The Art of Self-Editing by Justine Alley Dowsett

Some people might call it ‘writing a second draft’ but for me, everything that comes after the first draft is complete and before I let anyone else have a look at my manuscript is self-editing.


I see a lot of advice out there that tells you not to ‘self-edit.’ Or at the very least to put the manuscript aside for a long while before picking it up again to gain some perspective. On the first point, I disagree entirely, and on the second, I’ve found that it doesn’t work that well for me. At least not at the stage between the first and second drafts.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that every writer is different, but if you can learn something from how I do things, then that’s what this is all about!

Here’s a look at how I handle the process, personally.

Typically, I will put the manuscript aside for a week or two as I celebrate my accomplishment and take a breather, but as soon as I feel like ‘going back to work’ I get started self-editing. It’s important to wait until the first draft is complete before starting to edit, even if you’re tempted to go back and fix things as you write. For one thing, you don’t want to second-guess yourself while writing is in progress. Also, you don’t want to get so bogged down with editing that you don’t get the first draft done.

It’s important to wait until the first draft is complete before starting to edit. - @JustineADowsett Click To Tweet

When I pick up the first draft to start editing, this is typically the first time I’ve read the story in its entirety, as opposed to being focused on a particular scene, or even a particular paragraph, at any given time. I feel this gives me at least the illusion of ‘reading it for the first time.’ On this first read-through, I keep an eye out for the story as a whole, but I also watch out for a bunch of other things:


While reading the scenes as they flow together, I want to make sure that the story stays interesting and engaging, especially to me, as I wrote it, and technically know what happens next. It’s good to keep an eye out for places where the plot lags, or places where events are skipped over too quickly that you can afford to flesh out. Also at this point, I take a close look at my opening and eventually my ending. I want the former to hook my readers and make them want to read on, and I want the latter to be satisfactory.

Things to look out for when self-editing . . . @JustineADowsett Click To Tweet

Worldbuilding and Exposition

When you know your world and your plot so well, it’s easy to forget that your reader doesn’t know it as well as you do. When reading through the first draft, I watch for places where a reader might get confused or might need more information to comprehend what’s going on. This is especially important when working on a sequel in places where you have to reference back to the events of the previous book to make something clear. It’s also best to do this in as organic a way as possible and to also keep an eye out for places where too much exposition is given. You want to avoid bogging down the story with unnecessary details and also avoid over-explaining things and boring your reader.

Avoid bogging down the story with unnecessary details. Avoid over-explaining. #amediting @JustineADowsett Click To Tweet


As a writer, you know your habits and weaknesses. A trap I often fall into is seeing places, people, and objects so clearly in my mind that I assume the reader can see them too and therefore, I forget or omit describing them to their fullest. So while self-editing, I keep a close eye anytime a character is introduced, or a new setting is reached, to make sure that I’ve fully described everything, and if I haven’t, then I make sure to correct that omission.

Tips when self-editing: keep a close watch on your writing anytime a character or setting is introduced . . . @JustineADowsett Click To Tweet


This is the part that takes the longest but is also the most important in my opinion. As I read through the first draft, I often do so aloud where possible, or in my head at a deliberately slow speed to ‘listen’ to the flow and cadence of the writing. The sentences as a whole and the words chosen within them should flow together and ‘sound right.’ This is a hard thing to explain, but what I particularly watch out for is awkward sentences, incorrect grammar and punctuation (reading aloud is a great way to tell you where the commas should go), repeated words or phrases, added words like ‘that’ and ‘very,’ redundancy – especially in dialogue, and all sorts of other things. This is the part of the process where you go through your writing with a fine-toothed comb and make sure everything is the way you want it to be.

#amediting? Read your work out loud at a deliberately slow speed to ‘listen’ to the flow and cadence of the writing. Click To Tweet

My Notes

While writing, I notice things that I want to change or fix or things that I know I didn’t do as strong of a job conveying as I would like. To help me avoid the temptation of immediately stopping to edit, I keep a list of things to look out for when self-editing. Typically these are things like making sure to add foreshadowing of such and such in chapter one, but it can also be something as simple as, Character A had a gun in that scene, what happened to it? Or anything you want to have a second look at.

And that’s it!

Once I’ve gone through and created my ‘second draft’, I’m usually confident enough at that point to show my work to Robert (my husband and editor) and eventually, if he gives the ok, I show my work to beta readers. If I’m not feeling confident at this point, that usually means I need to go back and work a little more or, I’ll give the manuscript the shelf treatment and come back to it in a few months to try again. Or, sometimes, as in Mirror’s Heart (sequels are hard) I needed the opinions of Robert and the beta readers to fix what was really wrong with it.

Good luck with your second drafts! If you have any questions or comments, please put them in the comments section below, and I would be happy to read them!

About Justine Alley Dowsett

Justine Alley Dowsett is the author of eight novels and one of the founders of Mirror World Publishing. Her books, which she often co-writes with her sister, Murandy Damodred, range from young adult science fiction to dark fantasy/romance. She earned a BA in Drama from the University of Windsor, honed her skills as an entrepreneur by tackling video game production, and now she dedicates her time to writing, publishing, and occasionally role-playing with her friends.

Julie Valerie

Julie Valerie

85K Writing Challenge: Embracing the writing life by advancing the practice of productive writing from first word to first reader.

One thought on “The Art of Self-Editing by Justine Alley Dowsett

  1. Taking part in NaNoWriMo taught me the importance of forging through the first, messy draft, even if by chapter six you’re dying to begin again. I really love the advice that you “can’t edit a blank page”. I have a whole list of things I look for during self-editing, the big, structural changes being the most painful and the small tweaks (for me) the most fun.

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