How to Self-Edit Your Book Manuscript: Grammar, Format, and Clarity

Congratulations! You’ve finished the first draft of your manuscript. Maybe you throw a party, go out for a nice meal, see friends for the first time in a long while, or all the above. But, after you've finished the champagne and swept the confetti, it’s time to get back to work.

The good news is, the first step in revising your book is easy to do: put your manuscript in a vault—or in a drawer or on a flash drive. Whatever container you choose, do not open it until at least six weeks later, as recommended by authors such as Stephen King. This is not as easy, but it’s vital. This time gives a writer the chance to breathe and forget the exact language and storyline. Sometimes, this time away makes the process feel like reading another writer’s work. Another writer's work is easier to edit than your own.

So now you pull your manuscript out of the vault. Dust it off, uncap your pen, and get comfortable. You’re going to be here a while.

Like writing processes, everyone’s revision process is different. Some people do their big-picture edits first. They correct continuity errors, reorganize ideas, close plot holes, and even cut characters. Others take big-picture notes in the margins but focus on line editing. It may take a manuscript or two to discover your best process. This article will focus specifically on what you can do to correct common grammar and formatting errors.

A few tips before you jump in:

  1. Save a clean first draft of your manuscript somewhere, especially if you’re editing it on a computer. You may want to reference it again after you’ve made changes in the second draft.
  2. Automatic grammar and spelling editors such as Word, Grammarly, or Hemmingway Editor can help. Don’t solely rely on them, though, because they don’t catch everything.
  3. Take a few minutes to edit someone else’s work before you start editing your own. This wakes a critical part of your brain before you begin.
  4. Read your work aloud. The action slows your editing and reviews every word so you catch simple mistakes.
  5. Determine whether editing a printed copy or electronic copy will work best for you

You’re ready and set. Now, what are we looking for?

Polishing grammar and format

Even the word “grammar” can spark traumatic memories of English tests, angry red marks on papers, and sentence diagrams. But grammar isn’t as scary as we thought in high school. As writers, you know most grammatical rules—you only need to think about them. (A quick note: if you’re writing in a language that you’re not fluent in, you may want to find a native speaker to proofread your manuscript.)

Below is a brief list of common mistakes that writers make. (Side bar: If you need a full refresher course, an often-referenced guide for English grammar is Elements of Style, by William Shrunk Jr. and E.B. White. It’s short and packed with grammatical rules.) Make sure you check all the following elements as they show up in your book.

Point of view is the narrative perspective of a story. By choosing first person (I/me), second person (you), or third person (he/she/it), a writer commits him or herself to a group of rules. Choosing first person means the narrator can only communicate through one character. Choosing third person means the writer can enter anyone’s headbut usually chooses one or two characters to focus on. Hopping into a new character’s head can be jarring, so don't change your point of view unless it will enhance your story.

Tense indicates the time frame of a sentence. The rules of tense are often broken in everyday speech. If you’re someone who says “don’t” when you mean “doesn’t,” or makes similar faux pas, you should brush up on your tense rules. Otherwise, these are simple mistakes to hear if you read your writing aloud.

Commas are one of the most confusing elements in English grammar. There are too many rules to reference in this article, but you may want to refresh yourself on proper comma usage. There are also online tutorials and quizzes you can take to practice with commas.

Double spaces are a formatting problem. With the takeover of word processors and the death of the typewriter, the double space at the end of a sentence has become unnecessary. A quick trick to remove double spaces: use the search (or “find”) function on your word processor and insert two spaces in the search bar. Then, select the replace option and insert a single space. For more formatting assistance, we recommend finding an updated version of the Chicago Manual of Style, as it’s used by most publishers.

Proofreading isn't always a fun part of the revising process, but it’s an important part. You'll want to use the time your manuscript is resting to review rules you’re unsure of. Then, keep the book or website handy because you’ll want to reference it as you’re editing.

Cut the clutter

Arriving to the end of a first manuscript is commendable. It does, however, require a certain amount of imperfection from a writer. Author Anne Lamott endorses writing imperfect and messy first drafts. “Go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes,” she says. “Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend…Clutter is wildly fertile ground—you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip.” Making a mess is important, but cleaning the clutter is where you’ll find treasure. Below is a list of language trends that obstruct your writing. Though these things aren’t grammatically wrong, they make a book difficult to read. For an in-depth description of writing with clarity and professionalism, we recommend William Zissner’s book On Writing Well.

Cut unnecessary words. Until a sentence ceases to make sense, cut words out. For example, you can often cut the word “that." The same is true for the words “up” and “down” (i.e. “please cut up the tomato” becomes “please cut the tomato”).

Cut adverbs. Adverbs are words that describe verbs. They usually end with “ly,” such as “heavily” or “kindly.” Stephen King’s famous quote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” makes the case for writers to avoid them at all possible costs. Choose stronger verbs. Also, be selective with adjectives and choose descriptive nouns when possible.

Cut repetitious words and phrases. A quick fix is to use the search function on your word processor to find and replace them.

Slash clichés. Don’t only avoid clichéd situations or metaphors such as “a clean slate” or “a loose cannon.” Short, sentence level clichés include phases such as, “at the end of the day” and “the fact of the matter.” Remove these and replace them with language that explains the point without fanfare.

Cut the word “very” and choose better adjectives instead. “Very” is the bad habit we adopted when trying to increase word counts in essays. Say what you mean with precision—don’t approximate.

Cut excess emotive elements. You’ll rarely need exclamation marks to convey emotion. The same is true for words written with capital letters, italic text, or bolded text. If you feel a sentence needs an emotive element, consider rewriting the sentence to make it stronger.

Cut passive voice and use active voice instead. Rather than writing “her hair was burned by the fire,” write “the fire burned her hair.” The person, place, or thing doing the action should be at the front of the sentence.

Cut the “cleft it.” This describes a sentence beginning with “it is” or “there is.” Instead of starting a sentence or idea with this vague opening, begin with the action. (I.e. instead of “it’s great to eat cake,” use “eating cake is great.”)

Cut negative form sentences. This is a simple fix. Instead of saying, “her lie was not good,” say, “her lie was bad.” It keeps readers from doing mental gymnastics as they follow your story or idea.

Cut unnatural language. Your manuscript is an extension of you, and readers will sense if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.” The same goes for contractions such as “I’m,” “won’t” or “haven’t.” Please use them—your reader will thank you. If you’re wondering whether to include a word, phrase, or sentence, ask yourself if you’d use it in everyday conversation.

Cut qualifiers. These are words and phrases such as “rather,” “a bit,” “pretty much,” and “fairly.” Don’t be “pretty mad” or “kind of confused.” Be mad and confused. You’ve written a whole book and you have the right to be confident in your ideas. You did it. Now choose to believe your ideas are worthy of sharing.

Know When to Stop

At some point, you have to put down the red pen and take a moment to let your manuscript breathe. Enjoy the feeling as you would after a deep clean of your home. You’ll have plenty of time later to rearrange the furniture, hang up a picture, or maybe knock out a wall to make more space. Right now, though, allow yourself to feel content.

Some authors warn against over-editing, for fear that you'll strip out your style. Other authors encourage you to strip everything down to its simplest components and build it back up. Ultimately, you have to know yourself and your writing style.

Sending your manuscript into the world is the next step, and it can be an excruciating one. But whether you hire an editor, work with writing groups, or find peers and beta readers who are willing to be honest critics, you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to prepare your manuscript. Their critiques will be more helpful because they’re pointing out things you didn’t catch.

Once again, congratulations! Let's show everyone what you've created.

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