6 Self-Editing Hacks to Make Your Manuscript Shine
June 22, 2023
There’s a lot you can do to edit your book without hiring a professional editor
So you’ve finally written that book you’ve been working on for what seems like your entire life. You’ve followed your outline precisely or, if you’re like me, pantsed your way through the entire book while sticking to your overall story arc. However you got there, you’re now done with your draft and can send it straight on to agents and publishers, right? Wrong. Even the bestselling writers out there don’t write something and send it off for publication without doing some self-editing, and you and me, we’re definitely not bestselling authors (…yet.)
Even though you might understand the need for self-editing to improve your manuscript before letting another soul read it, the task can be daunting. There’s loads of advice out there about what kind of editing you need, how much editing you need, and if you are really going to be a good enough editor for your own words. While some of this advice is helpful, not all of it will get you going in the right direction when it comes to editing your book. There’s a sweet spot when it comes to most things, after all, including editing, and it’s somewhere between editing your book 50+ times and running with your first rough draft.
I’ve learned a lot about what sorts of edits are helpful when self-editing your book, and what edits are fruitless. While I’m by no means finished editing (I probably won’t be until my book’s finally published and then…probably still will have edits I would like to make once it’s already in print), I’ve figured out a few tried and true ways to self-edit a manuscript and make it shine.
A note before we jump into the editing hacks: Like with much of the writing advice out there on the internet, you can find varying opinions on almost every topic under the sun. My personal opinion is that no, you don’t need to hire a professional editor and spend thousands of your hard-earned dollars on an editing service (unless you’re going to be self-publishing.) I am planning to go the traditional publishing route, and therefore don’t believe hiring an editor is beneficial. Many agents and acquiring editors at big publishing houses will say much of the same — they want to see what a writer can write in a more raw, diamond in the rough form, not what an editor has squeezed out of the writer. Opinions differ on this amongst those hopeful of being published traditionally, but know that this is the standpoint I’m coming from.
So without any further ado, here are my writing hacks for self-editing that will make your manuscript shine:
Don’t read your book…at least not yet
After you’ve finished writing your book, it’s a good idea to step away from your manuscript and let it (and you) breathe. The amount of time you step away is up to you, but I’d recommend at least a couple of weeks (longer if you can manage it.)
Stepping away from your characters and the world you’ve created will allow you to come back and edit with fresh eyes. When you’re writing intensively day-in and day-out, you can sometimes get too close to your work. Taking a break gives you the space you need to come back ready to edit and actually notice the things in need of editing.
Read through your manuscript entirely at least twice
The number of times you need to read through the entire book from start to finish will vary from person to person, but you really need to do it at least twice: once to take note of character, plot, and structural issues and once to correct and reword writing errors. Ideally, you’d read through your book more than this, but that’s the bare minimum. If you can manage it, read through once without making edits and simply taking notes, then read through again to edit and fix errors. I personally have a hard time reading through without making adjustments to my prose and fixing errors I run across, but I will admit that I’m not the best at taking my own advice here!
Note any plot holes or structural issues you notice
You’d be surprised by the things you completely mess up when writing the first draft of your book! When I went back through my manuscript, for example, I changed one character’s name halfway through for some reason, and I had named two characters Sandy. I also mentioned a particular event earlier on in the book that I never actually wrote into the plot, which left some loose ends later in my book.
Luckily none of the problems I noticed when going back through my book were big enough to require massive rewrites, but that’s the point of going back through with a fine-toothed comb — you can find any issues that could end up requiring a massive overhaul!
Re-write scenes or add scenes to improve your story’s flow
You might notice when going back through that some scenes don’t work very well from the reading side of things. Or you might notice that you mentioned an upcoming event or scene in your book and then never included it (that’s what I did…oops!) The next step on your self-editing journey, then, is to rewrite or add in those scenes.
Pay particular attention to scenes that may not need to be in your book in the first place. It’s hard to cut words that we spend so much time writing, but sometimes we get sidetracked and spend too much time and effort on scenes that don’t serve the story or stall the forward momentum of your plot. As painful as it might be, take this time to cut those scenes (but be sure to save them in another file in case you ever have need of them again in the future!)
Review your manuscript with an editing tool
There are many wonderful AI editing tools online nowadays, and it’s a great hack for self-editing! Some editing software will require a fee, but many others are free (or offer free versions.) I’ve had great success with the free version of Grammarly, and another excellent resource is the Hemingway app online. Both of these writing tools will take a look at your manuscript and identify common spelling and grammatical errors, as well as identify where your writing isn’t clear and gets repetitive.
While editing tools like Grammarly or Hemingway can improve your writing tremendously (and help you notice your own personal writing crutches that pop up over and over in your prose), you should use them with a hefty grain of salt. These tools rely on a computer to identify some of the errors in your writing and offer suggestions for improvement, and a computer is simply never as good as a human brain!
When I used Grammarly on my completed manuscript, for example, it helped immensely with making my writing more concise and less repetitive. It suggested things like changing “lift up” to “lift” to avoid redundancy and corrected a pesky habit I’ve developed with dialogue formatting. But it also wanted to make my voice a bit more robotic than I like in some areas and suggested silly mistakes like changing a sentence about a woman who liked fall (as in the season) to a woman who likes to fall (as in down.) These tools help a lot, but they are just no match for your own unique voice and the editing skills you bring to the table with only your fingers to type and a mind that can look for improvements to be made in your work!
Edit out filler words
This is a tedious but oh so helpful task when it comes to self-editing! There are certain words that we all use more than we should when writing. It can vary from writer to writer what these words are, exactly, because it all relates to personal writing style, but there are some words that are commonly used as fillers you can look out for.
One of the words that I use way too much is “that.” It’s often unnecessary, and something you can easily do a search for in your manuscript and fix to sharpen up your manuscript. Another word I reviewed to help me tighten up my prose was the word “had.” I often used “that” and “had” together in my writing, so searching for one resulted in my fixing the other! The final word I found helpful to search for in my manuscript is “was.” I’m still working on editing this one out as much as I can because I used it over 1200 times, but I have found that combing through my manuscript for this word and rewriting sentences to remove it has made the biggest difference when it comes to the flow of my writing.
Editing can be an incredibly daunting task, but there’s so much you can do to improve your writing before sending it on to beta readers, agents, or even publishers! You don’t need to pay for expensive editing services if your goal is to be traditionally published, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to do any editing at all. If you keep these six self-editing hacks in mind when you finally take the editing plunge, you’ll end up with a much more polished manuscript that is one step closer to being ready for publication — a win-win if you ask me!