A Pocket Guide to Self-editing and Working with an Editor

Pocket Guides

This pocket guide from Shreeta Shah explores the benefits of editing and the different ways in which writers can work with editors throughout the editing process. 

Why edit your work? In a nutshell, editing is essential for ensuring your piece is really speaking to its intended reader and is of the highest possible quality. It is the process of rereading your text, refining the language, and revisiting characterisation and even entire plot threads. Self-editing – interrogating whether something really works and finding solutions – has the benefit of building your writing muscle and confidence.

Before undertaking an edit, it’s good to run a spell-check on the text. The cleaner it is, the more likely you are to spot what really matters. It’s worth considering printing out a hard copy, as this can also help you read with objectivity. Perhaps ring or highlight recurrent words and sections that need work – but try to avoid making smaller changes just yet. Note your observations in a separate document as you go along, with page/chapter references. Reading trickier sections aloud is useful to get a sense of whether the language might be smoothed out or made more precise. After a break go back and review your notes. What are the issues? What can you fix now, and what might benefit from another perspective?

Sometimes we encounter problems that we cannot solve on our own. This is when it’s valuable to seek an expert’s opinion. A professional editor is someone with a trained eye who ideally understands your target market and is a highly skilled problem-solver, detached enough from your work to offer you firm, clear guidance on revising it.

How do you identify what editorial help you need? Broadly speaking, for any issues around characterisation, plot or structure, you would seek a structural or development edit, which focuses on ironing out the larger issues in your text. Your chosen editor will likely undertake one or a few more rounds of edits, raising questions and comments as they go along. If you’re looking for a broader assessment of a full-length book, some structural/development editors offer a manuscript critique report, noting their impressions of the text, its strengths and weaknesses, suitability for its intended readership and where your focus needs to be in rewriting.

If you are fairly confident about the storyline, plot and characterisation but feel you could use help with tidying up the text ahead of publication, you’d be better off consulting a copy-editor who is trained in all aspects of spelling, punctuation, grammar and preparing manuscripts for publication. Copy-editing can encompass line editing, which irons out any sentence-level ambiguities, repetitions and other issues that could affect flow of reading or point of view.

If possible, try to find a copy-editor who has been trained by a reputable provider such as the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) or the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Both organisations also have directories of individuals who have either successfully completed training with them or, in the CIEP’s case, have attained professional or advanced professional membership status, meaning that they have completed a certain number of hours of training and paid work.

When seeking an editor, it is best to find out as much as possible about the type of work they’ve previously completed and which sorts of books they specialise in. Editors’ websites and the aforementioned directories are good places to start for this information. Some editors might undertake a sample edit in order to generate a quote of the likely fee for the job, or to give you a sense of how they work and whether you’d be a good match. This chemistry is really important; it’s essential that you have a relationship of mutual respect and trust.

When you receive your editorial feedback, take some time to read it through first. Make notes on the editor’s comments and whether you agree or disagree, or whether an editor’s reading of something alerts you to some ambiguity in the text that needs to be resolved. If an editor’s feedback rattles you in some way, don’t be too hasty to discount it; this might be an indication of something important – perhaps a blind spot – that needs to be looked at. Make a note of any follow-up questions or points you need clarity on. Then, make a plan of which bits of feedback you want to tackle. It’s best to first work with what energises you, or the areas for which you can see a quick fix. After a break you can tackle the trickier issues. Overall, you should feel supported by your editor’s feedback and, hopefully, inspired to revise your work. If this isn’t happening, you might consider getting a second opinion or using only the feedback that aids the work.

Investing in good editing can enrich your writing practice by teaching you how to fulfil your potential, and the process of editing can work wonders in developing your writing skills and confidence. Here are some great resources for further reading:

The Literary Consultancy has a track record of connecting writers with editors to help them craft their work. They also have an excellent Free Reads scheme for under-represented writers, and their website features a wealth of resources on writing and editing: https://literaryconsultancy.co.uk/.

Spread the Word manages submissions for London writers applying to the Free Reads scheme and will open for submissions this year at the end of July.

CIEP Advanced Professional Member and editor Louise Harnby has plenty of advice about seeking editorial help and the different stages of editing on her website: https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP): https://www.ciep.uk

The Publishing Training Centre (PTC) freelance finder: https://www.publishingtrainingcentre.co.uk/freelance-finder


Shreeta Shah is a writer and editor who works in the managing editorial team at Puffin Books, Penguin Random House Children’s UK.

Published 29 June 2020