What is Self-Editing? And Why Should We Do It?

Self-editing is a major part of the writing process for those serious about publication. In theory, most writers would claim they go through some sort of self-editing process after the first draft.

In reality, what defines “editing” varies so much from writer to writer, that what one writer considers editing may be nothing more than a basic read-through by another writer.

There are no hard core definitions for editing. And there are no set rules to guide writers through the daunting task of re-reading and correcting page after page of our books. Of course, there are helpful books that can get us started through the choppy waters.

My two favorite books on editing are Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. Both offer practical advice for polishing our manuscripts. I highly recommend them (and they're both on the Helpful Writing Books list above).

Yet, even with excellent books such as these to help us, we still struggle to grasp what editing really involves.

How many times should we read through our book while editing? How long should it take? How picky should we get? How much time should we spend self-editing before sending our work to critique partners? How long before sending to agents? When is enough?

I blush when I think back to my attempts at self-editing early in my writing career. I’m not sure that my feeble read-throughs could even be considered editing. But like everything else in the writing journey, the longer we’re in it, the more we learn, and the better we get.

Over the years, here’s what I’ve learned about the basics of self-editing:

Self-editing involves much more than re-reading our books. Yes, reading them is part of the process, but there’s so much more. The same way we need to learn the basic techniques of fiction-writing, we also need to educate ourselves about the basics of editing. (More specifics in the next post.)

Self-editing is just as important as the writing itself. It’s not something we should haphazardly tack on after we’re done with our first draft. We need to plan concerted time into our writing schedules for editing. I usually set aside four to six weeks for self-editing before I send it out for others to critique.

• Self-editing is critical, but we can’t come to rely too much on the editing process. In other words, we can’t give ourselves an excuse for sloppy first drafts because we’ll “fix” everything in the editing. Yes, first drafts are the time to give our creativity free reign. We shouldn’t let our internal editor inhibit the flow. But. . .

• We should strive to incorporate new techniques and instill good habits in first drafts. Whatever we’re learning whether from books or feedback, we should consciously work to put it into practice a little at a time. If we’re aware of the need to cut adverbs or dialogue tags, we can make an effort to specifically work on becoming better in how we handle them. It may require slowing down the muse for a time and working more deliberately, but eventually that skill will become effortless.

• Expect that no matter where we’re at in our writing careers, we’ll always have to edit. We’ll never become so good that we outgrow the need for it. I’ve chatted with other Bethany House authors about editing, and have learned that even multi-published, popular authors are subjected to major rewrites and editing.

Self-editing is part of the job of writing. It’s not optional. The more we can learn about it and grow in our editing skills, the better chance we give our books at succeeding.

What about you? Have you made self-editing a routine part of your writing process? Have you come to rely too much on the editing process for fixing your manuscript? Or do you try too hard in the first draft to get everything right? Is there a way writers can find a balance between the two extremes?


  1. I think self editing is not only needed for the WIP, but it teaches us something about ourselves. Do I self-edit? In almost every aspect of my life, not just writing. Balancing it is tough, but I believe the more we write the more natural that balance becomes.

  2. I'm obsessed with self-editing. In fact, editing a book for me takes much longer than writing the rough draft. I pound out a sloppy copy, because I can't edit a blank page (we've heard that a million times).

    If anybody read my rough draft, I'd be mortified, because they are that horrible. I usually print out the whole story and read through with a red pen, making marks like "boring" or "backstory" or "telling" or "no conflict" or "repetition" (I have a lot of repitition in my first draft)

    Then I do the major revising. Get the story elements ironed out. Then I go through and do a meticulous line edit...finding just the right words and phrasing to bring my story to life and make it as fresh as I can.

    I know you said we should strive to incorporate new techniques, and I sort of agree with you and sort of don't. Worrying about showing vs. telling and all that on my first draft slows me down and just gets in the way. However, I do make sure I'm writing in scenes, which is something I learned and apply while conquering the rough draft.

  3. Great post, Judy! It was especially helpful since I hope to start the editing process on my WIP sometime this summer. I think I rely on the editing process a little too much. I'll always say I can fix everything during the rewrites, but that's no excuse for sloppy writing... even if the first drafts are always messy :)

  4. You have great tips here. I'm going to check out those books.

    When I wrote my first manuscript, I had so much to learn. Each time I write, it's more polished by the end, but still has a long way to go. Some writers won't look at a manuscript as they're writing, but I'll often read what I did the day before and clean it up before writing more.

    And now I know that there's no way I can submit from just self-editing. I need to have a critique partner or group fix the things I just can't see. That said, I'm trying to make sure they have the tidiest draft possible.

  5. Somemtimes I just have to write because I'm in the zone and I want to get "story" on the page. Then, when I edit, I've got my "improving my craft books" with me, trying to up tension, presentation, etc.

    However, I do practice bringing these techniques into my first draft, hoping to make first drafts better. That way I can focus on new things in my editing process.

  6. Ack, that would be Jody! Sorry! I feel stupid now :O

  7. I think in the first draft I do try really hard to make the story as strong as possible. Whatever I already know to do, I do. That said, sometimes if I'm stuck somewhere I'll just write something that may or may not work and know that when I read the whole manuscript it'll jump out if it doesn't add to the story. (I hope, lol)
    Great point about incorporating what we're learning. I think if the first draft of our fourth manuscript is in need of the same edits that our first draft first manuscript was, then something is not taking hold.
    There's a balance, definitely. I'm still trying to learn how to find it! LOL

  8. Oh dear, I'm a chronic self-editor, doing it even when I draft. An exhausting habit, I'm afraid. I need to learn to let a piece "rest" a spell befor self-editing.

    Nice post. : )

  9. I have a manuscript I've been revising/editing for nine years. In that time, various editors I've met at conferences or via slush have made suggestions that have required major overhaul:

    change the story from a multi-POV to one

    cut the story from three years to one

    Most recently, my agent has asked for "the big event" to be added, something she felt was lacking.

    My nine-year-old has asked me more than once, "Why are you still working on CAN'T BREAK US?"

    Because there's still more work to be done!

    Hoping to get the most recent version off to my agent this week...

  10. I agree with Jessica. I focus on the story in the first draft, no the mechanics. In my mind, everything else is fixable, but if I do a major major story flub in the rough draft, that could be some MAJOR rewrites (like, you did good until page 15... the rest needs rewritten, ha!)

    That said, I intensly don't like editing, mostly because I love working on the story.

    I do, about halfway through the book, usually stop and reread the first half, editing as I got and taking stock of where I've come so far in the story, making sure I haven't completely fallen off the bandwagon. In my latest book, that really really helped me finish the book strong. Although now my 2nd half of the book still needs work, ha! Editing editing, gotta love/hate editing!

  11. I'm somewhere inbetween. I do try and incorporate new techniques and what I've previously learned when writing a first draft. I will work on a scene a bit before moving forward - that's just the way I am. It takes me longer to write the first draft but it's not quite as crappy - still crappy and in need of work - but not as bad.

  12. This post is perfectly timed since I just started self-edits on my m/s over the weekend. I do try to keep my first draft somewhat clean, but my perfectionism comes out in self-edits.

    I took one of Margie Lawson's courses in March, where she taught her EDITS system, and wow, I was armed with so many more tools to self-edit in addition to the books you mentioned. I was so overwhelmed that I compiled my own self-edit checklist (4 pages long!) that incorporates all the advice I've learned.

    It makes for a much more detailed (and longer) self-edit process, but I think my manuscript will be better as a result.

  13. This is an area I'm growing in. I still like the writing better than the editing. But what has to be done...has to be done.
    ~ Wendy

  14. I've learned to try to write a better first draft and then really save time for the edits. It really does help to put it aside and take a fresh look as we are so caught up in it when writing it.

  15. For me, I'm not sure if a balance exists. In doing the rough (i.e., first draft) I don't try to self-edit. I just try to write, get the idea out on paper. The revision process is for fluffing, editing, and all the other joys of writing. For me, solely for me, attempting to self edit in the rough draft phase just stifles my creativity.

  16. I can't even count the amount of times I have edited each manuscript!

    Self Editing is a must. Oh and two VERY good books! Own them both :)

  17. I'm in the process of perfecting a balance between the two extremes. I'm willing to guess when you're writing your first two to ten books, you spend some time learning new techniques and deciding what fits for you as a writer. During the editing process of my current manuscript I've learned a great deal about my writing - my writing weaknesses, the words I overuse, showing vs. telling issues, POV problems. I'm also learning certain techniques with outlining that I will use on future first drafts that I'm currently using on the rewriting. We get better with each novel we write, and I think we learn the most about our writing during the rewriting and self-editing phase. Then, we take that new knowledge and apply it to the next first draft. Little by little, the self-editing phase might go smoother. I can't imagine it ever going away, but I do see a balance between the two extremes with each new technique we master.

  18. I'm a perfectionist.

    And I married an editor.

    That tells you all you need to know.

  19. Jody,

    Another good blog. I especially like the bit about using self-editing as a crutch, as in "Oh well, I'll catch it on the edit." I've done that, and it's amazing how many times upon rereading, that sloppy passage sounds "good enough." Which is why I've gone back to pen and paper.
    I subscribe to Hemingway's advice on self-editing, which was to reread the previous day's work daily, and to reread the entire work on a regular basis.

  20. I like to add comments to my manuscript as I write the first draft. This way, I'm not stopping my flow of writing by trying to think of the perfect word or solution to a problem with a scene. This way, I know that when I edit it, I'll have a reminder that the line or scene needs work.

  21. It took numerous manuscripts to figure out what worked for me and even now, it's still being tweaked.

    I am not a big fan of editing and even less of of rewriting, so I try to plan my books out as much as possible before I write them. This helps to avoid plot holes and hopefully catch things like lack of character motivation and so on. But even then I still do at least three rounds of edits. The first read-through for the major stuff, the second to catch everything else (like redundant words and additional typos) and then at least one more time to make sure it's polished. And, of course, that's before it gets sent out for others to read (I usually apply a lot of changes from my critique partners, too).

  22. For me, editing and writing are two separate skills, and I have a hard time doing both at the same time.

    I do try to write clean and not too sloppy on the first draft, but I will insert a comment if there is a bit of research that needs to be done or I know that a scene needs to be tighter rather than messing with it right away.

  23. I did get the book by James Scott Bell and it is very helpful. Thank you for this post. I'm editing right now and I'm learning so much. I did try to write a good first draft but it amazes me how much I'm already changing.

  24. I do both: over-edit while writing the first draft and then beat myself half to death self-editing post-first draft. Though I've been "a serious writer" for over a decade, I'm still learning (and praying) that the editing process will get easier.

  25. I'm trying to be more of a strategist when it comes to writing, but truthfully, that's really like telling a fish not to swim. I edit as I go. I simply cannot open my manuscript to the page I left off on and write the next sentence or chapter. I go back, usually to the beginning if I'm just starting, re-read, add in new ideas, edit and push through until I'm happy to begin writing that next line. Fortunately I am a fast writer, but the editing process for me is sort of like being on one of those walking sidewalks, except there is no end in sight. My biggest nightmare is to ever be in the position of receiving revisions on a manuscript attached with a deadline...but actually that might help me be more focussed. I guess we'll have to wait and see!

  26. Every part of me want to edit as I write my first draft! But when I do that, the story becomes stagnant because editing alters the flow. So my first draft is a sloppy copy, or as Anne Lamott says, a shitty first draft. I need to just get the story on the page. Then I begin the painful editing process. First draft edits are the worst because it's overwhelming. Once I get through that, subsequent drafts go much smoother!

  27. I am the worst at relying too much on editing. I write the first draft with loads of mistakes, bad pacing, etc., all the while thinking that I'll fix it later. I usually do a lot of outlining in advance, though, so the plot doesn't need too much fixing.

    Thanks for the tips!

  28. Oh, Jody. How long do you have for my answer? LOL!!

    I try to write great the first time, but of course that never happens.

    I self edit forty-seventy-ten-two times. Sometimes I edit too much, then it sounds worse than the first time around.

    Some of my best writing I only edited two or three times, because of a deadline. And they bought it. But you didn't want to hear that, right?

  29. I recently cut 8,000 words from my WIP. You know, it felt good, though what I took out was dang good stuff.

  30. I was really methodical with my self-editing in the beginning. I created a checklist but combining tips from the books you referenced & some others. Now most of it comes naturally, but I still refer to my list after each scene to make sure I didn't miss anything.

  31. I try to do the best I can with the first draft, which is never perfect, of course. I find I really look forward to the editing phase, especially after letting the story sit for a little while first.

  32. Jody, once again a great post. I am a compulsive self editor, I pay as much attention to my writing as to self editing. You are absolutely right: regardless of where we are in our writing journey, self editing is a must.

  33. I try to write the first draft reasonably well without hampering the creative effort but there is always a lot of revision needed. I'm much better editing someone else's writing than my own. Too many things in my work slip past me even after several read-throughs -- overused words, weak verbs, tense shifts, etc. My writers' group isn't a novel critique group so my beta readers are invaluable. But I'm one of those people who edits and tweaks indefinitely.

  34. The better you write from the very beginning the more productive your editing process will be. The first story I wrote was riddled with syntax errors, missing “s”, dropped words, etc. I was careless. I edited for----ever just to clean it up before I could begin content editing. This time around, I’ve tried to polish my writing right from the start.

    Blogging has actually helped me in this respect. I don’t get weeks to edit and revise, just a day or two.

  35. Excellent point about incorporating new and better work habits into our first drafts. I'm trying to compress my process a bit, as I learn from book to book.

    Usually, when I have the time I work this way:

    1st draft: Skeleton of the book, vomited out quickly and put away for about 2 months.
    2nd draft: Filled out, every possible tangent explored.
    3rd draft: Cut with a machete
    4th draft: Goes out to trusted readers
    5th draft: Changes incorporated
    6th draft: Wrestle with every word and phrase to make sure it's the best it can be, specific, clear, no logistical lapses or big holes
    7th draft: final polish that gets submitted.

  36. Tend to leave enditing of known weak points until the end. Did someone mention tense?

  37. OOO, excellent question. While I agree it's true that the better you write in the beginning smooths the editing process later, I also believe it's not always realistic to expect to get the first draft perfect.

    More goes into drafting the perfect scene that just the words. Returning to the old adage, "show, don't tell," our challenge as writers is to convey action, emotion, and conflict in a particular scene. When I start a project, I have a good solid sense of what happens, how it happens, and why it must happen, but the details that breathe life into those "happenings" very often emerge to me in stages.

    In a first rev, I may not be entirely clear on my themes, or perhaps the theme I chose early on isn't as evocative as the one that I see in the review process.

    I've been struggling with this problem in my current WIP. I finish a scene, read it and stick out my tongue because it's not yet hitting the point it should. I wrestle with the decision - should I keep tweaking, revising, pruning, until it does hit the high note, or do I move on, finish the project and fix it all later?

    For me, I've found it's more productive to keep moving. There is a compulsion to get the story out of my head and on paper. I can't seem to focus on anything else.

  38. Thought.... Is editing a short story different to a longer one? I'm working on some 2000 word assignments at the moment and finding I'm doing a paragraph or so at a time, rather than waiting until the end. Less room, maybe.

  39. My first drafts lay out the plot. My further drafts add in the layers of thought and theme that enrich the text.

    I like your emphasis on "self-editing." Sometimes I feel like I rely to heavily on my critique partner without trusting myself. I really need to get my hands on those books to restore some of my self-confidence in the editing department.

    Thanks, Jodi!

  40. I believe I'm slowly finding a balance between editing and just writing. I tend to edit as I go, so I churn out more polished first drafts. They still need a lot of work, though. I often wonder if it's necessary to hire a professional editor, but a lot would have to happen for me to make that decision.

    Great post!

  41. I do find I'm trying hard to implement everything I've learned on my first draft into my second. If you can get some of the mechanics right in the first draft then you can focus more on character and plot during the rewriting phase.

  42. I'm learning how to do this better. I've been so critical in the past that I rewrite and edit my first few chapters so much that I get bogged down in it! I need to learn some good balance to this;)

  43. I did a guest post today on a similar topic: The Realities of Revision. Improving our stories is a vital part of writing. In fact, as I said in that post, there are days I feel the title re-writer is more accurate than writer.

    I strive to produce the best first draft I can. However, because I worked as an editor, I can get bogged down with finding a perfect word or nailing down a historical fact. I've had to give myself permission to turn off my overly active Internal Editor in order to get the first draft written. Since editing comes naturally to me and I enjoy it almost as much as writing a first draft, I'm feel that in my case getting the story down is most important. I'll happily clean it up. In fact, my CP has been known to nudge me in order for me to send her material to read because I want to perform one more editing pass. :)

  44. To deal with the inner editor, I hand write portions of my first drafts when things are slowing down too much. Otherwise I like to try to have good writing to start with. It's far easier to edit later and less likely to have to make major changes that effect the entire book/article/story.

    Editing is essential. At the moment I'm working on a short story that I've ripped apart in the editing process. It is currently lying in pieces, but I really like the story so that alone has given me the drive to give it an entire re-write.

  45. I agree with you, editing is vital. I have just finished a third re-write (or edit depending which way you look at it) of my memoir and I took three months to do it. Because my first drafts are so unplanned and organic the re-writing and editing is often where the real writing occurs for me. The first draft just puts words on paper. The edit makes them sing.

  46. My first attempts were done lightning fast. Pathetic! Then I read Renni Browne and Dave King's book you mentioned and, Bingo!, the lights turned on.

    I have a three part process. First, I analyze and fix the big probs. Then I line-edit. Then I get into the nitty-gritty details. Works for me!

  47. Good post, thank you. Yes, I've always looked at the self editing as part of the process. As far as when and how I do it, it depends on what I am writing and/or how the words seem to be flowing. Now if I could just get my teen writing students to do more self editing...

    Have a great week,

  48. as long as you don't self-edit a WIP within an inch of its life, self-editing is a fine to skill to hone

  49. I'm still learning how to be a good self-editor. I'm getting better, but thankfully I have great CPs that help me immensely. :)

  50. I believe in self-editing (and likely do it to obsession) but also value the expertise of my mentors and critique partners. Some great tips in this post - thanks!

  51. Great info Jody, and thanks for sharing from your experience.

    My biggest struggle is forcing myself to NOT edit while I write. It takes me a concerted effort to just get the words on paper first. I tend to re-read every word and sentence as I write, trying to make it better before moving on.

    And ditto on the Jim Bell recommendations...excellent books on writing.

  52. Great advice! I can get bogged down in self-editing, tweeking here and there. I now try to go through it three times, once for larger concepts once for grammatical errors and the like, and once for readability. I don't necessarily go in that order though. ;)

  53. I love Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It's one of the best books on the market for learning those basics no one ever bothers to tell you. It's a must have for any writer or teacher of writing! Great post!

  54. I love how editing can change something mediocre into something wonderful! I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard as part of my editing process. It really helps me polish my manuscript.

    Thanks for a great post.

  55. I go back and forth between first draft work that's just a flow of words and first draft work that I work while I'm going. I wish I could find that balance. :-)

    I'm glad to hear you say the need for editing isn't something we ever grow out of. I know I've read books by well-established authors that felt like they really needed a good editing hand.

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