19 Self-editing Tips



Now that I’ve published my first novel, To Hunt a Sub, I can say from experience that writing it and editing it took equally long periods of time (and marketing is just as involved). After finishing the final rough draft (yeah, sure) and before emailing it to an editor, I wanted it as clean possible. I searched through a wide collection of self-editing books like these:

The Novel Writer’s Toolkit by Bob Mayer

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne

The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall

…and came up with a list of fixes that I felt would not only clean up grammar and editing, but the voice and pacing that seemed to bog my story down. Here are ideas you might like:

  • Use ‘was’ only twice per page. This includes ‘were’ and ‘is’.
  • Limit adverbs. Search for ‘ly’ endings and get rid of as many as possible.
  • Watch out for bouncing eyes–
    • He dropped his eyes to the floor.
    • His eyes roved the room
  • Use gerunds sparingly. Search for -ing endings and eliminate as many as possible.
  • Eliminate ‘very’.
  • Eliminate ‘not’ and ‘n’t’–switch them to a positive. Rather than ‘he couldn’t run, he was so tired‘, say ‘he stumbled forward, his legs so tired they refused to obey’.
  • Eliminate dialogue tags as often as possible. Indicate a speaker by actions. Those you keep should be simple, like said.
  • Be specific. Not ‘the car’, but the red Oldsmobile convertible’.
  • Eliminate but, the fact that, just, began to, started to. Rarely do these move the action forward.
  • Use qualifiers sparingly. This includes a bit, little, fairly, highly, kind of, mostly, rather, really, slightly, sort of, appeared to, seemed to--you get the idea. These make you sound unsure.
  • Run your manuscript through an auto-editor like Autocrit. It’ll find problems like sentence length variations and repetition of words so you can fix them.
  • Run your manuscript through a grammar checker like Grammarly or Hemingway.
  • Don’t have too many prepositional phrases in a sentence. There’s no set rule, but if you get lost before the sentence ends, you have too many.
  • Secure each chapter in place and time. A quick reminder of where characters are and whether it’s in the present or past is good enough.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. It’s tempting to retell events when a character is talking to someone who didn’t live through the last few chapters, but summarize instead–briefly. Your audience already knows this material.
  • Verify that time tracks correctly in your novel. Make sure the day is correct and that characters have enough time to get from here to there in the timeline.
  • Verify that your characters are wearing the correct clothing and have the right reactions for their position in the timeline. For example, if they were in a car accident, when they appear again in the novel, make sure they act accordingly.
  • Describe with all senses. Add what your character smelled or heard along with what s/he saw.
  • Don’t tell what you’re showing. Use one or the other, preferably showing.

A great way to find these mis-writings is with Ctrl+F, the universal Find shortkey. It will highlight all instances of whatever you’re searching on the page.

What these don’t address is character development, plotting, or living scenes so you’ll still have to deal with those prior to sending it to your editor.

What are your secrets to self-editing? I’d love to add it to this list.

More on self-editing:

11 Tips to Self-Editing Your Manuscript

How to Edit Your Novel (according to Yuvi)

20 Hints that Mark the Novice Writer

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


134 thoughts on “19 Self-editing Tips

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    • In quantity, they are passive. Many new writers slip into a comfortable mitigating writing style that includes far too many gerunds to allow for the energy and excitement needed in a good read.

      What do you think?


      • Ah, so that’s the issue. I’m not sure what to think. Maybe I’ll look for good and bad examples in my own and the writing of others. Either it doesn’t bother me or I’m reading lots of works without an excess. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • If there’s a rule about following rules (such as gerund use), it’s this: The experts seem to agree if you know the rule, you can consciously NOT follow it. It’s only if you don’t know the rule, you must abide by it.

          Does that make sense? Basically it means, now that you know about gerunds, you’re free to do whatever you want!

          Liked by 1 person

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  14. This is a good post, Jacqui. I have published 13 books and self-edit to the extent that I don’t use an editor, and (reviews tell me) do so successfully, though obviously I’ve improved over time and my more recent books are far better. I think you have to be able to be exceptionally picky and harsh with yourself – it’s not for everyone! As for continuity, I always have A4 sheets with the timeline on the wall above my desk. Really helps.

    The best bit of advice I can give anyone re editing is the old one of putting the book away for a month then looking at it with fresh eyes. No one wants to do it, but it WORKS. And don’t rely on software. If you do, you’ll never get used to spotting areas with room for improvement yourself, and no rules are hard and fast. Sometimes ‘really’ or ‘almost’ might work in the sentence, ditto ‘she whispered’. Not often, but you won’t recognise them if you use software that picks out isolated incidents, as you edit best by reading the book as a whole. I think that the description of sights and smells needs to be limited, too. It’s classic creative writing course advice, but I’ve read too many debut novels in which the action is held up by the constant description of scenes. You can only work out where a novel needs less or more description by actually reading it, as a reader would.

    All this is only my opinion, I do not profess to be an expert!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of great advice, Terry. I’m with you on all of it. I do use an auto-editor (AutoCrit), but it works a bit differently: It finds all those oddities, but shows them in context, so I can find the ones that work and what doesn’t.

      I wanted to visit your site, see your books, but there’s no link? Do you mind sharing your blog info? I’d love to see what you’ve written.


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  16. What great tips!!! I had an editor for my freelance work who wouldn’t let me use is, are, was, or were. Which is ridiculous because it DOES have a purpose. It isn’t always a sign you’re using passive voice!!! But it did force me to come up with more powerful words to replace those words and as a result, my writing was more powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Stephanie. Interesting she eliminated them entirely. As you say, they are useful to slow things down, destress them, transition–lots of reasons. That’s why I limit them, but not eliminate. I too have found it makes a huge difference in my writing.


  17. I’m ” adding “some , about, and really” to your list of words to search for and substitute descriptive alternatives.

    As always, you’ve shared great tips. (Or I suppose I was “about” to say these are “some really” great tips. ” ; )

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi. “To be” verbs should be avoided. I think you reference this when you say avoid “was” “is” “were” etc. Just in case . . . Your list is “very” good. 😉

    Excising jargon and academic mumbo jumbo is another big one. I recently read something on the NY TImes site that included the phrase “I advised her to instrumentalize her priorities”. This, supposedly, from someone who teaches writing.

    I had to laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Jacqui, this is a great list of tools to fix your story. Any story will benefit by application of these tips.

    The one I’m often guilty of: getting rid of the arty-farty stuff that doesn’t contribute. You’ll remember that in one of my books, every chapter began with a poem about trees. I spent many (many) hours looking for appropriate poetry – then spent about 30 minutes removing every single one of them. It cut my story by thousands of words. Better, it allowed the story to breathe on its own. If a story’s voice is weak, a little jingle someone else wrote isn’t going to build the orchestra the book needs.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Just not too often. I looked up some synonyms for ‘but’ and will try to remember to use them instead. (Although, on the other hand, nevertheless ..) However .. laziness sets in and ‘but’ is so easy.


  20. Jacuqi, a BIG thank you for sharing this list – it is brilliant!! 😀😀 I’m reading through it, nodding, saying, yes, of course, so obvious but things I’ve missed. The -ing words appear far too often in my writing and love the idea of changing the negative to a positive word, also time and character verification…so much here. Printing this out and it’s going on my wall!! 😀😀(just read this through again and lots of ‘ings’!! Arghh!)

    Liked by 2 people

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