My last few blog posts have featured some ‘real talk’ about the submission process and making money from writing because I felt that a lot of new authors in particular aren’t aware of the true nature of the writing life. I want these weekly articles to be as useful as possible, so today I thought I’d share some pointers on self-editing your work. The pointers below come from a masterclass I have given before to writing groups and most of the participants found it a real eye-opener. Everyone develops their own editing process that suits them, but I’ve designed this to be a kind of checklist so scribes can use it to look at various areas of their work and make sure everything is up to scratch before they send their work out, thus increasing their chances of finding literary success.

The truth is that the editing process is what divides the professional, publishable writer from the goats, as it were, because this is where the book either becomes something awesome or remains languishing in the gooey mess that is a first draft. Hemingway said all first drafts are sh*t and he’s right – they ALWAYS need more work. Often writers who end up getting published go through rounds and rounds of drafts – and then their agents and publishers want yet more changes, some of which might be radical, so you have to learn to be both ruthless and flexible in your attachment to your work. Yes, sometimes you may have to go to bat for certain elements you feel are crucial to your work, but, most of the time, being a writer involves being able to kill your darlings. The fact is, you can often recycle material elsewhere or, even if you can’t, you will have learned from writing it, even if it doesn’t make the final cut, so no writing is wasted.

The mistake a lot of new writers make is simply hitting ‘Print’ once they have the first draft and then wondering why they get rejections (I also think this is why a lot of self-published books get slammed – they’re just not ready to be read). Nobody’s work is fit to be published at that stage (not even that of veterans).

I’d seriously recommend giving it some time after completing your draft before you start editing it, as, again, there can often be a tendency for excited new authors especially to rush in and rework a draft right after finishing it and that often means you don’t have the necessary distance to see errors and areas where your work could be stronger. Give it at least a month before you get the red pen out as then you’ll see the wood from the trees a bit better.

For this reason too, I’d seriously recommend getting other literate eyes on your work. Get your manuscript as polished as possible, take it as far as you can and then, if you can afford to, have a literary consultant, such as myself, take a look at it. A detailed report on your work’s plot, structure, viewpoint and characterisation can make all the difference in terms of whether a book becomes publishable or not. Well-read friends can also be useful, but the objectivity and industry smarts of a literary consultant often makes their feedback more valuable. After all, friends and family often won’t tell you if your stuff is a steaming pile of dog crap, but literary consultants will (albeit in a nice way) and they’ll also give you possible solutions for how to fix any issues they raise. Most people aren’t trained to look at narrative arcs, inciting incidents and the rest of the writing craft stuff, so that’s why literary consultants rock (if I say so myself). Indeed, I always seek such professional feedback on my work and I will on my new novel too because, as much as I am excellent at looking at others’ work, my own is still very hard to see clearly.

The ‘real talk’ aspect this week is that most books aren’t ready to be submitted, let alone published, because the writers haven’t edited them enough. I’ve read literally hundreds of manuscripts as an editor and I would say that 80% or more are nowhere near publishable when I see them. I’ve had clients go on to have bestsellers and get three book deals, but even they needed to do more work to push them over the edge to reach literary success. I’ve never seen a MS yet which couldn’t be improved and I do think this is why many writers get big ‘No’ letters when they submit and why agents are often so jaded as they’ve seen so much stuff which was nowhere near the calibre needed for publication. Some agents are prepared to work on polishing a MS if they see potential, but some want books to be pretty much ready to sell, so you need to make your work shiny as heck.

Remember the statistic I gave you last week about only 0.5% books being published? Well, I think that’s because most books don’t deserve to be published because the author hasn’t put in the work to edit their MS to as near to perfection as possible. My mentor used to tell me that it’s about making a book so good agents can’t reject it and editing your book well is how you do that.

The fact is, editing is a bit of a different skillset to writing, but it’s just as important as having imaginative ideas. This is where you begin to ensure those amazing story concepts are as accurately conveyed to the reader as possible. This is where that annoying Inner Critic, who’s sat on your shoulder throughout the writing of the first draft, getting in your way as it mumbled how bad your writing was, actually begins to be useful because now Ms. Pernickity Pants gets to tear stuff apart to her heart’s content IN ORDER TO MAKE THINGS BETTER. All that attention to detail and perfectionism which may have caused you to procrastinate and cry during the creative process can now be channelled into something positive. (Hurrah!)

The truth is, the editing process can take as long as writing the first draft, if not much longer. I cried when I finished the first draft of my debut novel, Welcome to Sharonville, thinking how I’d miss the characters so much … But then I saw them AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN as the book went through countless edits (ARGHHHHH!). I find the self-editing process frustrating and painful and often boring, to be honest, but I also know that this is the way I get to make my work fit for readers to enjoy. It’s how I honour the story I was given by the universe or whatever and do it justice.

I really hope the pointers below help you make sense of the self-editing process – please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or to join my private Facebook group where a lovely bunch of scribblers share their writing experiences and wisdom.




  • Give it some time after completing your first draft if you can before starting to edit – it’s good to have some distance from the work if possible so you are more objective.

  • Print the draft out – it’s easier to see errors on the white page than the screen, especially after a long period of working on a project.

  • Read the work aloud to listen out for clumsy phrasing – some computer programmes can apparently do this for you so as not to tire your voice!

  • Read through looking at one element of the piece at a time, not worrying about grammar, spelling and punctuation until the main structural parts of the narrative are sorted.


  • Goals: Ensure the narrative has a shape, that the character wants something and pursues it throughout, facing obstacles and conflicts within themselves and in the world.

  • Growth: The character must have changed in some way through the course of the story’s action – check for this personal evolution.

  • Cause and effect: Check that all the story’s events make logical sense by looking at the end and working backwards, examining how each piece of the plot came from the previous one, checking to see that no part of the narrative doesn’t have a sound reason to be there based on what came before.

  • Keep it clear: Check that your story’s basic action is clear – sometimes trusted friends and family are good people to test this out on as you want to be sure your narrative is coming across effectively and expressing what you want it to.

  • Backstory as Breadcrumbs: Give the character’s backstory as bread crumbs, not chunks: Ensure that there’s not too much backstory – the character’s history – given at one go as it can bore the reader or take the story off on tangents. Only give as much background history as the reader needs to know to get the character’s motivation and only give it when necessary – i.e. explain about Mitzy’s run in with a giant spider when she was six when she encounters one in her apartment and leaps from the window. Give character information as bread crumbs bit by bit on the way, rather than in one chunk which is hard for the reader to digest.

  • Cut to the chase: You don’t have to show a character’s whole journey somewhere or all actions or conversations in detail – you can cut to the chase and show them already in the place or in the midst of the dialogue, so long as you maintain clarity.

  • Show not Tell: rather than saying, ‘Jim was sad,’ show Jim’s sadness in action and dialogue as this is much more powerful. ‘Jim sat in the bath and wept’ reaches the reader much more deeply as it’s a much more specific expression of emotion.

  • Balance: How much storytelling/narration do you have in relation to dialogue or description? Use a highlighter pen for each to see how much of each you have and whether there are huge blocks of description, for example, but no dialogue. Try to keep the mode of narration varied.

  • Structure: Is the order of the story working well? Flashbacks mean the forward momentum of the story is stalled, but sometimes a piece which is stuck can be revived by reversing the chronological order of the narrative or even cutting it into pieces and randomly putting it back together if you’re desperate!

  • Redundancies: Make sure every line, paragraph and scene is earning its place in the piece – if it’s not pushing the plot forward and developing character, it needs to go. Ask yourself if the piece could exist without this scene – if it could, cut it! Be ruthless! You can always use cut material elsewhere.



  • Viewpoint: Is the viewpoint of the narrative stable? Are you seeing the action through certain characters’ eyes and staying there throughout scenes without headhopping?

  • Voice: Is the narrative voice consistent and believable? Is the tone the same throughout, rather than jumping around from humorous to intellectual and so on?

  • Not listing: Make sure you’re not listing all the physical traits of a character in a summary, but make sure you show the reader they’re tall and loud, for example, as part of the action, through gestures and how they speak.

  • Goals, again: ensure you know your characters inside out and that the main character wants something desperately and this propels the story forward. Know their fears too so they can be complex and real to the reader, showing flaws and sabotaging themselves on the way, as well as facing their worst enemies in the story’s villains. Make sure the reader understands why the character wants what they do, even if it might be immoral or unusual.

  • Likeability: Making characters likeable and sympathetic does usually help the reader take to a story, but even some evil figures can be fascinating so long as we know how they tick. Flaws make ‘nice’ characters more believable and not too sickly sweet either.

  • Distinctive dialogue: characters should all have distinctive speech patterns. A reader should know which character is talking even without the tags (‘Heather said’). Think what kind of background they have and education and make them speak in a specific way.

  • Clichés: Look out for clichéd phrases and images. People speak in idioms, so they are fine to use in dialogue, but otherwise they need to go. Use images which suit the viewpoint character’s specific worldview instead as these will be unique and also add something to the reader’s sense of who they are.

  • Body language: Think about the kinds of walk or gestures characters have and keep that in mind when describing their movements. Break up dialogue with hand gestures or them clearing their throat or whatever they frequently do. Imagine what it’s like to be in their body.

  • Emotional differences: Remember all characters as all people ‘do’ emotions differently – Jane may eat a tub of ice cream when she is angry, but Richard refuses to speak to anyone.



  • Subtext: People often don’t say exactly what they really think, so make sure your dialogue allows for these white lies, manipulations and evasions. Have the character doing something which is at odds with his or her words; have the characters interrupted before the truth can come out; have a lack of privacy or the character’s fears get in the way of expressing the full reality of their feelings.

  • Accents: Be subtle about reproducing these on the page as it can seem patronising, if not becoming outright unreadable.

  • Tags: Don’t overdo the ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ stuff. If you can remove the tag, then do it. Keep away from more vamped up tags like ‘she murmured’ etc as they draw attention to themselves and detract from the dialogue. Characters can’t smile or laugh a sentence either – “‘I love him,’ she smiled,’” so watch out for this!

  • Not real speech: Dialogue is an artistic reproduction of speech, but it’s not real. In everyday life, we ‘um’ a lot and stumble and repeat our words – characters can’t do this without annoying the reader and wasting time, so you have to create the balance whereby the conversation seems real, but is also smoother than real life.

  • Characters cannot laugh, gasp or sigh sentences: ‘Hello,’ she gasped – not physically possible. ‘Hello,’ she said, gasping – that’s more like it.



  • Sensory detail: Is your writing using the five senses to effectively convey the setting?

  • Imagery: Is your writing using similes and metaphors which are specific to the viewpoint character to get across the location and their thinking about it? Are you avoiding clichés?

  • Juxtaposition: Are your settings offering an interesting juxtaposition of the character dialogue/action and setting? For instance, a love scene in a factory is much more original than one in a restaurant.

  • Varied: Are you settings varied? Make sure your characters don’t have tea at the same café in every scene!



  • Accuracy: Make sure you have your facts straight if you’re writing historical fiction or something which academic or scientific content. Readers have broad knowledge and could easily catch you out!



  • Names: Make sure your names are not only consistent, but also varied. Don’t name everyone something beginning with the same letter! Use baby name books or online baby listings or even social records to see what kind of names were popular in a particular era.

  • Active phrases: Look out for ‘was’ and ‘were’ as these verbs set up a passive voice. Cut them out and use active verbs if you can to give your sentences more power. The sea was rough. The sea boiled.

  • Adverbs and strong verbs: Try to get rid of the ‘ly’s! Instead of saying, ‘Jon ran quickly,’ use a stronger verb which conveys his action better such as ‘He scampered.’ Use a thesaurus.

  • Tenses: Make sure you stay in one tense and don’t jump from past to present and so on.

  • Ambiguity: Are all your sentences clear in meaning?

  • Filler words: Do you overuse certain favourite words? Search for fillers like just, really, so, well, very and actually using Word to hone

    My writing bible since I was a teen!

    your sentences. Every word should have a purpose!

  • Punctuation: Check your comma usage – they are needed for pauses and clauses. Use double or single speech marks for dialogue, but be consistent. Use one space after a full stop.

  • Paragraphs: Make sure paragraphs are indented, except for the first one in every chapter. Make sure paragraphs aren’t too long so you don’t overwhelm the reader.

  • Scenes: Split chapters into scenes with three asterisks.

  • Spellcheck: use your computer’s spellcheck programme, but know it’s not infallible and you have to proofread yourself too for typos. Get someone who is good with English and likes reading to check the piece over too if you can or even employ an editor.

  • Know that it often takes many drafts to get a story, let alone a novel, into a sound state. You will know when you’ve reached the point when you feel you’ve done the best you can with it.

Dave King and Renni Browne’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is an excellent resource for this stuff. You can also get more tips from these other amazing writing books. Hope this has helped – feel free to print this article out and use it as a ‘cheat sheet’ as you edit your work. See you next week!