How to Self-Edit: 12 Steps to Better Writing

Self-editing is critical in writing, but it’s also something that’s too often overlooked. To successfully produce good writing, you need to know how to edit your writing to make it more comprehensible and attractive.

Knowing the importance of self-editing skills for students and creative writers alike, this post will list some suggestions both for editing fiction and academic papers. 

A Self-Editing Checklist

Putting your thoughts into words is already challenging enough; structuring it to make it interesting, coherent and readable is certainly not an easy feat. For your work to meet certain expectations, you’ll have to go through multiple processes of writing and rewriting.

Knowing what errors to look for will be an essential first step, but you also need to know how to improve on those errors.

So how do you edit your own paper? Here are a few tips you can follow to improve writing skills and learn how to self-edit like pro.

1. Read Your Writing Out Loud 

The first step to editing is identifying the errors. This could be anything from the use of redundant words, grammatical errors or awkwardly-structured phrases.

Reading your work out loud can help you identify these errors; unseemly or unnecessary words and phrases will immediately stand out when read aloud. If your writing doesn’t have a smooth flow when you read it out loud, you can tell it needs a bit of polishing. 

2. Read Your Work In A New Format

Reading your work in a different format from how you wrote it can be another great way to identify problems. If you originally typed it out, print it and read through the hard copy and you might identify many issues that didn’t seem obvious before.

If you don’t have access to a printer or you don’t want to waste paper, you can also try converting your document into a different file type (like a PDF, for example). You could also try changing the font type, size or color. 

3. Eliminate Unnecessary Exaggeration

Writers often make the mistake of exaggerating their points at the cost of sounding insincere. Don’t over-exaggerate and try too hard to persuade the reader.

Being direct and to the point helps you communicate better with the reader and makes your writing sound more genuine. If your reader feels like you are trying to sell them something, the writing will lose its effect. 

4. Take Breaks

Let your work sit for a few hours or even overnight and go back to it with a fresh mind. Proofreading your work after distancing yourself from it can immensely improve your capacity to detect any mistake. Let your mind take a break from the work so it can later examine it from a more objective and detached standpoint. 

5. Proofread Your Draft Backwards

Another useful expert editing tip is to read your work backwards. When you read your work in its normal sequence, your mind can overlook certain mistakes because it’s following a given narrative context.

Proofreading your work backwards can help you isolate each word, making it easier to detect spelling errors. 

6. Avoid Elegant Variations

Some writers make the mistake of assuming that elegant variations of words and flowery language make their writing better when it usually has the opposite effect. ‘Elegant variation’ is a term that Henry Watson Fowler coined to describe the phenomenon of using complicated synonyms either to avoid repetition or as an attempt to sound ‘elegant.’

By using difficult or poetic synonyms of words, you only create unnecessary distractions. This then makes the writing difficult to read and comprehend.

An overuse of bombastic words in an attempt to seem more proficient only results in a writing that reads flashy and disingenuous. Keep in mind that repetition is not necessarily bad and even if you feel the need to replace a word, choose a synonym that the everyday reader will easily understand.

7. Get Rid of Extra Adverbs

One mistake writers make when they fear they may not be communicating their point precisely enough is overusing adverbs. Adverbs can be effective when used correctly and in appropriate dosage but overusing it can make your writing seem cluttered and disorganized. 

Eg: “He listened quietly as she spoke softly while gently caressing her hair. She stopped abruptly as the wind suddenly blew and caused the tree to viciously slam against the window.” 

As you can see, the overuse of adverbs ending with “ly” disrupts the flow of the given passage and makes it look cluttered. 

8. Steer Clear of “Very” and “Really”

When editing your work, try to spot the instances of “very” and “really” and examine whether it adds anything to the sentence. If not, consider if you can replace it with a much stronger and more effective adverb or adjective. 

Here’s an example: “It is very important to drink water regularly.” “Very” in this sentence is redundant and can be eliminated without changing the effect of the statement. 


The same thing applies to a sentence like, “The storm was really damaging.” Here, you could replace “really damaging” with stronger alternatives like “disastrous”, “catastrophic”, etc.

9. Choose Active Voice Over Passive Voice

Readers and editors often prefer active voice over passive voice as it sounds more direct.

In active voice, the subject acts and the sentence usually starts with the subject, eg: “She swung the bat.”

With passive voice, the object is acted upon, eg: “The bat was swung by her.”

If you compare the two sentences, the one in passive voice do not have the same level of energy and directness as the one in active voice. You can easily spot the passive voice in your writing by detecting “to be” verbs like “was,” ”has been,” “will be.”

After these verbs, you’ll typically see an action that has already taken place such as “left,” “cleaned” etc. Passive sentences will end with the object, but often leave it out entirely.

10. Use Proofreading Tools

Grammar and spelling checkers like Grammarly or the Microsoft Word’s spell-checker can help simplify the editing process. Check out these writing resources for more suggestions.



At the same time, don’t forget that these tools are not the be-all and end-all for editing. You can’t depend exclusively on these tools as they sometimes either miss or misidentify errors.

You can count on these tools to detect some of your mistakes or to give you important writing tips, but you must be able to apply these tips and fix your mistakes.

11. Keep Common Grammar Mistakes In Mind 

Learn and identify the common grammatical mistakes that people tend to make and always keep them in mind while writing. Knowledge of proper grammar and syntax is one of the fundamental steps for you to learn how to write well.

Whether you are a student or someone who writes professionally, grammatical mistakes and occasional slip-ups are difficult to avoid. The first step to learning how to self-edit is to recognize these common mistakes.

You can improve your writing skills once you identify the common grammatical mistakes you tend to make yourself and always keep those in mind every time you write. You can even go the extra mile and write them down on post-it notes and paste them around your workspace. 

12. Seek Out Help from a Peer or Writing Coach

It’s possible that some errors are invisible to you because you’re unaware of the mistake. Accept external input from a friend or someone you’ve hired for professional writing tutoring who may be able to point out errors or offer suggestions. 

Ready to write exceptionally?

With the help of this self-editing checklist you can transform your draft into a seamless, coherent and comprehensible paper. Apart from following the tips given above, you can always self-edit even as you write.

Working with an essay outline from the start can also help the process. There are a number of academic or creative writing tips available from reliable sources.

Read up on these tips and guidelines and utilize any useful instruction you can find. Don’t forget that the key to exceptional writing is to write consistently, so set aside time to practice and get better at self-editing.

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