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).