Friday, January 30, 2009

Ask the Editors – Self Editing, Part Four

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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 the last post in a four-part series. To read the previous posts, click on Third, Second, and First.

Today I have three words for you.

Cut the fat.

Stephen King, my writing-style mentor, recommends that your self-editing reduce your manuscript’s total word count by at least 10 percent. Cut the fat and get to the meat of the story. Here’s an example:

Mary decided that enough was enough and that John had abused her just one too many times. She decided then and there that she must stand up for herself. She quickly snatched the rolling pin that she had on the counter and slammed him very hard, right squarely in the forehead with it.

The above example is loaded with unnecessary words that slow the action. Look at all the needless uses of "that;" and several other words can be cut without losing any story. Look at this rewrite:

Mary decided, enough. John had abused her too many times. She must stand up for herself. She snatched the rolling pin on the counter and slammed him in the forehead.

See how much more direct impact that has? Here’s one more:

John staggered backward, all the way back into the wall, holding the wound that Mary had just delivered, his hands on his forehead, coated with the blood that was spilling down quickly.

Lots of excess here. You’re probably smiling at my blatancy. Here’s how I would rewrite this overly plump passage:

John grabbed his forehead and staggered back into the wall with blood spilling down his hands.

One more recommendation. You should have a trusted "Designated Honest Reader" (DHR). Have someone read your manuscript who is well-read and who knows good literature from bad. Someone who loves you and cares enough about your writing career to tell you straight-up what they like and/or do not like about your story, even if some of the feedback hurts. Preferably this person is close enough that you can be in the same house and observe them when they read your book. When the DHR puts it down and goes to fix a cup of coffee or do something else, walk over to the manuscript and see - which scene was so easy to put down?

In closing I suggest the following books: On Writing, by Stephen King, and my all-time favorite “how-to” handbook for self-editing, The Frugal Editor, by Carolyn Howard Johnson.


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. Marvin, thank you so much for recommending The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. Though it's best to have a great editor, we all must self edit some things, sometimes! (-:

    Your readers may also be interested in a sister blog of mine--The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor,

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

  2. I usually do pretty good with cut the fat. I have more trouble with expanding on ideas.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Thanks Marvin. Cutting the fat takes a conscious effort. You have to slow down as your read so that you don't skim over the words. Cross out words, then read again to see how it sounds. Take a sentence that feels awkward or too long and completely rewrite it. Take a bloated paragraph and see if you could re-write it so it would fit in a Twitter box.

    Helen Ginger

  4. I agree Helen. I have a tendency to write looooong sentences. My editor advised me to read my manuscript out loud. When I did I realized I could hardly make it through a single sentence without running out of breath. This practice helps a great deal in teaching a writer how to write in a way that sounds "normal." Glad you brought that point up.

  5. Good suggestions, Marvin. Nice to have another example of the need to cut excess words. I did, however, have to laugh when you asked if we could see "the impact" of your rewrite. Considering the mental image your example created, it was not hard to see the impact. :-)

  6. Marvin- great post. I love On Writing, good recommendation.

    Your advice in practice-
    I have a YA romance novel I tried to get a publisher for two years ago and got 10 rejections. Now I've slashed off 10,000 words, reorganised chapters and sent it out again. I already have one agent asking for 3 chapters and a publisher for the whole manuscript. Less is more.


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