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The Best 4-Step Process for Editing Your Manuscript on Paper

You may rely on your tech for most everything you do with your writing, but when it comes to editing your manuscript, editing on paper is still the best method. By using the below 4-step process for editing your manuscript on paper with our FREE checklist, you're putting your book in the best possible position for success!

Edit my manuscript on paper?? I haven’t touched paper in years! 

Even with the proliferation of new and highly useful writing apps and softwares, and despite it feeling old-fashioned and un-environmental, editing your manuscript on paper is still the best method for your first revision of your novel or nonfiction book for two reasons:

  • You’re connected to your draft more physically and therefore more intimately
  • It upsets the eye to see the work in a new context (which is a good thing).

By following my 4-step process for self-editing your manuscript on paper and using the free downloadable self-editing checklist (below), as the first editor of your project, you will feel organized, confident, and most connected to the heartbeat of your book.

Two reasons you should edit your manuscript on paper:

I. It Creates a Direct Line from Hand to Brain

Holding your manuscript in your hands gives you an embodied response to it.

Being able to touch the pages, write in the margins, and circle and arrow passages changes the neurological relationship you have to the work and transforms the manuscript from being a theoretical grouping of algebraic symbols on a screen to a human story that you created from your mind and body. 

When we’re touching the work, our brain makes stronger visceral connections to the ideas. This may have something to do with the noted benefit of handwriting vs. typing in terms of retention due to “encoding hypothesis,” which means the brain is processing while you’re writing- a first layer of storing the material. (You can read more about how handwriting makes for more effective writing and rewriting here).

It could also be that we connect to things through touch more powerfully. We feel the world to understand it (notice how kids can’t not touch everything), to make sure it’s really there, so it makes sense that we’d have a different, more embodied relationship with our manuscript if it’s physically in our hands.

glasses sitting on book
Photo credit: James Salter

II. Defamiliarization

If you composed your rough draft on a computer, by working from a printed copy, you’re jarring the eye and helping yourself re-see the work in a new context

If you wrote your manuscript long-hand, you may wish to type it out, which will enable you to begin filtering and editing, then print the typed copy to edit it, again upsetting your eye’s familiarity with the material’s format.

The Best 4-Step Process for Developmental Self-Editing on Paper

Over my many years as a writer and editor, I’ve developed a 4-step self-editing process that makes the early organization of your manuscript easier and more manageable.

Preparation Step

  • Number the pages, double-space the text, and use a font you like in standard 12 pt. (or 13 pt. if you’re over 40). The margins should be at least 1″ so you have room to write notes
  • Print the manuscript and fasten each chapter together with a paper clip
  • Get some regular and colored pens and highlighters. 

Step 1: Mark Up the Manuscript

1st Read-Through

  • Dive in and read your work like an editor would with a productively critical eye toward ensuring everything is fluid, necessary, and developing properly
  • Make notes in the margins, underline sections, and comment on them.
    • Note whether lines or sections feel extraneous, need filling in, are good but baggy, or leave you with questions
  • Use sticky tabs or your pen to mark sections you want to relocate and write notes to yourself on them (Ex: “Begin move from p. 20 to p. 22 before graph 2” and “End move p. 20 to p. 22”).

When you’re done, sleep on the draft for a few nights.


To make sure you address every craft element of the draft, sign up to receive our FREE Developmental Self-Editing Checklist.

This checklist will keep you organized and help you note observations about each craft element, what you would want to add, remove, need to fix, etc.

As a pre-step to the checklist, this author/editor lays out the main areas you should address as you read through the book. Asking yourself these questions as you fill in your checklist will ensure you’re highly attuned to the evolution of the draft.

2nd Read-Through

Time to read the work a second time!

For this go-around you’ll want to make notes on systemic global issues throughout the book. You may want to flag specific areas with colored pens or sticky notes to make them easier to see for when you write out your notes.

color coded writing by writer Rick Wormwood
Photo credit: author Rick Wormwood, working manuscript

The Rationale of the Micro-to-Macro Phase One Method

Note: you’ll see that in your first reading, you’re looking at surface-level issues (the micro) where in your second reading, you’re looking at global or developmental issues (the macro). 

Small to large? Why go in this order?

With the first read-through, you’re giving your gut-level responses to the manuscript as if it’s your first time encountering them (as a reader would). Your insights and instincts are valuable currency as you’re catching things that influence the readability and viability of the project at a surface level.

Simultaneously, you’re also unconsciously absorbing the bigger-picture issues of plot, character development, and pacing.

When you then move into your second read-through, your brain will have made some necessary early connections on those larger issues, giving you the heightened ability to by now see clearly how those items should develop.

This double pass will enable you to most articulately explain to yourself why something isn’t working and what you can foresee being the best solution for fixing it. 

When you’ve finished your second read, let the manuscript rest again.

Step Two: Write Yourself an Editorial Note

lined notebook with pen

Now it’s time to write “The Big Editorial Note.”

1. Begin by speaking to the theme, the “what the book is about.” This will foreground the book’s purpose and what it’s aiming to achieve.
2. Use our Self-Editing Checklist to help you speak to each craft issue, going from macro to micro*.

*While you read 2x going the opposite direction (micro to macro), when you write your note, you’ll be articulating your thoughts on the manuscript from big-picture issues to the little ones.


Write your note to yourself as if you were a friend. (Read: kindly and productively!)

This perspective allows you to see the book—its construction, shape, and purpose—from the outside as a fellow practitioner who understands the book is at the beginning of its developmental journey (meaning with compassion and constructive ideas), and not as a reader who will look at the end result (meaning not as a critic).

In your note, identify how the book has been built thus far and what further construction is necessary so it can get to publishable shape.

Take your time- the more you process through your ideas in the note, the easier it will be for you to “see what it is you want to say” (thank you, Flannery O’Connor) in the book itself.

You’ll be referring back to the marked-up manuscript to help you build your notes; going craft-issue-by-craft-issue means those pages will be well-handled by the time you’re done (as you’ll be reviewing the whole manuscript multiple times), but doing that means you will have spoken to everything properly.

Step Three: Retype the Manuscript

(She seriously did not just say that).

(She totally did).

Here is what you do:

  • Re-read your editorial note to get a sense of what your task ahead will be
  • Pick up the very messy draft and retype it using your notes as a guide.


    Feel free to take a minute to regroup or stick needles in a doll that looks like me.

    Go ahead. I’ll wait.

    (No, we do not sell needles at One Lit Place, but you can probably find them on Amazon).

Step Four (Optional but Recommended): Mark Up Your Newly Typed Manuscript and Make Notes On the Side.

Well done! That wasn’t easy, I know.

Now that you’ve got your newly typed draft, print it out.

[Yes, by this point you will have used an egregious amount of paper. You can compensate by printing on both sides, filling your own containers at the local bulk shop, and switching to bar shampoo and Castile soap. There, balance (mostly) restored!]

If you’re cringing right now because you know what’s next, you’re right.


Phase Four is a very picky but exacting phase that in essence is a second pass of your now far leaner/tighter manuscript.

In this last developmental pass, you will read the draft several times in order to zero in on the development of each craft element (plot, character, setting, tone, point of view, etc.). Isolating the elements will enable you to follow their “arc” to make sure each one progresses properly. 

This is a long process but a highly worthwhile one. 

Another method many authors use at this point is to write chapter summaries on index cards and pin them to the wall. This helps them best see what’s at stake for each scene and chapter, ensure the plot travels, the characters develop and change, and that the work adheres to a tight 3-act structure.

Where some authors stop at Phase Three (such as this one who holds all craft elements in mind as she re-types)*, others do Phase Four to ensure consistency in a conscious way that may not otherwise happen during the Phase Three retype.

Post-Step Four: Additional Apps, Sheets & Supports

black coffee cup and white espresso cup on wood table with man's arm

To organize your self-editing process that much more, you can also develop other self-editing aids such as chapter/scene summaries, a style sheet (try ours, which is comprehensive and useful for all manuscripts), and character keys.

Click the image below to access our comprehensive style sheet:

In Short: Self-Editing on Paper Is Best for You and for the Future of Your Manuscript

This self-editing on paper method is excellent for being your own first editor prior to handing the work over for professional editing because it puts you in the creative driver’s seat and helps you ensure you’ve sculpted the work to your exact specifications.

Plus, since you will have done most of the heavy developmental lifting, 
it will make the editing lighter, faster, and more budget-friendly.

When to Bring in a Collaborative Partner: a Writing Coach & Editor

That said, as you can see, this first developmental self-edit of your manuscript is sweaty work. Exciting and stimulating, but it does require a great deal of concentration, awareness of writing craft, and fortitude.

To prevent feeling overwhelmed and tangled, many authors bring in writing coach/editors to serve as their collaborative partners to brainstorm and help them navigate the development of their draft. They can also coach you through the many emotional highs and lows that come from self-editing the manuscripts and hold you accountable to your goals.

several cups of coffee view from above

Working with a writing coach and editor will inevitably help you feel stronger and more sustained throughout your editing. Reach out any time; we’re here to help you through your book’s evolution so you reach publication and beyond! 


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