Every publishing plan should allow time for editing and proofreading to ensure you’re putting the best version of your book in print. While it’s ideal to enlist a colleague, or hire a professional editor who can objectively review your manuscript, that’s not always an option. Rest assured, the task of self-editing is totally possible as long as you have a solid game plan.
With a DIY edit, you’ll also develop your editing chops along the way, which is a great skill set for any writer to have. So, find a quiet spot, grab your favorite pen, and learn how to edit a book with our handy guide to self-editing.
Pro tip: Complete a thorough edit of your text (steps 1 to 8) before you add it to your book layouts, then do another final proofread after designing your pages. Errors can easily pop up while copying and pasting, so always review your book pages before you publish.
1. Read it out loud
Listening to the rhythm of your sentences and the sound of words will help you hear your work in a new way and identify rough patches. Awkward phrases, overused words, and bland language tends to be more obvious when you read the text aloud. You may also notice whether you repeat the same sentence structures or lose track of the main idea. All of this will be great information to have when you dive into your next writing project.
2. Print a hard copy
If staring at a computer screen is part of your writing process, give your eyes a break and switch things up by editing your book directly on the printed page. This also makes it easier to catch typos, spelling mistakes, inconsistent verb tenses, and run-on sentences. Try a different font size or style too, since that can make the work feel fresh to your eyes. Marking edits with a brightly colored pen never hurts either, so you can keep your place and locate changes later.
3. Edit in stages
There are different levels of editing that range from major structural edits (paragraph organization) to nitpicky line edits. Prepare to re-read and tackle these different types of edits in stages, starting with the overall story development. In the first full read-through, focus on “big picture” edits to ensure the chapters are organized clearly, while paying attention to sentence flow and transitions (in fiction, check the plot structure and foreshadowing). On the second pass, edit line by line, checking for consistent tone, word choice, verb tenses, and grammatical errors. It will probably feel tedious and require immense focus, but that’s just part of the self-editing process. You can always flag spelling or punctuation questions then resolve them when proofreading at the very end. You don’t want to rush the editing process, especially when trying to evaluate your own writing.
4. Create your own style guide
Professional book editors use style guides, so they have a systematic, comprehensive way to evaluate each writing project.A style guide consists of writing do’s and don’ts that pertain to the project as a whole (notes on tone, word choice, capitalization, and formatting), as well as a detailed checklist of all the book elements. Are chapter headers capitalized consistently? Are commas, quotation marks, and other punctuation in the right place? Research the style guides used by professionals to help you create your own self-editing checklist: the AP style guide for journalism and marketing, and the Chicago Manual for fiction writing.
5. Take your time (and take breaks)
Careful self-editing often takes longer than expected, so notice when you need a break. Stepping away from the text for a bit of time not only gives your eyes a chance to rest, it also helps you mentally reset so you can come back with renewed energy and a fresh perspective. It can be difficult and emotional to edit your book and scrutinize it in this way, so be patient with yourself.
6. Use active verbs
During your second round of edits, keep an eye on your verbs. Weak verbs (she says, he went) are the ones that often come to mind first when writing, but they often lack the personality of more descriptive verbs (she muttered, he scrambled). Don’t force it, but consider refining your word choice when the scene calls for it. Also, look for verbs in passive voice, where the object overshadows the subject (a book was given to her, the dog was told to sit). Passive verbs are not off limits, but you can bring more energy to your writing by using active ones (The neighbor gave her a book, we commanded the dog to sit).
7. Avoid clichés
Choose your words carefully. Writing that contains common, overused phrases is automatically going to feel stale and unoriginal. Get in the habit of scanning your work for pesky clichés and idioms(it was a dark and stormy night, nerves of steel, at the speed of light). Replace them with a fresh image, or simply hit delete. While you’re on a mission to liven up your language, refrain from using words or descriptions that are overly complex. Don’t just grab a word from the thesaurus unless you are confident you understand its meaning and context.
8. Proofread at the end
Whether you’re self-editing a memoir, novel, poetry book, or art portfolio, proofreading is an essential last step. A solid proofread involves a final read-through to identify grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, plus basic typos—all the tiny things that get overlooked during early rounds of editing. Proofreading is also your last chance to check your captions, text and photo layouts for any inconsistencies or design errors. Just because your photo book may be 80 percent images and 20 percent text doesn’t mean you can skip this step. Nothing says unprofessional like misspelled words, uneven margins, or sloppy layouts.
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