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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

My personal list of editing do’s and don’ts

I’ve been reading a fair bit about other peoples editing lately, and looking at all the first-draft mistakes I make. Because of this I’ve recently added a new line (the one about comma splices) to my personal crib-sheet notes that I’ve put together over time. I’ve decided to put this slightly revised version up for public appraisal. I have this pinned to the wall, just to remind me when I’m editing. I’m not saying it’s comprehensive, but it’s what I use to get me thinking along the right lines when something untoward pops up in the re-writes.
I always try to remember the little axiom: Good editing won’t make you a better writer. But it will make your writing better.

And so to the list...

Check, check, check -
Check for comma splices, and make them separate sentences where possible.
Check for run-on sentences, and split them up where possible.
Check for passive voice, and make it active wherever it makes sense.

To quote -
“Remember to punctuate direct speech properly,” he said.
Don’t use dialogue to tell the reader something. Try to ‘show’ them it instead.

Punctuation –
Don’t use exclamation marks!
Try not to use semicolons; if you do make them sparse.
Watch apostrophe use –
Singular and plural possession:
 The cat's whiskers twitched. = the whiskers belonging to one cat.
 The cats’ whiskers twitched. = the whiskers of many cats.
Remember not to get possession mixed up with concatenation.

Don’t be a homophonic –
Always check for homophones… then get someone else to check!
And once you think you have theme all… check again!

General settings -
·        Watch the tense. Don’t mix past and present tense words within the narration.
Direct speech can be present tense in a past-tens story though (and vice versa).
·        Don’t go out of perspective.
Check the rules of first and third person perspective when using these.
If using omnipotent (god view) never make is sound like head-hopping.

Verbal mush – (ok, ‘mush’ isn’t the word I usually use)
Make sure you are not repeating a word or phrase too often, or too close together.
Make sure you have no awkward phrasing. It stops the flow of the text.
Rewrite ‘flat’ writing - Show don’t Tell. Most flat writing is ‘tell’ and may need to be shown in most cases.
Watch out for over-explaining and obtuse writing. Slim the sentence down to the functional prose, but not at the expense of clarity.
Kill the ly - Basically all the ‘ly’ words are filler, they generally add nothing but length, and mostly tend to make the sentence unnecessarily weaker. Remove them wherever possible.
Also, but to a lesser extent, watch the ‘ing’ words. Like the ‘ly’ they can flatten a sentence. I think this one is more of a judgement call.
Not "to be." - Watch for superfluous  words like “to be,” "be," "being," "been," "is," "am," "are," "was," "were," etc. Sometimes you need them. Sometimes you don’t.
Don’t list, catalogue, inventory, register.... at least not to excess, and not regularly.

The evening sky was a myriad of shimmering colours.
× The evening sky was a shimmering mass of dark blue, light blue, royal blue, rusty red, yellow, orange, cream, white and magenta.

So, do you agree with my little crib-sheet? Do you think I have any glaring omissions or duff advice in there? Again, this is just my take on the many rules and advice I have been quoted over the years, and looking for this stuff seems to work for me.


  1. Great advice! All of it makes sense in general editing, for certain. Some cases can be exceptions if the story calls for it.

    Like repetition of words.


    The knock jarred the house, and she tried to ignore it.
    Knock, knock, knock. :)

    And listing might be effective in a character with OCD tendencies.

    Ex: Gary checked off his list before he zipped the suitcase. Socks, shoes, pants, toothbrush and toothpaste in bag, tie, belt...oh no! No belt!

    Great post, and I'm following!

  2. Some very good points. Everything can be a judgement call and have exceptions, but by and large, I agree.

    Let me add something that a very highly placed editor taught me as far as mechanics, because all of those are pretty easy to read over.

    Select your manuscript and change the font and font size and then read it out loud. Changing the appearance helps you to see it with fresh eyes. Reading it out loud (time consuming but worthwhile) FORCES you to look at it word by word and also helps you hear the flow or lack of it.

    Thanks for the good post. Editing is difficult and essential.

  3. Thanks for the encouraging comments.

    Editing is often seen as a necessary evil, but it can be fun to nail that pesky paragraph that just doesn’t sit right.

    I’m glad I seem to be on the right lines at least!