject than it is to say yes. This means that it is your duty as a writer to give the agent/publisher no reason to say no!

This puts agents/publishers in a very strong position. A few years ago, you would often hear of an agent/publisher working closely with an author. They would nurture the writer, working on the novel, moulding it into shape. However, these days are quickly disappearing. For an agent/publisher, any time spent editing a book simply costs money, and cuts into profits. As it stands, any time spent working with a writer is time that could be spent publishing books or negotiating deals. The result is that agents/publishers are looking for books that are as close to ‘publication-ready’ as possible.

This means that a well-edited book, which needs little in-house editing input, is a very interesting prospect for any publisher. Therefore, all other things being equal, a well-edited book stands a far better chance of publication over a book that needs work.

This may not be fair, and may not be good for the industry, but it is the current situation. It means that it has become a writer’s duty to make their book as close to ‘publication-ready’ as possible.

Understanding the Editing Process is Key

If your book was to be prepared for publication by a publishing house, it would pass through a four editing steps process prior to printing.

  • Structural editing
  • Stylistic editing
  • Copy-editing
  • Proofreading

The aim is simply to produce a book that is accessible and readable. Yet, the editing process is as much an art as a science and includes a large amount of ‘gut feel’. This said, self-editing (and even professional editing) hangs around three key questions. These questions are constantly posed in the editor’s mind (be that the writer or a third party). Only by consistently applying these questions can a good edit be performed.

  • Is the book’s organisation and content suitable for the intended audience, medium, market, and purpose? [Structural]
  • How can the book’s meaning be clarified, the flow improved and the language smoothed? [Stylistic]
  • Have you ensured the correctness, consistency, accuracy, and completeness of the document? [Copy]

Self-Editing Tips

When self-editing there are a number of tips and tricks you can use to make the job that little bit easier.

Be Consistent

Writing a book is a long process that often spans years. During this period it is easy for writers to lose track of some of the minor plot details. However, it is vital that a writer makes every effort to maintain consistency throughout the writing process. The problem is that readers will notice mistakes. If you tell your readers that a character has blue eyes in the opening chapter, and then six chapters later you say they are brown, the reader will remember.

My tip is to use character reference sheets. These are simply lists of the key aspects for all of your characters. On these sheets you should record all the key facts — age, description, eye colour etc. Also include any details that might be important such as relationships with other characters, home address and other details you develop. One additional tip is to get into the habit of updating your sheets as you build the characters.

Use Simple Grammar

Not all writers are grammar experts. In fact, the reality is that many writers struggle with grammar. Our tip is to keep it simple. The correct use of the period (full stop) and comma will get you out of most tough spots. Learning the rules of the correct use of the apostrophe is also crucial, as is the grammar/punctuation of speech. However, beyond this you are getting onto dangerous ground. If you are unsure of the correct usage of the semi-colon, then don’t use it (even if Microsoft Word insists otherwise).


Consistent formatting is an important, but often overlooked, part of editing. By this we are talking about titles, subtitles, indenting, text font etc. You need to pay attention to anything that appears on the page. One way to get around inconsistencies is to use the ‘style’ function of your word processing package. Another way is to simply pay attention each time you start a new section, type in a header or change font. Being aware is half the battle.

Tense Usage

When talking to our editors the issue of tense was highlighted as a common problem. The switching of tenses (past to present/present to past) is something that happens to all writers. It is for this reason that you must pay particular attention to this problem. This is one of those things that readers tend to spot. This blog post might help.

Read Out Aloud

This is a tip that I think every editor worth their salt will pass onto writers. Once your work is completed read it out aloud. Personally, I use a software program called TextAloud. This allows me to follow the text as the computer reads it out (in a robot voice). Reading your work out aloud will help you to spot silly mistakes but also the sentences that don’t flow. Another tip is to print your work out and read it from paper. I am not sure why (something to do with screen resolution?) but this seems to help spot mistakes.

Be harsh — cut the dead wood

All of our editors agreed that this is one area that many writers find very difficult. Cutting back is a vital and very powerful skill for writers to develop. The foundation to the exercise should be for the writer to look at each section and ask ‘do I need this?’ Overly wordy sentences, extended paragraphs and repetition should all be removed. In addition, ANY section that fails to move the plot forward should be cut. I have seen novels where whole characters have been removed. Cutting back the work is painful but if done correctly will improve your book tenfold.

Read each line as a line, then a paragraph, then a section, then a chapter…

If you have carried out all the steps above, and you are happy with your novel, then it’s time to start again. This time you need to go through the novel on a line by line basis. You may find it helps to wait for a couple of weeks before you try to re-edit. This time around you need to scrutinise each sentence in turn, fine-tuning as you go. Then, when finished, go back and look at the text paragraph by paragraph. Be critical. Next, examine each section, then chapter and so on….

More Self-editing Tips

Perhaps the biggest problem writers face when editing their own work is simply getting too close. Even when holding the questions listed above in your mind, writers can still find it just too hard to detach themselves. But this is understandable, in fact I would go as far as saying this is essential.

The essence of any COPY edit is grammar and spelling but this is NOT an edit. An edit is so much more. It is important that a writer avoids becoming obsessed with spelling. Yes, spelling is important, and yes you must be as accurate as possible. However, grammar is just part of the puzzle. A good edit consists of all three questions listed above — spelling is just one aspect.

One potentially powerful option open to writers is to use friends and family to help with the edit. My advice here is clear. Firstly, be very precise with friends and family in just what you require from them. They can act as great proofreaders, but if this is the job you want them to carry out, then be clear. Tell them all you want is feedback on grammar and spelling only. Secondly, be selective about what you implement from friends and family feedback. Even the best intentioned feedback can be damaging and ill advised. Be prepared to listen, but also be prepared to ignore. After all, it is your book.

In the next lesson, we will considering further the use of friends and family to edit your book in greater detail.