About Self-Editing

Unless your manuscript is polished, an agent, editor, or publisher won't read further than the first lines or paragraphs. Neither will prospective readers (aka, buyers).

Knowing what errors you'll be looking to correct is a great way of not making them as you're writing. If you're starting out, or have not yet completed your manuscript, invest the time to review these pages on self-editing before your procede.

How Do You Know When You're Finished?

Consider how many books and movies you've enjoyed right up until the ending when you're left with a story that's somehow incomplete and deeply unsatisfying. It's as if the writer just had enough, became bored, and quit.

Often, it is precisely that. Each of us who've completed a serious manuscript—serious as a project, not necessary a subject—have felt it. We reach the end of our creative tether:

"Okay, I've said all I have to say.
How do I just wrap this thing up and be done?"

Writers who steel themselves, push through, and do the tough work of designing a satisfying denoument, like Da Vinci's last dab of paint on the Mona Lisa, know they've got a masterpiece.

Only then will your writing leave readers taking a deep breath and letting out a long sigh with an audible, "Wow." Minutes later they're texting friends,
OMG u gotta read this book

That's when you know you're finished... albeit, the first draft.

From a practical point of view, if you've resolved the challenge, the protagonist has succeeded or failed, and you're half expecting the credits to scroll up on your screen, you're done. You may second guess some plot points, or whether a character was necessary, but that gets resolved in the editing. Even the ending can be polished if you're only close to the cigar. Now's not the time.

A second indication that you've finished is when you have a good cry. That's not unusual.

Wait 30 Days... or more

As you've been writing over these last months or years, you have undoubtedly reviewed your work. You've reread chapters time and again. You've scanned, taken characters out, put others in, corrected plot points as you retreated from dead ends... in short, you've been immersed in your writing so completely that you can recite it by heart.

That means you can't edit it. Not now.

You know what you wanted to write so intimitly that you will read what you intended to write—that's still in your head—and not what's on the page; you will read past misspelling, inaccurate words, and every manner of typographical error.

"The Duke or Windsor rode his white hose to the gates of Westmuenster Palace." This example may be hyperbolic; hopefully, you wouldn't make three typos in a single sentence, but if you did you'd probably miss one... or two. You will not see the errors, because your brain remembers what it wrote, "The Duke of Windsor rode his white horse...," which diverged from what your fingers did.

After the waiting period, the number of errors you discover with the first reading will astound you.

  • There may be words that you confuse as a matter of course—affect/effect or lie/lay. Each should be verified.
  • Spell-checkers won't pick up properly spelled words that are wrong: The Duke or Windsor.
  • You need to seek and destroy clumsy sentences where clauses are in the wrong order. They may have made sense when you wrote them, but now, with the passage of time, they'll read as gibberish.
You must allow yourself the time to forget exact wordings before you edit.

If your juices are flowing and your muse is screaming at you, there's no prohibition against starting your next project during the intervening time. Or go outside. Seasons may have changed.

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