Self-Editing: A Cheat Sheet

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

One of the most important talents you can hone is your gift for self-editing. Now, I shouldn’t be giving away any secrets because this is how I make my living, but I am willing to sacrifice for the cause—the greater good of the worldwide writing community.  

Of course, the following suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg, but these tips will at least give you a head start. The first tip I have for you is to avoid and delete repetition. If there’s any tip that I want to emphasize, that tip is that you want to avoid repeating the same word or phrase in close proximity. Another tip is to be aware of phrases that you overuse as a writer and eliminate them. If you can’t find the overused word in this tip, you might not be a great candidate for self-editing. But if you caught the repeated word in this tip, then the next step is to drag out that thesaurus and work on fixing your own repetition. 

When it comes to spelling and proofreading, my best advice is to read your sentences backwards. The human brain, when reading “forward,” will automatically correct things that aren’t, in fact, correct. It’s how we’re wired. This is especially true if you’ve read your work a thousand times over. And spell check is not something to totally depend on either. I can’t bare it when people rely on this technology, when in fact, the words their using are wrong. Nothing about my previous sentence raised a red flag in spell check, yet there are two glaring errors. Hence, the problem. 

If your grammar is terrible, take a class, use a cheat sheet, get to know The Chicago Manual of Style, or simply hire a copyeditor. It’s incredibly difficult for an agent to take seriously a manuscript riddled with errors, even if the story is amazing. So at least get a handle on the basics to avoid embarrassing yourself and your fourth grade English teacher. Quick test: It’s, its; their, they’re, there; your, you’re. Know the differences. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how often I see each of these words misused. Bottom line—it’s downright embarrassing for a writer not to know simple English.  

Content-wise, do you have enough description (too much?) for both your characters and setting? Is your point of view consistent? Is your story arc solid? Have you overwritten? Have you underwritten? Do your characters have distinctive voices? Is your dialogue natural or awkward and stilted (read it aloud)?

If you don’t want to hire an editor, get feedback from a writing group or a friend who is not worried about making you cry.Seriously, it’s pointless to let your spouse or kids or a friend read your manuscript if they’re just going to blow smoke up your butt about how much they love everything about your work. That does you no good. It’s better to hear what your story is lacking before an agent tells you. Once you’ve found someone you can trust to hurt your feelings, then have them flag the pages where their mind starts to wander. Have them write down questions in the margins if they are confused or think the story is missing something. Tell them to write down their thoughts as they read. You must be open to getting ripped apart—that’s the only way you can improve your manuscript before the professionals get hold of it. Of course, tell your hand-selected editor to please limit the use of four letter words while critiquing.  

Let’s talk length. These are guidelines based on years of experience working in publishing houses. YA should be around 45,000 words. Commercial fiction should be between 65-90,000 words. When you break the 100,000-word barrier, you better be writing historical fiction, the next Harry Potter, or piecing together the fall of the Roman Empire. Literary fiction sometimes gets a pass for longer lengths, but honestly, if you can’t edit down to under 100,000 words, you’ve got a problem. Paper costs money, more production costs equal higher book prices for the consumer, which means fewer books sold, which means the publishing house makes less money, which means they don’t want to buy your long-ass manuscript.  

If, at the end of the writing process, you feel that every word of your manuscript is perfect and that if an agent doesn’t like it, then they can go suck it, well, heck, that’s your prerogative. But a simple once-over by a friend, self-editing, professional editing (shameless plug), or even getting a local English student to copyedit for a paltry sum is better than nothing. As I always say, get your manuscript in the best shape possible before submitting to agents.

Remember; you doesn’t want to be the writer who’s first manuscript paige is up on some agents’ walle because it was so riddeled with errors that it becomes the office joke. And yes, that does happen. Fear it and learn to self-edit (or have the sense to get someone else to edit). As the great Dorothy Parker said, “I can't write five words but that I change seven.”

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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