Writers in the Storm

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February 26, 2020

5 Steps to Becoming a Superstar Self-Editor

by Kris Maze

self editing

How does one become a superstar editor? Or even just a better self-editor? Take a class?  Get a coach? Getting an editor job takes years of study and experience, but if your goal is to strengthen your manuscript and to gain satisfaction from growing in your craft, there's a resource that may be a good starting point.

When I researched “empowering your inner editor”, the internet protested that this secret superpower (editing) was taboo. Pages of Google Search Titles portrayed the Inner Editor as badly as an addiction to a smarmy ex-boyfriend:

  • How to Silence…
  • Why You Need to Restrain…
  • 9 Tips to Defeat...
  • How to Shut Up Your…
  • How to Turn Off...
  • Four Ways to Control your…


Woman - Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay

Whoa, now. I have to disagree. The inner editor serves a vital purpose after the first draft, taking one’s writing from fluffy to fog-free. But it doesn't happen without practice and guidance.

When I finished my first novel THE TALENT, I was overwhelmed by the steep journey of editing.  I hired a professional editor but didn’t want them to waste their time working on errors I should be able to fix myself.

As I navigated the how-to of trimming the wordiness from my writing, a friend suggested Don McNair’s 21 Steps to Editor-Proof Your Writing.  Packed with examples and exercises, this book takes a writer from understanding to implementing with precise editing strategies in three parts:  

  • Part 1: Putting Words In examines the developmental part of editing.  
  • Part 2: Taking Words Out moves into specifics of what makes an editor cringe.
  • Part 3: Sharing Your Words advises how to utilize critique partners, work with professional editors and find publishers and/or agents through querying.

Here is a raw scene from a short story in progress, which I'll use to show the before and after of McNair's lessons.

Draft #1

She played the bow across the string with a final dissolving note, while the dinner chatter rose. A man rattled ice in his cocktail glass, at a nearby pub table. “It was a fine performance, but not exquisite.” he commented to a woman checking her phone.

“Let’s call that a set.” her pianist declared, raising from the piano bench and disappearing to the bar as she slowly bobbed her head.

She wandered from the room to the adjoining study with towering windows flanked by thick curtains to keep out the winter chill.  The glass was visible and framed the star-dotted sky.

One paned glass door was open a crack, a bucket with half extinguished cigarette butts on the concrete enclosed patio. The chilled air bit into her bare arms and she pulled the sparkling gown training behind her up and around her feet. She welcomed the cold and invited them to snap her to her senses. Her performance was weak and she knew it.

McNair offers lengthy lists of sample words and phrases to search out to cut the fluffy parts from your writing. He provides brief exercises with answer keys to ensure you understand how to make your writing clearer.  The process of going through his book trains your writing brain to find the sticky parts common in first drafts (along with tools to fix them).

5 Steps to Self-Editing Stardom

  1. Fix your verbs! Seriously, almost half of his list is dedicated to this powerful grammar motor.  Make the verb tense concise and select the most accurate words to carry your story.
  2. Eliminate and Avoid Dead and Redundant Phrases.  See what I did there?  Don’t do that.  Get rid of the fog by picking just the important details. Only add visual elements that further your story.  Get rid of the fluffy words.
  3. Deconstruct and Realign. Could you regroup your description to streamline the reader’s experience?  Could the order of the actions change to make the words flow better?  Pulling apart the scene can help a writer reorder the details in powerful ways.
  4. Prepositional Phrases – Keep an eye out for these sneaky extras – phrases like “on top of” or “down below” are easy to cut out and replace with stronger expressions.
  5. Dialogue – Do you need it?  How much?  Simplify to only what pushes the story onward.  Let actions evoke the mood and set the scene.  Less is more.

Draft #2 - in progress

K Maze edits

Those edits paved the way for scene setting, improved sensory details and smoother dialogue.

Draft #3

She tugged the violin bow through a dissolving finale while dinner chatter rose.  A man rattled ice in his cocktail glass, “A fine performance, but not exquisite,” he said to a woman checking her phone. Evalyn set the bow in its case, feeling a flush form on her cheeks.

She couldn’t afford another mediocre review.

“Let’s call that a set, “her pianist said. He bolted from the bench to the bar before she could bob her head in agreement.

Evalyn wandered to the balcony entrance where brocade curtains insulated tall windows and framed the star-dotted sky.  A planter full of half-extinguished cigarette butts smoldered as she exited through the glass-paned door.

Her steps echoed across the concrete as her sequined gown flowed behind, cascading like a crystalline waterfall and exposing her well-scuffed heels. Goosebumps formed on her legs as she invited the cold to bite at her bare arms. Her breath formed clouds in the crisp air.

She wished for the cold to wake her muse and make it heed her summons. 

Final thought

Self-editing can be a satisfying part of the writing process but I hear mixed reviews from writers. It's a joy to some and a tedious chore to others. I recommend Don McNair’s book for anyone who needs clear direction to navigate the foggy parts of writing.  His thorough process was the perfect guide to a stronger manuscript worth submitting.

What favorite resource made a difference to your newbie writer self? Please share the editing resource that helped you refine your writing in the comments below.

* * * * * *

About Kris:

Kris Maze has worked in education for 25 years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and Writers in the Storm. Her first YA Science fiction book, IMPACT, arrives in June 2020 and is published through Aurelia Leo.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her fur babies and family. She also ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.

Trapped underground with a mysterious scientist named Edison and his chess master AI, can Nala Nightingale find the will to live and to love in a dystopian future?

To find out more about IMPACT, click here.

13 comments on “5 Steps to Becoming a Superstar Self-Editor”

  1. Thanks for sharing this workbook! I love when resources give examples for the advice they give. I'm definitely going to check it out. Another great book is _Self-Editing for Fiction Writers_ by Renni Browne and Dave King.

    Thanks again!

    1. I'm glad you appreciate it! I'm a fan of hands-on tools that show one HowTo improve your writing. I'll look for this one to add to my resources - thanks!

  2. Definitely "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Browne and King. I'm a "self taught" writer and the exercises in that book were my bible.
    My gripe with internal editors is they won't shut up when I'm trying to read for pleasure.

    1. I was telling a friend that very thing. It seems like the more I learn about writing, the less I can enjoy reading simply for pleasure because my brain is constantly editing.

    2. Oh boy, I hear you. Knowing more about story structure and having a careful writer's internal 'editor' can ruin stories! I haven't seen a TV or movie the same way either. I suppose though, if I can write stronger material as a result, it's worth it.

  3. Wonderful advice, Kris. I'm a professional editor. I wish authors would put this kind of effort in before hiring me or another editor. We want to make a manuscript shine, but an author can do a lot with a bit of learning and effort. The more covered, the more an editor (like me) can focus on the remaining issues difficult to spot with tired eyes.
    I'll share this with others. Great tips.

    Denise (Dee)
    Award-winning author and professional editor, beop inc.

    1. Hi Denise,
      Thank you for your comment. I love it and I'm glad you agree learning basic editing is helpful not only to the writer by for professional editors, too. This resource helped me discover these skills, and I hope it will help others too.

      Basic editing skills are not necessarily taught in writing classes. Having this knowledge can free up a writer to become more expressive and to shift focus to things like character development, plot, and world building.

      If they use professional editing after, it only enhances their work.
      Happy Editing!

  4. Being a major pantser, self-editing is huge for me. When I get to the second draft, I really need to concentrate on the content edits. The Novel Intensive workshop from Ara Grigorian and Janis Thomas (I wish they'd write book!) made a big difference for me. Their Story Beats helps me look for plot holes and weak spots. I also love James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure, and Larry Brooks' Story Fix. Both help me with the content edits.

    1. Hi Bob,
      I have participated in Janice and Ara's Story Beats classes and I agree it is a game changer too. And James Scott Bell has so much writer knowledge, great resources for writers to discover there too.

      For me, it was polishing up the draft after content and developmental editing. Once I figured out a few common "foggy" word constructions I overused, it was easier to edit since I used these expressions less.

      It's always good to hear from you! Keep on writing!

  5. Great post!
    Two editing tips I have to share came from working with critique groups.

    One: read your work aloud. This helps catch awkward phrases and tense shifts.

    Two: look for variations of sentence lengths. When I first started writing for others I used too many long sentences. Mixing it up makes for better reading, in my opinion.

    1. Hi Ellen,

      These are great suggestions. I totally agree that hearing your work aloud makes those sticky areas jump from the page. If you don't have a handy critique group, I have also used the text-to-voice options on most writing software to have the computer read it back to me.

      Even Google docs has an extension you can add to have this option. I believe some allow you to chose a male or female voice, or nationality. It makes polishing up your work fun.

      Glad to hear from you!

  6. One can't completely self-edit because the brain just won't catch everything in one's own writing. It helps to have a fresh set of eyes, have Word read the text out loud, and to do searches in the MS for overuse words.


    1. Hi Denise,
      Just reading this now, after suggesting text-to-speech as an option! Yes, read aloud options are great.

      Searches within the manuscript are eye-opening too. I have used a list of common overused words to edit, and it surprised me. I once found I had 348 references to the word "arm" in my novel. Who needs that many "arms"? Ha.

      I hashed out different ways to show the actions throughout the MS instead. Eventually I would find ways to cut these out all together, leaving only the references that most moved along the story.

      Thanks for your ideas.

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