Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Art of Self-Editing Part 1

by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

Part of my call as a writer is to help others through coaching, mentoring, teaching, and editing. One thing I’ve learned in my writing and in helping other writers is the vital importance of learning to self-edit. Someone said, and I can’t remember whom, “The heart of writing is re-writing.” 

I’m not saying all you have to do is self-edit your work and you’re ready for publication. But, knowing how to effectively self-edit goes a long way to getting you there. At some point, you will need to submit your work to an outside editor or go through the process of editing through the publishing house. Being able to self-edit helps these next steps go smoothly. 

Starting with this blog, I will walk us through a self-editing process. It comes from years of classes and workshops and applying and refining the principles I learned. 

First, let your manuscript cool off
As you compose your first draft, backup your project to a flash drive or other external source. When you’ve finished, let it sit. How long varies, depending on who you’re listening to. Some recommend a week, others recommend three months. 

I believe the longer you can let it sit, the better. When working with a mentee, I recommend three months. If a client can’t wait that long, I ask them to wait at least one month.

We need to have an emotional distance between finishing the first draft and starting the editing process. The sooner we start, the more likely our emotions will be in control, and we’ll be less likely to miss things that need correction. We need to let our ardor, our love, for our story, ease up so we can approach it with a calm eye to see flaws or areas that are fine but could be better.

While you’re waiting, start another project. This will keep your creative juices flowing while keeping your hands off that first draft that keeps calling your name. You can work on your next story: plotting, developing characters, building the story world, and research. Explore new story ideas. Read books and articles on the craft. 

Second, read your manuscript
Print it out and read it. You’ll see things on the printed page you won’t see on the computer screen. Some recommend reading it aloud. I haven’t found this helpful. I add or replace words without realizing it. 

I read silently with highlighters and pens close to hand. I mark whatever jumps out at me: missing words, awkward sentences, plot holes, inconsistencies in timelines, story world issues, character description or portrayal. 

I’ll identify grammar issues. I don’t fix them on this step. I just note them. I want to read the entire manuscript before making changes. My printed copy ends up covered with notes of different colors about needed correction, possible changes, and a slew of other revisions. Sometimes, the manuscript looks like a stack of Post-it notes exploded inside. I’ll mark scenes or chapters to cut, revise, or move to some other place in the book. And I’ll identify places where an additional scene or a new chapter would be appropriate.
And we’re not done yet.

Next time, we’ll explore the next steps in doing an effective self-edit if the first draft.

Don't Miss the Other Posts in this Series
The Art of Self-editing, Part 4
The Art of Self-editing, Part 5


Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest.

Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers.

Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.


  1. Henry, I've enjoyed every post on Edie's blog - especially this one. Perfect timing. My recent experience was that I truly needed a break to let my first draft sit. I even felt some guilt for doing so after pouring on the coal so much to get to that point. I also found excuses for getting back to the project; I'd lost my momentum and worried that maybe this was a sign I didn't have what it took to be a writer. My enthusiasm and pride meters were registering low (I feared) because I let it sit for a few weeks. Your post is very encouraging to me because I now see that maybe it was both natural AND needed. I look forward to this entire series on the subject. Thanks.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

    1. Thank you, Jay. I've faced the same impatience with my manuscripts. I frequently wanted to take a "peek" just to "tweak" it a little bit. I learned the hard way to let it simmer. It's like making chili. Let it simmer and go make the corn bread.

  2. Thank you Henry, for leading us through the nuts and bolts of the process. Appreciate it; looking forward to the next installment. :)

    1. I pray you'll find the rest of the series as helpful as this one.

  3. Great first tip on self-editing. I can't wait for the other parts. I'm so impatient.... I have a lot to learn on waiting to read it after first draft is finished.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Jackie. One of the best ways I've found to leave my first draft alone is to start another project, even if its the sequel. Sometimes it's jotting notes on the plot or the characters. I've also used the time to do basic research on the story world of my next book. Blessings.