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Six Ways To Self-Edit & Polish Your Prose

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Whether you are new to writing or an old pro, brushing up on the basics is always helpful. Because no matter how GOOD the story is? If the reader is busy stumbling over this stuff, it ruins the fictive dream and she will never GET to the story. So today we are going to cover six ways to self-edit your fiction. Though this stuff might seem like a no-brainer, I see these blunders ALL the time.

….unfortunately even in (legacy) published books.

When I worked as an editor, I found it frustrating when I couldn’t even GET to the story because I was too distracted by these all too common oopses.

There are many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing oopses you could’ve easily repaired yourself? You’re burning cash and time. Yet, correct these problems, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of your novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.

#1 The Brutal Truth about Adverbs, Metaphors and Similes

I have never met an adverb, simile, or metaphor I didn’t LOVE. I totally dig description, but it can present problems.

First of all, adverbs are not ALL evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly? Really? O_o Ah, but if they whisper seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t already implied by the verb.

Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones. Kill them. Dead.

Metaphors and similes are awesome, but need to be used sparingly. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using 42 metaphors in 5 pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.

When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called “purple prose.” This glitter, while sparkly, can pull the reader out of the story or even confuse the reader. A while back, I edited a winner’s 20 page entry. The story began on a whitewater river and the rafters were careening toward a “rock coffee table.”

Huh?

Oh, the boulder is squarish shaped!

Thing is, the metaphor made me stop to figure out what image the author was trying to create. If the rafters had merely been careening toward a giant flat rock? Not as pretty but I could have remained in the story without trying to figure out how the hell furniture ended up in the river.

I’ve read some great books, but as an editor, I might have cut some of the metaphors. Why? Because the author might have a metaphor SO GOOD I wanted to highlight it and commit it to memory…but it was bogged down by the other four metaphors and three similes on the same page. The other metaphors/similes added nothing…unless one counts distraction.

Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes. Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST. Look for confusing metaphors, like rock furniture in the middle of a river.

#2 Stage Direction

She reached out her arm to open the door.

Okay, unless she has mind powers and telekinesis, do we need the direction?

He turned to go down the next street.

He picked up the oars and pulled a few more strokes, eager to get to his favorite fishing spot.

We “get” he’d have to pick up the oars to row his boat, or that is a seriously cool trick.

Be active. Characters can “brush hair out of their face” “open doors” and even slap people without you telling us they reached out an arm or hand to do this. We are smart. Really.

#3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

#4 Too Much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Get a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We assume until they are out of danger it’s still pounding. No need to remind us.

Really.

#5 Backing Into the Sentence/Passive Voice

In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many writers will craft sentences like this:

With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.

Problem? Passive action. When we use the word “down” then “on” is redundant. Either she is ironing or not ironing. “Started” is overused and makes sloppy writing. That actually goes back to the whole “stage direction” thing.

Active:

Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.

The door was kicked in by the police.

Police kicked in the door.

If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.

#6 Almost ALWAYS Use “Said” as a Tag

“You are such a jerk,” she laughed.

A character can’t “laugh” something. They can’t “snip” “spit” “snarl” “grouse” words. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said becomes white noise. Readers don’t “see” it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.

“You are such a jerk.” She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.

There you go, SIX easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that’s why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.

Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

99 comments

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  1. Thanks Kristen. On book #3 and still appreciate the reminders. ?

  2. These are great suggestions and I will post them on my bulletin board as a reminder!

  3. Good article as usual, Kristin. Passed it on to a newbie friend. There is one thing I have to disagree with, but maybe it’s just me. That stuff about using ‘said’ for a tag is ‘white noise’ or as some others say, it’s “Invisible”. Bull crap. Seeing ‘said’ as the tag over and over again drives me nuts. I will normally just put it down. I agree that one can’t ‘laugh’ a line, however, they can use it as an action line. I never use ‘said’ twice in a row. It’s like any other redundant word to me. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    1. Yeah it can be overused. I think writers need to work harder and go deeper into the POV.

  4. I had to laugh at the ‘alien and painful body movements’ – I always get such a giggle from those!

  5. [squealing and running in circles pointing at screen] Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I no longer count how many manuscripts I edit with these 5 issues nearly suffocating an otherwise lovely story!

    …now for some tea

  6. Great pieces of advice. I’m partial to #1. Too many similes take me out of a narrative because they feel fake.

  7. I struggle with your eyes vs gaze advice every time. Compare “his gaze followed her across the room” with “his eyes followed her across the room”: the latter feels perfectly natural to me, although haunted a little now by the Kristen Lamb Dust Bunnies; the former feels downright weird, a bit like the spotlight of attention that Sauron’s eye projects in the LotR films.

    1. Using it a little bit is okay, but sometimes if there are too many of these together I am all OUCH.

  8. Great article. I use Autocrit to find redundancy mistakes and sometimes utilize Word search to locate overused adverbs in scene rewrites.

  9. What wonderful and sensible suggestions. Thanks so much.

  10. Love this post. Great tips! (Humorous, too)

  11. Thank you, thank you! If only writers read this post before, you know, writing. 😉 I see this stuff all the time as an editor, and it drives me nuts!

  12. Thank you for this helpful post, Kristen.

    When self-editing, I play a game called spot the ‘there was’. If found, there’s usually a problem.

  13. All these little words, and it’s amazing how many I still find revisions later. This article couldn’t have come at a better time as I tinker away on yet manuscript I swear was finished. 🙂

    • Kessie on May 16, 2016 at 12:04 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the reminders! I’d also appreciate a rule about sentence fragments. A really good editor told me that fragments were allowed in dialogue, but not narrative. Since then I e seen really bad fragmented. Narrative. Like this. Like Captain Kirk. It’s annoying and hard. To read.

  14. Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    Short and sweet! Good reminders for ALL of us, especially ME! Thanks, Kristin!

  15. “You are such a jerk.” She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt. – one of the great illustrative examples ever!

  16. Thanks! Great timing as I go through yet another round of editing on novel I’m planning to have out in June. For some reason I’m attracted to the passive voice. Don’t know why. Must be some childhood trauma that I’ve yet to acknowledge that holds me back from the active voice. 🙂

  17. Reblogged this on Authordom, or There About and commented:
    These are some really great tips for any author! There is definitely a lot in here that I’ll bear in mind when it comes to going through my own WIP.

  18. “Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies…” LMAO!

    Thank you for the great tips and for the laugh. My Monday needed both.

    You’re awesome. xoxo

      • andy r on June 20, 2016 at 11:10 pm
      • Reply

      Irony? “LMAO” has to be quite an example of #3 itself 🙂

  19. Reblogged this on Jennifer Loring.

  20. Yes, passive voice is to be avoided when possible. Continuous tense however is not passive voice and it too causes “was” clusters. You can love or hate Little House on the Prairie for many reasons, but you have to admit it is tight, great prose. And it is jam packed full of “was” clusters, where almost nothing is passive. Those are caused by continuous past tense when things get intense. It shouldn’t be used constantly but used correctly it can heighten past tense tension in action scenes.

      • andy r on June 20, 2016 at 11:07 pm
      • Reply

      ‘Twas the night before Christmas….’

  21. I am in self-edit mode at the moment and just recently tackled the adverbs problem – I managed to reduce the total word count of two manuscripts by around 1,600 words! My next step is to tackle the overuse of ‘was’. *winces in anticipation* Thanks for the helpful advice!

  22. There is a book out there (actually a series) that has a simile in every other paragraph. It was sad ’cause the book was pretty good otherwise, but 3/4 of the way through I cringed whenever I saw the word like. Still gives me the shivers thinking about it.

  23. Loved this! : D

  24. A timely and useful post! And I really, really envy your helmet.

    • mcm0704 on May 16, 2016 at 4:28 pm
    • Reply

    Loved this and will reblog part of it. I had to laugh at the dialogue tags, however. “Said” does not disappear when a story is read aloud. I have not been able to read for several months – Ransay Hunt Sydrome – so I have been listening to lots of audio books. Had to stop listening to Robert B. Parker books, because of the constant “saids.” I never noticed them when reading, though.

  25. Great tips. I’ll be sure to keep these in mind while working on my projects.

  26. Reblogged this on Opher's World and commented:
    Some great advice for writers.

  27. These are pretty good. In my first novel, I heavily abused adverbs. It took months to get almost all out the pages.

  28. At this moment, I am almost afraid to put my fingers on my keyboard I might adverb my way to insignificance as a writer – just kidding or not. I love, I do, your teachable moments. Where were you when I was in high school, let alone college? Thank you for another great post. Karen 🙂

  29. Thanks for the advice, it’s really helpful! I will admit, I do struggle with adding too many dialogue tags.

  30. I feel guilty whenever I use an adverb – even if it isn’t redundant!

  31. Reblogged this on Laurie Boris and commented:
    Spot-on self-editing tips from Kristen Lamb.

  32. #7 – use find/replace to edit out repeated words. ‘That’ is a favourite of mine. I once found a page with an average of two ‘thats’ per sentence!

  33. That said tag always gets me!

  34. Hi Kristen. These are excellent editing tips! I’ve written them out and keep them handy when I’m writing. They help to keep me from slipping back into the old bad habits.
    I’m currently reading your book – Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World. It’s helping me get a handle on the social marketing big picture.

  35. Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen and commented:
    Awesome advice, as usual.

  36. Great tips and funny too which makes them easier to remember. 🙂

  37. So happy to hear a more rational take on adverbs, used appropriately. And I reckon #4 is a result of the endless “show, don’t tell” mantra that critique partners hammer home at every turn.

  38. Reblogged this on Jeannie Hall Suspense and commented:
    Six basic mistakes to fix BEFORE you sent it to your editor.

  39. Reblogged this on Mysticalwriter and commented:
    6 ways to self-edit-polish-your-prose
    Reblogged from warriorwriters.wordpress.com

  40. These tips never grow old! Thank you so much for continuously sharing your wisdom.

  41. Awesome advice. Thank you.

  42. Reblogged this on RuckOgnition.

  43. That was great Kristen! I now have a few extra things to watch out for. Thanks!

  44. Great advice – am sharing!

  45. Thanks Kristen – really appreciate your tips – a usable checklist and simple reminder of the importance of story flow .

  46. A great post Kristen. I’m now cringing and going to re-edit the ms! With your help its going to be much more professional.

  47. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here is a great post on the topic of polishing up your writing.

  48. This was great! I love your combination of wit, humor, and advice. Now, you’ve got me wondering if I use too many similes and metaphors. 🙂 It’ll be worth thinking about when I start to edit my current draft of my work-in-progress.

  49. Great list, clearly born out of experience. I read through the examples groaning, certain I’d find almost-verbatim sentences is my own writing. Fantastic post!

    • Ryan on May 17, 2016 at 10:12 am
    • Reply

    Thanks! I’m halfway through my debut novel and been starting to review what kind of edits other than story/story structure I need to be looking for when finished.

  50. This is great. I’ve heard these tips before, but your humor is wonderful. I’m still an over-physiological-heart-hammering type. Editing is my favorite.

  51. Helpful advice. Thank you.

  52. Thinking of three ways to say the same thing and then putting them all in. It isn’t until I come back after a break (short break, I swear…no more hose please) that I realize I just said the same thing three different ways. My stories end up shrinking pretty quickly.

  53. Great post – inspired my own: http://www.timmorgan.us/blog/self-editing-first-line-defense/

  54. Great tips 🙂

  55. These are great editing tips. Thank you for sharing this post.

  56. Reblogged this on Memoir Notes.

  57. Reblogged this on Beabe Thompson and commented:
    If you struggle with editing and polishing like I do, Kristen Lamb’s latest blog post is a terrific help.

  58. The said one is the only one that really irks me. When I read dialogue and see “said” “said” “said” “said” as a tag it drives me nuts. I prefer actions to combat that and I am the reare weirdo that laughs through most of what I say. haha But all of these are extremely important in modern writing, whether I like it or not. Great post!

  59. Reblogged this on Jessica Marie Baumgartner and commented:
    So true!

  60. Amazon recommended a book about descriptive writing which initially intrigued me but when I used the “look inside” feature it was just horrendous. The author recommended setting a scene in great detail, and I mean GREAT detail. He’d written numerous passages using similies and metaphors to ridiculous proportions. One less than complimentary reviewer re-titled it, “W****** w*** S*******: Where the Prose is so Purple, it’s Ultraviolet”. It could be that the author was purposely exaggerating to illustrate opportunities for description, rather than recommending that writers describe the ass out of everything. At least I hope that was the case!

    • jhwinterauthor on May 18, 2016 at 11:51 am
    • Reply

    Another great post that had me laughing! “Her eyes followed him across the room.” That would be painful! I am editing right now and will be looking for passive vs. active voice and doing a search this document for the word ‘was’. Thank you, Kristen!

    Julianne
    Ink & Stitches – http://blog.jhwinter.com

  61. LOVE this. Thank you so much for the reminders.

  62. Reblogged this on Erotic Vampire.

  63. Reblogged this on Kim's Author Support Blog.

  64. Reblogged this on Kat's Writing Runway and commented:
    Awesome post and very helpful. I am so guilty of #4 ( and all the rest). One thing I’ve started to do is I read outloud what I’ve written to see if it makes sense in the viewpoint of what my characters knows and snip out alot of excess words during self-editing. A few examples are: down, up, out, then, there, was, to be, to the, seemed, could, would, -ing words, began, started. An example for snipping out ‘could’: He could see her walking toward him. Better: He saw her walking toward him. Even better: She walked toward him. Thank you for the six ways to edit and polish.

  65. Thanks for these excellent reminders. I loved the dust balls! I critiqued a friends work recently for writing “He threw his eyes to the hills”. I know what he meant but the image provided totally inappropriate humour.

  66. Haha, Kristen! I totally spit water all over my laptop on #3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts (but I kept my body parts attached).

    Love the Emotion Thesaurus…I’ve had it for years. Sitting next to me right now actually for some third draft murdering. 😉

  67. I’m guilty of #5. I’m aware that words like start and begin more or let tell and do not show a thing, yet I continue to find places in my work where I use them. Thank God for 2nd drafts.

  68. Hi Kristen! Just discovered your blog today and I also bought your book Rise of the Machines. It’s a fascinating read and truly insightful and funny. I’ve also been going through your blog posts and sharing the gems. Keep up the awesome work and thank you for your advice!

    Best, Jackie

    1. THANK YOU! So awesome to meet you and I really appreciate you stopping by to comment ((HUGS)).

  69. Reblogged this on Motown Writers Network . . . Michigan Literary Network and commented:
    Great article to read

  70. There’s no replacement for developing an eye (and ear) for spotting these things, but sometimes the pointers from software can help. I use writing analysis tools as an additional help, prior to submitting work to an editor, and it often makes me aware of things like this. I list some tools on my blog at http://karldrinkwater.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/analysis-tools-for-writers.html

  71. Great advice, thanks! However, I guess you could call me a rebel, because I have always hated “said,” even as a beginner reader decades ago. I remember as an adult back in 2002 reading a page in one of the Harry Potter books where three or more characters were speaking, but they only spoke a few words each for several rounds, yet we needed tags to show us who spoke what, and it was all “said,” eight times or more over. Had me rolling my eyes. Boring.
    I would argue that we rarely just SAY something. We whisper, we murmur, we grumble, we shout. Yes, action beats can tackle some of this, and I agree I like the showing better than tacking on a tagline, but sometimes, if we stay in our MC’s POV like we’re supposed to, then we might not “see” what another character looks like or does while that character speaks, yet we want to get across that s/he is doing more than just simply saying something.
    You won’t read the following the same way:
    “I hate rain,” he said.
    “I hate rain,” he whispered.
    “I hate rain,” he grumbled.
    “I hate rain,” he shouted.
    Again, you might argue we can show this with an action beat, but not if our MC doesn’t see it, as can be the case. Also, sometimes you don’t want to take the 7-15 or more words to “show” an action to get across something that could be said with two words. 🙂 Perhaps, you want the reader to slow down and pay attention in the next paragraph, instead.
    I just have to wonder how many writers out there are like me, using “said” because we’re told to, all the while grinding our teeth as we type it. 😉

    1. From a reader perspective, seeing the occasional whispered / grumbled / shouted is fine, but I have certainly found myself besieged by them simply because the author is clearly avoiding having too many saids in close proximity.

      As an author, I like whispering, screaming, growling and snarling, and so on, though I’ve seen one reader complain that only dogs bark, and laugh should never be used with dialogue… but I have grown comfortable using said regularly.

      That said, (oh dear,) after about the third said in close proximity I have an anxiety attack and need to rewrite.

  72. Thank you, I’m sure I have broken all these rules. Now that you have pointed them out, I will re-visit my stories and make them stronger.

    • Kristy Fairlamb on May 22, 2016 at 9:39 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve just discovered your blog and loving all your advice.
    As a first time novelist I can guarantee I’ve committed each of the above sins.
    I’m editing my first manuscript so these reminders are very timely, thank you.

  73. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Some interesting editorial tips here from one who knows.

    • kellcolb on May 23, 2016 at 9:10 am
    • Reply

    I hear this editing advice as I’m researching how to fix my manuscript. The examples you added in the playful tone helped make the lessons more clear. Thank you! I’m printing this to place on my desk as I scour my first novel.

    • Marti Johnson on May 23, 2016 at 11:15 am
    • Reply

    Perfect timing for this summarized refresher on self-editing. Sorely needed! thanks,

  74. Reblogged this on Amanda Moran-Soley and commented:
    Some really useful stuff here.

  75. These are great, and I’m embarrassed to admit I’m guilty of doing at least one—or more!
    Time to tighten up my writing!
    Thank you

  76. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner.

  77. Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

  78. Reading your book now! Love it! @v@ <3

  79. Wow! This was really great! With having read so many advice books and blogs on writing I struggle to find advice that is new. Aside from the “said” tag, these were all tips I’m reading for the first time! Some more advanced tips I think. Luckily I’ve managed to avoid most of them without even specifically trying too 🙂

    1. If you get a chance check out the recent post Botched Beginnings. I think it will help you a lot of you are ready to go a bit more advanced. Great to meet you and thrilled you’re here 😀 .

      1. I saw your accolades and was shocked I never came across you sooner! Thanks for the recommendation, I’m excited to look through past posts.

  80. I wonder about rejecting “She reached out her arm to open the door.” Doesn’t this give a more graphic or detailed visual for the reader than just “She opened the door”? She didn’t push it with her arm; she didn’t shoulder her way through it; she didn’t grab the open door as someone else came through it. Etc.

    1. Unless the person is doing something that deviates from the norm? It is distracting. Shouldering through a door is a totally different action and implies an emotional state. Just reaching a hand out to open the door is commonplace thus filler.

  81. Another great post, Kristen. I’m half way through my first novel, and your post made me want to start scanned for “was. However, I am determined to finish the damned thing and edit after I have a complete first draft. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  82. A very good article with lots of tips thank you. 🙂

  83. Hi thanks, this post is great. I’m sure I’m more than guilty of a few of these writery sins so thanks for the direction!!

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