On the Subject of Self-Editing

I am a writer and a reader. On occasion, I am a reviewer, but one thing I can never be is an editor of my own work. Given that, I’d like to speak about self-editing, the important process I do before I hand off my manuscript to a professional editor.

Even if you are an indie writer who does not use a professional editor for whatever reason, I hope the following information will be helpful for you.

editor

Many writers hire two types of editors, and the same person can be both in some cases.

Content Editor – looks at the big picture: plot, characterization, voice, and setting.

Copy Editor – specializes in grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting.

The reason I self-edit is to provide my editor with the best possible draft of my work, free of: typos; grammatical errors; plot holes; etc., but I know that even with the best of intentions, even after I’ve made changes based on beta readers’ suggestions, there will still be errors.

Why?

I’m too close to my work, and after re-reading my book for the umpteenth time, my mind simply fills in the gaps and I can no longer see my mistakes.

I’ve listed five things I do to polish my manuscript when I self-edit. It’s grunt work but is not difficult to do and will make your final product much cleaner.

1) Eliminate clichés

chiches

Clichés are words or phrases that have become popular from overuse. They weaken writing and make sentences boring because they lack originality. Examples of clichés are:

– fit as a fiddle
– lived happily ever after
– sent a shiver down my spine

I try to replace them with a different phrase or rewrite the sentence without the cliché. It takes more effort, but the reader will be rewarded with fresh storytelling, not the same old, tired phrases.

2) Eliminate repetitive words/phrases/facts

repeating words

I often repeat the same word(s) within a few paragraphs, but it’s not easy to find these repetitions. Reading my text aloud helps. I also have “crutch” words I tend to overuse. A “search and highlight” for a specific word or phrase will reveal how many times I’ve used them in my manuscript. After that, I can replace them with a synonym or rephrase a sentence altogether.

Repetition of a fact/effect is a different problem. This can be two sentences that say the same thing or two paragraphs that convey the same information. It’s akin to hitting the reader over the head numerous times to make sure they understood you the first time.

Example:

Chapter 2: Mary’s hair is a flaming red color, always sitting as a messy pile above her shoulders.

Chapter 4: Mary’s fiery hair falls in a disarray around her neck.

Chapter 7: With her curly and out-of-control crimson tresses, Mary was easy to spot in the crowd of blonds.

I am essentially saying the same thing, drawing attention to the color and state of Mary’s hair. There may be instances where this can work, but in most cases, once is usually enough.

3a) Reduce the use of adverbs

Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. As a rule of thumb, they usually end in -ly.

studly adverb cartoon

Courtesy of the New Yorker

I know writers who are staunch “adverb-haters,” intent on removing all adverbs from their manuscript. I’m not one of those writers. I go by the rule that it’s always better to replace a weak adjective or verb with a stronger one than to use an adverb, but sometimes I choose not to do this. Stylistically, I may prefer the adverb in that sentence.

Adverbs such as ‘really’ and ‘very’ can usually be strengthened with a better word or phrase, and adverbs like ‘rather’ and ‘quite’ can be eliminated altogether.

Examples:

Modifying adjectives:
Really big … replace with HUGE
Very tired … replace with EXHAUSTED
Extremely small … replace with TINY

Modifying verbs:
She ate quickly … She GOBBLED her food
He walked slowly … He SAUNTERED

Modifying adverbs:
He moved rather slowly … eliminate RATHER – or change to: He appeared lethargic
She talked quite loudly … eliminate QUITE – or change to: She bellowed

3b) Eliminate adverbs in dialogue tags

In most cases, an adverb in a dialogue tag adds nothing useful to the dialogue.

Example:

Tom’s mouth curled into a grin. “I’m so thrilled you threw me this surprise party!” he said happily.

Tom’s facial expression and his words already express his happiness. There is no need to insert the word “happily” after “he said.”

Below is an example of where the word “angrily” isn’t needed.

“I’m never coming back here!” she said angrily. Jane stomped out of the room and slammed the door.

4) Be consistent

british vs US english

If you are writing in American English, be sure you use the correct spelling of words and keep them consistent throughout your text. American and British spellings differ for many words. As a Canadian, I’m aware of both spellings but sometimes use them inconsistently in my manuscript. This rule also applies to words that are capitalized or hyphenated, as well as formatting of punctuation.

Examples:

Color vs Colour
e-mail vs email
Internet vs internet

Here is a comprehensive and helpful list of UK vs. US spellings: http://www.tysto.com/uk-us-spelling-list.html

5) Vary the construction of sentences

keep calm and vary sentence structure

A reader alerted me to a specific stylistic technique of mine when he read my last book. The sentences looked something like this:

– With steely determination, she pressed on against the tide …
– Holding his bible against his chest, he preached to the choir …
– Like a wildcat circling her prey, she examined the body …

There is nothing wrong with this construction, but he was correct in pointing out that the sentences had a similar rhythm. Overuse of it can distract a reader.

Varying the structure of sentences helps make the writing more sophisticated. By avoiding constructions that have been overused, your writing will sound fresher and go a lot further to developing your own unique voice.

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I hope you have found this information helpful. If you have any tips on what you do to clean up your manuscript, please feel free to comment and share.

Happy writing and self-editing! 🙂

~ eden

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43 Comments

Filed under Craft of Writing

43 responses to “On the Subject of Self-Editing

  1. Thanks. Great points. I even heard a few of those from my editors 😉

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  2. Thanks Christoph. Sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. 😉 xo
    eden

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  3. I definitely can use these points … even as a poet …. beautiful article, Eden!

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  4. Very helpful information – thanks!

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  5. Excellent article, Eden, and I’m sure your editor appreciates your efforts! ❤

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  6. Guilty on all counts! (oops! too trite?) – Helpful info, Eden… Guess that’s why editors make the big bucks. (darn, did it again!) 🙂

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  7. Excellent tips, Eden, thank you. I’ll be using some of these when I get to the point of self editing my WIP 😀

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  8. Excellent article – thank you!

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  9. Reblogged this on Shannon MacLeod and commented:
    This is a most excellent article by the Truly Fab Eden Baylee!

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  10. I always find your advice sound. Have you ever written a post on finding/choosing an editor?

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    • Hi Rachel, thanks very much for your comment.

      I’ve never written a post on finding an editor because the process for me was quite simple. Truth is, I don’t normally write posts on craft as I’m a writer first, not an editor, but I am always happy to share what I learn if it helps others.

      I found my editor, Annetta Ribken, via a writers’ forum. I think I liked her style, and the fact that she was extremely tough and no nonsense. I’m not someone who needs hand holding. Give me some direction and off I go!

      After reading samples of her work, I thought we might fit together, and I was right. In many ways, I was lucky that way. More important to me than Annetta’s ability to edit well was her professionalism, her ability to meet deadlines and get back to me in a timely manner.

      I consider her a vital part of my writing process, and it’s a symbiotic relationship that works. We have become friends, but I never forget our relationship is first and foremost, a professional one. When she says my story needs improving, I don’t take it personally. Ultimately, we work together to serve the story.

      I hope that helps, Rachel. I’m not sure I could write an entire post on this, but I suppose you never know! Hope you are well, lovely lady,

      xo
      eden

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  11. and what is this British English of which you speak? They fouled it up for centuries; busy with the empire and lousy cooking. The Americans tightened it up—gave the world whassup and scooby doo

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  12. Excellent tips!

    As to Joe: British English is proper English! You Yanks and your lack of the letter U in so many words! Baffling!

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  13. One of your best post, Eden! To many adverb never add the the story– in my opinion. I think most writers try to do their best before sending a manuscript off to the professional and if they are like me they’re embarrassed when the edit comes back, but it’s all about the readers and making the story better. Well done, dear.

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    • Thank you Dannie! Your words mean a lot to me. I’m glad you liked the post. I don’t write ‘craft’ posts often as I’m no expert, but I have no problem sharing what I’ve learned. And I’m STILL learning everyday!
      xox
      eden

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  14. Lisette Brodey

    Great blog, Eden. These are all excellent tips. The more I am edited, the better i get at knowing what to look for in my work. One thing I always keep in mind during one of my edits will be to follow a character’s physical actions. If Henry was in the kitchen when the scene opened and he’s now in the living room, did I move him there properly or did he just magically appear there?

    I also like to use exclamation marks judiciously and am sometimes stunned by how many appear in my manuscripts. I suppose while writing, I get caught up with a character’s enthusiasm, anger, or surprise. But most all of these need to come out. (Case in point: without realizing, I typed one at the end of the previous sentence, but deleted it upon rereading.)

    Editing before the editor gets your work is so important.

    Thanks for writing this!

    x
    Lisette

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    • Hi Lisette, thanks so much for your comment. I agree that the more I write and edit, the more I learn about my pitfalls, especially when I get my manuscript back from my editor with the changes that need to be fixed.

      I carry over some of the same errors from story to story, but I do improve and make less of others, so I am learning!

      I don’t use exclamation marks often, but I did one just there. It’s more in comments than in my prose though.

      Appreciate your comment, thank you xo
      eden

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  15. Interesting article, Eden. There are many other traps which the self-editor can easily fall into. In my own case I stumbled across a few tricks and a great piece of software some years ago. To share what I’ve found out, I wrote this article: http://www.ericjgates.com/TipsTricksSelfie.html
    Hope your readers find it helpful. Best wishes, Eric

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  16. Yes! too many people think that once they ‘learn enough’ they’ll be able to ditch their editor, when that is simply not true.

    Auto Crit is a useful tool for repetition.

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  17. Great article! Very helpful!

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  18. I was really hung over from too many Mixed Metaphors; I took two semi-colons and called an English teacher in the morning.

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    • Haha, JerseyJoe, you’re insane, and I adore you. Mixed metaphors – I’m the queen of that, and ending my sentences with prepositions, and using too many ‘ands’ probably. 😉
      eden

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  20. I AM an editor, and was delighted to see your list contains many of the things I stress with my clients–and talk about when I do presentations on “Tips for Self-Editing.” One of the first things I do with any new manuscript is run a search/find for typical overused words like: that, even, then, so, really, very, perhaps, etc. etc. Amazing how many of those words sneak into the writing of even experienced writers. I fix it–or give them the chance to fix those words themselves as a learning experience to make them a better writer–and saves them money.

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    • Hi Connie, thanks so much for your comment, and as an editor, for confirming some of what I’ve written.

      I agree that so much can be done BEFORE handing over to the editor, and ultimately time is money, so your point is well taken. 🙂

      eden

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  21. gapwriter2014

    This is very helpful, Eden. I’m close to finishing my first draft of Annie Crow Knoll: Moonrise. I will be going in for the first big dig of self-editing soon. I appreciate coming across your blog through Writing is a Shore Thing. I will make good use of your points.

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All comments are appreciated.

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