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Five ways to be a better self-editor

Give your writing the best chance to shine with a few self-editing tips.

Audience: Writers

Last updated: 21 May 2021

A pile of notebooks in different colours

You’re a writer: you write things, and then you bask in the warm glow of satisfaction when you finish them – right? Kind of. While a certain amount of basking is certainly permitted and should be indulged, writing a draft is usually only the first step in the creative process.

After the initial splurge of creation comes the hard work – the process of editing and revising that will (hopefully) turn a great idea into a polished piece of work.

But editing your own writing ain’t simple. In fact, it can be decidedly difficult. So here are a few ways to help you become a more accomplished self-editor.

Read your work in different formats

It’s easy to grow familiar with the way your work looks in one particular format, whether that’s a Word document or a Scrivener file, and familiarity can breed complacency. One great way to shake up the editing process is to switch the way you’re reading. This might mean anything from printing your poems onto coloured paper to turning your novel-length work into an eBook-compatible file so you can read it on your phone.

This change in perspective lets you reframe your work and think about how it might look to someone else – a crucial consideration for anything you plan to share.

Do a dedicated read-through

When you’re working on a draft, you may find yourself distracted by all the small changes you want to make. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking your word choices or comma placements until the cows come home, but if you’re not careful, you can end up stuck polishing a piece on a granular level without ever addressing major problems in plot or theme.

Ban your red pen, pick up a pad of Post Its or open a separate notes file and read through your work quickly, focusing solely on whether your overall message or series of events is working.

Read your work aloud

You know what you meant to say. When you re-read your paragraphs, lines and pages, your brain can fill in all the blanks, smooth over awkward sentences and disregard repetitions. When you take the time to read aloud, you’re forced to slow down and linger over the words on the page - and there’s no better way to highlight room for improvement.

I find that imagining you’re reading to a room full of bored people can add an extra oomph to this part of the editing process.

Watch out for your comfort zones

Most writers have a comfort zone – a place where they’re confident of their skills and where, when they’re not careful, they return to again and again. It may be that you know dialogue is your strong point so you have a tendency to make your characters speak up at every opportunity. Or maybe you feel as though your nature descriptions outstrip everything else you do so you’re wont to slip into them whenever you’re stuck. Resist!

First of all, you have to admit your habits to yourself (if you’re struggling, ask a kind person to help you identify them). Once you know what they are, go through your writing and pare back any sore spots.

Give it time

This is perhaps the hardest tip for any self-editor but it’s also one of the most important. You have to give your writing time to sit, settle and turn into something else. This is really about giving yourself an opportunity to get some distance from your words. Fresh eyes are the keenest and with them, you’re much more likely to not only spot mistakes but also to find room for improvement.

When you’ve finished a rewrite or draft, put your writing away for a while. A day or two might be enough for a poem or short story, a month or more is more useful for a novel, but whatever you do, don't be tempted to open it before your deadline. If you’re struck with inspiration in the intervening time, write it down somewhere else so you can go back to your document nice and fresh.