How to edit your own work: tips from a freelance editor

You’ve finally done it — you’ve finished the damn thing, whether it’s a manuscript, a short story, an article, or a poem. Congrats! But once the initial excitement wanes, dread surfaces. Now comes the equally difficult part: preparing to edit your own work.

You know your project needs a major review before it’s ready to query or submit. But how on earth do you edit your own work? Where should you start? Whatever the case, don’t fret, my friend. This freelance editor has got you covered with four tips for editing your own work.

How to edit your own work: tips from a freelance editor

In my three years as a freelance web content editor, I’ve revised and published hundreds of web pages and blog posts for my clients. That’s not counting my own projects: my novel-in-progress, short stories, and poems. (Yes, I’m what you’d call a jill-of-all-trades writer.)

Admittedly, I have little experience in editing creative works for publication, apart from my master’s dissertation and short story “Wish on a Red Bird”, published in Deep South Magazine in March.

I’ve found, throughout my own experience as a writer and editor, that the following tips work well for a variety of projects, including creative writing, blog posts, and freelance work.

First things first: determine your editing needs

Most drafts need…

  • a structural edit that examines cohesion and coherence
  • a copyedit that corrects grammatical errors, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies
  • a style edit that ensures your work meets style requirements

I recommend taking it one step at a time. For a manuscript, you might like to “eat the frog” and start with your structural edit first. Then, you can delve deeper into the copyedit before polishing style.

Remember, this isn’t an infallible or even sequential three-step undertaking. You’ll likely have epiphanies throughout the editing process, so be patient with yourself.

Tip #1 for editing your own work: change the view

One secret weapon for editing your own work is changing its appearance. Chances are you’ve read this thing a thousand times while writing it, which means you’re more likely to gloss over mistakes.

At my editing job, I’m able to preview pages before publishing them, which makes it easy to see the content laid out and catch mistakes I missed in the editing screen. But not everyone has that luxury. Here are a few things you can try instead.

Change the font

If you’re writing in a serif font, swap to a sans serif font and vice versa. Make sure it’s something easily readable.

(TIP: I read somewhere that writing in Comic Sans [eugh] increases your momentum. Something about how childish fonts give you creative space to “play” and how making mistakes disrespects official-looking, “bookish” fonts. I tried it and found, to my horror, that it works! It may not work for editing — I haven’t tried that yet. But it’s worth keeping in mind.)

Use dark mode, or change the page color

Before I submit articles to my clients, I turn on Dark Reader — an extension for Chrome that changes web pages to dark mode — and read it back over. It’s a godsend. Not only does it help me catch mistakes, but it’s also easier on my eyes when I’m working at night.

If you’re not keen on dark mode, try changing the page color. Pastel yellow and green with black text is best for your eyes.

Tip #2 for editing your own work: Print out creative works

This tip applies mostly to manuscripts, short stories, and poems. I believe no edit is truly complete until you’ve printed out your project and combed through it line by line, word by word.

But how do you do that? Here are a few ways you can edit your own work once you’ve got your hardcopy.

Create a color-coded system

While editing my dissertation, highlighters were my best friends. I created a key with different colors for the following elements:

  • Plot
  • Research
  • Character
  • Grammar
  • Word choice
  • Sentence structure

If you’re familiar with copyediting marks, feel free to use those. But if not, highlighting or underlining works just as well.

Take notes

You know this story better than anyone else. So before diving in, jot down things you know need addressing. You may even want to keep editing notes as you’re writing your manuscript. Not only will this help you stay on track, but you’ll also be able to hit the ground running when the first draft is finished.

Tip #3 for editing your own work: Read it out loud

If you’re like me, you read pretty fast. Reciting your work forces you to slow down and helps you catch filler that doesn’t serve the story, as well as unnatural dialogue.

Reading an entire manuscript out loud will take awhile. Start small, with just one paragraph at a time. It might be a good idea to record yourself and listen back.

Tip #4 for editing your own work: Get a second opinion (and a third, and a fourth…)

You’ve got the writing part down. Cool! But maybe you’re not experienced enough to edit your own work for publication. That’s totally okay, and it doesn’t make you a “bad” or unworthy writer. (After all, that’s what editors are for.)

Which brings me to my most important tip: get a second opinion. As many as you can, in fact.

Depending on what you’re writing and where you are in your journey, you might want to…

  • use a free, basic tool like Grammarly (although you should be aware that Grammarly is occasionally incorrect)
  • source beta readers to provide an outsider’s insight
  • hire a copyeditor

I highly recommend hiring an editor before moving on to the querying or submission stage. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s the only way to ensure you’re putting your best work forward. Agents are less likely to accept manuscripts that need a substantial amount of editing.

Final thoughts: patience and grace are key when editing your own work

Remember, we’re all human here. We’ve all read stories about books that made it through umpteen rounds of edits, all of which still missed that typo on page 27.

I promise, nobody’s gonna judge you if that happens. And anyone who intentionally hunts for tiny errors while ignoring the meticulously crafted, heart-rending parts of your work is the worst.

And before you break out the highlighters and start up the printer, let your story rest awhile. Time brings clarity.

Well, friends, that just about does it for my tips on how to edit your own work. Happy writing, happy editing, and feel free to share your own tips in the comments below! (Or hit me up on the socials.)

(Featured photo by fotografierende on Unsplash)