writing tips

Writing Tip: Self Edit Your Work

a diagram of axes

Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process.

Common practical advice, especially among self-publishers, is to hire a professional editor and wrangle beta readers to edit and proofread your work. That’s helpful for final polish, but what about re-shaping the roughest first draft of your novel? Or maybe you’ve written a short story that you don’t want to invest money into a professional edit.

Fear not! I’ve compiled 10 great DIY editing tips from Lisa Lepki at The Write Life and Ryan Van Cleave from Writer’s Mag that are guaranteed to whip your writing into shape before you submit it for publication or show it to a potential editor which can save you both time and money on your road to publication.

1. Spell Check Manually (Proofread)

“Go ahead and type the following: “Ant Emma? She is form Detroit.” Spellcheck will give you a thumbs-up because every incorrect word is indeed spelled correctly. Use grammatically appropriate words and make sure they’re spelled the right way every single time. Don’t blindly trust spellcheck.

A tip on spelling better: Any time an editor corrects a misspelling for you, write the correctly spelled word on a Post-It Note and stick it beside your computer screen. Let that word – and its spelling – burrow deep into your soul.

A bonus tip on catching spelling mistakes: Read your manuscript from bottom to top, right to left. Since you won’t be looking at words in any narrative context, you’ll see each on its own. Spelling mistakes will leap out at you.”

2. Eliminate Passive Voice

“Overuse of passive voice is one of those things that can jump off the page to an editor as a marker of inexperience. Like adverbs and initial pronouns, sometimes you can use passive voice for a specific purpose and it will be perfect, but overuse will almost always weaken your writing.

Let’s look at an example:

Active voice: Dave kicked in the door. He jumped behind the sofa, shouted a warning and then ran through to the kitchen.

Passive voice: The door was kicked in by Dave. The sofa was jumped on, a warning was shouted and then the kitchen was run through by him.

In the first example, Dave is the subject and in the second example the door, sofa, warning and kitchen are the subjects. The second example is not grammatically incorrect, but it doesn’t sound right. Your verbs should refer to the doer rather than to the thing having something done to it.”

3. Remove adverbs

“Stephen King claims that the road to hell is paved with adverbs (those pesky –ly words). Why? Because writers use these when they know they’re not being precise enough. Don’t try to make a sort-of-right word “work” by propping it up with adverbs.

A tip on avoiding adverbs: Use concrete and precise nouns and verbs, and the need for adverbs will dwindle. From time to time, you can still sneak an effective one in. Heck, even anti-adverb advocate King admits that he does this from time to time.”

4. Eliminate Redundancy

“Redundancies create clutter in your writing by adding more words, but not more meaning. Every word should be there for a reason. If it’s not needed, delete it.

Some redundancies are so common we don’t even realize it. How often have you heard someone talk about a “free gift”? As opposed to what — the kind of gift you have to pay for? The word “free” is redundant in this case; cut it.

Or those organizations that undertake a “joint collaboration.” Unlike all those individual collaborations? The word “collaboration” means people working jointly. Cut out the clutter so your editor doesn’t have to.”

5. Use “Said”

“From time to time, some well-intentioned rule-breaker tells young writers that avoiding “to say” as a dialogue tag means they’ll stand out. These bozos are correct. I’ve seen work where characters have “spat,” “coughed,” “sneezed,” “yawned,” “yelped,” “caterwauled,” “slumped,” “shaved,” “demurred,” “shrilled,” “twitted,” “twittered” and “ejaculated” words. These works did indeed stand out, but only for the amusement these story-stopping lines created.

A tip on using dialogue tags effectively: Use “said” nine out of 10 times. It’s that simple.”

6. Don’t Use “Stage Directions”

“Assume a reader understands that the human body requires lots of muscles, joints and parts moving in tandem to accomplish any physical task. That’s a given. Don’t write “Sarah unbent her elbow as she reached out her arm and uncurled her fingers, pinkie to thumb, over the doorknob of the door leading down to the farmhouse cellar,” if the point is merely to communicate that she’s opening the darn door she has opened three times a day for the last 20 years to retrieve canned peaches or laundry. Go with “Sarah went down to the cellar.”

A tip on avoiding stage directions: Here’s one place where telling is more effective than showing. Unless it’s relevant that Sarah uncurls her fingers – maybe she’s 90 and so arthritic that this simple act is pure torture, which then leads us to wonder what’s so important on the other side of this cellar door that she accepts the pain – don’t include it. Be choosy with your details. Pretend, too, that you have to pay 15 cents for every word in your story. Do you now see places where summary, telling or outright cutting is the right choice?”

7. Avoid Repetitive Pronouns

“This used to make my professor crazy. As an master’s student, I had a terrible habit of starting nearly every sentence with a pronoun. He did thisShe did thatIt is correct. Boring!

Aim to have fewer than 30 percent of your sentences begin with a pronoun. Vary your sentence structure as much as you can; it keeps your readers’ attention and makes your writing more engaging.”

8. Read it Aloud

“I’m regularly told that this is the most popular self-editing idea my creative writing students have received from me. “It’s completely changed how I write,” a college senior told me this year. “I can hear the mistakes and sense the opportunities for improvement so clearly.”

A tip on reading aloud: Have an audience, even if it’s just a cat. It raises the stakes and helps you take the reading more seriously. Muttering quietly to yourself isn’t anywhere near as effective as reading to a spouse, roommate or writing group.”

9. Show Don’t Tell

“Yeah, yeah – we all know this golden rule, but writers still seem to prefer “He hated his neighbor!” versus “Roger spent night after night wishing his neighbor a slow slide down a 10-foot razor blade.” Readers want stories to play out compellingly in their mind. Give them colors, smells, tastes, textures and actions to make your story a blockbuster.

A tip on making sure you show: Use strong verbs. Choose specific, significant details. And don’t tell readers how to feel – give them 2+2 and let them come up with 4 on their own. It works. Is anyone confused about Roger’s feelings for his neighbor after reading the razor blade version?”

10. Kill The Cliches

“Editors despise nothing more than unoriginality. Cliches, by their very definition, are unoriginal phrases. When writing fiction, try to come up with your own unique way to describe people or situations.

George Orwell said in his rules for writing, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Cliches are often the result of lack of imagination or laziness, and as Orwell says, are often “merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” Replace any cliches with your own unique phrasing to touch your reader’s imagination in a whole new way.”

22 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Self Edit Your Work”

  1. Indeed, these are insightful and definitely useful tips! I would say I have heard them all before at some point; however, what makes your tips stand out are your examples! Plus, sometimes it’s just nice to have something repeated to you more than once for it to stick, right? haha

    Thank you for taking the time to share this!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Now that you say that, that makes sense to me. You are right; they are all important and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it.


  2. Love the tip for reading backwards! I’ve been preaching this one since my days working in a university writing centre, and it works. The brain is really good at glossing over small mistakes like transposed letters and so forth. Muzzle it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, “Show, don’t tell” – I have a stormy relationship with you, writing tip.

    I understand the gist of it. That razor-blade slide in the example is much more evocative than simply saying Character X hates Character Y.

    However, if an author tries to come up with an indelible image for each emotion, observation, event, or what have you in their novel, the thing would take years to write. That may be a feasible time frame for some authors, mainly the ones choosing a trad path, but it’d be ruinous for a self-published author.

    Also, nearly every genre fiction, NY Time Bestselling novel I’ve read has plenty of telling. Not only that, they’re filled with all sorts of “no nos,” from head-hopping to lengthy flashbacks to cliched dialogue – and they still sell thousands of copies, because the readers of these novels care about stories and characters, not whether the author has made sure to use “said” as a dialogue tag 90% of the time.

    Now, with literary fiction, yes, you can find novels where every sentence is a marvel. But those are usually written by trad authors, backed by large publishing houses and an entire ecosystem of critics, professors, and public intellectuals. I haven’t seen many purely literary writers succeed at self-publishing.

    The most successful self-published authors work fast, sacrificing the perfect for the good. That may not appeal to those who wring their hands over the “decline of writing quality,” but clearly most readers are happy to gobble up any novel that keeps them entertained, even if it – gasp – used a cliche like “a shiver ran down her spine” on page whatever. In fact, I remember that exact cliche from a self-published novel I read, and there were numerous other cliches throughout the text. Did I erase the novel from my Kindle in a frothing rage? No, because the novel was awesome, and any tiny technical flaws were overwhelmed by that awesomeness.

    Yes, the above is rant-like, but as I said, “Show, don’t tell” and I have a long history, filled with arguments, betrayals, and dangling participles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Matt, thanks for the alternative viewpoint on this. You are 100% correct on the “perfect is the enemy of good” point. There is for sure a commercial component to this I didn’t touch on, especially for self-published authors who need to rely on volume and pace to maintain their readership and visibility. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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