Five Basic Steps for Editing Your Own Writing

Regardless of what you are writingfiction, nonfiction, articles, op-eds, even letters to the editorthere are five basic steps to editing any manuscript. These are by no means exhaustive but will take care of some of the major problems frequently found in manuscripts.

  1. Use spell check/grammar check, but…

While spell check doesn’t catch all errors, it will catch most. The same rule applies with grammar check. Once you have run spell check/grammar check, you must review your manuscript by reading over it and manually (or optically?) check the grammar and spelling. This requires several read-throughs.

When I edit an article or manuscript, I run my spell check/grammar check and then read the manuscript thoroughly, marking changes in red ink and putting Post-it flags on pages where I want to make changes. Only after I have finished reading and marking the manuscript or article, do I go to the computer to make the changes. This is an extensive process and may take me at a minimum a week to do depending on how long the manuscript is. If I am reviewing an article (e.g. 3000 words) it takes me about a week to review and correct—if it’s an early draft. More refined drafts don’t take as long to review.

2. Words, words, words…

Leave the five-dollar words for your master’s thesis or dissertation. Readers and editors do not want to reach for a dictionary every other paragraph to figure out what you are talking about. If you are trying to impress, using outdated or super long words would be the last thing you want to do.

If you are writing a mystery set in the 1920s however, your main character is not going to say, “That’s cool!” Make sure that whatever your have your characters say is consistent with the time period in which you have placed them in.

Avoid adverbs. For example, “He stepped quietly across the room” could be written to avoid the adverb “quietly.” A better description would be: “The carpet muffled his footsteps…”   Avoid repetitive phrases or words:

3. Avoid repetitive words and phrases…

Sometimes writers have favorite ways of writing something but it’s awkward for the reader. You’ve probably seen it yourself when a phrase or unusual word stood out because the author used it two paragraphs or even two pages earlier. For example:

He turned to watch her approach. He appreciated her graceful movements, reminding him of the waltzes he had danced with her.

And then later:

Her graceful movements reminded him of the few times they had spent waltzing.

While not identical, the sentences use similar words and a reader will think that he or she read the same sentence just a few pages before. However, you can express the same idea without resorting to the same/similar word choices. This is where a thesaurus can come in use. The word “graceful”, for example, could be replaced with supple, lithe, nimble, fluid, smooth, elegant or willowy. The second sentence could be rewritten to read:

Her elegant hands poured out the tea and, suddenly, there sparked the welcome memory of her fluid steps during the meager dances they had shared.

4. Set it aside…

Lay your manuscript aside for a few days—at a minimum. A couple of weeks would be even better. Work on another manuscript or project to keep your mind focused on writing—just don’t focus on this particular piece.

When you pick it up again, you will see problems with fresh, more critical eyes.

5. Find a trusted reader

Find an avid reader that you trust. This person does not need to be a writer or editor just a very dedicated reader who likes to read a variety of books and materials. This is the kind of reader who instinctively knows what he or she likes and will tell you if something sounds strange, if the story feels like it’s missing something, or your hero/heroine is too wooden.

And there you have it. Five basic steps that will help you as you edit what you have written. This will give you a good start in cleaning up your manuscript and making it more editor friendly.