Writers in the Storm

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February 10, 2021

10 Self-Editing Tips

By Ellen Buikema

I often feel that my first drafts are like the first cooked pancake in a batch, otherwise known in my family as the doggy-pancake—tasty but with issues.

Although it is said that Shakespeare never crossed out a line, most published books have very different first drafts. Good writing takes time, along with some wailing and gnashing of teeth.

At my author visits in school libraries, I’d ask the students to take a quick glance at all the books on the shelves. Then I told them, “When the authors began writing those books they made all kinds of mistakes. So don’t worry. Get your thoughts on the page and worry about fixing the errors later. Everyone makes mistakes.”

These ten self-editing tips can help shape your next manuscript.

1. Read out loud

Using text-to-speech programs, reading aloud to yourself, or listening to someone else read helps you find errors in grammar, sentence structure, and flow. When those lines don’t look quite right, hearing them is a quick way to zero in on needed edits.

2. Search for empty words and gestures

Sometimes we use empty gestures as a pause to separate dialogue, like a scene where two people are chatting in the kitchen over coffee. Someone says something and takes a sip, pausing before the next line of dialogue. This is an empty gesture because it doesn’t advance the scene.

My editor told me about a late night rant on an agent’s blog, listing words and gestures that she hoped never to see submitted again. The list went something like this:

  • One
  • Smile
  • Laugh
  • Nod ( I am guilty of using this one—big time)
  • Look
  • Frown
  • Walk

These words are on the list because they don’t show attitude, character, or further the scene—which is what actions and reactions should do.

3. Find verbs that give attitude, set the mood, or add to the character

Take a good look at your verbs and decide if you can use a more vivid one. The words, saw, looked, walked lack spark. Rather than saw use eyed, studied, peered, glared at. And rather than looked at, use a visual: The clouds formed a dark silhouette against the fiery sunset.

4. Use an active voice

In an active sentence, the subject ‘does’ the action. Writing in the active voice is clear, concise, and direct. In passive sentence construction, the object is the subject of the sentence.


The chicken crossed the road. (active)

The road was crossed by the chicken. (passive)

There is a place for passive sentence construction in writing, but more for stylistic purposes. This choice should be intentional.

When writing blogs in WordPress, one of the notices given for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the percentage of active versus passive sentences. The more active constructions you compose, the better.

5. Edit line by line—backward

Line editing is painstaking work, but will help you find typographical and grammar errors. I tend to edit by chapter, line by line. Editing from the last sentence in a chapter to the first one fine tunes the focus to the individual sentence and keeps you from being carried by the stream of content. It’s easier to catch errors going backward.

6. Have a break

To do your best work you must take breaks. The ability to attend to a task drops if you’re at it for too long. Short breaks help you keep focused and productive. When the brain is in a relaxed or daydreaming state, the mind solves problems with less effort. Sitting in front of the laptop, forcing yourself to figure out the next scene creates stress—the killer of creativity.

7. Re-read

You will need multiple read-throughs to find errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

8. Create Mood

When an ample mood is created--place, atmosphere, sensory images--the characters respond to those details.

Effective mood words create magic in a scene.

When a character stalks instead of walks, the reader’s attention is piqued.

Characters’ dialogue can enhance the mood in scenes. Are there interruptions? Moments when someone whispers in anothers ear? Situations where the world goes mad?

The pace of your sentences and their construction affect mood. Varying the length of sentences and paragraphs increases the pace and tension. A paragraph may be a single line.

When the action is fast, use partial sentences. “Had to reach the roof.”

9. Reduce Prepositions

Because prepositions need many buddies--they can’t stand alone--they make sentences unnecessarily lengthy. Instead, try possessives. Use my neighbor’s house, rather than the house of my neighbor.

10. Choose a style guide

Style guides have a set of standards for writing and designing content. They help to maintain a consistent voice, style, and tone across your writing. The guidelines give information, such as comma placement, which words need to be italicized, and how to format quotes.

Here are several style guides:

  • The AP Stylebook (Associated Press) is used by newspapers, magazines, and public relations firms.
  • The MLA Handbook  Modern Language Association of America (MLA style) offers some style and usage recommendations, but is most often used for documentation and citation. It is great for academic writing.

Editing is an essential part of the writing process. There will be many, many drafts, but editing is a worthwhile endeavor. It brings out the very best in your story.

What are your experiences with editing? Which experience was the biggest challenge during the editing process?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Alan Levine - Flickr

37 comments on “10 Self-Editing Tips”

  1. Happy to see reading aloud at the top of your list! It's the one I resist doing, but always, always is the simplest and sharpest way to catch things that I'm blind to. A good variation is to pick pages at random to read aloud, rather than in order, so you aren't caught up in the story you think yo know, but are listening to the writing itself. Sister author Rebecca Hodge actually prints out an Excel list of page numbers, each number with a little box next to it, so she can check off every page, but not in order. For me, it's important to print out the manuscript. Somehow things pop out on the printed page that simply don;t (for me) on a screen

    1. Barbara, I have to read my work out loud. I find so many errors that way. I like your suggestion to pick a random page! It is really easy to find oneself following the content flow and miss mistakes.

  2. Excellent post, one I am going to save and refer to often. I check for filler words, struggle with passive sentences, and read line by line. I never thought to read backwards. Thank you for sharing these important points.

  3. The secret to self-editing is fooling your brain into thinking these words are new. If you use Word, there's a read-aloud feature. It's tedious, but the computer reads exactly what you wrote. If you read it yourself, you'll probably read what you assume should be there. Also, read from hard copy, printed in a different font. I print mine in 2 columns which adds to the 'differentness' of the way the lines scan. I use a program called SmartEdit to find all those overused words and phrases.

    1. This is SO TRUE, Terry. Our writer brains absolutely add in words that should be there, but aren't. Changing the font is such an easy way to do this and I hadn't thought of it!

  4. Excellent post, Ellen. You've offered great reminders and helpful suggestions. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Gwen! I'm glad the post is useful. I can't imagine handing my work over to an editor without self-editing. Critique groups are also invaluable for editing.

    1. I hear you, Holly. Reading out loud makes it easier to find those clunky words and phrases. I'm happy you are finding this post useful.

  5. What a fantastic post! Even as a seasoned, published writer, I have to remind myself to go back and take these self-editing steps before sending my work out to anyone. The reading aloud trick is the one I rely on most--amazing how much I can catch that's clunky when I do that! Thank you so much for writing such a helpful post.

  6. Thank you for your post on self-editing. I am in the process of doing just that, so your article has helped me so much. I can relate to the doggy-pancake, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
    Excellent post!

    1. LOL! Thanks Mary. I try not to wail too much. What is hilarious to me is when my hubby walks past while I'm typing and cackling away. I get a lot of strange looks. Goes with the territory I guess.

  7. I use the text-to-voice feature on my computer. Alex reads my story in a delightful English accent. When I'm self-ediitng, I change the font, its size and color. A red, 16pt Comic Sans font slows my reading and stops my brain from skipping over simple errors.

    1. Hi Cheryl! I wonder if we could get John Cleese to add his voice in a reading program. That would be fun. A change of font type, size, and color seems like an awesome idea. Thanks for this suggestion.

  8. Thanks for this timely post. I thought I was done with my list of words to edit out. Now I realize that my characters smile, laugh and frown--a lot!

  9. Thanks for this timely post. I thought I was done with editing out my own list of words. I realize that my characters do a ton of smiling, laughing and frowning. Love the doggie pancake--I made a few of those in my day.

    1. Hi Barb! Yes, those pancakes are tasty, but with definite issues.
      There are certain words I love to overuse and need to weed out, so I can relate.
      A biggie for me is passive construction. I need a search and destroy function for the word 'was'.

    2. Hey Kris! I think if we pick a style guide and stick to it we'll be safe. I agree with you. Lots of contradictions.

      Reading backwards is tedious, but really helps.

  10. Ellen, thank you for a great blog to remind us of all the things we should already know and do but are so easy to forget. Sometimes it takes reading an article like this to remind me and help me focus. Sometimes I get too involved in the story to "see" the errors. I appreciate this great info and will print it out to keep at hand as a reminder. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Chrissie! I'm glad the post is helpful.
      When I'm in the content flow of a story I find it difficult to notice the flaws. After I read it out loud I wonder how I made all those errors.

  11. Hi Ellen,
    Thanks for adding links to the style guides. It helps when editing through murky waters of italics, or no? Especially when each style has contradictions to the others.

    Your pointers on reading from the end backwards to help catch grammar and syntax errors will be useful on my current project.

    I shared your post to help others in this editing boat.

  12. Ellen, thank you. Over the years, I’ve heard most of these self-editing tips, but not in one place to use as a checklist. I have a writer friend, Sandra Sherrod, who told me her last edit is to read backwards. I’ve never gotten to my last edit. I do go back to pages, scenes, and chapters already settled into my work in progress, and I always see better ways to express what I’ve already written.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! I though that a blog filled with editing suggestions would be useful. I know they help me.
      Sometimes I think the edits might go on forever. I hear you.

  13. Great, great essay, Ellen. I used to use an example of errors like this that I found in an early Tom Clancy. A character named "Rand" turned into "Rend" in the next chapter and then reverted to the first spelling. It's not really ragging on him since it got fixed. And then . . .
    The fifth editor to read my new book found a kid named "Roddy" who turned into "Robby."
    I retract all my comments about Clancy.
    All of your suggestions are excellent, especially reading out loud. But, the list of words the agent hated was embarrassing. I'm guilty.

    1. James, please don't feel embarrassed. Perhaps the agent was having an exceptionally bad, triple zero biorhythm day. Many of us use these particular words. I am working on expanding my use of active verbs and descriptions.

  14. Ellen, my favorite method for the first second draft edit is to use Margie Lawson's EDITS system. Doing her colors shows me what's missing. Lining the pages of a chapter up and then going to the other side of the table is her other trick, allowing you to see at a glance that you have no setting or body language, or where you're going on too long with internal dialogue. It's a super useful system for that content edit.

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