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The top 10 golden rules of self-editing

Use these self-editing tips for success.

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“I have rewritten – often several times – every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” —Vladimir Nabokov


One of the great contradictions in the writing world is how many writers assert that they value the written word in its highest form, yet they can’t be bothered to avoid passive voice, know the difference between “its” and “it’s” or be certain of when to use “who” versus “whom.” Here’s the problem: Literary agents and editors DO know these rules. When they realize that you don’t know, they are likely to be less interested in working with you, regardless of the other merits of your writing.

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Here’s the good news: No matter how much you slept through high school or (gulp) college English, you can improve your ability to self-edit. Follow these 10 commandments of self-editing and start impressing literary agents and editors with crisp, clean writing.




1. Presentation.

Is it wrong to talk about formatting in an article on self-editing? Not in my mind. Editing should make your work come across as more professional, readable and effective. Submitting your work without page numbers or contact information or sending a document in non-standard fonts is about as unprofessional as it gets.

A tip on presenting your work effectively: Unless a specific literary agent or editor tells you otherwise, double space your writing, keep 1-inch margins and use a clean 12-point font such as Times New Roman or Arial. 



2. Start strong.

If editing is the act of correcting, condensing or improving written material, why leave in the throat clearing? The warm ups? Begin where the action sizzles? Todd Stocke, the editorial director of Sourcebooks, says, “We see plenty of projects with real issues right at the front.” If you want a shot at publishing with Sourcebooks or any other publisher, start strong on page one.

A tip on starting strong: Ensure that your first pages establish a scene, create conflict or generate a mystery – possibly all three. This is why so many literary agents and editors detest prologues. A prologue is all backstory, and backstory typically doesn’t deliver these elements. Position the reader in the present, the immediate narrative moment. Make it crackle with tension and vividness.



3. Show vs. 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?




4. 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.



5. Trust “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. In my students’ work, 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. Avoid 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 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.


8. Choose active versus passive voice.

If you see lots of “was” or “were” words, you’re probably using passive construction, such as: “The rear bumper of her Honda was damaged by the neighbor’s motorcycle.” Compare that to: “The neighbor’s motorcycle crunched into her Honda’s rear bumper.” Which sounds more active, more exciting, more interesting?


A tip on using active voice. Put the subject first in the sentence.


9. Pay attention to spelling.

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.



10. Use writing and editing partners.

Is it cheating to have a spouse, fellow writer or teacher look over your work and offer suggestions? Not at all. Anything you can do to improve your work before submitting it for publication counts as self-editing (at least in my book).

A tip on writing partners: Make sure that you offer some value in return for outside editorial input. (Homemade red velvet cupcakes are my typical recompense.)



Literary agent Laney Katz Becker of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin says that “many times, authors will have reasons or excuses for why they’ve done things the way they have. That’s when I remind them that they aren’t going to be around to ‘explain’ to their readers, and it has to work on the page.

Make sure that your writing works entirely on its own. Make it error-free, smooth and effortless on the page, and you’ll be on your way to professional writing in no time.



Ryan G. Van Cleave is a Florida-based writing teacher and author of 20 books, including Memoir Writing for Dummies and The Weekend Book Proposal.



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Originally Published