Top 10 Tips for Self-Editing

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. Gertrude Stein famously wrote, “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” That's heavy. Or is it light?

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. 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. How about something that does not involve math?

Well, almost. The list does count to ten.

Top 10 Tips for Self-Editing Your Fiction

  1. Time is the great healer. Let your writing sit—the longer, the better—months—before looking at it again. For me, passages must age before I can discern how to make them better. 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. What to do while your work is aging? Work on another writing project. I’ll know my work isn’t ready when, as I switch projects, I read the last part of what I had written and must scratch my head and ask, “Now, what is this?”

  3. When editing, from time to time change the font type, the margin settings, or the 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. As with the previous tip, edit your work in different locations: at home, the park, grocery store lines, 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 (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 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Have twenty people read the first few pages of your story. 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 that before writing an entire novel? It is much easier to find someone to read your first three pages than your first three-hundred pages.

  8. Read your story aloud. I used to hate doing that because I thought I was a crappy orator. This was until I realized it was my writing that was at fault. 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 had a nice British woman's voice read my entire first novel to me. Yes, every page. I heard hundreds of sections that needed fixing.

  9. Carry a pen and several pages of your work-in-progress with you at all times. That means always: beside your bed; while driving (but in your pocket); on dates; at dinner; at church; during your breaks at work; 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.

  10. Find a good on-line 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-five pages of comments back from people all over the world. Follow the website’s rules. I promise you will be richly rewarded.

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