Transform Your First Draft with These 10 Self-Editing Tips

by Jennifer Harris


Self-editing is challenging for most writers, but it’s a critical skill all writers must learn. You might be asking why you need to self-edit if you’re hiring a copy editor or proofreader. Self-editing is just the first (though very important) step in the editing process; you want to make sure your writing is as tight as you can make it prior to submitting to your copy editor. It also shouldn’t be riddled with spelling errors and typos. That’s not to say you need to submit a perfect draft, but it should go through at least one round of self-editing so the editor can focus her attention on the things you’re not able to correct yourself.

With that being said, below is a list of 10 self-editing tips to transform your first draft.

Click here for a copy of the Self-Editing Checklist.

10 Tips on Self-Editing Your First Draft

 1. Show Don’t Tell: Look for phrases that are telling or talking down to your readers and replace them with phrases that are showing instead. For example, don’t describe an emotion, show it through body language, action, dialogue, etc.
2. Reduce Qualifying Words: Qualifying words include well, look, listen, and oh. While they do have a place in dialogue, making it realistic in some cases, it is important not to overuse these words.


Well, considering it’s been unseasonably cold outside…”

Instead say:   “Considering it’s been unseasonably cold outside.”

 3. Tighten Your Writing: If a word is not necessary to the meaning of a sentence, remove it.
4. Delete “That”: That is a filler word and in most cases (not all, of course) is unnecessary. Try removing that and if the sentence still makes sense, leave it out!
5. Eliminate Word Repetition: Word repetition pulls readers away from your story.


Incorrect:       I knew this had to be the door I was looking for, so I unlocked the door. 

Correct:          I knew this had to be the door I was looking for, so I unlocked it.

 6. Motivation-Reaction Sequence: Be sure things happen in logical order ¾ thought – action – speech.
7. Fact Check: While writing, we often run into things that need fact checking. When this happens, insert a capital R (for research) inside brackets following the word or phrase that needs researching. Now is the time to do a search for all the symbols [R] and complete your fact checking.
8. Read Your Writing Aloud: By reading your writing aloud, or having a program such as Adobe Reader read your writing to you, you will hear things in your story you didn’t pick up as you were writing. This will allow you to “see” the whole picture more clearly and pick up glaring grammar errors.
9. Big Picture:

    • Conflict
    • Plot
    • Pacing
    • Settings
    • POV
    • Characters

10. Grammar, Punctuation, Spelling: You’ll want to run through your manuscript looking for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Don’t worry if you miss something; this is only the first pass before you send it off to the copy editor.

Self-editing doesn’t have to be a dreaded or daunting task. By taking a systematic approach, you’ll catch many issues without feeling overwhelmed, and you’ll give your manuscript the chance to shine!
I’ve put together a convenient checklist for you. Click here for the PDF. 



What does your self-editing process look like? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Jennifer Harris is an editor of both fiction and nonfiction. She is the co-author of The Catalyst Series as well as the standalone novel, Providence (J.L. Harris and D. Rankin). When she is not writing or editing, you can find her running, hiking, reading, or playing the piano. She lives in New England with her husband, two children, two dogs, and cat. You can find out more about Jennifer by connecting with her in our Authors Community Forum where you’ll find her social media information, or visiting her author page.

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1 thought on “Transform Your First Draft with These 10 Self-Editing Tips”

  1. Great data for beginners and/or experienced writers. Your tip No. 4, “That,” is one of the most abused words–even for those who know better (me, many times). Because I think and type fast, I often overlook repeated grammar violations but I do look for other repeated words (proper names, starting a sentence with the same word, and so on). The good is, I can advance my plot quickly to keep my trend of thought. The bad, that I have to spend valuable time making grammar and other corrections requiring modification of an entire line or sentence. In my case, I’ll continue to advance my plot and suffer the tedious self-editing later. If we followed your suggestions and others, copy editors could spend their efforts in other important areas of our writings. Many good suggestions come up during such editing, and some of the corrections include errors that the writer won’t see right after self-editing even if the manuscript was read ten times. I am currently editing all my books (sigh). If one can learn at least one thing from articles like this one, the time spent reading the tips is well spent. I’ll add one word I overuse: (Pronoun) decided to): Many times there is no need to use “decided,” i.e., “He decided to leave earlier vs. He left earlier.” When required, I use “chose to, elected to, agreed to, preferred to,” as applicable. Another tendency is to write using negative terms: “To keep my trend of thought vs. In order not to lose my trend of thought.” I am bookmarking your article as a good reminder. Thanks!

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