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Top 10 Tips for Self-Editing

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

I'll keep it light here because this world is already a heavy place. Readers want stories that send them to faraway places where they can imagine overcoming great obstacles.

“The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair,

but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”

--Gertrude Stein

That's a heavy thought. Or is it light? If good fiction is "an antidote to emptiness," then I'm proud to be a part of it.

I have learned the following ten nuggets through experience. I attest to their truthfulness. What is truth? What is the difference between true and very true? Is 1+1=2 very true or only just true? I came across a mathematical proof for "1+1=2." The proof assumes, as a starting point, three of Peano’s five Postulates (P1 through P5). If the proof had been started from scratch, it would be pages long. Giuseppe Peano published his five postulates in 1889. Yes, a lot happened in the world before the Internet was invented. Oh, you want to see the proof? After reading the following, you will no longer complain about anything hard in your life:

As many times as I have read this proof, there is always some point along the way where my brain shuts off and I can never get all the way through it. How about something that does not involve math?

Well, almost. The list does count to eleven.

Top 11 Tips for Self-Editing Your Fiction

  1. Let your writing sit. Leave it alone for months before looking at it again. For me, passages must age before I can discern how to make them better. Time is the great healer. When I replace a sentence with what I believe to be something better, I must wait a considerable time before deciding whether the revision is actually an improvement.

  2. Work on another writing project while your other work is aging (see Step 1).

  3. Change the font type, margin settings, or page orientation. Changing the look of your pages in any way helps your brain see your work in a new light. Try it. You’ll be amazed by what you find!

  4. Edit your work in different locations: at home, the park, grocery store lines, and between meetings. Any variation will help you find glitches. If I edit immediately after seeing a poor-quality movie, I’ll be much more critical of my work. Then there is the power of movie soundtracks, which I utilize often. Think of a movie you liked that best fits the tone, setting, and style of your story (the plot is not relevant). Find on YouTube the soundtrack to that movie and play it in the background as you self-edit. If soundtracks help you enjoy movies, they can inspire you as you write new stories. If you're editing with the Psycho soundtrack playing in the background, your work will take on a new flavor.

  5. Edit your work in a distracting place, such as in a mall, at the beach, or when people are sitting close by and talking to each other. The point is to make it difficult for you to concentrate on your writing. As you read your work, note the passages where you get distracted. Chances are, those are the weakest passages. You should work on those areas to make them stronger.

  6. Edit your story right after someone has agreed to analyze your work, but before you've given it to him or her to critique. You will see your work through his or her eyes. It’s like having fresh eyes read your work before fresh eyes read your work.

  7. Read as often as you can. Read good novels, bad novels, short stories, and poetry. Anything. All genres. Every day. I hated that advice until I found it to be true.

  8. Have twenty people read the first few pages of your story. And then do your best to incorporate their comments. Then have twenty different people read the first few pages again. Each time you repeat this process, you’ll get better at writing your novel. Agents and publishers can tell within your first page whether you’re a worthy writer. Wouldn’t you like to know this before writing an entire novel? It's much easier to find someone to read your first three pages than your first three-hundred pages.

  9. Read your story aloud. I used to hate doing that because I thought I was a crappy orator. Then I finally admitted to myself that the fault was in my poor writing. If you read your work out loud and you don’t like how it sounds, don’t blame your voice! There are free "text to speech" software programs on the Internet that can read your story to you. The latest version of Microsoft Word has a built-in reader. I have the professional voice read all my stories to me. Yes, even complete novels. I hear thousands of areas that need fixing.

  10. Carry a pen and several pages of your work-in-progress with you at all times. That means always. This includes beside your bed, while driving (but in your pocket), on dates, at dinner, at church, during your breaks at work, and on your bathroom counter next to you. Continually listen to and see everything around you. Pay attention to other people’s phrasing, their mannerisms, and how they cough. Take notes continuously. Watch and learn. When your mind has a 20-second break from life, pull out your pages and start editing. Look up regularly to see what is happening around you. I’ve known a dozen professional musicians and a few artists. They practice twelve to sixteen hours a day. They never stop. This is what professionals do. Writing is no different.

  11. Find an excellent online writers’ forum. In fifteen years, I have found no better website than If I submit five pages to that site for critique, I will receive twenty pages of comments back from people all over the world. Follow the website’s rules. I promise you'll be richly rewarded!

Me working on a short story. Taping the pages together helps me see it all at once.

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