Friday, January 23, 2009

Ask the Editors – Self-Editing, Part One

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Dear Editors-

“I think one of the hardest things to do is self-editing. Invariably, no matter how hard you try, there is always something you overlook or miss. What is your advice on how to get the most out of self-editing? What are the most important things a writer should look for when they edit?”

Christine Verstraete, author, Searching For A Starry Night, A Miniature Art Mystery


This is a comprehensive question and subject, so for the sake of blogging brevity I am writing a four-part series of short posts to address it properly.

You can do the obvious things, like checking for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Everyone uses spell-check these days, but that is no guarantee you do not have “wrong” words in your manuscript. Spell-check will not correct things like “too” where it should be “to,” or “then” when it should be “than,” or “you” where “your” should be. So there is no substitute for good old-fashioned reading your manuscript with a critical eye. After completing a first draft, put it away for at least a week--two is better--or even a month. Work on something else and/or read other authors for a while. Then pull it out and read it with fresh eyes.

Look for these glaring turnoffs:

• Excessive use of italics for internal dialog, especially in the first three chapters. Rewrite in such a way as to let the reader know these are the character's thoughts.

• Overuse of sentence fragments as “style” elements.

• Overuse of exclamation points! It makes your writing sound like a constantly barking dog!

• Overuse of question marks? As with exclamation points, they are strong punctuations. Do not overuse them. It is considered amateurish. Where “What did you say, John” will do, do not write, “What did you say, John?”--unless there is some reason for the redundancy made obvious by the context.

• Overuse and/or misuse of commas. You will find dozens of excellent tutorials online on this subject. Do a Google search, bone up, and make corrections.

This ends lesson number one. Tune in to this blog for the remaining tutorials soon to come. While I will not be addressing the more advanced editing chores of subjects like character inconsistencies (or the need to eliminate a character), poor paragraph and sentence structure, time-line inconsistencies, and plot confusion, I will cover the majority of what a publishing-house editor pulls his or hair out over when receiving a what-could-be-a-good book fraught with obvious no-no’s.


Article written and submitted by Marvin D Wilson, author, I Romanced the Stone, Owen Fiddler, and Between the Storm and the Rainbow.
Marvin is an editor with
All things That Matter Press and does freelance editing.
He maintains two popular blogs at
Free Spirit and Tie Dyed Tirades.


  1. I would add, delete the "thats." New writers grossly overuse the word. When you read your script, see how may you could do without.
    But overall, nothing replaces professional editing!

    Carol Denbow

  2. Well, ta for that! The question mark issue, I mean. I had one editor slap my wrist for not using them in a grammatically correct fashion ALWAYS--and another editor, say...Aaaaagh! Please don't!

    That's made it a little clearer. :)

  3. Glad I asked; I'm going to save these points as a checklist. Thanks!

  4. I was always taught that it was incorrect not to put a question mark after a question. I always do, and so far none of my editors have fussed about it.

  5. As to the question mark issue -- If it's clear who's talking, I would put, "“What did you say, John?” If it's not clear, perhaps there are multiple characters in the conversation, I would put something like, "What did you say, John," Mary asked.

    Good tips, Marvin. I'm looking forward to the rest of this series.

  6. Hey guys, just checkin in on the conversation. The question mark issue is debated amongst editors these days. I am of the same school of thought as Helen. Her comment is very clear on the distinction between a needed Q mark and one that is not. And Author 101 - stick around, I DO address your "too many thats" point later in the series. Funny you brought THAT up - I just edited a book and had to take about - well put it this way - If I had a dollar for every that I took out, I'd be retired now! LOL

  7. Sounds like a new way to set editing rates, Marvin.

  8. Informative post, Marvin. Especially about the ?.

  9. And, Chris, always check with YOUR editor, because they may disagree with some of these points, and utltimately, your publisher's preference is what needs to be followed.

    Just sayin'. ;)

    Quake Publishing

  10. Good points, Marvin. And I agree with Dani about making sure an author does what a specific editor or publisher wants. As the question of the question marks illustrates, there are differing opinions from some editors and publishers and we need to follow what our publisher wants.

  11. Very informative. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

  12. Overuse of exclamations!!!!!

    Say it ain't so!!!!!

    That is a bad thing???!!!

    Oh my, I am in deep deep trouble!!!!


  13. Great series. Thank you. As a writer who has used the same professional, freelance editor twice, I can tell you it is the best investment a new author can make. For example, I had 3 characters with "meaty hands" and didn't even notice it. If I ever write a book on writing, I plan to title it "Meaty Hands."

    K. Harrington
    author, Janeology

  14. Agreed. Exclamation marks are mostly unnecessary, if not evil.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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