How to edit your own writing: 5 top tips from a writer

Posted on January 30, 2017

How to edit your own writing: top 5 tips from a writer on how to edit your first draft | allisontait.com“How do I edit my own writing?”

“Where do I start editing my own manuscript?”

“How do I edit my first draft?

When I put out my survey recently, I asked you to let me known the one thing I can help you with this year. The questions above are just a smattering of the many I received asking how exactly to edit a manuscript, particularly a first draft.

I’ve got some things to say on this subject, and I’ve had a lot of editing experience, but I’m not a professional editor of fiction. So I thought the best possible way to help all of the people who are stuck when it comes to the editing process is to invite some help along.

To whit, below you will find my top 5 tips for editing your own writing – from a writer’s perspective.

But on Wednesday, pop back and you will find five invaluable tips from Nicola O’Shea, renowned and trusted editor of fiction and non-fiction. [edited: You’ll find it here.]

Two stones, one bird.

A writer’s top 5 tips for editing your first draft

1. Don’t panic.

I remember the first time I had to edit a first draft from start to finish. I felt as though I was wading through words, rolling in words, drowning in words. Seriously, you can read about it here.

The secret is not to panic. Yes, every time you make a change at the start, it has ripples throughout the story, but that’s editing. That’s rewriting. Nobody said it would be easy.


2. Take it one word at a time.

Some of the best advice I ever got about editing came from my writer friend Allison Rushby. When faced with editing your first draft, go through it and make the small changes first.

Do the do-able stuff. Fill in missed words, look for inconsistencies, fix the typos.

This will make you feel as though you’re making progress.

BUT (oh yeah, there’s a big but), as you’re doing that, make notes about the obvious, glaring plot holes, the bits where you need less detail (or more detail), the paragraphs that have you scratching your head and, perhaps most importantly, all the questions that arise as you’re reading.

I usually end up with at least a page of these, usually ending with ‘What was I thinking?’.


3. Now that you know the ending…

The real Big Picture work begins with the ending. Now that you have a first draft, you have a clear picture of where your novel is heading – and it’s time to look at where you began. Did you start your story in the right place?

Invariably, for me, the answer is no. When you’re writing adventure-driven middle-grade fiction, you need to start in the action.

I have a tendency to meander in, with the backstory strapped to my character’s back, and it often takes me a full chapter to get that out of my system.

I swear that two out of the four books in The Mapmaker Chronicles series to date have had their beginnings lopped by 2000 or more words.

Take a long hard look at your beginning.


4. Map your structure.

When I do school talks, the kids and I often have a little chat about the story mountain. If you haven’t seen one of these, it looks like this. If you are a plotter, chances are you’ve already done this.

As someone who takes a less-planned approach to writing, my story mountain tends to be a small and barren affair, but I do like to know three things before I really start shifting things around in a manuscript:

a) the end of act one (everything changes for my hero)
b) the middle scene of the book
c) the climax (most intense scene in the book)

Usually these points are clear once the first draft is written, but if they’re not, there’s a lot of work to do.


5. Don’t touch the keyboard until you’ve thought about it.

I cannot emphasise this point enough. Even if you think you know exactly what you need to do to make this manuscript a world-beating best-selling prize-winning novel, don’t do it. Let it mellow. Think it through. Allow your sub-conscious to draw surprising threads together, to make connections, to really unearth your character.

Publishing is a waiting game and it starts right here.


Would you love more writing tips and advice? Check out my book So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo and based on our top-rating podcast.

Buy it here!


  1. Malia

    Thanks Allison, I’m also at the beginning of the middle so to speak. Since my first draft was all handwritten, editing includes transcribing to my computer. I am getting a little caught up with big changes. In part because my writing has come a long way since I started. There’s been a lot of head shaking going on. I think I will take your advice to heart and try to get the words from page to screen with minimal fuss and take notes along the way and go back to the bigger issues later.

  2. Sarah

    Thank you! I am currently avoiding editing by reading about editing. So it’s responsible avoidance 🙂 It’s nice to have a reminder to let things mellow. After the intensity of writing the first draft it can feel a bit scary to be crossing lines through scenes without immediately replacing them.

    • Allison Tait

      Good luck with it Sarah!

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