Tuesday, June 23, 2009

ARTICLE by KELLEY HECKART - Self-editing Help

Self-Editing Help

The editing process can be difficult, but by following some guidelines, the process can be more efficient. At least that is what I keep telling myself each time I have to self-edit a manuscript before submitting it to a publisher. I have to admit that it does seem to get easier the more I do it. I have a list of self-editing tips that I follow and they have helped me so far.

Compelling openings: This is the first thing I check. The opening of a story should grab the reader right away. If not, it needs to be re-written.

Strong verbs: For example, instead of writing The girl went outside, write The girl skipped across the room. The second sentence does a better job of describing the action. Also, try to avoid using too many adverbs, or 'ly' words. Too many adverbs will annoy an editor. Here is a link to a helpful site by Deanna Carlyle with a list of over a thousand action verbs: http://www.deannacarlyle.com/articles/verb.html

Use of the five senses: Using the five senses (touch, sound, smell, sight, and taste) will help with descriptions and show instead of tell.

Showing/not telling: This is the one I had the most trouble with until I learned that a great way to tell if a sentence is too telling is if it contains the words 'was' or 'were.' For an example, here is the original opening of my book, Cat's Curse: It was so cold she was certain ice clung to the moon like silver talons. She felt the cold—it bit into her bones, a reminder that she was once mortal. She moved through the thick forest of tall pine, oak, beech, birch and rowan, venturing further into the forest, her booted feet crunching on the frost-encrusted earth.

Here is the new opening: The hunt called to her, singing in her veins. Moonbeams cleaved through the frozen night, striking the earth between outstretched branches like gleaming metal blades. Cold air cut into her bones with sharp, icy talons, reminding her she had once been mortal. Venturing further into the thick forest of tall pine, oak, beech, birch and rowan, Cardea's booted feet crunched on the frost-encrusted earth, her senses searching out the sweet scent of blood.

Which one is showing more than telling? Hopefully, you picked the second one. When I self-edit now, I do a search on these two words. My rule of thumb is if the sentence can be re-written, I change it. If not, I skip over it. There is nothing wrong with using either of these words in a sentence, but overusing them could mean a rejection on an otherwise great manuscript.

Unnecessary/Overused words: This is the one I have to fix every time. I have different words for each new story that I like to use over and over again. Overusing words is very annoying to an editor or a reader. By the fourth draft, I start to notice the overused words and so I do a search for them and change some to a different word. Some of the most common overused words are felt, that, had, could, should, would, am, is, are, were, be, being, been, have, can, will, may, might, just, so, did, does. My rule for this is the same as the one for showing/telling: if another word can be substituted, then I change it, if not, I skip it. In some cases like with 'had' or 'that' the word can be omitted.

Varied sentence structure: For this one, just make sure every sentence does not begin with The or She/He/I and have longer sentences mixed with shorter ones. Here is another example from Cat's Curse: A pleased smile formed on Cardea’s lips. The strong scent of blood stirred her senses--warm blood…and human. Like an experienced predator, she adjusted her step, moving on silent feet through carpets of fern toward the scent of fresh blood, eager to sate her thirst. She moved like a shadow, darting in and out of the lofty trees.

Expanded moments: Expanding a moment with vivid descriptions can help with showing more and helps to draw the reader in and hook her. I usually do this in the final drafts. I like to think of it as icing on the cake.

Hopefully these tips will help other writers as much as they help me. I'm sure I probably left something out, so if someone has anything else to add, please comment.

-Kelley Heckart


  1. I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard as part of my editing process. It automatically finds most of the problems you identified.

    It is SOOO handy since it is often difficult to see the problems in your own writing.

  2. Janine, Thanks for that information. I will look into it. I had no idea there was something like that to assist with self-editing. And it's so true that it's difficult for a writer to see his or her own errors.


  3. Hi Kelly:
    Thanks for a helpful article. Very well put.