Self-Editing Fundamentals

Nas Hedron,—Posted 30 September 2013

One of the most common complaints—even from people who are fans of indie writing—is that indie books too often lack proper editing. (See, for instance, Why Indie Authors Don't Get No Respect on

An experienced editor isn’t just a person who’s good with language, but someone who brings a specific set of professional skills to the task of polishing your manuscript. That said, not every author has a budget that will allow for professional editing, in which case (like many things in indie publishing) you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Even authors who use a professional editor will want to ensure that their work is as good as they can make it before submitting it to the editor. This can help to reduce costs, or to free up the editor's time and attention to polish the remaining issues.

Starting Out

Before getting into specific techniques, here are a few procedural basics to set the scene:

Substantive Editing vs. Copy Editing

There are many different types of editing and there’s sometimes more than one term for a particular type. To avoid complicating things, in this series of articles we’ll use two terms for two of the main types of editing: substantive editing and copy editing.

Substantive editing means editing for content.

In fiction, substantive editing focuses on things like structure, character, mood, style, and other elements that help deliver effective storytelling. In non-fiction it focuses on things like organization, clarity, accuracy, comprehensiveness, and other factors that affect a reader’s ability to understand and absorb the material.

Copy editing means editing for correct language use. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, you want to ensure that your sentences are well constructed, your spelling is correct, your use of punctuation conforms to an accepted style, and so on.

(Copy editing is sometimes referred to as proofreading—this isn’t correct, but it happens so often that you should be aware of it. Proofreading actually means reviewing a pre-publication version of a book, called a “proof”, and comparing it with the original manuscript to make sure that it accurately represents what was in the original—it takes place after copy editing and is the last stage of the editorial process before publication.)

Don’t try to do a substantive edit and a copy edit simultaneously. Each process requires you to read your work with a very different focus from the other. You may happen to notice copy editing issues while doing a substantive edit (and vice versa), and it’s fine to make notes about them when you see them, but be sure go through the entire manuscript, from start to finish, in each mode.

In practice you’ll probably do many substantive edits, going through a number of partial and complete drafts of your book, and then just do a single copy edit at the end, once the manuscript is finished in every other respect.

When you do a substantive edit you read your work with your focus on the story. In effect, you put yourself in the position of an ordinary reader, except that rather than drifting through the story and being carried along by it passively, you actively watch the various elements of the story to see which things work and which things don’t, making notes directly on the page as you go.

When you do a copy edit, on the other hand, you focus on the mechanics of the writing. For the most part you ignore the story—it will just get in the way. Your attention is at the micro level—on the scale of the word, the phrase, the sentence, or maybe the paragraph (anything bigger is generally part of the substantive edit). You scan each sentence to make sure that everything is spelled correctly, that punctuation is used correctly, and that the sentence is constructed properly.

How to do a Substantive Edit

When you do a substantive edit you look for ways to improve your storytelling, for example:

Honing story structure. This includes attention to the order in which scenes appear, the transitions between scenes, the pace of the storytelling, and the cohesiveness of the plot. Ask yourself things like: Is the form in which I’m telling the story is the best one? (Maybe you should start at the climax and flash back, or maybe the story should be told through a series of letters or emails.) Does the story lag in places? Do the scenes flow in a natural way from one to the next? Are there holes in the plot? Are there places where I’ve filled in holes in the plot in a way that’s obvious rather than natural?

Building characterization. This uses devices such as action, dialogue, and description. Ask yourself questions such as: Do my characters come to life? Do my characters’ words and actions fit with each other? Are my characters distinct from one another or do they all resemble each other without significant differences?

Polishing your writing style. Style helps to accomplish goals like bringing a character to life or conveying a mood. Is your style too dry and bare bones for the emotional story you’re telling? Or is your prose too emotive and over-wrought, interfering with the story-telling. Does your writing make your fictional world real, not just saying what happens, but how it sounds and smells and how it feels to the touch?

Checking continuity. This means ensuring that story elements are consistent. For instance: Do my characters look the same throughout? Are their mannerism (gestures, figures of speech, and so on) consistent? If my character changes, do their characteristics change with them?

When you do a substantive edit you focus on the various elements of the story. You read through your work from beginning to end, sometimes re-reading passages several times, and flipping back and forth from one part of the book to another as necessary.

What are you actually doing as you go through your draft? You’re crossing out unnecessary text, crossing out and replace text that could be written better, adding entirely new text as new ideas occur to you, and making notes about elements that you need to follow up later (for instance, things that will require you to do some research and that therefore can’t be dealt with immediately).

(For more advice on evaluating your own work, you may be interested in our article Self-Critique: Narrative Tension.)

How to do a Copy Edit

When you copy edit you look for errors in language that need to be fixed.

Most of the issues you deal with in copy editing don’t require a lot of description here. You are looking for things that are wrong and correcting them. Some examples of things that can go wrong that you deal with in a copy edit are:

You also work on structural issues at the level of the sentence or paragraph, such as:

In Part 2: How to De-Familiarize Your Writing and Part 3: How to Self-Edit More Effectively, we’ll introduce some specific techniques for doing copy editing.

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