19 Best Books To Learn Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

by | Dec 24, 2014

Are you looking to polish your NaNoWriMo book in the new year? Are books on your holiday wish list? (Silly question, right?) Below is a list of 19 titles teaching self-editing for fiction authors that we believe every indie writer should have on his or her bookshelf.

These books will arm you with valuable writing tips and insights so that you can tackle your writing with new resolve.

We’ve divided the books into levels of editing, so you’ll know which book to refer to when you need to. Keep in mind that a book may not fit neatly into an editing category. Some books will address more than one level of editing. The key is to be systematic when you self-edit, and often, addressing one level of editing at a time can make the editing process more manageable.

To remind you, how you’ll revise and polish your book will depend on how you tend to work as a writer , and where your strengths and weakness lie.

Self-Editing Workflow

If you’re not sure where to begin your revisions, start with big-picture items. When assessing a manuscript, editors begin with big-picture items and slowly work through all the stages of editing, ending with word-level details. If you’ve nailed your plot (big picture), for example, begin with the next area that you know needs work. If you’re not sure what needs work, run your manuscript past a couple of betareaders.

How did we choose the best books on self-editing for fiction writers?

It wasn’t easy narrowing our choice to 19 titles for self-editing. Many excellent books have been written on various aspects of the subject. We’ve chosen books that are

    • short(er) and to the point
    • helpful (some of them are personal favorites)
    • easy to understand, without too much editorial jargon
    • less than $15, with one exception (Jim Taylor’s Quick Fixes)

As a result, books commonly used by editors didn’t show up on this list.


Writers are not editors.

Many books directed to editors are also written by editors, and they’re heavy on theory and discussion. Writers want accessible books that provide clear explanations, examples and instructions. (Editors like these books too—but we like to read everything and think about it, first.) So you’ll see some writers’ craft books on this list—our choices address revision and self-editing directly.

Finally, we’ve also picked a couple of titles specifically for nonfiction authors. When it comes to writing and self-editing guides, nonfiction often gets short shrift. The two we’ve selected complement each other well, and provide sound advice for focusing and delivering your message to the reader.

Beyond Paper Picks

Big Picture

  1. The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell
  2. Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern
  3. On Writing Well:The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
  4. Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells, by James Scott Bell
  5. This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley
  6. The Ebook Style Guide, by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod

“If you have trouble with structure, it may be helpful to choose one straight off and use it as a guardrail as you write.” — Susan Bell

Paragraph Level

    1. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman
    2. Quick Fixes for Business Writing: An Easy Eight-Step Editing Process to Find and Correct Common Readability Problems, by Jim Taylor
    3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King

“Even writing that was never intended to be…read aloud can be improved if you read aloud as you revise.” — Renni Browne & Dave King

Sentence Level

    1. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White
    2. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner
    3. You’ve Got Style: Copyediting for Self-Publishing Authors, by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod

“Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.” — William Zinsser

Word Level

    1. The Best Punctuation Book, Period: A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson by June Casagrande
    2.  Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies, by Suzanne Gilad
    3. Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares: How to Avoid Unplanned and Unwanted Writing Errors, by Jenny Baranick

“Use the semicolon like you would your most powerful weapon (your best pick-up line or your most effective push-up bra): carefully and sparingly.” — Jenny Baranick

4 Books that Will Inspire You to Write
You may not always feel like writing. These books will light a fire under you:

    1. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
    2. Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper, by SARK
    3. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
    4. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Self-Editing is a Process

Don’t try to do it all at once, and don’t try to do it only once.

Each of the books we’ve recommended offers a different voice and a different approach. Some are straight “how-to” and some are more “what” and “why.” What works for one writer might not be right for another. So take some time to explore a few of these titles to find an approach you can work with.

“When you write…say, ‘I’m free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” — Natalie Goldberg

If you haven’t already, over time you’ll develop your own self-editing style. This may mean working to a detailed plan or, as it does for some writers, simply reading, re-reading and re-keying your draft multiple times.

And, as we’ve said before, how you self-edit depends on how you wrote your first draft. It will also depend on your manuscript and what it requires—your second, third and fourth books will present different issues than your first. All the more reason to have our 19 titles at the ready, lined up on your shelf.

a portrait of the authors of self-editing for fiction writersCorina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing are Contributing Writers for The Book Designer.

They are also authors, copyeditors and proofreaders who work with and instruct self-publishing authors.

You can learn more about Corina and Carla here.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Daniel Rose

    Thanks for the list, very helpful and timely, with a redraft just around the corner in January. I own a well thumbed copy of Elements of Style, and I’ll be sure to check out the others. I picked up a copy of My Grammar And I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?) a few days back, by Caroline Taggart & J. A. Wines, and I’ve found it incredibly useful.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for the recommendation—I will be sure to have a look at it. I love hearing about these titles. You can never have too many grammar and style guides. :)

      Glad you found our list helpful. Good luck with your redraft!


  2. Diane Tibert

    I have been told before that the E. B. White and Strunk book “The Elements of Style” was a very good book. I had always intended to add it to my collection. When I clicked on the link, however, in this blog, I was taken to a version of the book that is not the true White and Strunk version.

    As I always do, I read the worst of the comments to get a feel for a book; they often tell me if I want to read it or not (sometimes what people don’t like, I do). What I found were the unhappy readers who discovered upon reading the book that it is the 1918 Strunk original version that is in the public domain, free for everyone to use on the Internet (www.gutenberg.org). Someone took that free-domain book and repackaged it and put it up for sale. E. B. White has no part in the making of the book.

    Anyone like me who has never seen the proper version might order the repackaged kindle version. Can the link in this blog be corrected to lead to the correct E. B. White and Strunk version? If not, you are only helping this lazy ‘author’ who is offering public domain books for sale to unsuspecting buyers. Thanks.

    • Carla Douglas

      Oops! Thanks for catching that, Diane, and for letting us know.

      We’ll check that link and make adjustments, but in the meantime, here’s the link to the most current edition of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style: https://amzn.to/1tpEK8U It shows a publication date of December 2014—so it’s very current!

      This book has been in the public domain for some time, so it’s no surprise that many iterations and editions are available. In fact, you can also download a copy of the ebook from Gutenberg.org here: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/37134

      Although The Elements of Style has been around for a long time and some of the content might be a bit dated, we added it to our list of titles for indie authors for a few reasons.

      First, at fewer than 100 pages, it’s short, accessible and usable. You can easily skim the contents in an afternoon, and the index does a good job of directing you to specific issues.

      Second, The Elements of Style is an example of a book that meets an immediate need and solves a problem. William Strunk was a Cornell professor, and his aim was to “cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules on the head of a pin.”

      The quote is from my 1979 edition, and although it doesn’t say so directly, my hunch is that Strunk saw his students making the same mistakes over and over again, and he wrote the book both to help them improve their writing and to ease his own burden of comments and corrections when marking their papers. He wanted to provide students with the least they needed to know to write clearly and effectively. So The Elements of Style meets the needs of both users (student writers) and audience (their professors).

      Third, William Strunk was a self-pub. Yes, the book was eventually picked up by numerous publishers, but the first edition was “privately printed by the author” in 1919.

      I hope this helps! Thanks again for alerting us to the misleading link. There’s more about The Elements of Style in this post, from 2013: https://bit.ly/1zJIOm0


  3. Arlene Miller

    As a writer, editor, and grammarian, I enjoyed this article. Thank you for the list of resources. It is so important for a writer to be able to self-edit. Saves a lot of time and money when the book gets to the copyeditor! I would like to add my own books to the mix. They fit the bill you describe: they are short, under $15, and easy to read and understand. They cover the most common grammar, punctuation, usage, and writing errors. I think writers will benefit from The Best Little Grammar Book Ever! and Correct Me If I’m Wrong.


    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thanks for your contribution, Arlene (and for offering a suggestion in line with our list). I can see that this article may generate a 20-books-to-read list for me!

  4. Carol Coven Grannick

    Thanks for this comprehensive list. I used and benefitted from a number of them…and whatever I learned from them became more accessible to me when I began to trust my own responses to my work, telling myself the truth without judgment about what distracted from, or clouded, the heart of my story.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Exactly right, Carol. These books are designed to help authors reach their writing goals. Read them, try out the advice that fits, revisit them, and in time, you’ll sharpen your ability to assess (rather than judge) your own writing.

      It’s worth mentioning that if you’re looking for a shortcut, editorial feedback can help you see what you don’t see in your own writing. However, with time and patience, studying the craft (through books and courses) can help you to develop as a writer, too.

  5. David Colin Carr

    The one I recommend to all my clients is “Savvy Self-Editing” by Tony Jaymes or Antoinette Wayman (same person at different times, though the content is identical). She has compressed 88 guidelines into one per page. A client who attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference (which focuses on craft, rather than marketing) said it is the summation of everything she learned in six days. I read it periodically like I read cookbooks, even after 26 years as a professional editor.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thanks for the recommendation, David! A helpful book is one you return to again and again.

      • Corina Koch MacLeod

        This title can be the mysterious 20th title that seems to have gone missing from this post! (wink) Santa’s elves, I suspect.

  6. C. S. Lakin

    You might also mention Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage. (https://www.amazon.com/Fiction-Writers-Grammar-Punctuation-Toolbox-ebook/dp/B00I49TO56/)

    I wrote this book specifically for fiction writers who are intimidated and often uninterested in learning grammar. It’s a bit fun and snarky and covers the main issues that writers need to know to write well.

    Thanks for the great list! I will be sure to recommend these to my editing clients!

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Grammar can be intimidating, for sure. A light-hearted grammar guide is always welcome. The two grammar guides we’ve recommended should draw a few giggles (and some guffaws) from authors. It sounds like yours will do the same, C.S. Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Ernie Zelinski

    And don’t forget this important piece of advice:

    “Write drunk; edit sober.”
    — Ernest Hemingway

    It has served me well over the years.


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