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How to Self-Edit Your Book (Even Though You Shouldn't)

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Here are some tips!

Here are some tips!

Self-Editing Options

I’m going to take off my editor hat for a bit and talk about a decision that all of us writers face: Hire an editor and proofreader or self-edit?

In the best of worlds and budgets, hiring a professional editor and proofreader for your work is ideal. By putting a third-party microscope on your work, you’ll see things that you’ve missed or overlooked (consciously or unconsciously). These pros look at this kind of stuff all day and can spot your foibles quickly and accurately, helping you turn your work into the best it can be.

Now, let’s talk about reality. To hire editors and proofreaders is expensive, and justly so. But what if you don’t have the bucks to hire them? You could turn to friends and family members who you think may have a good eye for evaluating your work. But enlisting these folks has its own costs.

So let’s say that you don’t have the money or are uncomfortable asking for friends’ help with editing or proofreading. Then you’re stuck with self-editing and proofreading your own work. Not ideal, but that’s your only alternative in this scenario.

How can you review and improve your manuscript, given these circumstances?

Word Processing Software Tools

Your word processing software may already have a variety of built-in tools to help edit and proofread your manuscript. The almost ubiquitous Microsoft Word program has spelling and grammar checking functions that can be helpful but not foolproof. For example, I’ve occasionally observed that Word cannot always evaluate words in context. It may not identify a correctly spelled word that is the completely wrong word for the situation. Conversely, it may call out errors when what’s written is completely correct. Silly robots!

Put It Away for a While

One of the best self-editing methods I use all the time, especially for blogging, is putting the manuscript away for a while. I’ve found that if I complete a draft around lunchtime, then read it again later in the afternoon or the next morning with fresh eyes, errors or awkward text can be much more obvious.

Read It Out Loud

This is a common proofreading and editing method! Read your manuscript out loud. Passages that are awkward can be made obvious this way. Reading your manuscript into a voice recorder is even better, and then playing it back. True, it can be difficult to listen to yourself on audio, but you’ll get over it eventually.

To take this process to the next level or if you absolutely cannot stand listening to yourself read out loud, enlist a friend to read it to you or record a reading of it on a voice recorder. Hearing someone else stumble through difficult passages you’ve written could be a big help. The only downside to this method is that it doesn’t work for proofreading, except for possibly incorrect grammar.

Online Editing and Proofreading Tools

Reflexes, writing tics, or habits—whatever you call them, we all have little writing quirks that show up in our work. Maybe we use the same phrase or word over and over and over! It’s become so ingrained into our writing personality that it’s difficult to identify. Do an online search for tools that can evaluate for repetitive phrases or other slips to which you’ve become “writing blind.” Some of these may be free; others may have a fee. But it might be lower than what you’d pay for a professional editor or proofreader.

Reading Backward

I’ve heard of this proofreading tip over the years, though I personally do not find it helpful. Why? For the same reason that some spelling checker functions don’t work. A word may be spelled correctly but might be the wrong word altogether. It’s difficult to evaluate things in context while reading backward. But give it a try and see if it works for you.

Different Format, Different Eyes

One of the other ways to get a fresher perspective when self-editing is to view your manuscript in a different format. It will require your eyes to adjust to another format, and I've found it helpful to see things I otherwise would have missed.

For example, if you've developed your book in Word, print it out on paper and review the paper copy. Even another viewing screen can help. In my blogging platform, I have the ability to view my blog posts in a "mobile preview" for smartphones. That has also been helpful in not only making errors obvious but identifying tweaks that can improve my readers' experience when viewing on a mobile device.

Clues That Self-Editing Is Not for You

Though you may feel that self-editing is your only review option, carefully consider whether any of the following apply to you, making self-editing a less viable choice:

  • You easily and often admit that grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. are not your strong suits. In everyday conversation, you may easily admit your failings in writing mechanics. You may even be jokingly proud of that. Yet, when it comes to your book, you think you'll magically be able to identify your troublesome mechanical errors.
  • The project is huge! Granted, hiring a professional editor for short and frequent blog posts may be cost-prohibitive. That doesn't mean it's not recommended; it should be considered, even for shorter works, as your writing career develops. But when the manuscript is very long, such as for a book, any editing skill you do have will be stretched to the max, making errors more likely, and the need for a professional editor increases.
  • The topic is new or unusual for you. As writers stretch their wings, they often wander into new or unusual topic areas. A professional editor familiar with the topic is highly recommended to review for content viability and correctness to avoid making embarrassing mistakes.

You’re Only Human . . . And So Are Others

As with all editing and proofreading, no method is foolproof. But, as you build your financial resources, network and professionalism as a writer, getting outside help for these functions should become a priority investment to improve the quality of your self-published work.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 02, 2018:

Hi, Rosheda! Glad you found it helpful.

Reading backwards is a bit of a trick. Literally, it's reading one word at a time, starting at the end of each sentence and going to the beginning. In all honesty, I've never been able to master it. And the only value it has is to check for spelling. But even then, a word could be spelled correctly, but it could be the wrong word. So it's more for a proofread round than an edit.

When editing for meaning and flow, best to stick to reviewing in the forward direction!

Thanks for chiming in and good luck with your project!

Rosheda Stephenson on February 02, 2018:

So glad I found this. I was considering self editing a big project I am working on, but your article convinced me otherwise. Just one question: Exactly how does reading backwards work?

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 16, 2016:

Lawrence, good suggestion on moving a manuscript to another program to get a different perspective. Thanks for adding that to the conversation! Have a great weekend!

Lawrence Hebb on September 16, 2016:

I've never come across the 'reading backwards' before but the others I've used at various times.

One system that I found really helpful with my book was writing it in word, then, when the manuscript was ready I moved it to 'Google docs' that runs a different grammar program that helped iron out some of the grammar errors, even now I've got 'Grammarly' running in the background that's had me go back and make a few changes to this post.

The tools are there, so let's use them!

One issue I came across was the difference in spelling between 'British English' and American English where friends were telling me they'd found 'spelling mistakes' only for me to realize it's where I used American spelling instead of the 'British spelling'.

Great advice though

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 13, 2016:

Sadly, Larry, there self-editing is the only and/or best choice for the situation. Glad you liked the heading. :) Thanks for chiming in and have a great day!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 12, 2016:

Lol, great heading. Always best to get feedback, but sometimes there is just no other choice.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 25, 2016:

Hi again, Teaches! The "reading backwards" method has been around for quite a while. It can be useful in some instances. But as you've agreed, I find that stepping away for a while gives me the best self-editing results. Glad you found the post helpful. Thanks so much for your support! Have a terrific day!

Dianna Mendez on August 25, 2016:

I had an English teacher suggest reading backwards for better editing. I will have to keep this in mind next time I write. Also, stepping away helps me to catch those little errors one tends to miss when they are too focused. Great post and so useful to all writers.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 23, 2016:

Alancaster149, thank you SO much for sharing these great resources! Always good to have go-to reference works when doing editing and review... even though, as you note, it won't magically and quickly turn us into the world's greatest authors. It'll just turn us into better ones. So glad to have you in my HubPages network! Cheers!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 22, 2016:

A few books that might help cope with the written word (i.e. reduce the need to edit): 1. Eric Partridge USAGE & ABUSAGE, Penguin ISBN 0 14 051.024 9; 2. WRITING A NOVEL, Teach Yourself, ISBN 0-340-86762-0; 3. William Noble's THREE RULES FOR WRITING A NOVEL (Guide to story development), Paul S Ericksson ISBN 0 000001 017649; Gordon Jarvie, GRAMMAR GUIDE (Bloomsbury Guide to Grammar), Bloomsbury Press, ISBN 0-7475-1385-6 [9 780747 513858].

As has been said/written: "Prevention is better than cure". These books won't turn readers into Conan Doyles or Edgar Allan Poes overnight, but as guides they go a long way to simplifying the English Language - even for English speakers - to pave the way to publishing.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 22, 2016:

Oh, Catherine! We all bump into proofreading blindness at times. Don't be so hard on yourself. At least you have the awareness of areas where you need assistance and, thankfully, have a friend to help. If I ever do see something that needs attention, I will message you through HP. I hope you'll do the same for me. We're all here to help each other. Thanks so much for joining the conversation and being part of my HP network! Have a great week!

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on August 21, 2016:

I've tried all of the things you suggest and still my proofreading is horrible. I proofed my self-published book up, down, and sideways and there were still so many errors. I showed my book to a friend who is good as this sort of thing, and she took pity on me and proof-read my book. I couldn't believe she found so much. And my bad proof-reading shows up in my hubs too. If you ever see a mistake in one of my hubs, please email me. I'll be so grateful.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 20, 2016:

Hi AliciaC! True, self editing is not the ideal scenario. But sometimes the circumstances make it the most viable choice. Thanks for stopping by and the kind words. Have a great weekend!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 20, 2016:

Your article contains useful information for writers, as always, Heidi. I must remember your suggestions. Self editing is definitely not ideal, as you say, but sometimes it's the only editing process that's available.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 20, 2016:

Hi Flourish! I do something similar with an SEO plugin I have for my website. It's really interesting to test one's work for readability scores and such. I've also appreciated edits that the HP editors have made when moving some of my hubs to the network sites. But you make a good point about accepting or ignoring suggestions. It's your work, so it's your call. Thanks for adding your experience with online tools to the conversation. Have a great weekend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 19, 2016:

I've put a couple of articles I've written through some free online software and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of feedback. I specifically looked at grammar and grade level. The program (I wish I could remember which one I liked best) suggested quick edits which sometimes I took and which at other times I ignored as not relevant. You provided here a good synopsis of options that exist.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 19, 2016:

Thanks, Dreamlin, for adding that suggestion to the discussion! That's what's so great about this community. We can all learn something from each other. Appreciate you taking the time to stop by and comment. Have a beautiful weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 19, 2016:

Hello alancaster! Great to hear from you... and my chuckle muscles are primed and ready to read your comments. :)

I agree, there are occasions where having an editor might "sanitize" a work to the point where it loses the author's voice. I've seen it happen and it can be very obvious. As authors, we need to make some tough decisions, either on the artistic side or the financial side. Sometimes that means going against recommended protocol and procedure. But, as self published authors, we luckily have the luxury of that decision.

Hope you're having a delightful summer! Enjoy the weekend. Cheers!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 19, 2016:

Heidi, we can't meet like this - people will talk! (That's got your chuckle-muscles exercised. Now to the serious stuff...

I always do my own editing, and it gets better. Aside from the fact that I take over a year to get my books written and off the stocks these days - I choose a lot of words carefully to knit them in to the time/era in which the books are set. The Thesaurus on this system is incomplete as well, a lot of words not being covered, even though it's meant to be the UK version so I have to refer to the Oxford Concise Thesaurus as a back-up.

I have a particular 'flavour' foreseen for the books that I think a third party would need a lot of explaining. There's the specific terminology as well.

And aside from that I haven't much spare after paying bills, buying food etc. to pay professionals. As for friends and so forth, no go there (time or inclination). My flesh and blood is halfway up the country, even if they had the 't&i)'.

So the executive decision is with me. The Defence rests, M'Lady.

Lin Lin from New Jersey, USA on August 19, 2016:

I got a couple of "Professional"proofreaders thru They caught some of my mistakes and missed some, also create some new ones due to lack of understanding of my story. So you can't really trust anyone entirely. I discover a better way to self-proofreading the work. In Microsoft Word, there is a build-in feature, when you high-light a word or a paragraph, then put the cursor on the highlighted text, a Microsoft Translator box will appear, on the bottom row there are 6 buttons, one with an arrow to the right is "play" button, click on it, a voice will read back the highlighted text. It's the best way so far to hear your work and discover your mistakes.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 19, 2016:

I wish we did, too, Billybuc! Until we all become writer millionaires, we'll do the best we can with the tools and resources we have. I think what's more important is that writers even have the inkling to edit and proof their work. Seeing what I have, it's obvious many don't. Thanks for adding your insight, as always. Have a relaxing weekend ahead!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 19, 2016:

The title kind of says it all, doesn't it? There is no way for many writers to avoid self-editing, so your suggestions are spot on! I wish we all had the budgets to get the job done but sadly, that's not reality.

Have a superb weekend, my friend.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 19, 2016:

Hi Ron! Yes, I do think that the "reading backwards" advice is from the pre-spell check days. We didn't have a better way to do it. Thank goodness for technology! :) Thanks so much for stopping by and joining the conversation. Have a wonderful weekend!

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 18, 2016:

Good job, Heidi. I'm wondering if the reading backwards thing is a hangover from pre-spell checker days. Since you miss context when you read backwards, the only use I can see for it is to make you notice misspelled words.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 18, 2016:

Thanks, Kristen! Appreciate you stopping by and commenting. Have a great day!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on August 18, 2016:

Great hub Heidi on how to self edit your book and tips on how you should do them.