How to Self-Edit More Effectively

Nas Hedron,—Posted 30 September 2013

In this article we’ll go through a self-editor’s toolkit of techniques that will help you edit your writing more effectively.

Focus Your Copy Editing

Copy editing has some particular techniques that are specific to it and don’t generally apply to substantive editing. Remember, when you’re copy editing you want the story to be invisible—you only want to see how the language is used so you can correct any errors.

When you copy edit on paper, move a pencil along under the text as you review it—this helps to force your attention onto each individual word as you read and keeps you from getting caught up in the story when you should be looking at the mechanics of the writing.

Many people also find it useful to read their writing backwards (reading the last sentence, then the second-last sentence, and so on), because this, too, prevents you from becoming lost in the story and focuses your attention on the words and sentences themselves. Others read the pages out of order for the same reason.

Either of these methods will help put the story into the background and allow you to focus on the mechanics of your writing.

Create a Style Sheet

A style sheet is a list of words and facts that an editor creates as they edit a manuscript.

The bulk of the style sheet is made up of words and terms, including character names, place names, unusual words, invented words, and alternate spellings. Some of these things can’t be looked up in reference works (like character names), and others could theoretically be looked up, but wouldn’t appear in a standard dictionary (like obscure terminology related to an unusual profession).

Having these words and terms available in one place allows you to quickly verify spelling and usage as you edit, which can greatly increase your editing speed.

The remainder of the style sheet is made up of important facts that are relevant to the manuscript. This helps you ensure consistency throughout the book, without having to constantly flip back and forth through the manuscript.

The list of facts can be especially useful for details that you’ve changed while writing, as it’s often difficult to remember which version you eventually settled upon.

The list of facts is also very helpful for ideas you’ve invented, which are especially important in genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (What powered that starship again? And what were the rules for becoming a zombie?)

In short, the style sheet is like a dictionary that’s customized for your book. It brings together every word, phrase, and fact you might want to look up while editing, saving you time and helping you ensure consistency.

If you’re writing a book that’s part of a series, the style sheet that you created when you edit the first book is going to be a great help when you write and edit the second book. And while you’re using it for the second book, you can update and expand it so that it’s ready if and when you embark on a third.

Using a style sheet is an essential technique for professional editors. (When you hire an editor, you should make sure they use a style sheet or some equivalent.) Using a style sheet will help you to edit your own work more effectively, just as it helps professional editors edit other people’s work more effectively.

Keep an Editing Journal

Many people who sit down to write a book—maybe even most—don’t intend to write just one book and leave it at that. They may be considering a series, or simply several standalone projects, but it’s the rare author who thinks “this is going to be my one and only book”.

If you intend to keep writing, an editing journal is an important tool to help you improve as you go along.

Your journal doesn’t have to be anything formal or fancy. You can keep it in a Word file, a spiral notebook, or whatever’s most convenient for you to actually use.

You want to record two main things in your journal: mistakes you make and new things you learn.

Anyone who wants to improve at what they do—whether they’re a writer or an athlete or a surgeon—needs to understand their own weaknesses so they can guard against them. Every writer has their personal weaknesses. Maybe you tend to misspell a certain word, or you habitually use a comma where you should be using a semi-colon.

As you edit your work, you’ll notice issues that come up more than once. Whenever that happens, record the issue in your journal. At a minimum, you should end up with a list of problem areas, but I recommend also having a fairly complete entry for each one in which you make notes about what your mistake typically is, how to correct it, and so on. Then, each time you sit down to edit something new, scan the list to remind yourself of issues that are likely to come up.

Over time you’ll also learn entirely new things. These aren’t things where you made a mistake, but things that came up when you were writing, or reading, or looking something up. Maybe you never really knew how to use an ellipsis properly (the three dots in a row that we sometimes use to indicate missing words). Or maybe you’ve just discovered some rule about hyphenating words that you didn’t know before. Recording these new bits of knowledge in your journal ensures that you won’t forget them and allows you to begin incorporating them into your work.

From time to time, take out your journal and leaf through it. You’ll refresh your memory about things that have gotten foggy and it will help you start using elements of writing that are new to you.

Join a Writing Group

If you can’t have a professional editor look over your work, the next best thing is often to have another writer do it. Writers are likely to be attuned to editing issues in a way that your other friends and acquaintances aren’t.

Traditionally, writing groups have met in person, and for this reason they’ve been organized locally. There are still many writing groups that operate that way, so if meeting face-to-face is your preference, take a look around to see what groups are active in your area.

More recently, writing groups have been established online. Some writers find this more convenient than meeting in person, especially if they don’t live in an area with an active local group. Many writers also like the anonymity of giving and getting critiques online under a screen name.

As with so many things online, writing groups vary in quality, and groups come and go, but here are several that have been around for a while and that appear to have a good reputation online (although we don’t endorse any particular group).


There is no exhaustive list of techniques and resources for self-editing, but the ideas presented in this article series will help you address many of the most important issues that come up as your write, and will help you to immediately start editing your own work more effectively.

If you have any questions about self-editing, don't hesitate to contact me.

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