How to edit your own writing like a pro

I love the editing part of the writing process. It's incredibly satisfying to take a somewhat messy manuscript and turn it into something that someone else might want to read – and hopefully, enjoy.

  • How to Edit Your Own Writing like a ProAfter self-editing, I always use a professional editor, but it's always best to do the most you can yourself before hiring someone else to help you to the next stage.
  • In today's article, Sarah Kolb-Williams, author of How to Hire an Editor, explains how to take your editing as far as you can by yourself. 
  • Let’s face it: editing can be expensive.

For many authors, even just one round of professional editing can be hard to justify. And I get that. No one should put themselves at financial risk over editing a book.

But readers still expect books that look and feel professional. What happens if editing just isn’t in the cards for yours?

Whether or not you’re hiring an editor, someone’s got to check all those boxes—and if your main source of editing is self-directed, you’re the one who’ll be rolling up your sleeves and getting it done.

In this article, I’ll go over 10 self-editing steps any author can take to help boost their revisions, many of them straight from a professional editor’s toolkit. While a self-edit is no replacement for a professional copyedit, these tips should help get you some of the way there.

Even if you are hiring an editor, you might be surprised at how far you can take your own manuscript first. Focus your revisions where you’re most comfortable; any editorial heavy lifting you can do on your own will help your editor focus on what you need the most.

And if your budget just doesn’t include room for the professional editing you want, these 10 self-editing steps will help you fake a pro edit.

1. Put the manuscript away

In my experience, the single biggest problem standing in the way of successful self-editing is this:
Authors are simply too close to their own writing to see it objectively.

Proofread your own writing like a pro

How to Edit Your Own Writing like a Pro

I know you have been there more times than you want to admit. You type the final period on that manuscript, application, or important letter. This piece of writing means so much for your career, even your self-worth, but it’s the eleventh hour. It’s too late to ask your friend or former professor or even your mom to read over your words. You’ve read the piece three or four times already, and you know that your eyes will just glaze over if you try to proofread it one more time.

  • You’ve been here, staring at your writing, knowing that it is still rife with typos and easy-to-spot errors that will ding your credibility in the eyes of your reader.
  • Do you hit submit?
  • No!

Maybe the old you would have hit submit, too tired to try one more ineffectual glance-through. After you finish this post, though, you’ll know one of the easiest, most powerful proofreading techniques out there: The Change-Up Method.

First, I want to tell you my embarrassing story of The Change-Up Method

I edited a dissertation for a friend from graduate school. He was brilliant, and he had a powerful dissertation, but English was not his first language.

Nearly every sentence in the manuscript was missing articles (a, an, the), and I struggled to identify each of the hundreds of missing articles in the 117-page manuscript.

The author was my friend, so I determined to do the best job I could.

I read the dissertation no fewer than four times. Slowly, deliberately, pausing several times in each sentence to consider whether to add an article. I thought, surely, I had caught every error, and I hit “send.”

A few days later, I heard back. I can hardly describe the embarrassment when I read my friend’s words: “My advisor and committee members pointed out that there are still English errors in my dissertation… For this reason, I have to ask you to proofread my dissertation very carefully all over again.”

He tried very hard to make me feel better, admitting how many errors I had already caught and that it was really so much improved from the initial draft. But I knew that I needed to return to the dissertation and find a way to catch every last one of those errors, no matter how strenuous the method.

How could I know that I would soon find so easy a method?

Why is it nearly impossible for you to catch every error when reading straight through a draft?

  1. Research by psychologists at the University of California shows that you can read words, even when every letter is in the wrong order, because the brain is so good at absorbing the context and guessing the meanings of the words.

  2. I love the title of the pop-psych article that discusses the UC research: “Breaking the Code: Why Yuor Barin Can Raed This“
  3. If your brain can unscramble words instantly, effortlessly, then your proofreading skills are in serious trouble.

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Even worse? Your brain tends to completely skip over words with fewer than four letters, according to Barber, Meij, and Kutas at UC. How in the world are you going to catch any typos, if you’re fighting against your brain’s tendency to not fixate at all on smaller words.

That’s what I told myself as I opened the dissertation up again. There’s no way I could read through it again four times. (Have you ever read a dissertation once? Seriously.) Even if I did, would I catch those lingering errors?

I knew I needed to change it up. I did a little more research on brain cognition and reading, and I decided to experiment on my own editing skills.

I changed the way my brain approached the text

I changed the entire look of the text so that my brain would see the words as new and different. Then, I read the dissertation backward, beginning with the last sentence and reading each previous sentence, all the way back to the introduction. This removed the tendency for my brain to use context to fill in missing articles and skim right over typos.

And you know what? It took me only slightly longer to read the dissertation backward than I had spent reading it forward. If I had used The Change-Up Method to begin with, I would have saved myself from reading it three additional times, not to mention the final read-through that was necessary after I missed all those errors.

Plus, I found every single missing article, typo, and error in that dissertation. That’s what I call effective.

Now, back to you, sitting at your computer at the eleventh hour, knowing that there are errors lurking in your writing but too tired to care and so tempted to just hit that submit button.

Watch this super-quick video: The Change-Up Method

I will walk you through the remarkably easy steps of The Change-Up Method. You’ll never submit another error-riddled piece of writing again, and you’ll save the time of pointlessly reading and re-reading your own writing.

100 Proofreading Tips For Writers

Editing and proofreading are vital for producing great writing.

But where should you look? What should you change? As the most comprehensive proofreading list on the web, this list provides 100 tips to get your work into professional shape.

The term editing covers a wide range of practices, from restructuring whole documents to recasting sentences. Proofreading is the final stage, when everything’s in place and you’re just looking for consistency of style and final errors.

These editing and proofreading tips are divided into six logical sections, including:

  • Habits
  • Practical Processes
  • The Bigger Picture
  • Sentence-level Editing
  • Formatting
  • Don’t Forget!

Let’s get on to the 100 best editing and proofreading tips for writers.


How to Edit Your Own Writing like a Pro

The first category, habits, includes general actions you should do regularly for effective editing and proofreading of any kind of writing.

1. Sleep on it

If you’ve been living with a manuscript for a long time, you lose objectivity. Editing and proofreading require a clear, objective mind. One way to get that state of mind is to sleep on it.

Never try to do all your editing and proofreading in one day. Get a good night’s sleep and return to the manuscript the next day. Even for a short document that you finish writing in a few hours, look at it again the next day.

Errors will jump out at you.

2. Look over the document at different times of day

I’m not a morning person, but I’ve found I get a fresh perspective on my work the next morning. If I’m slaving over a document all morning, however, it can be helpful to take a look at it again the next day at night.

Book Editing Basics: 10 Simple Ways to Edit Your Own Book

  • Writers’ victories are short-lived indeed.
  • For a brief moment after completing a first draft, writers sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, post a self-congratulatory humblebrag about finishing our manuscript, and then immediately think about that one character whose arc we forgot to complete, or that we’re pretty sure we overused the word “that,” or that those squiggly red lines scattered throughout our manuscript are surely incorrect.
  • In other words, the joys of #amwriting give way to the trials of #amediting.

As a strong (and biased) believer that every author needs an editor, your first line of literary defense shouldn’t be a professional editor. Rather, you need to learn how to edit —and really, how to self-edit — before sending your manuscript off to be edited by someone else.

Book editing at its best

As a full-time editor, I witness dozens of simple mistakes authors constantly make. If only they’d take the time to learn and incorporate better self-editing techniques, they would become better writers, endear themselves to their editors, and maybe even save money on a professional edit.

Furthermore, beta readers and early reviewers will be grateful for the creation of a readable early draft.

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If you’re ready to self-edit your book, consider these 10 tips for book editing.

1. Rest your manuscript

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” — Henry David Thoreau

When you’ve finished typing the last word of your masterpiece, set it aside for a few days. If you can stand it, set it aside for a week or more. In On Writing, Stephen King relates that he places his finished drafts in a drawer for at least six weeks before looking at them again.

Why rest your draft for so long? You want to try to forget everything you’ve written so that when you do come back to self-edit, the book almost seems as if someone else wrote it. You want fresh eyes, and the best way to do that is to rid your mind of what’s been filling it for so long.

2. Listen to your manuscript

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” — Dr. Seuss

Hearing your words spoken makes mistakes glaringly obvious. You can enlist a (patient) friend to read it to you, or you can go the friendship-saving route, which has the benefit of being free: use your computer’s built-in speech synthesis function.

If you’re a Mac user, click the Apple logo at the top left of your screen, select System Preferences, click Accessibility, then click Speech. Choose a System Voice and Speaking Rate you can tolerate, then select “Speak selected text when the key is pressed.” If you want to change the keyboard combination, click “Change Key” and follow the directions. I prefer Option+Esc.

Once you’ve enabled your preferred shortcut key, simply highlight any text (within any program) that you want to hear read aloud. Then hit your shortcut keys and follow your words on-screen as your computer reads them aloud.

For PC users, make use of Narrator, part of the system’s Ease of Access Center. Press “Windows+U” and click “Start Narrator.

” Since the program is intended for blind users, it will automatically begin to read any text your mouse encounters. To turn this off, hit “Control.

” To have Narrator read a paragraph, place your cursor at its beginning and type “Caps Lock + I.” To have Narrator read an entire page, press “Caps Lock + U.”

3. Search for troubling words

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” — Mark Twain

All writers have specific words and phrases that (which?) always cause them to (too?) second-guess whether (weather?) they’re (their?) using them correctly. If you know what your (you’re?) troubling words are, use your word processor’s search function to locate every possible variant of that word or phrase.

To help you consider what your troubling words might be, here’s a good starting list, excerpted from the first chapter of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing:

  • a lot/alot
  • affect/effect
  • can/may
  • further/farther
  • good/well
  • i.e./e.g.
  • into/in to
  • it’s/its
  • lay/lie
  • less/fewer
  • that/who
  • their/they’re/there
  • then/than
  • who/whom
  • your/you’re

Proofreading: 7 Editing Tips That’ll Make You a Better Writer in 2020

There are some bloggers who seem to have a natural gift when it comes to writing. Some bloggers seem to be naturally gifted writers.

They manage to get their ideas across clearly and economically, which means that readers can easily follow their word choices. Readers devour their clear, economical prose.

Not only is there a lot of respect for what they have to say, but also the way that they say it. People respect what they say — and love how they say it.

Whenever they publish a new post on their blog, it always gets dozens of comments and hundreds of shares. Every new blog post attracts dozens of comments and hundreds of shares.

It would be great to be as successful as they are, but you don’t know what you need to do to make your writing better. You’d love to emulate their success, but you don’t know how.

The good news is that there are some proofreading and editing tips that you can easily learn which will improve everything you write from now on. Fortunately for you, a few simple proofreading processes and editing tips can transform your writing forever.

Copy Editors and Proofreaders: The Unfair Advantage Popular Writers Try to Hide

You know your writing heroes? Would you be shocked to learn that their writing is no better than yours?

Sure, the final draft is better, but the first draft is just as clumsy, flabby, and downright difficult to read as any of your own writing efforts.

(And, yes, many of them are riddled with the same typographical errors, spelling errors, grammatical errors, and punctuation errors you might be familiar with in your own work.)

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What popular bloggers know that many people don’t know (or don’t want to believe) is that a post isn’t finished simply because they’ve said everything they want to say. In many ways that’s just the beginning.

Think of your draft as a rough diamond. Value is hidden inside it and you need an expert gem cutter to reveal its beauty and clarity.

Which is why many top bloggers hire a freelancer — a copy editor, editing service, or professional proofreader (or even proofreading service) — to transform their rough diamonds into gleaming jewels. That’s right — someone else is helping them.

Somewhat unfair, right?

No wonder their writing seems so much better than yours.

How to Edit Your Own Writing

Continue reading the main story

The secret to good writing is good editing. It’s what separates hastily written, randomly punctuated, incoherent rants from learned polemics and op-eds, and cringe-worthy fan fiction from a critically acclaimed novel. By the time this article is done, I’ll have edited and rewritten each line at least a few times. Here’s how to start editing your own work.

It doesn’t matter how good you think you are as a writer — the first words you put on the page are a first draft. Writing is thinking: It’s rare that you’ll know exactly what you’re going to say before you say it. At the end, you need, at the very least, to go back through the draft, tidy everything up and make sure the introduction you wrote at the start matches what you eventually said.

My former writing teacher, the essayist and cartoonist Timothy Kreider, explained revision to me: “One of my favorite phrases is l’esprit d’escalier, ‘the spirit of the staircase’ — meaning that experience of realizing, too late, what the perfect thing to have said at the party, in a conversation or argument or flirtation would have been.

Writing offers us one of the rare chances in life at a do-over: to get it right and say what we meant this time.

To the extent writers are able to appear any smarter or wittier than readers, it’s only because they’ve cheated by taking so much time to think up what they meant to say and refining it over days or weeks or, yes, even years, until they’ve said it as clearly and elegantly as they can.”

The time you put into editing, reworking and refining turns your first draft into a second — and then into a third and, if you keep at it, eventually something great. The biggest mistake you can make as a writer is to assume that what you wrote the first time through was good enough.

Now, let’s look at how to do the actual editing.

Most writing mistakes are depressingly common; good writers just get better at catching them before they hit the page.

If you’re serious about improving your writing, I recommend you read “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, a how-to guide on writing good, clear English and avoiding the most common mistakes.

“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell is also worth studying if you want to avoid “ugly and inaccurate” writing.

Some of the things you’ll learn to watch for (and that I have to fix all the time in my own writing) are:

  • Overuse of jargon and business speak

How to Edit a Book: The Ultimate Free 21-Part Checklist

  • So you want to get published?
  • If you want people to actually read what you’ve written, you must master the art of ferociously self-editing your book.
  • These days, anyone can get anything printed.

It doesn’t even have to be good. If you have the money, you can find someone who will print whatever you submit, as is.

That’s not necessarily underhanded. Almost any independent publisher would be happy to offer all the services you’re willing to pay for to make your manuscript as publishable as possible.

But you’re the boss.

So if you want them to print your unedited book in the exact form you give it to them, they’ll say, “As you wish.” And if they wont, you can easily find someone who will.

On the Other Hand

Ideally, you’d rather be discovered by a traditional publisher who takes all the risks and pays you an advance against royalties and then royalties on your sales. But the odds of landing a traditional publishing contract are slim.

So you must separate yourself from the competition by ensuring your manuscript is the absolute best it can be.

Yes, a traditional publisher will have its own editors and proofreaders. But to get that far, your manuscript has to be better than a thousand other submissions.

And if you’re self-publishing, the only way to stand out against even more competition is by ferociously editing your own book until it’s as crisp and clean as possible.

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