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Last updated on Jan 13, 2022

9 Editing Tips: How to Self-Edit Your Own Writing (+ Checklist)

Congrats! You’ve finally finished your first draft, and you’re ready to put down your pen. But before you go and submit that essay, send the important email, or start trying to get a literary agent for your book, you’ll need to learn how to edit your own writing.

While some projects require professional editing, there’s also a lot that you can achieve through self-editing. Better yet, as you become more familiar with grammar rules, good writing habits, and your unique voice, your future projects will only get better. 

Starting your self-edit can be pretty daunting, so we’ve put together nine tips to help you along. Feel free to download our fool-proof self-editing checklist before we dive in!

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1. Get some distance from your writing 

Whether it’s just an hour during your lunch break or a week off working on another project, stepping away between your first draft and your first edit will help you view it as a reader would. You may need to cut out some of what you thought was your best writing, so some objectivity and distance between you and your work will make this much easier. (And if you want to keep your mind active without actually thinking about your writing, try out some of these editing-related podcasts!)

Top Tip: Changing the font can help you see your work from a new light!

2. Choose a style guide to light the way

A professional copy editor will always follow a certain style guide depending on the project. While you’re self-editing, they’ll help familiarize you with grammar rules and ensure you stay consistent throughout. 

The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is typically used for novels, whereas the AP Stylebook is common among copywriters and journalists. If you’re writing something truly out-of-the-box, you may even develop a stylesheet specific to the project — one that lays out any unique spelling and grammar rules.

Take the sentence: 

He found a ten year old copy of The Hunger Games.

With Chicago, ‘ten-year-old’ would be hyphenated as a compound adjective, and the book’s title would be in italics.

He found a ten-year-old copy of The Hunger Games.

In AP, only numbers up to nine are written out in full while book titles should be in quotation marks.

He found a 10-year-old copy of “The Hunger Games”.

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3. Root out passive voice

Knowing the difference between active and passive voice will help keep your prose strong and engaging for your readers. Writing teachers will commonly recommend active voice — this means that the subject of your sentence is performing the verb’s action, making your sentence more direct and, well, active. 

The sentences in the example below mean the same thing, but the first is much more direct and packs more punch than the second.

This doesn’t mean you should never use the passive voice, but keep an eye out for it and make sure you don’t overuse it. 

4. Eliminate filler words where you can

When we give presentations, we’re taught to avoid filler words like ‘like’, ‘okay’, or ‘so’ and this rule applies to writing, too. Fillers crowd your sentences without adding any extra meaning. Just like overusing passive voice, they reduce the impact of your work and tax your readers. 

Reading out loud or using text-to-speech functions often helps you hear unnecessary words. You can even ask someone to read your work to you, giving you a second pair of eyes before you move on to the next stage in the editing process.

5. Smash out adverbs. Replace with stronger verbs

Adverbs are another type of word that often weakens your writing. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King recommends removing them entirely, claiming that they’re just a quick-fix solution for when you can’t quite find the right verb. Instead, seek out that perfect verb which will make your writing more dynamic.

Adverbs are commonly overused in passages that are pretty heavy in dialogue:

‘She said quietly’ →  ‘she whispered’

‘He said loudly’ →  ‘he shouted’ 

Of course, you don’t have to follow King’s advice to the letter, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for ‘ly’ words as you re-read and edit your work.

6. Vary your sentence structures

Too many short sentences can make your prose look like one long list, whilst too many long sentences become confusing after a while. Varying your sentence structures and finding a balance is difficult but well worth the effort. Keep your eye out for consecutive sentences that start the same way — they can have the unintended effect of sounding like you’re droning on and on and on.

Once again, it can help to read your work aloud — if you find yourself struggling for breath, it could mean that you’ve hit upon a sentence that’s too long. See if it would be better to turn your run-on sentences into two (or more) shorter ones.

For example:

Carrie told Alan about the time she went to Europe and returned a stranger’s wallet perched on the edge of Rome’s Trevi fountain only to be rewarded with an invitation to a dinner party that night, hosted by the delighted owner.

You may wish to split this mouthful up into:

Carrie told Alan about her time in Europe. She had returned a stranger’s wallet that she found perched on the edge of Rome’s Trevi fountain. Delighted, the owner invited Carrie to a dinner party he was hosting that night.

how to self edit |  Image from La Dolce Vita
He was very grateful indeed (image: Pathé)

7. Mind your tenses and points of view

Work out whether past or present tense is best for your work and which point of view you’re telling it from. If you inadvertently switch between tenses and viewpoints, you’ll confuse a lot of your readers. Of course, some stories are purposefully written across multiple timelines or perspectives and, if this is the case with yours, make sure you’re absolutely certain you’re using the right one at the right time.

‘Tom goes to the cinema. He saw the new Brad Pitt film.’

‘Tom went to the cinema. He saw the new Brad Pitt film.’

Try mapping out your story as a whole, in chronological order, from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, and then work out which parts will use each tense or point of view.

8. When you think it’s ready, read it again

When you think you’ve done all you can, put your work down and take another break from it — again, this can be anything from a couple of hours to a few weeks. When you’re ready, go back and read through it one last time.

With this newfound distance, you’re almost sure to spot mistakes you missed the first time. You could find anything from spelling mistakes to chronological inconsistencies that you didn’t catch when focusing on some of the ‘bigger picture’ issues. 

9. Get fresh eyes to proofread it

True objectivity is hard to achieve, try as you might to create distance between yourself and your work. Roping in a friend or family member to read it through is a great last step. They’ll spot mistakes you didn’t see and question things that might only have made sense to you, the all-knowing author. Plus, they’re likely to deliver the feedback without being too harsh. 

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Editing your own work isn’t easy. Finishing your first draft is already a huge accomplishment and it can be hard to admit that something you’re so proud of isn’t perfect. Nothing beats a professional edit, but starting with a self-edit is an empowering way to start the process and will only make your work better in the long run. 

– Originally published on Oct 21, 2021