Friday, June 15, 2012

10 Self-Editing Tips for Writers

I don't often talk about the craft of writing. I suffer from trying to apply all advice all the time and loosing my voice. I'm hesitant to give advice because I believe the best thing you can do is write from your heart. For every piece of writing advice you read, there will be examples of extremely successful writers who do just the opposite. To quote Stephen King's review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

The part of speech that indicates insecurity ("Did you really hear me? Do you really understand me?") is the adverb, and Ms. Rowling seems to have never met one she didn't like, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. Harry's godfather, Sirius, speaks "exasperatedly"; Mrs. Weasley (mother of Harry's best friend, Ron) speaks "sharply"; Tonks (a clumsy witch with punked-up, particolor hair) speaks "earnestly." As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often given his current case of raving adolescence –– ANGRILY.

No one can argue J.K. Rowling hasn't been successful. She has written books that resonate with readers in a way that is almost impossible to top. Never taking writing advice - even from someone like Stephen King - as an iron-clad edict. Know this advice is out here and learn the WHY before blindly applying. Above all, stay true to you and your story.

All that being said, here are a few bits of advice I've picked up on self-editing to cut unnecessary words. Take what you can and ignore the rest!

1.) Adverbs. Yep. Most of the time, I don't need them. If readers can't tell a character spoke in anger, there might be a problem with the scene and just adding "angrily" isn't going to fix it. I run a search in Word for "ly" and examine each one to see if that extra description is needed at all, and if so, is there a stronger way I can write it? Usually there is.

2.) Passives. Why write "was/were running" when I can simplify to "ran"? Because when I'm drafting, I don't think about it. I just write. But when editing, I try to simplify as much as I can. It's clearer, more immediate and cuts word count.

3.) Began. Boy, this word pops up all over and almost 100% of the time, it doesn't add a thing. Again, why do I need "began to run" when I can skip straight to "ran"? When writing, it feels like to I need to explain the action is just starting, but isn't that obvious when you read it? If you're not sure, change it, then see if it jumps out during your next read through. It probably won't.

4.) That. Whenever this word pops up, I try the sentence without it. Often, it's still grammatically correct and conveys the same message without it. It just slips in. A lot.

5.) Just. Why do I use that word so much? I usually keep it in dialog. It seems more natural to me. But otherwise, it can go most of the time.

6.) Obvious descriptions. "Crossed her arms over her chest." Where else would she cross them? "Ground his teeth together." Can he grind them apart? As you read, think if there are ways to cut things that are implied.

7.) Seemed. This is a filter word. It creates distance. "The lights seemed to dim" vs. "the lights dimmed." If I'm in my character's head, of course it seemed that way to her. It's not needed.

8.) Dialog tags. I often write "he said" then give him an action. Most of the time, the action explains who is speaking, making the dialog tag unnecessary. (On a side note, try to keep dialog tags to "said" instead of "yelled," "muttered," "whined." Again, the context of the dialog should give the reader enough of the tone that they're not needed.)

9.) Comfort words. These change for everyone, but they're the words we use over and over and over because we like them. I use "eyes" FAR too much. I mentions eyes 200 times in 65,000 words right now. Know your writing (critique partners are invaluable for this) and know what words to look for. They're like a bad relationship - you keep going back, but you really don't need them.

10.) Names in dialog. There are times when one character would address another by name, but often, it just pads my word count and makes my dialog less authentic. Days go by that I don't address my husband by name. I use my son's name to catch his attention or correct his actions. Think about how you speak in real life and apply that to dialog. Don't use names unless absolutely necessary.

So there are some tips I've picked up. Remember, these are suggestions - not hard and fast laws. Take what you can, but don't let them ruin your voice or your love of writing.

Are there any I've missed? What are your favorite self-editing tips? Hooray for revising!


  1. Nice post :D I found this helpful, thanks.

  2. Very much on the spot advice. Totally relatable. I'll keep this in mind when I start a new round of revisions. Thanks!

  3. This is a great list - wish every writer had this before sending a MS off to a beta. It would save so much time!

  4. This is a GREAT post, Jenny. I am guilty of many of these too!

  5. Yeah, all these are all on my listssssss! Great post.

    My comfort words are sighed and whisper. I used whisper in one form or another 900 times in a 113k MS. I know I write about Whisperers, but that is a bit excessive, no? Geesh. Good news is, after doing these word searches MS after MS, I find I'm getting better. I don't use "seemed to" as much, or "began", "tried", "hoped to"... I'm still searching for them, but it's much quicker. I used "seemed" once in my last MS.

    Another one that might be handy that I noticed I do a lot and so do my crit partners, is addressing the reader.-- Can you imagine that? Isn't that crazy? Why would I do that? -- To me, as I write, this is my character thinking, but when I read it, it comes off like he's asking the reader this question. If I built my scene right, there is no need to ask himself or the reader, so I delete.

  6. Excellent article! Thanks for posting it.