Self-editing is a challenge for even the most skilled fiction writers. Once you’ve poured your heart and soul into a draft, it’s difficult to slash and revise the words you’ve become attached to.
But, as the famous writers’ expression goes, you must kill your darlings if you hope to create a work of fiction readers will love. Here’s an editing checklist to guide you through the arduous task of making a rough manuscript smooth and polished.
Clean and Tighten Your Writing
We like our writing like we like our bed sheets — clean and crisp. Check the strength of your writing on your first self-editing pass.
_____ Clear out the clutter. Have you eliminated most adverbs and made stronger verb choices instead? (It’s not spoke quietly, it’s whispered.) Have you eliminated filler words like that, just, even, seem, very, and really?
_____ Weed out “to be” verbs and other passive constructs. Passive writing often lacks specificity and clarity. Look for tell-tale “to be” words like was and were and see if you can rewrite to make the sentence more active.
____ Eliminate clichés. There’s a reason writers chuckle when they hear the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s the most infamous writing cliché there is. (There’s even a writing contest based on it.) Make sure your language isn’t trite. If you’ve heard it said before, it’s probably a cliché.
Check Your Narrative Flow
Does your story flow smoothly? Good self-editing helps fiction writers not only tighten their language but strengthen their narrative.
_____ Show, don’t tell. Sometimes you have to give your reader information by telling it directly, but most of the time it’s better to draw them into the story by painting a word picture that helps them imagine the scene vividly. Make sure you’ve used description and action. Instead of telling the reader your character felt lonely, show them what lonely looks like.
_____ Find and squash redundancies. Are you repeating yourself without meaning to? Some writers lean too heavily on certain turns of phrase. Keep an eye out for tautologies, too. Those are phrases that unnecessarily repeat themselves, like baby puppy, future predictions, and dilapidated ruins.
_____ Vary your sentence lengths. Sometimes sentences all sound the same. They have a sing-song rhythm. Each sentence is the same length. (See what we mean now?) Did you vary your sentence length to keep things interesting? Have you avoided overly long sentences that might be confusing and hard-to-read? Excellent!
_____ Pace yourself. Bombard us with constant action and we’ll grow weary of the intensity. Drone on with lengthy passages of description or exposition and we’ll fall asleep. Does your manuscript have a good blend of fast and slower-paced sections?
PRO TIP: Self-editing for fiction writers is AutoCrit’s specialty. Our online manuscript editor automates much of the revision process and helps you spot potential trouble areas. You can test AutoCrit for free.
Tidy Your Dialogue
Dialogue can make or break a story. Good dialogue moves the story along and captivates the reader. Bad dialogue makes us roll our eyes or, worse, set your book aside. These self-editing tips will help you make sure your dialogue is compelling.
_____ Get rid of excess dialogue tags. Is it already clear who’s speaking? If it is, there’s no need for a dialogue tag. Non-essential dialogue tags are just noise, and they distract from your story.
_____ Stick to “said” and “asked.” Seriously. “Said” and “asked” slip invisibly into the background and let your characters do the talking. But throw in “she effused” or “he guffawed” and suddenly we’re aware that there’s a writer at work. And it’s not a good kind of awareness.
_____ Keep adverbs out of dialogue tags. There’s a type of play on words dedicated to adverbs in dialogue tags. They’re called Tom Swifties. And they’re only good if you’re trying to get laughed at. Just as with your prose in general, when you’re self-editing fiction, get rid of as many adverbs as possible. Your editor, agent, and readers will thank you.
Don’t Lose the Plot
Our checklist is meant to help you strengthen your prose, which is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers 101. But, of course, checking these items off your revision list is not the only step. This guide is meant to give you a quick head start, but there are points you’ll need to address with character development, conflict, action, theme, and more. That’s where beta readers, developmental editors, and your own knowledge of how stories work comes into play.
But if you get the worst of your writing struggles tackled first, you’ll be able to focus on those big picture edits to make sure your characters are relatable and your plot is strong. (Remember, AutoCrit stands ready to guide you through the process if you need a hand!)
What’s your biggest self-editing struggle? What are your fiction writing challenges? Share them in a comment below. It’s a safe bet that many other writers will relate.