Five Self-Editing Tips from the Dismantle Editors

photo of woman holding a mirror representing self-editing
Photo by Miriam Espacio on

Writing is hard. You know it, I know it. If you care about the craft at all, it’s hard no matter what you’re writing, be it a short blog post, a term paper, a novel, or anything else that requires words strung together in an order that makes sense. Even professional writers know that self-editing is a big part of this struggle. If you’re very lucky, you might have a writing bff who reads all your drafts, or an amazing writing group, or, if your work is publication-bound, a professional editor.

But sometimes more eyes aren’t available. Even if they are, you probably want your writing to be as clean as possible before it gets to these wonderful people. That’s why it’s important to have self-editing tools in your writing toolbox.

Most people who write develop their own strategies intuitively. It can still be useful to have an explicit set of tools, because when we’re on a tight deadline or caught in the weeds of our plot, sometimes intuition goes out the window. With that in mind, here are five strategies we use when we want to polish a draft on our own.

Tool One: The Backwards Outline

Best For: Organization and Seeing the Big Picture

This tool is useful for any length of writing, but it’s especially good for longer pieces. That could be an essay that’s pulling together a lot of ideas to make a larger point, or story where you’re still figuring out the arc. 

Basically, we start with the last paragraph (or chapter, scene, etc.) and briefly summarize its purpose and main point. We then continue through the piece of writing until we get to the introduction. This technique helps us get out of our own heads. It’s like turning a painting upside down to see forms and composition instead of…a bowl of fruit or whatever. We almost always find sections that are in the wrong place or don’t need to exist at all. And, probably even more frequently, we discover that our introduction is no longer the real beginning of the piece!

Tool Two: The Word Count Game

Best For: Getting rid of filler, throat clearing, repetition

Sara plays this simple game when she’s stuck, even if she’s not over her desired word count. Basically, she challenges herself to cut a certain number of words from the piece and gives herself an imaginary gold star for every word that gets eliminated. The number should be big enough to feel daunting, but small enough not to scrap the project altogether. Sara has some questionable first draft habits, like filling sentences with lots and lots and lots of conjunctions where none would work just as well (she also loves putting things in parentheses). Chances are, you have your own throat clearing, repetitive habits. And tThe word count game can help spot them.

Tool Three: Reading Out Loud

Best For: Style, voice and sentence structure

Everyone says to do this, but do you really? It can feel silly if you’re by yourself. If other people are around, you risk annoying them. Trust us, it’s worth it! The voice in your head often skims over awkwardness, fills in missing words, and doesn’t need to pause for air. When you read out loud you get a chance to hear your words similarly to how readers will hear them in their heads. For example, if you can’t get through a clause without taking a breath, it’s a good sign your reader will get tired or lost. Put some punctuation in there so your reader can inhale! 

Tool Four: Find and Replace

Best For: Words and phrases you know you overuse

There are just some words we fall back on all the time. For example, in our first drafts we seem to really like the word “really.” No, like, really. In addition, our brains tend to get stuck on certain phrases within each writing day. So, on Tuesday we find ourselves describing everything as, say, “transformative.” That’s fine for a “shitty first draft” — the one where you have to just get everything out — but it’s lazy to leave it in a later draft.

Tool Five: Self-Editing with Automated Grammar Checkers 

Use Sparingly!

They exist. They’re helpful under specific circumstances, like identifying passive constructions. But you are not a robot and neither is your reader. Use them while trusting yourself to be more interesting than the robots.

There are many many ways to go about self-editing, and many other resources to help you get better at it. This list is by no means comprehensive, but these are the tools we find ourselves returning to most often. We hope they’re helpful for you, too! 

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.
Elise is a writer, editor and educator with 20+ years in academia and communications. When she isn’t writing web copy, editing a manuscript or putting together the next issue of Dismantle Magazine, she’s teaching. She works part time as a university instructor and recently became a certified yoga teacher. A Louisiana native, Elise enjoys spending time in Mexico with her partner and their dog, “Peligrosa.”