How to tackle editing...

How to Edit – Part 1

Knowing how to edit your work is an essential part of writing. Not only do you need an editor’s eye to evaluate what you’ve written, you also need to be objective with yourself. Not easy, especially when you’ve spent so long writing your masterpiece and you’re emotionally attached, but unfortunately it’s a necessity in order to reach that level for an editor to accept your work. You do have to be hard on yourself sometimes so that you can take your story from ordinary to extraordinary.

Actual physical writing is a small proportion of what a writer does. The hard work comes afterward, during editing, which is all about making your work much better. This is where true investment and a willingness to re-write mark an amateur from a professional.

The best preparation for the editing process is to leave the finished work for a while, let your mind relax from creativity and writing. The idea of this is to detach yourself from the story you’ve worked on for so long and to allow yourself to become objective. Leave it a couple of weeks and then return when you’re refreshed for editing.

Editing onscreen v. paper

All writers are different and therefore work differently to each other, but for editing, I would advocate the printed manuscript rather than on a computer screen. The reason I say this is that after spending weeks, months, and sometimes years on a project, staring at the screen, it is incredibly easy to skim read the text and miss errors and flaws because your eyes are so used to the screen.

Having printed sheets in front of you has a couple of advantages: the first is that you have a fresh perspective of the story because it’s a physical presence on paper and it forces you to look more carefully at the text. Secondly, it allows you to write on the MS, make notes in the margins, add ideas, or interjections. Thirdly, it comes down to the old-fashioned act of writing with pen or pencil.

There is no doubt a lot of editing can be achieved onscreen, and instantly too. It’s preferable for some writers, but with printed sheets you get to understand if you need to reduce or increase wordage, whether the chapter lengths look right or need adjusting. This is because you can instantly see this. You can’t always perceive that onscreen. Also, with a printed MS you can take it anywhere and edit while you’re on the move.

The disadvantage to this is that it’s not terribly kind to the environment. Since it’s only a first draft, re-use paper, or print on both sides of the paper, and when finished, make sure it goes back for recycling.

Why is editing so important?

Some writers enjoy editing, as I do, others hate it, but the one thing you should do is edit your own work as much as possible. This allows you to learn more about the process and it helps you become your own toughest critic.

This makes you understand more about your own writing, it enables you to learn about your writing habits and common mistakes you tend to make, and it teaches you ways to avoid them. Just as the practice of writing more and more makes you a better writer, the same is true of editing. The more you do, the more you learn and the better you become.

Being a self-critic means doing away with self-indulgences and self-importance. You are only as good as the work you send out.

Better editing makes better finished work.

The First Draft – Basic work

If you’ve never edited before, or you’re new to writing, you won’t be entirely sure what it is you’re looking for when it comes to the editing process. So what should you be looking for?

Firstly, never be hasty with editing. Don’t rush through it thinking that after the first draft you’ll be ready to send it out, because it won’t be ready. Editing can be time consuming, but it’s also the most important aspect of the writing process and it demands your full attention. Secondly, you’re looking for improvement.

The aim of the first draft is to weed out the glaring errors. This means correcting all the basic mistakes that everyone, even novice editors, should be able to pick up easily. This is the fundamental basics. The second draft (and drafts thereafter) is primary work, the technical, deeper aspects of editing.

For the basic work, read your story or manuscript carefully and look for obvious errors such as spelling, grammar and punctuation. Commas and apostrophes should be in their rightful place, adverbs and adjectives should be culled to the bare minimum. A common error in first drafts is repetition. That means words, sentences, phrases or snippets of description that keep cropping up. Repeated words can be especially easy to miss, so be thorough.

Read the sentences, not just the words. You should be looking for good sentence structure and rhythm and whether these sentences make sense and move the story forward. Do the sentences vary in length; is there enough pace in them or do they stutter or stop? Have you put in overly long, complicated sentences that could confuse your reader? If so, you need to cut them. Clarity and simplicity is what counts.

You should also know from the start whose story it is and why. If you don’t and it’s unclear, then you need to address this. Is should also be clear within the first three chapters exactly what your story is about – the overall theme. Again, if it’s not clear, make sure this you correct this.

Beware clumsy phraseology. Are you trying to be too clever with your words? Sometimes trying to be philosophical, highbrow or overly literary can backfire. Again, it’s worth saying - keep it simple and don’t over complicate your work.

Do you have a balanced mix of dialogue, narrative, and action? Large, unbroken chucks of description could bore your reader. Conversely, large chunks of dialogue could too, so vary each element for a smoother, more palatable read. Is the dialogue necessary to the story or should it be replaced with narrative? Remember to do away with unnecessary chitchat or mundane waffling.

Is your narrative and dialogue moving the plot along? If it isn’t and you find that you suddenly come to a stop while reading, or the story goes off at a strange tangent, then cut that bit out. Don’t be afraid to cut what isn’t necessary, especially when you really like a passage/scene/paragraph. Be judicious. You can always reuse it in something else. A good writer never throws away any writing because in truth, we can always use it somewhere else and make it better.

You may also spot where some sections need more description, or ‘padding’.

You should also look out for inconsistencies and plot flaws within your story. This should become apparent as you read through. Some things may not make sense, or might confuse. Does the order of events remain consistent, does it read correctly? If not, there’s a problem which you will need to address.

The ending should reach a natural and satisfying conclusion. If it doesn’t then it could spoil the entire story. Is there a satisfying resolution? Have all the questions been answered? If not, you have to re-write to make sure they are.

Summary checklist for first draft:

• Re-read and don’t rush
• Grammar
• Spelling mistakes
• Punctuation – is it correct, is the dialogue correctly punctuated? Any repetition?
• Sentences
• Whose story is it?
• Correct choice of words – using the right phraseology
• Good balance of narrative, dialogue and action?
• Does narrative and dialogue move the plot forward? Is there too much chitchat, is it boring?
• Inconsistencies with plot
• Satisfying ending?

Next week: Part 2 – Primary editing work, including a detailed look at of conflict, sensory/imagery, exposition, characters, subplots and more.


  1. Thanks for such a thorough description. I use a similar checklist and I also use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It finds a lot of problems that I've missed.

  2. Glad to help. It's easy sometimes to miss the big things, let alone the smaller ones too.


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