Updated: Apr 24, 2020
When you've finished your edits on your plot, and gone through and self-edited your characters, it's time to start looking at the style and structure of your manuscript. I'm going to show you 12 more things to check for as you self-edit your manuscript.
This is part of a series, so make sure you go back and check these first!
These editing tips have been gathered from all over the internet in the form of “writing tips”, as well as from knowledge I've gleaned from two books: Stephen King's "On Writing", and "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White.
For how to write your manuscript, I suggest Stephen King's book. He has lots of useful tips and practical advice. He has a great section on editing as well. (Note: There is swearing and adult content in his book.)
For how to properly arrange your paragraphs, sentences, and punctuation, refer to "The Elements of Style". This little book wastes no time with lengthy introduction or opinion but dives straight in as an authority on writing clearly. The book is an excellent tribute to Strunk's maxim: Make every word tell.
As I've said before, I'm not an editor.
Nothing can replace a professional editor. Learning how to self-edit will improve your writing, sharpen your sentences, and help your work stand out in a sea of want-to-be-authors or self-published authors. All the tips I offer have been used in my own self-editing, and I found them very helpful.
1. Chapter Breaks
Make sure you are happy with where your chapters break in the story. This is mostly a matter of preference. Some books like to leave each chapter with a cliff hanger. Some just divide by scene. Not all my chapters are uniform in length, and that doesn't seem to be the case in many other books I read. This is just something for you to check.
2. Paragraph Breaks
You should have a new paragraph for change of idea, scene, or character, at the start of dialogue, and again when a different person starts speaking.
Long paragraphs can be daunting for readers. Make sure that you aren't overloading them with lots of big blocks of text.
3. Sentence Breaks
There are many different ways to write a sentence. I'm not going to list them here, but please do read through your manuscript to make sure you're varying their length and style. Mixing them up adds interest and even a certain musicality. Often, action scenes do best with short, snappy sentences that lend a sense of urgency. Variety is key!
Generally, follow the rules as you format your sentences, but a few one-word sentences or fragments can spice things up—when done for a specific intent. Don't mess up from ignorance, do it on purpose, for a purpose.
Extra Tip: Check Punctuation and Sentence Structure Together
This saves time and considering how both of these edits go hand in hand, it just makes good sense. Find a good book (like The Elements of Style) or a trustworthy online resource. Study up on the rules of punctuation first, then and read your manuscript slowly, checking both punctuation and sentence length at the same time.
4. Passive Sentences
A passive verb is where the action is happening without a clear idea of who is causing it. One common hack that usually works, is that if you can tack “by zombies” at the end of your sentence, it's passive.
Example: The ball was kicked across the room (by zombies).
He kicked the ball across the room. ("by zombies" does not fit)
Another passive sentence is where the subject of the sentence has an action performed to it by someone else.
She was kissed by the pirate. (passive)
The pirate kissed her. (active)
Note: Not all passive sentences are wrong! Many times this isn't a grammar issue, it is a style issue. Still, you should be able to notice passive sentences in your own writing and decide if the active voice is more powerful. (It usually is!)
Sometimes it's easier to pinpoint if you try to diagram the sentence. Get out your pencil and divide a sentence as you did in school. If you have to look twice to find the subject and predicate, your sentence may be passive.
There were plenty of toys and discarded laundry strewn about the room.
Heaps of toys and discarded laundry were strewn about the room.
The squabbling of little voices crying petulantly for treats could be heard.
She heard petulant little voices squabbling for treats.
Search for phrases like "there were" "there are" "could be heard" "could be seen" "was being" and see if you have some sneaky passive sentences to empower.
5. Qualifiers, or Wishy-washy sentences
She drew back, rather offended.
She drew back, offended.
He was quite tired.
He was tired. The garden was very quiet. She was quite sure that she was alone. She would have to be a little careful, or else someone would possibly hear her. It would be rather frustrating if she had to come back later.
Qualifiers sneak their way in easily, don't they? Phrases like "seemed to be" make you sound like you have no idea what is happening or are too afraid to put your foot down. After a while, qualifiers tire a reader. Try to save a character's indecisiveness for your dialogue.
6. Excessive Descriptors
Chances are you, like I, wrote your book pretty heavy on the descriptors. And that's good for a start anyway. You now know exactly what you're trying to say. However, when you read your manuscript, make sure that you are cutting back to the descriptors you actually need.
With adjectives, words that describe nouns, pick the strongest one (or maybe two) and ditch the rest. In my first draft, I had a descriptive scene that had 24 adjectives. I was able to easily knock it down to 17 without losing the in-depth feel of the scene.
With adverbs, you can delete most (or all!) of the ones that refer to speed, such as "quickly", "suddenly", "slowly". How? Check your verb and see if it can be stronger.
He ran quickly across the room.
He dashed across the room.
With other adverbs, cut the ones that are obvious.
She smiled happily. Cut.
She smiled cruelly. Keep.
Whenever possible, write with the strongest nouns and verbs you can, and save the adverbs and adjectives for garnish. I opened my "Find and Replace" on my word processor and looked up"ly". It took a while, but I was able to track down and destroy a heap of unnecessary adverbs.
7. Over-Used Phrases
Is your character flipping her hair over her shoulder every other paragraph? It gets annoying for the reader to read the same phrase too often.
Is every mountain rugged, and every stream bubbling? Mix it up a little!
8. Unnecessary Anatomy
There are some anatomical descriptions that are so obvious, it becomes comical when you notice them. (I used several in my earlier drafts. Whoops!) Examples:
She blinked her eyes. (as compared too . . .?)
His heart beat wildly in his chest.
With her eyes she looked over the field.
He released a puff of breath between his lips. (This could be talking about a nose, I suppose, but unless that matters, ditch the anatomy!)
9. Over Explanations
Don't say “He told them the story,” and then proceed to tell the story. It makes the sentence useless, and the reader feels like you believe they are too thick to understand. Another example would be when I write several sentences that describe how a person is feeling
and then tack on a summary like, “He was very sad, and he missed her” at the end. Well, shouldn't that have been obvious from the rest?
10. Long, Unnecessary Sections of Reflection.
Wherever possible, take your reader through the action rather than having someone remembering it in flashback or dream. It's much more exciting to be there than to hear about it, right? (Of course, this isn't always possible.)
11. If You Have to Read a Sentence Twice to Understand it, Change it.
Sometimes it's a mistake in the tense.
Make sure your tenses match.
Things were going smoothly until they was not.
He frowns, crossed the room, and tosses back his bourbon as he leaned against the window frame.
Sometimes it's just awkwardly worded.
Sometimes it just makes better sense, surely you can see, to simply re-write your sentence in a logical way.
Shift it around until it rolls smoothly the first time.
Keep related words together in a sentence. No one wants to guess which item you're talking about.
I'm sure you can bribe her to show up so you can tell her all about the dog you bought with a cup of coffee.
Do you bribe her with the coffee, bribe her to show up with coffee, or buy the dog with the coffee?
12. Don't Be Afraid to Use Technological Tools to Help
I used the "find and replace" tool in my word processor so much! Besides searching for the topics listed above, I used it to find all my "it's" and "its" to make sure I was using them properly. If I noticed I used the wrong form— "peeked" instead of "piqued"—I did a word search to make sure I didn't repeat the offense.
Run your writing through an app like Grammarly. It won't catch everything a good eye will, and sometimes it's wrong, but it can really help clean up your writing!
Modern technology is lovely, use it!
Learning to Self-edit WILL Improve Your Writing
And that should be your ultimate goal. Remember, a real editor has years of study and practice under their belt (well, hopefully!). Learning to self-edit can't replace an editor looking at your manuscript with fresh, professional (and unemotional!) eyes, but it will bring your manuscript up a level, making you stand out as a serious, committed writer.
Do you have any self-editing tips to add? Go ahead and share in the comments!
Are you ready to share your book with your first readers? Read on to learn about beta readers and how to use them!