Self-Editing–The Complete Guide

Why it’s hard to edit and revise your own book

Editing your own work is probably one of the most difficult chores you will ever undertake. This is because you have put all of your blood, sweat, and tears into your manuscript, and it is hard to know what you should keep, change, or omit. Also, it is psychologically difficult for us to edit our own work.

Editing illustration

Table of Contents

When we’re proofreading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen competes with the version existing in our heads. (Stockton). Here are 2 Reasons Why Self-Editing is Hard and 5 Ways You Can Make it Easier.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try.

Hiring an editor is one solution, but be sure that you have read and edited your work three or more times before sending it off to be edited. Not only will proofreading find some of the typos you have missed, but it might also help to flesh out your story, find errors in point of view, or pad your dialogue where you see your characters haven’t quite made their points.

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.

—Arthur Plotnik, journalist, author, and editor of American Libraries magazine

Tips for self-editing your book

Here are some tips to consider when editing on your own:

Punctuation and self-editing

  • Brush up on punctuation rules, particularly where to use commas and semi-colons (for more on this, see “Comma Gain” at
  • Put your work through an online grammar checker, such as Grammarly. Be sure to take everything it suggests with a grain of salt. Do not make all of the changes it suggests; be selective in those you accept. 

Diction and self-editing

  • Be on the lookout for filler words (e.g., “that” or “very”), adverbs, tautologies, repetition, passive voice (where “the action’s target is positioned first as the focus of the sentence. The sentence gets flipped, and the subject is now being acted upon by the verb” (Kramer)), and repetition, and delete or revise as needed.
  • Check that you have used a good amount of literary devices to help create descriptive imagery that appeals to the five senses.

Grammar and self-editing

  • Watch for shifts in verb tense (from present to past) and/or points of view.
  • Keep an eye out for sentence fragments (incomplete sentences) and run-on sentences (several sentences that can be separated with a period but are joined with a comma instead). Though you might choose to use fragments and run-ons as stylistic elements, try not to overuse them.

Structure and self-editing

  • Add in section breaks whenever you shift points of view, scenes, or to show that time has passed in a single chapter when needed.
  • Do you have all of the elements of storytelling (e.g., inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, etc.)? Can you map your story on a Freytag pyramid?
  • Tag all sections with unnecessary information dump. Copy them into a separate document and add them back in strategic places so the reader will have the information as they need it to understand your story.
  • Do you have a mix of showing and telling? Try to create a balance between the two in your story.
  • Create a spreadsheet detailing the specifics of plot events and character traits to be sure you have hit all story beats and keep character consistent.
  • Keep an eye out for pacing. Your plot should always move forward at a consistent pace. If there are any scenes slowing down the narrative, delete them, beef them up, or find another place for the information revealed in them. The bottom line is that each scene should have a purpose that amps up the tension as the story coasts toward the climax.
  • Look at setting and blocking: is there enough information in each scene to establish the setting? Do the characters move fluidly through the scene?

Dialogue and self-editing

  • Review paragraph breaks, punctuation, and attributions or tags in sections with dialogue. Take out unnecessary dialogue tags. Be sure there are enough tags so readers won’t lose track of who’s speaking. This is especially important in scenes where three or more characters are present.
  • Ensure you have used a combination of dialogue and narrative to establish character traits. Be sure to use a combination of what the character says about themself, what the character does, what the narrator tells us, and what other characters say or think about the character in your description.
  • Check the narrative tone. In most cases, the tone should be informal and conversational, treating the reader as a trusted friend rather than formal and lacking contractions.
  • Eliminate talking heads. Make sure your characters are doing things in between and during the dialogue.

Self-editing in general

  • Read your work backward (Fogarty). This will help you focus only on the current sentence and not get bogged down in, as Stockton says, the version you see in your head.
  • Read your work aloud (Fogarty), but be sure to pay attention to what you say. This might help you find misplaced punctuation or unintentional sentence fragments, provided you don’t tune out while you read.
  • Let time go by between reads (Fogarty). Putting some time between writing and editing might help you forget that version existing in your head so you can approach the manuscript with fresh eyes.
  • Trick your brain into thinking it’s looking at a new manuscript by changing the font face or background colour.
  • Give your work to someone else to read, asking them to mark any questions or concerns they may have with the structure of the novel or character development. Be sure to address these issues when you create your next draft.

The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.

—Dr. Seuss

Learn about grammar, punctuation, and story structure

The bottom line is that you will not be able to edit your work if you do not know the conventions of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and storytelling, so be sure to read voraciously on each and every one of these subjects. Though reading this book is a good start, don’t hesitate to search up these topics on the Internet and read, especially when you have a question.

As a caveat, don’t forget to check the credibility of the sites you visit. In general, avoid getting grammar, spelling, punctuation, and storytelling advice from message boards and blogs for which you cannot trace the author’s credentials. Remember that anyone can post to Reddit and Quora. Also, anyone can set up a blog these days; take the time to ensure the online texts you use to continue your lifelong learning quest don’t steer you in the wrong direction. 

The self-editing process

Effective self-editing requires a critical eye and attention to detail. Here are some steps that will help improve your writing and take it to the next level.

Let’s get started!

  1. Do a thorough edit.

    After you have finished your next manuscript, proofread it at least three times. When you are done, use the checklist above to do a comprehensive edit of your work.

  2. Re-write and revise.

    When you have finished your comprehensive edit, do a close read , re-writing and revising as you go until you think it is near perfect.

  3. Find a beta reader.

    Get a second (or third) opinion by asking a friend or family member to read and comment on your work.

    For more on beta readers, see Self-Publishing – The Complete Guide.

  4. Re-write and revise.

    Re-write and revise as needed, taking your beta readers’ comments into consideration.

  5. Do a final grammar check.

    Copy and paste your document into Grammarly or a similar app and consider the changes it suggests. Keep in mind that Grammarly is AI software that can only approximate human writing. Not all of its suggestions will be correct. Also, some of the change it suggests are stylistic choices, and if you change too much of what it suggests, you run the risk of changing your narrative voice.

  6. Find a good editor.

    Send your work to a good editor. A good editor will check for everything listed here. As mentioned earlier, sometimes our brains fill in the blanks and we miss errors that might seem obvious to our readers. For that reason, it is a good idea to find an editor you like to work with.

  7. Give it one last go-over.

    Do a final edit before publishing your manuscript.

Self-editing conclusion

Self-editing is an essential part of the self-publishing process. It is how you improve the quality of your writing and catch any mistakes or inconsistencies before your book goes to print. Following the steps in this self-editing complete guide, you can become a more effective self-editor. Your book will also be polished, professional, and engaging.

Remember to take your time, be thorough, and seek feedback from others to ensure the process is as effective as possible. With practice and persistence, you will master the art of self-editing and publish a book that will stand out in the crowded self-publishing market.

Good luck!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Freytag pyramid?

A Freytag pyramid, named after Gustav Freytag, a nineteenth century novelist, is a plot diagram. It is called a pyramid due to its shape. A Freytag pyramid is broken down into the five essential elements of a story. These are the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. The break between the exposition and rising action occurs with the inciting incident. This is the first indication of conflict in the story.

Here’s what a Freytag pyramid looks like:

Freytag Pyramid

How do you find a good editor?

There are many places you can advertise for an editor online like Upwork, but word of mouth is probably best. Speak with other authors you know to see who they work with. Ask potential editors to do a sample of 1,000-2,000 words to see if you like their editing style. Draw up an editing agreement that outlines what you expect them to do so you will both be clear on the requirements of your partnership. You can also contact EMSA Publishing. We specialize in editing for self-published authors!

Where can I learn about punctuation use, grammar, and story structure?

Sources abound online. For punctuation, try The Punctuation Guide. Here’s how to punctuate dialogue in fiction.

The best way to learn grammar conventions is to read a lot. As you read, look at the way words are used and sentences are put together. The Grammarly AI can help by making suggestions to improve your grammar along the way.

For story structure, check out How to Structure a Story: The Fundamentals of Narrative, or Elise Abram’s The Shape of Stories: A Comprehensive Guide for Fiction Writers.

What is information dump?

Information dump is the process of giving the reader tons of information at once. Information dump should be avoided because it stops the narrative. It is much better to share the information in small bits as needed. Here are 4 Ways to Avoid Information Dump When Writing.

What is meant by showing and not telling?

In writing, “showing” means using descriptive language to evoke sensory experiences in the reader’s mind. Telling” means simply stating facts or information without much description or detail. “Showing” engages the reader and creates a more compelling story.

What is a beta reader?

A beta reader reads a written work before it is published. A beta reader’s goal is to provide feedback to the author. Beta readers are typically volunteers and may include family, friends, or members of writing groups.

What is a section break?

A section break indicates a change in scene, location, time, or point of view within a chapter. It is a cue to the reader that there is a shift in the narrative. You can show section breaks by adding an extra blank line between sections. Other ways to show a section break in your writing include symbols and/or images.

Is Grammarly free?

Grammarly has both free and paid options. The paid option has additional features. For example, it has more advanced grammar, punctuation, and contextual spelling checks. It also offers suggestions for writing style improvements, such as tone and formality, and includes a plagiarism checker. Most authors will find the free version sufficient for their needs.

This cornerstone content was originally published in

Abram, Elise. The Shape of Stories: A Comprehensive Guide for Fiction Writers. Thornhill, EMSA Publishing, 2022, pp. 141-144.