How To Write Well: 10 Essential Self-Editing Tips

    Do you want to write well?

    The easiest way to write well is to edit your writing.

    The best person to edit a manuscript, article or blog post is the author herself.

    Sure, writers can — and should, when necessary — hire a professional copyeditor to correct a manuscript before it is sent off to an agent or book designer for self-publishing. But the writer knows her material better than anyone else, so she’s the best person for the job.

    Learning to self-edit is a lesson in awareness. It’s all about understanding the common mistakes writers make, and how to fix those mistakes.

    You want to know how to write well, but you might not want to spend hours studying grammar books. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to waste time struggling over sentences that would be easy to fix if you knew the rules.

    So it might be worthwhile for you to learn a few basic rules, if only to have more time to spend with your family, or whatever it is you’d rather be doing.

    Here are ten easy tips to get you started.

    #1. Give it a rest.

    Leave your writing alone for a while — an hour, a day, a week. Pick it up again when your brain is rested.

    Pay attention to what jumps out at you as awkward. Trust that feeling. It’s almost always right.

    #2. Read aloud what you wrote.

    Or have your computer read to you using a software program. You’ll catch clunky sentences, missing and repetitive words, and misspellings.

    #3. Search and destroy weasel words.

    Weasel words are the words you use out of habit. Often, they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to.

    Make a list of your most common offenders. Then search for those words and see if you can take them out without altering your intended meaning.

    #4. Trim sentences.

    Take a look at each sentence and see how many words you can cut out.

    Often a phrase of three or more words can be rewritten with only one. Less is more — and almost always better.

    #5. You need commas.

    Check to make sure you put commas before direct address in dialog. There’s a big difference between “Let’s eat Dad” and “Let’s eat, Dad.”

    Speaker tags always use commas: John said, “I hate grammar.” Don’t be deceived into thinking little bits of punctuation don’t matter. They do.

    You don’t want characters eating other characters unintentionally, right? Unless you’re writing about zombies.

    #6. Don’t overdo the punctuation.

    Writers sometimes use excessive punctuation. Avoid using a lot of exclamation marks or pairing them with question marks to tell the reader something is important.

    Let the context and word choice communicate the importance of a particular sentence.

    #7. Pay attention to verb conjugations.

    If you write “I lied on the couch after the man drug me across the floor,” your reader might think you’re writing some weird espionage novel.

    You probably want to say “I lay on the couch after the man dragged me across the floor.”

    The most mutilated verbs are lay, sink, drag, swim, and shine. Watch out for them!

    #8. Ditch extraneous tags when writing dialog.

    If the reader knows who’s speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over — especially in a scene with only two characters.

    Flowery verbs such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected, stick out. Instead, use said and asked, with an occasional replied or answered.

    #9. Avoid passive construction.

    When sentences begin with “it was” and “there were,” readers are left wondering exactly what “it” is. These words are vague.

    “It was hot today” can easily be replaced with “the sun baked his shoulders,” which paints a clearer picture. Think: strong nouns and verbs.

    #10. Check those tenses.

    All too often, writers shift into past tense when writing present tense, or vice versa.

    Even more common is the use of the wrong form of past tense. “I was sleeping badly for a week” should be rewritten as “I had been sleeping badly for a week.” If the action was a continuous one for a time in the past, you need the “had been.”

    Self-editing needn’t be either hard or painful. The more you apply yourself to learning the “rules,” the easier it will be to write well.

    Good writing has more to do with good self-editing than anything else. Take pride in your writing by learning ways to improve your self-editing technique.

    What other self-editing tips do you use to write well? Check out this interesting article on ruthless editing.

    About the author

      C.S. Lakin

      C. S. Lakin is a writing coach, copyeditor, award-winning blogger at Live Write Thrive and novelist of thirty fiction and nonfiction books. Her Writer's Toolbox series helps novelists master the craft of fiction writing. Want to nail your genre to ensure the best path to success with your novels? Get HALF OFF Lakin's popular Targeting Genre for Big Sales online video course by clicking THIS LINK (good until the end of 2018).

    • facebook says:

      I need to know how to view my posts or comments on other peoples blogs. Is there anywhere I could go to get a list of all my posts? . . Any help appreciated..

    • Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon on a daily basis.
      It’s always exciting to read content from other authors and practice a little something from their
      sites.

    • Dua Ali says:

      I liked these tips for self-editing. I am thinking to write short stories to get me started, after which I will write a book. Currently, I am searching for ideas and inspirations. Thanks for helping!

    • I absolutely love this list. There are some wonderful tips out there, but you hit the nail on the head with each and every one of these. Well done!

    • Thanks for all the comments. Glad these points are making sense and will help you all in writing better and clearer!

    • This is a great post with some really useful tips – especially the point about reading what you’ve written aloud. That can make such a huge difference to the way you view your own writing!

    • Thanks for sharing those tips.

      I too find that putting aside my manuscript sit for awhile, then returning to it allows you to see it with a new pair of eyes.

    • njaleruma says:

      The Tips are wonderfully dressed,befitting my attention.I shall always refer to them as I learn English.

    • Jeremy says:

      I Used to hate writing, but I’m really enjoying the learning process of becoming a better writer through blogging. And these articles sure do help!

      I’m quite obsessed about making sure my articles are perfect when it comes to grammar and typos, for a start. A lot of people are sloppy with this, it gives off a really bad impression. It’s almost as if they hit “publish” immediately after they’re done with their last word. It’s so important to look through at least once and edit where necessary. More than 90% of the time I find something that needs to be changed.

    • Goodluck Conel Chidiebere says:

      I see with a writer’s eyeview of the world. I’m nineth nine percent point nine (99.9%) sure, I’m not dreaming, I’ve seen the fact, but to be precise these tips are very crucial if you want to improve your writing.

      I’m a writer. I want to make friends with writers too. If you are a writer, add me on Facebook: Goodluck Conel Chidiebere.

    • Joe Kovacs says:

      Similar to point #3 above, I not only destroy weasel words. I also destroy ridiculous over-the-top vocabulary. This tendency usually is the error made by newer writers who believe esoteric and arcane words improve writing. Of course, the opposite is usually true. But even as a more experienced writer, I find SAT vocabulary slipping into my prose sometimes. So when I go back to edit, I make sure to replace those words with simpler ones to help the reading experience flow. 🙂
      Joe

      • Yes, I agree, and note that in some of my posts and articles. Simpler is better; more is less.

    • Jeff Oien says:

      This is one of the best blog posts I’ve read on writing. Thank you. It’s so good I’m excited about getting the free ebook, but the link isn’t working at the moment.

      Give It A Rest is one of the most important for me. I hate it when I post an article and then almost immediately change something, which isn’t reflected in the article that the email subscribers get in a message.
      Jeff

      • The way Matchbook works is you buy the print book from Amazon. Then you go back and purchase the ebook. At that time, Amazon will recognize your previous purchase and give you the ebook for free. The February offer has ended, but for future purchases, it’s good to know how that works.

        Thanks for the kind words about the post.

    • Supercool tips, thanks abunch. Giving a friend, sibling or partner to help read aloud is another option. It’s amazing how some errors can safely escape our eyes and minds(because of preconditioning).

    • George says:

      Wow lot’s of great ideas here, I definitely find words such as very or just in my sentences. It’s easy to think that sometimes more words means you’re smarter haha!

      At first I couldn’t stand editing, it just annoyed me to read it over and over again picking out the things I did wrong. Now I’m slowly learning to actually enjoy editing more and more. It’s fun to pick apart a paragraph or sentence or even a word, trying to come up with a different way to say it. It’s also a great feeling when you feel like you have constructed nearly as perfect of a sentence as possible.

      To me editing is a personal battle of accumulating small wins. You have to suck it up and take the time to win at each sentence as you move forward if you are to complete the mission of the whole post. It’s all about baby steps!

      • I like what you said about small wins and taking the time to examine each sentence. Our words are gems, and words are powerful. We should always take care to say exactly what we mean and make every word count. That is the challenge and fun of writing!

    • Ragnar says:

      Growing up I read mostly long winded, descriptive fantasy. So rather than not having enough commas, for the longest time I had way too many commas. Just goes to show that you are what you read! Haha. Good list. I always feel like the most important part is coming back to the piece with fresh eyes. Otherwise overlooking mistakes is easy because in your mind it still makes sense.

    • I always have to do a continuity check for present/past tense. I’m with Julie Atwood. I hate “that” and don’t much like “which.” 🙂 But the most important thing I’ve found is to let it rest long enough. I prefer 3 to 6 months, deadlines permitting.

    • Reading aloud is a great tip and to make it even more horrifying, read it to someone. The best tip is to walk away for as long as you can. Come back with your editor’s hat on, and you will pick it apart much much better than if you never got up at all. Time is a great editor.

    • If you use the computer to read aloud, which software package do you prefer to use? The basic ones are so clunky that what you notice is them, not your writing.

      BTW, on #9, those are impersonal constructions, not passives.

      • Hi, I use Natural Reader. I like it that it’s impersonal and sounds like a computer. I easily catch incorrectly written words, repeated or missing words, and other things I would miss when reading silently.

        As far as your comment about “passive voice”: Anything that is weak, indirect, lacking action is passive. I don’t believe there is one “official” definition of the word. Passive progressive tense is shown in phrases like “he is eating,” which is weaker construction than “he eats” or “he ate.” It’s always best to try to write with stronger nouns and verbs, with more active phrasing. A sentence beginning with “it was” is passive, weak, lacking strong action.

    • I would add change the formatting – switch to a larger different font, perhaps. Often that helps me catch typos.

      Also, if you happen to have access to a computer program that will read to you, use it. My boss is blind and has one. It’s great because sometimes even reading aloud, we read what we expect to see instead of what’s there. The computer doesn’t.

    • All great tips and ones I employ which each new post. I think the fastest way to learn your mistakes and how to correct them is by using a good proofreading program like Grammarly. This will quickly show you where your grammar weaknesses are and how to correct them. Don’t forget, though, that there is no substitute for human proofreading.

    • Beware the dreaded word, “that.” Quite often, you don’t need it.

    • Marcy McKay says:

      You’re spot on with this post, C.S. The only thing I would is add is that when I read aloud to myself, I FORCE myself to read word-for-word EXACTLY what’s on the page, not what I think that I wrote. I catch quite a few errors that way, too.

      • I still miss things that way! Sometimes if I take the attitude that I am going to find a mistake in each sentence and I look for that mistake, it helps me to catch them. I don’t know why that works, but maybe it pulls me out of my complacency or assurance that everything is perfect. A seek-and-destroy mentality 🙂

        • Marcy McKay says:

          Oh, gee, I really like that mentality of saying you’ll find at least one mistake in each sentence….you’re bring out your inner English teacher. Love it. Thanks again for a great post and for responding. Happy writing!

    • Hi and thanks for the comments. Let me please state that I am looking now at the original document I sent to Write to Done for submission. It is perfectly correct, and yes, the words are in double quotes with the periods inside as has been stated to be the correct style. I am going to request that those posting my guest blog and who have altered the copy (that punctuation style is UK, not US) incorrectly to please fix it. It does reflect badly on me and so I am sure they will do so.

      • Vinita Zutshi says:

        Hi Susanne,

        My deepest apologies to you for the confusion caused.

        All the changes were made by me, and I have since rectified the post according to the document you originally sent me.

        You have always been one of our accomplished guest posters, and I’m sure our readers will continue to enjoy your blog posts for years to come.

        With warm wishes for your success,
        Vinita

        Guest Post Editor, Write to Done

    • Great tips well stated. However it’s offputting to see errors in use of quotation marks and commas.

      Numbers 5, 7, 9 and 10 all contain errors of comma placement relative to quotation marks.

      In the U.S., periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. ~ this is from an About.com article about grammar and punctuation. I’ll wager Strunk and White backs it up!

      • Vinita Zutshi says:

        Carolyn,

        The errors are mine. I apologize sincerely to you and our other readers for this.

        I’ve updated the post to reflect Susanne’s original placement of commas, periods, quotation marks and italicized words.

        In my defense, I’ve edited many posts on grammar, including those by American authors, and this is the first time we’ve had this response. But I guess there’s a first time for everything.

        Thanks for pointing out an area where I could write better!

        Susanne is a stellar blogger and copyeditor. No wonder she was one of the winners of our Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2013. More power to her!

        Warmly,

        Vinita Zutshi
        Guest Post Editor, Write to Done

    • I read my work out loud too (complete with over-the-top gesticulations for the stories characters).

      An added tip: Try to do your ‘out-loud’ editing early in the morning when it tends to be quieter (and less distracting).

    • Jon Eckrich says:

      Number 8 contains the phrase, “If the reader knows who’s speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over …” This is a common and frustrating error that is so pervasive in common parlance that I think few ever notice it. “Them” is plural, but “the reader” is singular. The antecedent does not follow the precedent. Until the English language gods come up with a singular version of “them,” or “they,” or until the OED declares these words to be singular AND plural, writers have to find another way.

      • I agree. I actually missed that. You’ll notice in a couple of other places I use a singular pronoun. It’s my habit to alternate between male and female in these types of sentences, to be fair. I like that method the best.

        • Joe Kovacs says:

          Jon and C.S., I have come to peace with this issue, that is, the use of “them” when one would otherwise be forced to choose, as C.S. does in her post, between the use of male and female. It may not be grammatically perfect but I also try not to be overly concerned with being TOO correct so that the reading experience becomes stilted. Overall, I agree with these 10 editing points though I also comment below to include another.

    • Thank you for the hints. I look forward to reading your new book and learning more about refining my editing skills. I like your idea to weed out weasel words. I’ll remember that term as I trim my chapters.

    • All good points. I have a list of weasel words, and let MS Word count the number of occurrences before and after I’ve wielded my axe. It’s very satisfying to see the change.

      I will take issue with part of point 5: while it’s certainly true that we need commas, the rule of always having a comma in the form “John said, ‘blah blah'” is not as clear cut as you have put it here. It’s a good default option, but colons and no punctuation can also be used, depending on how you want the rhythm of the sentence to go. If the tag had come after the speech, that would be a different matter!

      According to Lynne Truss, my favoured authority on punctuation, this use of the comma “is likely to lapse,” on the grounds that the opening of the inverted comma is sufficient indication that direct speech is coming.

      I will add one more tip, if I may: edit off a printout, not the screen (12pt, double spaced). I find a LOT more problems that way.

      • Actually, the rule is you need to have a comma when using direct address. There are Chicago rules for things like signs (the sign said “Keep out”) that specify you can omit the comma. But not with direct address.

        Sure, writers can break all the rules they want for the sake of personal style or “flow.” But you have to be careful that when you break the rules, you don’t come across as being sloppy or in error. Readers won’t know you’ve broken rules on purpose (they might guess but …). You would not use a colon in a speaker tag like this: “Go to bed”: Dad said. You can write: He said: “I’m home.” Sure. Although it’s not as common and, to some people, is clunky.

        The point I was making, however, is that writers need to use punctuation to make it clear they are using a speaker tag. Often the commas are missing from the manuscripts I edit and critique, and in many cases the meaning is much different from what the authors intended due to that omission.

    • I love the tip about reading your work out loud. It can catch a lot of ugly or unnatural expressions, especially in dialogue. I had another tip last week from a student on the fiction writing program I run. She dictates her stories directly into her laptop, using Windows’ built-in voice recognition software. She says it saves her a lot of time. She doesn’t have to draft the stories first on a notepad then type them in. She also claims she can do it while lying in the bath, her laptop on a stool and protected in a plastic bag. Anybody else tried that? 🙂


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