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Ten Tips to Help You Self-Edit

by Christina Consolino

One of the most common questions authors ask is, “How can I edit my own work better?” Outside of spending money on books devoted to self-editing or taking time to research the topic, what can an author do? The answer is easy: train yourself to look for items that an editor would nix.

One note: As our fearless leader, Katharine, so eloquently suggests—read your work aloud! When you do, some of the following issues might jump out.

1. The classic show don’t tell.

First drafts often tell more than show. Sometimes, telling is appropriate. But look at the difference: 

Tell: It was winter. 

Show: The snow squeaked beneath Rodney’s feet.

2. The more adjectives/adverbs the better? No.

Strong nouns and verbs lead to effective writing. Piling on adjectives/adverbs doesn’t mean the sentence is stronger. 

She wore a beautiful, pink, satin jacket with long, loose, large sleeves that billowed when she walked quickly down the sidewalk. 

3. Those words aren’t really extraneous, are they?

Chances are, your draft has unnecessary words: just, a little, a bit of, slightly, and many more. And what about redundant words?

This: climbed up the tree

That: climbed the tree

This: sat down on the couch

That: sat on the couch

4. Filter words!

Do an internet search for filter words (to see, to hear, to decide, etc.), and you’ll come up with a list in no time. If you’ve set the reader in the scene, you don’t need filter words.

Filter word: Rachel saw the boy standing against the wall.

No filter word: The boy stood against the wall.

5. Passive voice: Dickens used it, so why can’t I?

Writers often use passive voice when putting the story on the page. And I say: Whatever helps you create your work, go for it! But when you’re editing, look to switch from passive to active voice. One of the easiest things to do is eliminate “was” and “were.” 

Passive: She was sleeping on the couch.

Active: She slept on the couch.

Passive: The first of the parapets was under construction, the sawing and hammering of the soldiers keeping metronomic time in the warm afternoon sun.

Active: The soldiers constructed the first of the parapets, the sawing and hammering of the men keeping metronomic time in the warm afternoon sun.

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6. Those words aren’t quite right (or they might not be words at all).

Writers commonly misspell or misuse words:

affect/effect

ensure/insure

their/there/they’re

your/you’re

it’s/its

stationery/stationary

some/sum

acknowledgment, judgment (American English preferred)

acknowledgement, judgement (British English preferred)

supposably instead of supposedly

I’s instead of my

7. A body part can’t make an action by itself.

While disembodied body parts are allowed in some fiction (think romance), usually it’s better to rewrite.

No: His eyes danced around the room.

Yes: He glanced around the room.

8. Comma splices? No.

Using a comma to join to separate, independent sentences should be avoided. 

Wrong: The day is done, I should get going.

Right: The day is done. I should get going. 

Right: The day is done; I should get going.

9. Kill the clichés.

Come up with something original and applicable to your story instead of relying on the mundane.

Like a kid in the candy store.

Her heart skipped a beat.

10. Continuity is key.

Is the pink table in Chapter 2 still pink in Chapter 5? Is Amy named Amy all the way through? 

These issues can be difficult to catch at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be on your way to self-editing in no time!


Christina Consolino is a freelance editor and teacher and has had work featured in Brevity Blog, Flights: The Literary Journal of Sinclair Community College, HuffPost, Short Fiction Break, The Sunlight Press, Tribe Magazine, and Literary Mama, where she serves as senior editor. She is the coauthor of Historic Photos of University of Michigan and a founding member of The Plot Sisters, a Dayton, Ohio, writing group that strives to offer compassionate writing critiques and promote literary citizenship. Her debut novel will be published in March 2021 by Black Rose Writing. You can learn more about her and her work at christinaconsolino.com.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

3 Comments

  • Madeleine McDonald

    Where do Americans learn their grammar?

    She was sleeping IS NOT A PASSIVE VOICE. American editors repeat this mantra without thinking.

    is/was +verb+ing is a continuous tense in the active voice. Continuous tenses are used more in British English than American English and I see nothing wrong with them. Correctly used, they convey the information that one action is going on in the background, or lasts longer than another.

    Active voice:
    She was sleeping on the couch when the doorbell rang.
    She woke with a start. The doorbell was ringing.

    Passive voice :
    The keynote speech was given by Senator X
    A brick was hurled through the window.

    Rant over. Madeleine

  • Madeleine McDonald

    Dear Katharine, you are in good company. I have had 3 romance novels published in America and, to my annoyance, 3 different editors told me is/was+verb+ing was the passive voice. There is an underlying difference between British English and American English in that we use more continuous tenses. Otherwise, thanks for an interesting article. Madeleine

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