By Ellen Buikema

I often feel that my first drafts are like the first cooked pancake in a batch, otherwise known in my family as the doggy-pancake—tasty but with issues.

Although it is said that Shakespeare never crossed out a line, most published books have very different first drafts. Good writing takes time, along with some wailing and gnashing of teeth.

At my author visits in school libraries, I’d ask the students to take a quick glance at all the books on the shelves. Then I told them, “When the authors began writing those books they made all kinds of mistakes. So don’t worry. Get your thoughts on the page and worry about fixing the errors later. Everyone makes mistakes.”

These ten self-editing tips can help shape your next manuscript.

1. Read out loud

Using text-to-speech programs, reading aloud to yourself, or listening to someone else read helps you find errors in grammar, sentence structure, and flow. When those lines don’t look quite right, hearing them is a quick way to zero in on needed edits.

2. Search for empty words and gestures

Sometimes we use empty gestures as a pause to separate dialogue, like a scene where two people are chatting in the kitchen over coffee. Someone says something and takes a sip, pausing before the next line of dialogue. This is an empty gesture because it doesn’t advance the scene.

My editor told me about a late night rant on an agent’s blog, listing words and gestures that she hoped never to see submitted again. The list went something like this:

  • One
  • Smile
  • Laugh
  • Nod ( I am guilty of using this one—big time)
  • Look
  • Frown
  • Walk

These words are on the list because they don’t show attitude, character, or further the scene—which is what actions and reactions should do.

3. Find verbs that give attitude, set the mood, or add to the character

Take a good look at your verbs and decide if you can use a more vivid one. The words, saw, looked, walked lack spark. Rather than saw use eyed, studied, peered, glared at. And rather than looked at, use a visual: The clouds formed a dark silhouette against the fiery sunset.

4. Use an active voice

In an active sentence, the subject ‘does’ the action. Writing in the active voice is clear, concise, and direct. In passive sentence construction, the object is the subject of the sentence.


The chicken crossed the road. (active)

The road was crossed by the chicken. (passive)

There is a place for passive sentence construction in writing, but more for stylistic purposes. This choice should be intentional.

When writing blogs in WordPress, one of the notices given for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the percentage of active versus passive sentences. The more active constructions you compose, the better.

5. Edit line by line—backward

Line editing is painstaking work, but will help you find typographical and grammar errors. I tend to edit by chapter, line by line. Editing from the last sentence in a chapter to the first one fine tunes the focus to the individual sentence and keeps you from being carried by the stream of content. It’s easier to catch errors going backward.

6. Have a break

To do your best work you must take breaks. The ability to attend to a task drops if you’re at it for too long. Short breaks help you keep focused and productive. When the brain is in a relaxed or daydreaming state, the mind solves problems with less effort. Sitting in front of the laptop, forcing yourself to figure out the next scene creates stress—the killer of creativity.

7. Re-read

You will need multiple read-throughs to find errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

8. Create Mood

When an ample mood is created–place, atmosphere, sensory images–the characters respond to those details.

Effective mood words create magic in a scene.

When a character stalks instead of walks, the reader’s attention is piqued.

Characters’ dialogue can enhance the mood in scenes. Are there interruptions? Moments when someone whispers in anothers ear? Situations where the world goes mad?

The pace of your sentences and their construction affect mood. Varying the length of sentences and paragraphs increases the pace and tension. A paragraph may be a single line.

When the action is fast, use partial sentences. “Had to reach the roof.”

9. Reduce Prepositions

Because prepositions need many buddies–they can’t stand alone–they make sentences unnecessarily lengthy. Instead, try possessives. Use my neighbor’s house, rather than the house of my neighbor.

10. Choose a style guide

Style guides have a set of standards for writing and designing content. They help to maintain a consistent voice, style, and tone across your writing. The guidelines give information, such as comma placement, which words need to be italicized, and how to format quotes.

Here are several style guides:

  • The AP Stylebook (Associated Press) is used by newspapers, magazines, and public relations firms.
  • The MLA Handbook  Modern Language Association of America (MLA style) offers some style and usage recommendations, but is most often used for documentation and citation. It is great for academic writing.

Editing is an essential part of the writing process. There will be many, many drafts, but editing is a worthwhile endeavor. It brings out the very best in your story.

What are your experiences with editing? Which experience was the biggest challenge during the editing process?

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About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at or on Amazon.

Top Image by Alan Levine – Flickr

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Founder, The Internet Crime Fighters Org [ICFO], and Sponsor, ICFO's War On Crimes Against Our Children Author The Internet Users Handbook, 2009-2014

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