19 Self-editing Tips



Now that I’m close to publishing my first novel, To Hunt a Sub, I can say from experience that writing it and editing it took equally long periods of time (and I’ve been warned that marketing will be just as involved). After finishing the final rough draft (yeah, sure) and before emailing it to an editor, I wanted it as clean possible. I searched through a wide collection of self-editing books like these:

The Novel Writer’s Toolkit by Bob Mayer

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne

The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall

…and came up with a list of fixes that I felt would not only clean up grammar and editing, but the voice and pacing that seemed to bog my story down. Here are some ideas you might like:

  • Use ‘was’ only twice per page. This includes ‘were’ and ‘is’.
  • Limit adverbs. Search for ‘ly’ endings and get rid of as many as possible.
  • Watch out for bouncing eyes–
    • He dropped his eyes to the floor.
    • His eyes roved the room
  • Use gerunds sparingly. Search for -ing endings and eliminate as many as possible.
  • Eliminate ‘very’.
  • Eliminate ‘not’ and ‘n’t’–switch them to a positive.
  • Eliminate dialogue tags as often as possible. Those you keep should be simple, like said. Instead of tags, indicate the speaker by actions.
  • Be specific. Not ‘the car’, but ‘the red Oldsmobile convertible’.
  • Eliminate but, the fact that, just, began to, started to. Rarely do these move the action forward.
  • Use qualifiers sparingly. This includes a bit, little, fairly, highly, kind of, mostly, rather, really, slightly, sort of, appeared to, seemed to--you get the idea.
  • Run your manuscript through an auto-editor like Autocrit. It’ll find problems like sentence length variations and repetition of words so you can fix them.
  • Run your manuscript through a grammar checker like Grammarly or Hemingway.
  • Don’t have too many prepositional phrases in a sentence. There’s no set rule, but if you get lost before the sentence ends, you have too many.
  • Secure each chapter in place and time. A quick reminder of where characters are and whether it’s in the present or past is good enough.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. It’s tempting to retell events when a character is talking to someone who didn’t live through the last few chapters, but summarize instead–briefly. Your audience already knows this material.
  • Verify that time tracks correctly in your novel. Make sure the day is correct and that characters have enough time to get from here to there in the timeline.
  • Verify that your characters are wearing the correct clothing and have the right reactions for their position in the timeline. For example, if they were in a car accident, when they appear again in the novel, make sure they act accordingly.
  • Describe with all senses. Add what your character smelled or heard along with what they saw.
  • Don’t tell what you’re showing. Use one or the other, preferably showing.

A great way to find these mis-writings is with Ctrl+F, the universal Find shortkey. It will highlight all instances of whatever you’re searching on the page.

What these don’t address is character development, plotting, or living scenes so you’ll still have to deal with those prior to sending it to your editor.

More on self-editing:

11 Tips to Self-Editing Your Manuscript

How to Edit Your Novel (according to Yuvi)

20 Hints that Mark the Novice Writer

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


12 thoughts on “19 Self-editing Tips

  1. great tips. I also find that I tend to be ‘wordy’ and normally set and editing goal to reduce my over all word count by ten percent.

  2. This is a pretty good list, but I tend to stray from blanket statements like “eliminate ______.” Some of these tips don’t address grammar, they address conciseness or something else–some personal preference of whoever wrote the tip, maybe. I think you have to let the narrative breathe on some level. Maybe your narrator uses adverbs. I think that’s alright. Adverbs exist. It’d be a shame to never use them because some guy who wrote a style guide told you not to…especially if you really wanted to use them and liked the ones you used.

    Still, though, as a general list of “things to watch out for,” this is very good. I have to treat each instance as a separate editorial choice, though.

    • I can’t disagree, Shane. Definitely these are guidelines for the ‘generally-successful’ novel. Voice always can break the rules. I will say these tips came from agents and successful authors–who probably agree that done well, you can break any rule you want.

  3. A great list for any author to consider. Thanks for all the sites, very helpful.
    Love those bouncing eyes. Nearly everyone writes a few into their WIP; the smart ones remove them. (She says as she throws her eyes downward as if being wrongfully accused.)
    How many did I get?

  4. Great tips. I am guilty of the “was” epidemic.

  5. Great tips, Jacqui. I always go through and look for “that” – argh, I try to keep it out of my work, but it still slips in sometimes. I’m also surprised to see “off of” in a lot of US novels. “he got off of the train:, instead of “he got off the train”. At first I thought these were typos, but they appear too often…

  6. Excellent tips! I do overuse those -ly and -ing words. Having a checklist like this will help punch those out.

    • I go through the entire list after my final draft (which is really final). Something about editing in small chunks works for me. Then, of course, I have to re-read the entire novel to see if it still flows.

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