Self-Editing Tips

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Need ideas on how to edit your own manuscript? Here are some ideas to try. First, let your chapter or manuscript sit for a couple weeks, so you can see it afresh. Read it aloud.

Do you . . .

. . . stumble? It may mean your sentence or word choice is awkward. Or if written in verse, that your rhyme is forced or your meter is off.

. . . hear the difference between how your characters speak? If not, try this--highlight all of each character's dialogue in individual colors, then using the color key, read through a single character's words. Does his speech sound consistent? Can you tell who is speaking without taglines? Do each of your characters sound realistic? Aren't lecturing? Sound age appropriate?

. . . see the setting? It may not need to be highly detailed, but especially in novels, the reader needs to know where the character is. (i.e. a child playing in a parking lot, or an abandoned lot, gives quite a different picture than a child playing on a playground, or at the video arcade.)

. . . use all five senses? Sight and hearing are pretty easy, but don't forget to use taste, touch, and smell.

. . . feel emotion? If not, perhaps your characters aren't quite alive yet. Show us what she is feeling, to help us feel it, too.

. . . doubt whether something is working or not? If in doubt, work it out! Don't ignore those troublesome spots. Check with other writers if not sure why it isn't working.

Check for . . .

. . . passive writing. Your biggest clue is use of ing. i.e. She was standing becomes the more active She stood.

. . . excessive adverbs. Are you overusing "ly" words? Instead of using a weak verb and an adverb to modify it, replace both with an active verb. (i.e. I walked quickly to I raced or I sprinted or I scurried.)

. . . weak adjectives. Use adjectives that really make a difference. (i.e. white snow tells a reader almost nothing, because snow is usually white. However, dirty snow or packed snow or yellow snow each create a different picture.) Don't forget you can use similes and metaphors occasionally, too.

. . . specific nouns. Don't be vague and you may not need to use adjectives with your nouns. (i.e. instead of He fed his pet, try He fed his dog or He fed his Great Dane. See how getting more specific, gives a clearer picture?)

. . . overuse of prepositional phrases, especially those beginning with "as." Actions can be shown one at a time and are often clearer, than trying to show two actions at once. (i.e. As Benny walked to school, he saw . . . could become On the way to school Benny saw . . . or Benny had almost reached school when he saw . . .)

. . . overuse of flashbacks. Flashbacks pull the reader out of the present action. Use sparingly. Consider telling the story in chronological order and see if that improves the flow of your story.

. . . heavy sections of black text. Reader's like some white space. This can be provided by using dialogue, shorter paragraphs mixed in with long ones. Breaking up narration with action. Eliminating unnecessary description.

. . . scenes that don't move the story forward. Sometimes we write too many details, when instead we need a brief summary as a transition between scenes. (An example would be the details of what a character had for breakfast, who with, and how long it took, when this really is just filler between the important idea he had when he woke up and his action to use the idea after breakfast. When Lee woke up, he knew what he had to do. After breakfast, he raced next door . . .) Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this add to the story?

  • Am I getting to the main point here?

  • Will the reader care about this?

  • How does this make my main character appear?

. . . clear transitions. These can be brief (i.e. the next morning), but the main purpose is to show we're not in the same place and/or time.

. . . a strong beginning. Did you start with the moment that is different? Did you start with action, not background info? Does your reader soon know what the main character's problem is?

. . . a satisfactory ending. Does your story come full circle? Is the problem presented early on resolved? (Doesn't necessarily mean a happy ending or all questions answered.) Did your character change and grow? Did your antagonist get what he deserves? Was this relationship/problem resolved at the right time?

. . . varied sentence structure. Don't always use noun verb subject order. (i.e. Dolly washed her hair and sat down to do her homework could be changed to After washing her hair, Dolly sat down to do her homework.)

. . . varied sentence length.
Short sentences create more tension. Longer ones, a more relaxed feel. You can even have sentence fragments where the subject and verb are understood, not stated or use them for emphasis, i.e. CRASH!

. . . correct spelling and grammar.
You did use your computer spell check, right? And rechecked after editing? And checked visually? Spell check can't catch "their" instead of "there," but it can catch many words. Your grammar checker can help where spell check doesn't. It is not an infallible tool--it especially was not aimed at fiction--but if pops up, make sure you understand the "rule" it says you are breaking.

. . . correct punctuation
. A great favorite resource is Errors in English and How to Correct Them by Shaw. It helps with word usage and grammar, too. If you have someone in your critique group, who readily spots grammar and punctuation mistakes, ask them to read over your manuscript.

Weed Out Weasel Words
They are those words that just slip their way into your manuscript. Often they are used again, and again, and again. The examples below may or may not be a problem for you, or you may have others to add to this list.

seems, seemed

Agent Rachelle Gardner has an even longer list on her blog at

Or because of your subject matter, you may use the same word over and over. Find other ways to say it.

One well-published author, Peg Kehret, looks at each page and tries to eliminate 3 words per page. Pretend you have a word count limit per chapter or scene. When forced to reduce text to make word count, you often see unnecessary words or sentences.

Repeat as Needed
Make your changes, again let the manuscript set for a time. Sometimes it helps to print it out in a different size font. Reread it and see if more changes are necessary. Repeat as many times as needed. When satisfied that is as good as you can make it, take it to a critique group or do a manuscript exchange. After the critique, you'll probably be making more additions, deletions, and corrections.

Pay Attention to Comments
Pay attention to critiquers' comments that you receive frequently, i.e. show don't tell. If you have good critiquers, this is an indication you have a weakness in that area. Do your best to not hear that comment again by educating yourself to spot it yourself. If you don't understand what they mean, find out!

If you consistently get personal rejections that comment on one problem, that problem may cross into other manuscripts as well. Learn as much as you can about strengthening your skills in your problem area.

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