5 Guidelines for Self-Editing

In my efforts to self-edit my novel, I’ve been reading a lot of books on self-editing. (Surprise, surprise!) Though they each have their own examples and ways of teaching things, they all cover the same basic principles.

I’ll briefly list the top five things that are covered in ALL the books. These apply more to novels, but I’m sure you could apply them to non-fiction, too.

So, here they are, the first five of ten common mistakes first time authors make. (I’ll cover five more next week.)

Flowery Prose.

This is okay with poetry, but when it comes to writing a novel, don’t show off. It only distracts the reader from the story. Keep it simple. Say it as it is.

“A musical laughter spilled out of her perfect pink lips.”

Gag me. I’m guilty of writing this in my novel. So glad I’m taking the time to learn the craft.

Speaker Attributions that distract reader. 

According to Jeff Gerke in The First Fifty Pages, “There is a small pool of speech attributions that are invisible to the reader. They are said, asked, shouted, whispered, and muttered. Maybe half a dozen others.”

Don’t take away from the story by using speaker attributions like seethed, or, God forbid, laughed or chuckled. Can you actually laugh a sentence? No. You may laugh while you’re saying something, but you can’t actually laugh words. If you want your reader to understand how someone is saying something, show it.

He slammed his mug on the table, sloshing coffee everywhere. “I already told you, I’m not interested.”

“Stick with invisible words,” she said.


In this day and age, you can’t get away with using clichés. Not by a long shot. Nip them in the bud. Don’t go with your gut feeling, but find something fresh and new, tried and true. Don’t beat around the bush, but take the bull by the horns and get all your ducks in a row.

Or something like that.

In other words, use something original. (You can probably tell I’ve been reading way too many books on this subject.) Oh, and thanks to Mary DeMuth for her book 11 Secrets to Getting Published, which provides a long, helpful list of clichés to avoid.


All those –ly words that modify verbs. Adverbs weaken the effect of the action, rather than strengthening it. Why not just use a strong verb? Instead of  writing she ran quickly, write she raced. It’s okay to use adverbs every so often, but don’t overdo it.

Passive voice.

Which sounds better? The villain was hit by the hero, or,the hero hit the villain? Try to get rid of all those ‘being’ verbs. (am, is, are, was, were, etc.)

Suggested Reading.

These are common rules, I know, but they’re also common mistakes. I listed some books below that you can read to go more in depth on these guidelines.

The First Fifty Pages by Jeff Gerke

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers Browne & King

11 Secrets to Getting Published Mary E. DeMuth

Revision & Self-Editing James Scott Bell

Your First Novel by Rittenberg & Whitcomb

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