I finished my manuscript! Now, that is a wonderful feeling, and one I hope to replicate many times in the future. But, it’s not all fun and games, yet. My friend is a book coach, and after reading over my story, she informed me there was still a lot of work to be done. She left me helpful notes but I knew the writing could improve more. Thus, enter self-editing.
What is self-editing?
I had heard the term self editing many times and always assumed it meant proofreading. Well, I’m no editor. Once I had already run the manuscript through ProWritingAid, further proof-reading was out for me.
I thought: there has to be more to this self-editing everyone is talking about than that. There must be a list somewhere that would help me figure out what to look for. So off to the Google I went and wouldn’t you know there are hundreds if not thousands of self-editing checklists. I became overwhelmed and decided to check the one place I knew would have something useful: The Moms Who Write Blog.
While there wasn’t a checklist (yet), there were a few blog posts regarding editing and self-editing that were very helpful and pointed me in the right direction. Keep reading for what helped me most, plus my own self-editing checklist, compiled from the experts!
Self-editing: filter words
The first thing that caught my eye in Susan’s blog was filter words. What are they and why do they matter? Filter words are extra words, plain and simple. They put distance between your reader and your character. Usually, they are words used to explain a character’s thought process or actions.
Say you wrote, “I heard the wind howl.” Truthfully, a simple the wind howled is all the words necessary to get the point across, and also avoids passive voice. Eliminating filter words also helps you to show instead of tell. I noticed that in my own writing these words tend to be accompanied by the word “I” followed by an action.
Here’s an example from my book The Havoc State:
‘I stepped over a body, the man’s blood pooling around him. I leaned over and pulled my knife from his throat, wiping it on his shirt as I made my way through the old bar. The pungent scent of stagnant beer and smoke mixed with the rusty smell of dried blood that covered my shirt. Pops’ blood, the reason I was on this vengeance mission. My fingers raked through my long brown hair, brushing it back out of my face. They were all going to pay for the murder of my grandfather.’
The self-edited fix:
‘He twitched as the blade slid from his throat, blood pooling around his body. He was slowly dying, but I needed my knife back. My gaze darted around to avoid watching the life leave his eyes as I wiped the blood on his shirt. The smells of the old bar: stagnant beer and smoke brought bile to my throat as they mixed with the rusty scent of dried blood covering my clothes. Pop’s blood. His death was the reason for this vengeance mission. My fingers raked through my long brown hair, brushing it back out of my face. They were all going to pay for the murder of my grandfather.’
I grumbled when I searched “I” in my google docs and came up with almost four-thousand uses of it. Now to be fair some of those are other words that start with the letter “I” so the exact number is still up in the air, but four-thousand? My first thought was, I wrote it that way because I couldn’t figure out how to say it another way. But, with time, it’s doable.
Other common filler words are: see, heard, watched, thought, feel. I recently made a TikTok about mine and these are some of the examples others gave as their words: Smiled, gazed, which, the, awesome, actually, meditatively, but. Every writer has words that they use too frequently in their writing.
One of mine has become a bit of a joke in the Moms Who Write Admin group. My magic word is flapped. I use it in a variety of ways, and though it makes sense in each context, there are often many more stronger words that I could use instead. Sometimes, while I’m writing I will write flap and highlight it to come back to later when I have time to think about a replacement.
Once it was pointed out to me, I have been able to pick up on when I’m going to use it and find a better description. If you know your word/words, then searching them out in your document will be that much easier.
Self-editing for passive voice
Overuse of passive voice can rob a scene of vitality. Reduce it where you can, so that the places you keep it can be more effective!
Passive voice: The ball is being chased by the dog.
The action’s target, the ball, is the first focus. Therefore, the subject, the dog, is being acted upon by the verb. Big words to say the subject is passive. To make the sentence active, simply flip the placement of the subject, as in the following example:
Active voice: The dog chases the ball.
The subject, the dog, is performing the action.
More approaches to self-editing
Were you hoping for a checklist? I have you covered. After you check your spelling and grammar, these are the next steps for self-editing.
- Check for sentence fragments.
- Check for run-ons, comma splices and fused sentences.
- Sentence variety. The length of sentences and flow should not be repetitive. Reading aloud will help you pick up on this.
4. Choose strong verbs vs. weak verbs.
- Now, this may be hard, but check your wordiness. We know you’re a writer, but don’t use ten words when you can use four or five.
- Use simple words over complicated ones.
Complicated: You should ascertain the information.
Simple: You should learn the information.
Words to just plain delete
- First, delete redundant words. “He blinked his eyes.” The word “eyes” is redundant; you can’t blink without eyes!
2. Don’t use up and down unless necessary. (Here I go with the flapping again.)
She flapped her arms up and down.
She flapped her arms.
3. Delete that, unless necessary for clarity.
4. Delete really and very.
5. Don’t over explain. Yes, this goes back to check your wordiness. Don’t say, “Then he walked through the door and sat down in a chair,” when you could say, “He walked in and sat.”
6. Similarly, avoid stage directions. Example: She then moved across the room, turned to her right, and sat on the bed. Instead, try simply, She sat on the bed.
- Avoid starting multiple sentences in a row with the same word. This is true for SEO, too!
- Spice up your emotional descriptions. Don’t say, “her heart raced” repeatedly. Not everyone is going to have a racing heart and if they do, they might need a doctor. Check out the Emotional Thesaurus for help.
Self-editing is a process.
Of course, these are a just few ways to help get your manuscript one step closer to publishing. Some of these examples are likely to be more helpful than others to you. That’s ok; we all have our own strengths and weaknesses! So use what helps, and utilize beta readers to catch what you don’t.
If you have any self-editing ideas to add to the list, comment below to share with others. Happy self-editing!
Amber J. Painter is a sci-fi/fantasy writer known for works such as The Murder Tour and Havoc State. She also publishes under the name Rose J. Rigby.