These self-editing tips are based collectively on submissions from my high school classes and adult creative writing workshops. These are not things you need to worry about while you’re writing. They are meant to help turn a first draft into a second draft. In other words, get the words onto the paper first. That’s the most important part. Then, read the work once as a reader and make any changes that spring immediately to mind. Then pick one or more of the following tips and keep them in mind as you reread your work again.
Read through these revision tips. Then pick ONE to focus on as you reread your paper. If you want to pick another one and reread a second time, that’s fine, but it will be difficult to focus on more than one of these at a time. That’s one reason professional authors do around 30 drafts of a book before readers ever see it.
Sentence structure variety: The more, the better.
You want long, short, and medium sentences in every paragraph. (For my grammar snobs and English teachers: you want simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences in every paragraph.) Try to avoid two sentences with a similar rhythm right next to one another, unless it’s really on purpose. For example, you don’t want a whole bunch of sentences clumped together that have a comma followed by “and.” You also don’t want to start more than two sentences in a row with the same word or part of speech.
Beware of your “pet” word or phrase.*
Most writers have a few things they say way too much in their writing. (Mine are “suddenly,” “of course,” and “it seemed.” You probably know yours. If you don’t, you can ask a reader to try to figure it out.) Do a word search for these phrases and replace them wherever possible.
Eliminate the words that can easily be eliminated
There are a few words that can almost always be eliminated. They include: really, actually, basically, and literally. There are also words that serve purposes but tend to be way overused. that (unless it’s a pronoun), and had/have (unless it’s possessive). Here’s example of a sentence where these words can be eliminated: I heard that he had bought a hamster and that it had escaped. The better version is: I heard he bought a hamster and it escaped.
Watch the clichés
If an image, description, or metaphor rings a bell, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a cliché. It can be surprisingly hard to think outside the box enough to find the clichés in your own writing, so ask a trusted friend to go through your work with a fine-toothed comb and see what catches their eye.
Follow Stephen King’s advice on adjectives and adverbs
Stephen King says to get rid of adjectives and adverbs whenever possible. This is good advice. It forces you to make the nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting, meaning-wise. For example, if you’re saying “ran quickly,” why not just say “sprinted?” Then again, you can also just say “ran,” because the “quickly” part is implied. If you are an adjective- or adverb-addict, try saving a draft of your work, then making a copy and trying to remove every single adjective and adverb from the copy. If there are a few lingering adjectives or pesky adverbs you just simply can’t part with, those are most likely the ones you really, genuinely need- or you’re just being an editing wimp.
Parenthesis are a red flag. (You almost never need them.)
In a good final draft, you almost never need parenthesis. Why? They are the punctuation version of saying, “Hey, reader, I’m about to go completely off topic. I want you to stop paying attention to what I’m writing, read the part in parenthesis, and then go back to paying attention to what I’m writing.” Sometimes, you can just get rid of the parenthesis and leave the writing as is. More often, they are a sign of information that you thought of while writing that you wish you’d included earlier in the piece (so if you find that they pop up in a lot of your early drafts, that’s okay). In a first draft, parenthesis are fine. In the second draft, try to find a better home for the information you initially placed in parenthesis.
The easiest way to figure out if you’re punctuating dialogue right
There are about 20 different rules about how to punctuate dialogue. If you’re unsure of yourself, the best way to double check your work without buying a style guide is to use any professionally published book as a model. Unless the book is very experimental, a professional editor has edited it to meet publishing standards, which means the dialogue should be done right.*
*If you’re a teacher looking to explain dialogue rules to students, you can download my free “dialogue dialogue” on TeacherPayTeachers. It’s a funny, 2-page dialogue that explains the top ten rules of writing, punctuating, attributing, and indenting dialogue.