Five Tips for Painless* Self-Editing

I know most writers aren’t terribly keen on editing and revising. If you’re driven by the creative impulse, editing can be laborious and painful and boring. When your word count is going down instead of up, it feels like you’re moving backwards and it seems that the finish line is slipping out of view. But revision is essential to good writing, and it doesn’t have to be all that bad. Here’s a few tips that might come in handy when you decide it’s time to polish your book and get it ready for submission.

  1. Leave it alone. Put your manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks and forget about it. When you come back to it you’ll see it with fresh eyes and you’ll be in a much better position to read it critically. You know when you come home after being on holidays for two weeks and just for a moment you can smell your own house? That’s kind of what happens. I’m not saying your house smells bad, just that for a brief period you get to smell what a guest would. Only time away gives you this fresh perspective.
  2. Then cut ruthlessly. Strip it out. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene should contribute something to your story or thesis. If the scene doesn’t move the plot forward, or if it tells us nothing new about your characters, it has no business in your manuscript. Dump it and move on. You’re likely to find that your cuts result in a tighter, more readable and more enjoyable book. You can spike anything you think you might use in another chapter or that you feel you might be able to recycle into a blog post, a short story or an article. You don’t have to waste anything good, but don’t think that just because it’s good, it’s necessary. Question the value and relevance of everything.
  3. Join a writing group. Creative writing groups provide a great forum in which to have your work critiqued by people who are as passionate about writing as you are. Some opinions may be more informed than others, and you may have to sift through some personal prejudices before you get to the useful pointers, but there are bound to be people whose opinions you value. Keep an open mind and always thank people for their feedback, even if it’s unjustified criticism. If you’re seen to react badly, people with a real talent for spotting problems might choose to keep their comments to themselves. Critiquing sites and internet author forums can also be a great source of feedback and support, especially if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t like to leave the house. HarperCollins set up as a novel way of finding new talent, but it’s also a great place to connect with other writers. offers a similar service.
  4. Read books on writing. There are hundreds of books out there on writing. There are books on plot, dialogue, point of view, editing, and every other aspect of crafting a good book. The information is there for you to apply to your own manuscript if you’re prepared to spend fifty quid and a couple of weeks studying the texts. It might not be the same as having a fresh pair of eyes tackle your MS, but if you put a bit of distance between you and your work, you should be able to put your new skills to effective use.
  5. Read the competition. It’s great to be original, but unless you’re Joyce or Kafka it’s best not to be too different. Your competition represents a good guide to what’s expected of you. You should aim to produce something better, extra or novel that adds to the canon, but don’t stray too far from the beaten track or your book won’t fit on any shelf. Read books published in your category in as critical a manner as possible. It helps if you’ve read a few books on writing first – you’ll find that issues to which you were previously oblivious are suddenly thrown into sharp relief. Try to deconstruct the books and analyse how plot, characterisation, pace, etc., are handled, chapter by chapter. Many authors in your category will have faced similar dilemmas as you, and it helps to analyse their results.

It’s true that none of this entirely replaces a professional edit (which is good, because if it did I’d be out of a job), but you can bring your manuscript a long way by investing just a few quid and some time. And if you do end up working with an editor, you will be handing over to them a better, tighter manuscript, and the book you eventually see on the shelf will be all the better for it. Happy days!

*This bit is a lie.

What a Development Edit Can Do for Your Book

Development editing (sometimes called structural editing or substantive editing) is the most complex and time-consuming stage of the editorial process. It can also be the most expensive, and that’s why many publishers are now reluctant to take on books that need structural work. Agents, too, are increasingly less inclined to work with an author on developing their manuscript. As this reluctance to invest in new talent becomes the industry norm, authors are being left to do the work themselves or to hire editors to help them do it.

So let’s look at what development editing actually is. It’s essentially about looking at the big picture, evaluating the manuscript as a whole and analysing how well its constituent parts contribute to the central message or narrative. Whereas the copy-editor takes a micro view, drilling into the detail, the structural editor goes macro and asks, ‘Does this work as a book?’

In fiction, the main areas that a structural editor will address are:

  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Is it believable? Is it satisfying or does it leave the reader frustrated?
  • Themes: Are the themes effectively handled? Are there so many that the book lacks focus? Do they interfere with the plot or complement it?
  • Characterisation: Are your characters well developed and believable? Are they cast in a role that fits their personality? Do they sometimes behave out of character?
  • Point of view: Are you using too many or too few POVs? Do you head-hop? Would the story be better told in the first person than in the third?
  • Voice: Is the voice consistent or is it sometimes confused? Is it authentic? Is it original?
  • Pace: Does the plot move forward at an appropriate pace? Should you cut that preface? Should the action happen sooner or should the tension build more slowly?
  • Dialogue: Do your characters sound real when they speak? Is your dialogue cluttered with adverbs and beats? Do you use clunky dialogue to move the plot forward?
  • Flow: Is the narrative interrupted by dead-ends and tangents? Is there so much back story that the main plot is dwarfed? Are there missing plot points that would give the narrative greater integrity?

In non-fiction, the principle is the same, but the specific issues are slightly different:

  • Thesis: Is your thesis relevant? Is it clearly defined or is it lost among marginal issues?
  • Exposition: Are your arguments clear and cogent? Are they well researched and properly supported? Do they have a clear relationship with your thesis?
  • Content: Are all the necessary topics sufficiently dealt with? Are the chapters weighted correctly? Is there superfluous content?
  • Organisation: Is the information organised logically? Are tables and illustrations used appropriately? How many levels of subheads do you need and how should they be arranged?
  • Tone: Is the tone appropriate for the audience? Do you need to eliminate jargon? Is the text accessible?
  • Pace: Are there passages that are bogged down in detail? Do you spend too long on detail irrelevant to the main thesis? Are there areas that need further exposition lest they be skipped over?

Although a development editor will likely do some copy-editing as they work through your manuscript, that is not their primary function. Sure, if you overuse a particular sentence structure or if you spell a character’s name in three different ways, they will flag it. But the development editor’s focus is much broader than the mechanics of language, and they will return your manuscript marked up with constructive comments and suggested rewrites that will likely render the corrections pointless in any case. A copy-edit should come later, when the global issues have been addressed and you’re confident that the rewriting is finished.

While development edits aren’t cheap they are a great investment, not just in your book but also in your career. For first-time authors in particular, there’s an element of coaching involved in this kind of editing that will leave you with more skills and greater knowledge, which you can then apply to your future projects. Once you know you shouldn’t use more than one point of view in a scene (unless you’re Virginia Wolf, in which case you’ll probably get away with it!), you won’t do it again. And you’ll learn about structures, techniques and devices you can use to deliver your message more effectively and stylishly.

Most successful authors have worked with a development editor and they know there is value in involving a professional whose opinion is based on knowledge and experience. For example, I won’t simply tell you that your novel is too long and leave it at that; I’ll tell you why it’s too long and I’ll suggest cuts to improve its pace and to tighten the narrative. I will always give a reason for my recommendations, so you can make an informed decision on whether you want to act on them or not. And that’s an important point: you’ll be presented with solutions to problems, but it’s up to you whether or not you implement them. The manuscript is yours, and ultimately you make all the decisions.

Finally, remember that the development editor isn’t trying to catch you out by unearthing a hole in the plot. He’s not questioning your talent by examining the value of your favourite character, and neither is he doubting your skill by suggesting the action should occur earlier in the story. He just wants to make your book the best it can be, probably almost as much as you do.