Self-Editing: How To Pull the Weeds From Your Manuscript.

Exhilarated that I received several requests for full reads on the manuscript of my first novel, I saw myself on the fast track to getting published. Most of my writer buds had sent out tons of queries and received “thanks, but no thanks” that’s if they received any response at all. I’d only sent out a few and received several requests, one from the agency for the Hunger Games. I sent and waited. Each responded identically. “It’s in serious need of editing.” Ouch.

It’s a struggle to hear the criticism. We refute and rebut. We learn. We accept. We improve. We learn to trust. It takes months and months to get there.

I decided to spring for a professional editor in the amount of $1100. I found him on Editors and Predators. He had a good rating and listed himself as having edited one of Stephen King’s books. I sent him the ms and he did it the old-fashioned way, long hand. I quickly understood that I’d made tons of rookie mistakes and was mortified. Some seemed picayune, but now I realize they smacked of lack of skill rather than being nit-picky.

annualbluegrassHeather told us how to “story edit” this week, but I’m talking about the stuff that you really hate to do. The proofreading for bad technique. The nitty-gritty of bad writing. I know this stuff by heart now, and yes some of it always seems to slip back in and I have to weed it out.

Here’s a checklist of absolute don’ts, as explained to me. I use the search and replace function in Word to expedite things. So when I’m happy with my story: I’ve layered in added setting, emotion and description, and I think I’m finally done, I dig in and do the technical editing. And I hate every single minute of it.

Quick Tips for Self-Editing:

Print this out and use it as a checklist to give the final shine to your work. Make it lean and mean!

  • Check contractions. Use them for dialogue and inner monologue. That’s the way people talk and think.
  • Use CAPS for yelling, italics for emphasis.
  • Numbers: spell out with fewer than two words; hyphenate two-digit numbers: Five, nineteen, 123, twenty-three. Always write out at the beginning of a sentence. May use number in hyphenated item: 12-gauge shotgun, 20-ounce drink.
  • Nor/or:  nor for negative (neither, not) or, for positive.
  • Avoid these bad words/phrases: up until, rose up, smile on his face, circled around, amongst (use among only), the ones, ever since, yelled out, off of, grabbed hold of vs. grabbed, nodded his head, little bit, the ones, more/most importantly (avoid but if used drop the -ly), in order to, seemed to, tried to, hoped to, appeared to, or pretty much anything before to,” followed after/behind, into vs. in to:  Into when subject is on outside going in, “He jumped into the pool.” vs. “He jumped in the pool.”
  • POV violations. Each scene should be one POV.  The character can’t know what someone is thinking, she can only guess.
  • Dangling modifiers: “Settling into the back seat, car exhaust blew in through the half-open windows. Sounds like the exhaust is settling into the back seat.
  • Overuse of fragments. They can be used for effect but be stingy with them.
  • Dialogue tags: Skip them whenever possible. If you need to use them, “said” is the one a reader most easily reads over. A better technique is to give an action instead: John handed her the fax. “Read this.” Don’t use these as tags: she sobbed, he gasped, he breathed. Those are actions, not dialogue tags. Instead. She sobbed. “I think I’m going to have to sit down.” Which means she’s crying and needs to sit down.
  • Avoid second person statements.  Use: To get to the second floor, I had to go up a steep flight of stairs. Not: “To get to the second floor, you had to go up a flight of stairs.”  Don’t bring the reader “you” into it.
  • Avoid Talking Heads: (Ping-Pong dialogue with no emotion or body language.) Give a sense of place or mood with selective detail to enhance the dialogue.
  • Avoid paragraphs that are too long.
  • Make sure you have tense and plural/singular agreement.
  • Watch for these easy errors: every day vs. everyday, it vs. it’s, brake vs. break, peak, peek, pique. I had an agent once tell me “You peeked my interest.” Seriously?
  • Blonde for women, blond for men. Who knew?
  • Use names and how characters look in the first 25% of the novel to imprint them on the reader’s mind.
  • Farther vs. further: farther is distance, further is to a greater extent.
  • Lie vs. lay: Lie means to recline yourself, past tense is lay. Lay is to place something down, you do it to something, past tense is laid.
  • Towards vs. towards: never add the “s”.
  • Then vs. than. Easy to transpose.
  • Use a single space after periods. (This isn’t what you’re taught in keyboarding class!)
  • Never put a scene change at the bottom of a page.
  • Ellipsis (…) I you use it for hesitation, space before and at the end. “Well … maybe I… If you’re drifting off, or plan to leave the sentence incomplete, then no space.
  • Only italicize profound inner thoughts, no quotes, never underline unspoken words. Use dashes to indicate a character being interrupted.
  • Here are words to eliminate at every possible opportunity: really, that, very, suddenly. And watch out for too many words ending in “ly”…adverbs.
  • And I just learned this one: Beware of the prepositional phrase! Say, “He handed her the water bottle.” rather than, “He handed her the bottle of water.”

I just saved you $1100. You’re welcome!

Up Next from Caryn? The “To Be” Edit. It’s a killer! And just in time for Halloween!



Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

7 thoughts on “Self-Editing: How To Pull the Weeds From Your Manuscript.”

  1. “Courier Font is the only font that gives accurate word count.” Say what? I tried two pages of type with ten different fonts, and the word count was the same each time. Are you serious, or is this just a trick to see if we’re reading the post all the way through?

    1. Hi Lyn, We are sorry about that mistake. Of course a word count is always the same, font style and size makes no difference. Thank you for pointing out the flub. I think the line should have read accurate “page” count. Page count is highly sensitive to font changes. However, the blogger who wrote that post hasn’t been with us for over a year, so I’ve removed the line to end any future confusion. Thanks again for pointing out the mistake.

  2. Thank you again, Caryn, I got a lot from this post… except the last item, you say you just learned it, but it sounds wrong to me. ‘He handed me the water bottle’ – a bottle made of water? A hot water bottle for bed? Surely ‘He handed her the bottle of water’ tells exactly what he handed to her?

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