5 Tips for Self-Editing

Are you staring at your prose, aware it could be better, but with no idea how to fix it? Been there, done that.

My task this past weekend was to line edit the first twenty-five pages of my novel-in-progress and I’ll admit it damn near killed me. Although I had already edited my work for plot and character development (the big picture stuff) and felt the writing was all right, I needed to elevate the chapter from all right to amazing. The time had arrived to get out the magnifying glass and zoom in on the small picture stuff.

Here are five tips for self-editing that I’ve put together (with help from the trillion workshops I’ve attended and the billion internet articles I’ve read).

Personally, I like to give my entire manuscript an individual sweep for each point.

Step To It

Whether your inclination is toward writing long pack-everything-in kind of sentences or trimmed-to-the-bone sentences, my advice to you is mix it up. Remember, too much of a good thing isn’t good for you. Like eating hot chili pepper Doritos everyday isn’t good for you, neither is a steady diet of the same sentence structures.

Your sentence lengths should also match the mood you’re attempting to create. Ask yourself, am I writing a lazy-day-at-the-park scene, or run-the-cops-are-coming scene? Lazy days dictate more drawn out prose while chase scenes need urgency. It seems obvious, right?

Was that really necessary?

Do you want your reader to trust you? Then say what you mean and mean what you say!

Is your protagonist waiting on her tardy husband for several minutes, or forty-five minutes? Knowing the dirty rotten scoundrel has left her standing in the rain for forty-five minutes, has more impact than believing it was more than a few, but less than many minutes.

Don’t feed your reader wishy-washy words like very, really, somewhat, likely, just, quite.

Unnecessary and vague words suck the life out of your prose. Stay away from spineless words that slow the reader down and piss them off. Annoyed readers aren’t going to read your story.

Enough with the Adverbs and Adjectives already!

My personal pet peeve!

Adverbs and adjectives are like nice people, but not people you want sitting at your kitchen table morning, noon and night.

As a rule, adverbs prop up weak verbs and are seldom needed. You can eliminate them by using stronger verbs.

Rick ran quickly from the room.

Rick charged from the room.

Adjectives remind me of my husband who has never trusted a recipe in his life and who feels he has to add this and this and this to the pot. Although I appreciate his creativity, his constant inclusion of Mrs. Dash is unnecessary, and dare I say, distracting.

The bright, yellow, ray of warm light filled the room.

Sunlight filled the room.

Say it Again!

It’s easy to do. You come up with a brilliant word or awe-inspiring phrase, and like a catchy jingle, before you know it’s stuck in your head, repeating over and over again on the page. This is where printing your work and reading it out loud will pop up those accidental brain blips.

Not To Be!

This is a biggy and my personal favourite vise.

Watch out for overuse of the verb “To-Be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). This weekend when I did a Find search of my twenty-five page chapter, I found eighty-nine, 89, WASs in my prose. Yikes! Time to seek out and destroy!

Overuse of the verb “To-Be” creates a passive sentence structure which in turn creates confusing, awkward, wordy sentences. You want your sentences to be active, not passive. Trust me.

Active voice = the subject performs the action. The grocery cart hit the car.

Passive voice = the subject receives the action. The car was hit by the grocery cart.

Here are three strategies to help you eliminate the “To-Be” verb.

  • Replace the verb with a stronger verb.

That chocolate cake is good. (passive)

That chocolate tastes good. (active)

  • Rearrange the words in your sentence.

The phone was answered by Nicole. (passive)

Nicole answered the phone. (active)

  • Change another word in the sentence into a verb.

Mike was the creator of the music. (passive)

Mike created the music. (active)

Whatever form your writing takes, I hope these simple principles help you better navigate the scary waters of self-editing.


Filed under Writer's blog, Writer's journey, Writing

5 responses to “5 Tips for Self-Editing

  1. Oooo, I am a horrible “Say it Again” offender.

    I also hate self-editing. I worry that once I start I’ll muck it up. Like untangling a Slinky. Sure you can get it untangled but in the process it is not so slinky anymore.

    I look at my edits and I can feel the perfected piece but the details of how to get there are fuzzy. Sounds wierd hunh?

    Great advice!

    • I have two secrets, ways I trick myself into making changes I’m not sure of. When I think a scene isn’t working and should be deleted, but I’m still carrying a torch for it, I copy said doomed scene onto a fresh word document and move it to a file I call ‘The Land of Lost Scenes’. That way, I can revisit its brilliance and know a day may arrive where I can import it into another project. I’m happy to report a few of my lost scenes have been rescued and live on.

      I also save my revised work separate i.e. I have a folder for a chapter and in it may be Draft One, U of T edits, Writing Circle edits and Master copy. When I feel safe enough to press delete, I may knock my writing circle edit off the map, but never Draft One – it’s fun to look back at where I started and now where I am and of course, never the master copy. So my slinking may become untangled, but having taken a picture of it before I commenced the detangle (is that even a word?), I can forever look back and see how clever I am to have untangled such a mess.

  2. Is there a search and find button for cliches and redundant sentences?? Guilty! But I am cured of adverbs, mostly, although I do try to slip a wee one in just to check if anyone is noticing.

    • Adverbs are taboo, completely. But before you commit to one, make sure it’s the best/only word that will work in your sentence.

      Cliches – yeah, you’re on your own with those dudes. Although, if you wouldn’t mind keeping one in just to give us a giggle in WIHW, that would be cool.

  3. Ashley Rene

    Okay seriously, what did you do now that Rick had to charge out of the room? Leave my poor cousin alone.

    On a side note, I apologize that I have inherited my mother’s sense of humour.

    Also, consistent repetition of the same phrase makes me crazy as a reader. I have a few authors who I read everything they write and while sometimes it’s nice to see a familiar phrase pop up… too often and I just wonder what happened to their flare for words. I love that you put that on your list.

    Finally, since when does Nicole answer the phone? No one ever picks up at your house. I hate leaving voice mails, I only do it for you guys because I know it is the ONLY way to get a hold of any of you. The things I do for family, I tell you.

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