The Importance of Self-Editing

In the comments thread of my post last week on the myth of the evil editor, a reader posted this, in reference to writers who don’t want or don’t believe they need outside editing:

Wouldn’t the adage apply: A writer who edits him/herself has a fool for a client.

I would turn that around: A writer who doesn’t edit him/herself has a fool for a client.

No writer–especially, no fiction writer–can be completely objective about his or her own work. We all need an outside eye–not just an editor for the finished book, but input from readers (friends, colleagues, a writers’ group) as the project progresses.

But those outside sources of advice and criticism are only part of the editing picture. Just as important (I’d actually argue that it’s more important) is the ability to self-edit–to be able to evaluate pace and structure, to recognize when plot, character, theme, etc. are working and when they aren’t, to spot when you’re showing too little and telling too much (and vice versa), to make your dialog flow, to polish your prose. The more skilled a self-editor you are, the more command you will have over your own writing–which surely should be one of a career writer’s major goals.

Self-editing, in other words, is an essential aspect of the craft, and any writer who is serious about getting published needs to work hard to learn it–even if they hate it or find it boring, which many writers do. (For me, editing is the best part.) This really ought to be a no-brainer. Even so, I encounter a surprising number of (usually aspiring) writers who don’t feel it’s all that important (you can always hire an editor to clean things up, right?), or who believe that readers will accept not-so-great execution if the story’s good enough (because isn’t the story the most important thing?). But how much of a writer are you if you’re unwilling or unable to polish your work, or if you have to rely on others to fix all your mistakes–or, worse, if you feel that mastering the basic mechanics of writing, such as grammar and spelling, is just a bagatelle? Getting the words onto the page is only the beginning. As E.B. White is supposed to have said, “All good writing is rewriting.”

So how do you learn to self-edit? The same way you learn to write: by practice, by reading critically, and by paying attention to that all-important outside criticism, which can not only help you improve your work, but teach you how to criticize yourself. (Two caveats: you need to seek out people who will give you intelligent, reasonably objective criticism–which probably means not your relatives, your spouse, or your friends–and to remember that not all advice is useful. One of the most important aspects of dealing with criticism is learning to recognize what to take on board and what to reject.)

Much of what I know about self-editing was taught to me by my first editor. I was a complete novice when she bought my first novel–other than a few short stories, it was the only thing I’d ever written–and from her sensitive, incisive, and exacting criticism I came to understand a tremendous amount about structure, character, and my own weaknesses, such as my tendency to dwell too much on description. She taught me how to pare down my prose and sharpen my dialog. It’s because of her that I learned to recognize–and respect–that nagging uneasy feeling that’s usually the first sign that I’ve fallen into a plot hole, or picked the wrong focus for a scene, or temporarily lost sight of the character. She and I worked together on three books–the best and most fruitful editorial relationship I’ve ever had.

These days, I share my work with a couple of excellent beta readers, who are not only willing to read my manuscripts-in-progress but to talk about plot or other problems as they come up. My current agent also gives me editorial input, and then I go through the whole process again with a publishing house editor. I’d never want to put my fiction out in public without the scrutiny of all those extra eyes–but after so many years of writing, I’m a confident enough self-editor that my manuscripts generally just need tweaking, rather than the kind of major overhaul my first novel required.

How did you learn (or how are you learning) to self-edit? Do you love it or hate it, or is it just a job you know you have to do? Let me know.


  1. I'm in the process of trying to publish my first novel, which is contemporary romance.

    I'd like to think I've become better at self-editing both from my own knowledge, and from people (e.g. Beta Readers) who have provided feedback. It helps for me to hear my reader's voice in my ear. (e.g. look out for conversation that does not go anywhere, avoid the word "felt", etc.). That said, I'd be foolish to think I can complete the process on my own.

    My plan is to try to connect with an agent who can then pitch my novel to publishing houses, at which point I can use their editing services and not have to pay for them.

  2. It always amazes me how many mistakes I find in books written by famous authors (including you, unfortunately) and published by big-name publishers. I always get the urge to report my findings to someone. I just can't believe no one has noticed the problems, some of which have apparently existed for years and survived through various printings.

    Thank you for your posts!

  3. I suffer from a form of dyslexia, which mneas (means) I spell things correctly, but not the rgiht (right) way round.

    Punctuation is a problem too and I find the only way to correct this is to read my work out loud, or aloud, as some people say.

    I read somewhere you shouldn't don't worry about what you write, just write it and when you've run out of words, go and sort out the mess.

    The good thing about writing is you don't have to get it right first time, not like a brain surgeon. You can always go back and add that trite phrase…

    I've learned quite a lot about English and American grammar in the past six years – that's when I started writing and I'm 66 now. En-dashes, em-dashes, PPP's (participial phrases) Mr. Mrs. Beats. and tags, and that it doesn't matter what you write about as all the stories have been told, it is how you tell it, that unique voice that will grab the agent or publisher by the heart – even if he hasn't got one – and bring you the satisfaction you believe you deserve – a published story.


  4. I've actually learned the most about how to edit my writing from reading novels similar to what I want to accomplish. While I read for pleasure, not for study, I find that as I read; I learn. When scene is particularly striking, I often will reread it again. When a sentence contains a lot of power I study it's structure. When I notice vocabulary I don't generally use I study how it's being used and to what effect. The more books I read that are similar to what I want to accomplish, the better my writing becomes. I find beta-readers mostly useful for catching errors, but not very helpful in refining my style, prose or point-of-view.

  5. The first real insight I got into self-editing was 30 minutes with the tutor on an Arvon course (UK)- the most valuable 30 minutes I have ever spent – he went through one chapter and edited it for me. I have got a lot better since then, helped by eg another Arvon course. There's also a DVD called Building Great Sentences in a series called Great Courses of the World – US – the publicity for which dropped through my door and I nearly binned it – but was attracted by the title and discount – and have really enjoyed it – it's a series of lectures by a professor of literature.

  6. I used to be a newspaper editor, so I learned hard-core chopping. It has really helped me learn how to differentiate between a well-written paragraph and a paragraph that advances the story. Just because you wrote something well doesn't mean it belongs in your story.

  7. Self-editing is vital; I tend to do some as I write (don't we all?) then sit and read it aloud to ensure it flows and that I haven't created a tongue twister! I then put my work aside for a week or two before reading it again, and again – I find the time lapse is very useful, it's more like critiquing somebody else's work, then.
    Great post, thank you:-)

  8. Editing doesn't bother me. It's great to watch the book come together from a sprawling behemoth to a tightly-honed, sleek torpedo. I tend to overwrite too and editing is good practic.e

    I just can't look at the book I'm querying anymore and it's time to get serious about the next WIP, in pre-writing right now. I've learned a ton by self-editing my first novel, which people in the know tell me will improve my next book.

  9. I took on an online course in editing to edit my first novel. It has been great for me, I was totally overwhelmed by the idea of editing and thought it had more to do with grammar and spelling! Silly me 🙂

  10. I don't understand writers who will not edit themselves. Getting feedback from other perspectives is vital, but only vital to how you change your work. Writers who think their work is done the moment the first draft is finished strike me as lazy.

    I learned to edit by reading a few novels. I'd take one out of the library and instead of trying to enjoy it, read them out loud and talked over possible changes to myself. I also did significant critical line-editing for friends and workshops. First you look for typos and factual errors, but soon you can notice the mechanics of tone and such as well. In initial composition I'll let most of it flow; editing requires tinkering.

  11. I'm not sure that I consider self-editing any different than rewriting. Certainly writing and rewriting make my writing better, and over the years I find I can anticipate some of the traps I'm going to fall into. But one of the best sources of perspective on my own writing is time: if I let a piece sit long enough, it's almost as if it belongs to someone else and I can see and edit it much more clearly.

  12. After letting my manuscript sat for two years I came back and edit. I still find areas to tighten, areas to improve. Editing is a never-ending task!

  13. I always gain something valuable from your posts. As someone commented, self-editing is a given for every writer, or it should be. I belong to a wonderful critique group that has helped me hone my writing skills, but over the years I have also learned how to take a critical look at my own work and either scrap it or make some changes. But I usually find myself in agreement with my critique partners.

  14. Geez, I edit the hell out of my thousand-word blog posts. I always assumed self-editing was a given if one is a writer.

    As far as finding objective outside criticism, you mentioned not using family. Well, I often turn to my younger brother. He's objective to the point of brutality. He has no trouble telling me when what I have written is a train wreck.

  15. I have a self-editing process that works for me. It consists of 4 stages and I let the ms sit between each stage.

    First I read through for story-level issues – fixing up plot and character problems.

    Next I work through each individual scene and tighten it up. I find the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to be a handy tool here.

    The third-stage is the final read-through.

    The fourth stage is a beta reader.

  16. I'm currently editing and revising a sci-fi novel. I do trust a few beta readers to look at the revisions, but I've found too many opinions just clutter up my focus.

    I've had trouble with some critiquing groups who don't seem to know the rules of critiquing etiquette, so I prefer to stick with those whose opinions I respect.

    I don't mind editing, but I find I can see the problems much better when I let the story rest for a bit.

    It's a necessary part of growing as a writer, as you point out. It's one of those things which shows it's value at a later date.

    BTW – I think your adage is much more appropriate than the reader's original comment (re-editing one's own work).

  17. I have a love/hate relationship with self-editing, though I do it "religiously." Because I do editing for others I have learned to look at my own work in the same way. It is nice to finally see my own mistakes and how to correct them.

    I think I may print up this one to use for the rest of the writers in my group. It is the best explanation I've encountered so far.

    Eilene Hogan

  18. My dad is a longtime professional novelist, and back in the Dark Ages when I was a teen, his usual typist moved away or got ill or something. I saw a chance to make some money while sitting in my room with the stereo on (which sure beat the other way I made money: cleaning kennels), so I lobbied to replace her. It worked out, and at $0.50/page, for the next couple of years (until I went away to college, where I then earned $1/page by typing people's term papers), I used to type sucecssive drafts of the old man's novels.

    In those days, I had no intention of becoming a writer (I knew what kind of a life it was, from growing up in a writer's house); but I unconsciously learned a LOT about self-editing by typing up successive drafts of a professional novelist's MSs, seeing the way he reorganized the material in his rewrites, the way he line-edited for better flow and clarity, etc.

    When I started writing and selling books about a decade later, the third editor to whom I was assigned (my first two both quit during my first six months under contract; there's a very high rate of turnover in the lower levels of publishing) was a REALLY GOOD editor whose long rejection letters, long revision letters, and talented line edits taught me a LOT about my craft and about self-editing. She had wanted to be a guidance counselor (but wound up editing when there were no jobs available in her field), and I think that made her talented at teaching and advising–which was how she approached her work with me. Thus, instead of being rewritten, I was being educated. Working with her on a number of books made a HUGE difference in my craft and was very valuable to me.

    And that's a good thing. Because although I've worked with some excellent editors since then, I've also worked with some really incompetent ones. I've also worked with good editors who were so overworked they barely had time to -read- my MSs, never mind edit them. And I've worked in some situations where the deadlines or schedules were too tight to allow for much editing. So knowing how to turns in a MS that can be published pretty much AS DELIVERED has been crucial in my career–and I'm certainly not the only writer for whom this is true.

    My view on this is by now that if the editor finds anything to change in the MS, then I've not done my job well enough and need to do better next time.

  19. James Scott Bell has the best book on Self-Editing and Revision. That and Plot and Structure. He's the one who helps me the most.

  20. I love self-editing too! (At least, before I reach the galley stage, at which point I'm so close to it and have read it so many times I want to torch the thing.)

    I first learned self-editing skills through a solid critique group, and they were further refined by a fantastic editor who wouldn't let me be just okay–she forced me to fix this or that and nope, try again, this scene isn't quite there yet. I learned SO much from her.

  21. Some days I hate editing, some days I enjoy it.

    I find it essential to read everything I have written out loud at least once.

    And I am lucky…my spouse can be one of my readers. Unfortunately, not everyone can marry an editor ;).

  22. It's been a long haul of reading books on the writing craft, attending workshops, and listening to the criticisms of others. I learn something every time I sit down to edit another scene based on feedback from beta readers or my writer's group friends. What's more, is that a poorly edited novel won't make it past the slush pile. I have no intention of residing there, so I will edit until that baby shines.

  23. I am, right now, self-editing my first novel after being told that it was double the length it should be. It felt very bad to hear that, and worse to think I'd have to chop away half of all my labour.
    But once i sat down to look carefully at my book, I realized that there indeed was too much padding, too much flowery description. So I'm busily chopping all that away and I'm enjoying that, because it is being done for the good of the book. I'm thankful to the editor who pointed out my flaws to me.

  24. Part of self-editing is learning to develop your style, and that involves becoming aware of when you're on voice and not.

    Here's Twain's quote on the matter: "Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence & like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; & it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style."

    So there's that to consider.

    I've also learned through my newspaper work editing other people's copy that everyone's work can be shortened. Stephen King's notable lesson that anything can be shortened by ten percent is a valuable tip.

    I've also learned that multiple passes need to be made, and each pass needs to focus on a particular issue (subject-verb agreement and points of grammar you're weak on; the general sense of the sentence; proper word usage).

    While copy editing my book (coming out in November), I was amazed to find an anecdote I wrote years ago, and worked over several times, could still be worked over again.

    (Of course, there's the lesson that you can work it over so many times that the changes you're making no longer improve the paragraph. You have to recognize when you've gone overboard and it's time to let it go.)

    Learning to improve your writing through editing has become one of the most vital lessons a writer can learn, especially when he or she is competing against so many people who do it so badly. Developing this skill will give you a competitive edge.

  25. Thanks, everyone, for such great comments–please keep them coming!

    As I said in the post, editing is the best part for me. I don't usually much enjoy the actual writing, but I love to edit–perhaps too much! I'm a compulsive editor; I can't bear to look at my published books, because I see so many things I want to change. Among the most important self-editing skills I've learned are how to stop myself from dancing on the head of a pin (those times when I get stuck on a single scene or a single paragraph or even, I'm embarrassed to say, a single sentence), and how to recognize when a piece is finished, or as finished as I can make it, and it's time to let it go.

    Maybe most important of all: writing is a journey with an ever-receding destination. No matter how far you get, there's always farther you can go. No matter how many goals you achieve and skills you master, there are always more to be gained. I'm still learning, and hope I always will be.

  26. The initial rush of inspiration and getting the story on paper is amazing. But I find as much joy" in the editing as I do in the original effort, sometimes, more so, as I begin to flesh out the
    characters, setting, and plot, adding color, texture, making sure all five of the senses are in play. I want the work to represent my best work when I send it out. I also have a couple of readers who give me good feedback and although I haven't found an agent or a publisher, yet, I am confident that all my editing will pay off. So I vote here for self-editing as a very good thing to learn to do.

  27. Over the past year and a half my self-editing skills have improved exponentially. I took comments from friends and members of my writing group and learned from them. Now, I find mistakes that I would have overlooked when I first started writing my novel. Reading aloud also helps. Safe to say, my editing skills are improving as I go. I enjoy the process.

  28. Writing and editing are two sides of the same coin, yet they are very different skills.

    I think of writing as being more of a right-brain process, tapping into creation and innovation; whereas, editing is more of a left-brain process, focusing on story arc, themes, syntax and so on.

    Both are creative processes in their own right, and neither can (or should) exist without the other.

  29. I developed a bad head-hopping habit and the best book on self edits taught me to 'see' the scene through the character's eyes. So now I do that on my first read-through and am getting better at catching my POV mistakes.

    I once had to stop reading another writer's first draft because she used little to no punctuation and no capitals. It literally gave me a headache as my brain tried to compensate, and had to tell her to get another critique partner.

  30. As an educator and new blogger, I hate editing. I live with the silly belief that what I write is great all of the time. Ha Ha Ha.

    To self edit is harder for me than allowing others to edit my work. But I know that is necessary for both to happen. I also know that this is just as hard for my students, so I always try to get them to see the importance of the editor's pen.

  31. I'm one of those who learned the hard way about self-editing. My novel's first rejection from an agent said, in short, "Great premise. Writing needs work." He then suggested "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers." As Dana King said, it's a gem of a book, and a must in every writer's library.

    Another upside to self-editing is not only the obvious problems, but it can also spur inspiration.

    When I dove into the seventh (you read that right) major edit of my novel, I noticed a spot that needed something. Out of that brainstorming popped out an entirely new character that so intrigued me, I wrote a new novel based on his life.

  32. I very much agree with your point that editing is a learned skill and linking with good editors is a great way to learn how to be really critical of our own work.

    I've been lucky enough to work with a partner for several years, so we've internally edited as we went since the beginning. In fact, the reason that I started working with her full time is because she's a hard core critical editor and doesn't hold back, which was exactly what I was looking for.

    On our latest project, after we had self-edited several times, we sent the MS out to our critique team of 10 – some professional editors, some authors, some readers – and let them go at it. It was a great experience, especially working with one particular editor and one particular author who both really nailed issues that we hadn't seen because we were too close to the MS. It was a wonderful learning experience all round.

    Personally, I don't mind the editing process. It's when you take a germinal work and really bring it into full flower to really do the piece justice.

  33. My work has to go through several edits. Once I think I am almost there, I send it to my good friend and fellow writer who was an English teacher and no matter how good I thought it was, she inevitably finds something I need to change. The best test is reading it out loud. I catch a lot of things to smooth out that way. I also set it aside for a day or two and come back to it with a fresh eye. Invariably, I am always surprised to find something, even just one word, that needs to be changed.

  34. I have a super critique group, and as I edit, I try to imagine the questions they would ask: Have I placed enough description in my scenes? Have my sentences become too complex or my meaning muddled? I also have learned my flaws and now watch for them: too many "as" or "as if" statements, or overuse of certain words.

    The more I write and edit, the better I become at weeding my errors before my critique group sees the manuscript. Then my critique group can focus more on plot, theme, and character issues.

  35. I'm one of those people who hates to be asked a question and not know the answer in any area I'm supposed to be knowledgeable about. Same thing with writing; it kills me to let anyone see it unless I've been over it several times.

    My first agent taught me a lot about what to look for. She marked up (extensively) the first fifty pages of my manuscript, then left the rest up to me, in part as a test. (As she admitted later.) She's a fine editor, and I learned a lot from looking at her comments over the course of a few weeks.

    I then picked up a copy of SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Rennie Brown and Dave King. a little gem of a book, it gets a re-reading from me every year or two.

    The other thing that helps with my self-editing is reading. I want everything I write to be as clean and lean as what I like to read before I send it anywhere.

  36. My critique group is the most essential element for editing in my case. But I have discovered a great way to get things ready for them: I use a program that reads my story out loud to me. That way I can see (hear) many issues that I might miss. It's a great first-cut editing technique!

  37. I guess I should have editing my original remark…my comment "a writer who edits him/herself…" actually was to be a play on a "lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client" referring to the lack of outside editing.

    My editing focuses on my articles, so self-editing is crucial. I find outside readers (beta readers?) to be an important assist. When writing techincal documents, I try to find someone with no knowledge of the subject to read. If this reader understands what was written, the writing is successful.

  38. OK, so I'm going to make a psychological confession: for me, "self-editing" is a way of life, not just a writer's tool. Which means that my writing is a process of constant rewriting; a first draft barely reaches a paragraph in length before I'm compelled to fix it because it's not saying what I wanted it to say. I love the revision process, but I'm a slow writer. So it goes.

    But as an editor of other people's work, I've so often wished for writers who would take to heart your message here… self-editing is part of writing; love it or don't, but do it!

  39. Long story short, I learned the hard way of self editing.

    I now do it, not so much as enjoying it, but more as a necessity and as a learning tool.

    Fortunately for this time around (a novel), I'm starting off with an extra pair of eyes looking at my manuscript. I've done only the most basic of editing with it, and I'm (not) looking forward to doing a few more rounds.

    But ya gotta if ya wanna.

  40. Self editing is a must before you submit your MS to a professional editor. Don't be put off by it, embrace it!

    How many MS's have been rejected simply because the author hasn't taken the time to be critical over his/her work? Answer – thousands!

    Go to it. If it teaches you nothing else, it teaches self criticism which isn't a bad thing…

  41. Great post and spot-on advice. I also like self-editing – it's the easier part for me. But I also have to learn when to stop self-editing and let the damn thing go!

    I was just about to schedule my own post on self-editing when I saw this – I'll link to it.

  42. Great post. I happened upon it (thanks, Janet Reid!) as I was taking a between chapter break while editing for voice.

    I love editing. In fact, I get impatient to get the first draft down so I can start "massaging" the MS. But the problem with being this way is knowing when it's good enough and letting it go. That's when I haul it back to my crit friends for the final nod.

  43. I learned by listening to my critique group, and by direct instruction from a friend of mine who was a many-times-published author. She sat down with me and edited a page of mine as if it were her own, then went back to the original document and had me try on my own. I had to explain my choices, not to satisfy her, but so that I knew for myself. I also started reading aloud. I still read aloud, but most of the time I do it silently–I 'hear' the words in my head. It still helps to actually read aloud, though. I've run across some real splats while practicing for a live reading.
    After many years of editing practice I began to over-polish, so now I'm touching my pages more lightly. I think it's actually helpful to over-polish at some stage. At least it was for me. By over-polishing I lost the raw, fiery elements of those early drafts, which made me mad and forced me to figure out what those sparkly, lively things in my writing actually were so that I could put them on the page on purpose, and leave them there when I go through to fix the problems.

  44. Constructive criticism have been my biggest asset in learning to self-edit. I have a great critique group, and I've received valuable insight from multi-published authors. But like writing, I learn self-editing best by doing it.

  45. I agree. Self-editing is almost as important as the writing itself. I value the criticism I get from my writers group and believe it or not, the rejections I recieved.

    By all means, edit, edit and then edit some more!

  46. I'm getting better at self-editing, but I wouldn't be this far without my really good group of beta readers who are teaching me along the way. I learn something new from each one of them. Some of the issues they bring up are easy to fix and there are some issues I need to focus on more.

    Every time I get a project edited or beta read, I learn something new about grammar, plotting, character issues, etc. I feel confident afterwards about showing my work to agents and publishers.

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