Self-Editing: Back to Basics, Part I – Guest Post by Karin Cox

We continue our series on self-editing today with the first of a two-part post from author and editor Karin Cox.

Karin has a unique perspective: she has considerable experience working for a trade publisher in Australia and is also a freelance editor.

On top of that, her own work (both fiction and non-fiction for children and adults, as well as poetry) has been published the traditional way and has been self-published; she really has seen all sides of the equation.

Karin is also my editor. I have first-hand experience of her impressive pleonasm-hunting skills as well as her uncanny ability to turn my sopa de letras into intelligible prose (no mean feat).

If you missed the first installment in this series from UK author and editor Harry Bingham – on the importance of editing and developing your own self-editing skills – that’s here. For the rest of you, here’s Karin:

Self-editing: back to basics, part I

Let me start off by stating that there is no such thing as self-editing to a publishable level (at least not without a team of skilled beta readers); I would say this even if my livelihood did not depend on editing. I scour my own text for errors before I submit it to my publisher, but I am still always surprised at what my in-house colleagues pick up when they read through my manuscripts. As much as writers attempt to edit their own work, and should for the purposes of enhancing their drafts, I firmly believe they are incapable of doing so as effectively as a professional editor because they lack the necessary objectivity to assess their own writing.

The human brain also employs all kind of tricks to convince writers that what they put down on the page is correct (if not Man Booker Prize material). Taht yuo cna raed tihs at lal is prcaticlaly a mriacle! But such is the power of the human brain. Read a whole paragraph of that and soon you’ll be able to wade through even the most atrocious, unedited drivel and make perfect sense of it. It is little wonder that most authors—even those who are competent self-editors at a draft level—miss a few transposed letters, misspelled words, homonyms, or misplaced modifiers. It’s all thanks to the human brain’s excellent ability to decode and process what the eyes see.

However, knowing that some Indies cannot afford to employ a professional editor, and that any self-editing you undertake will streamline the editorial process and vastly improve your writing, what follows are five of the most common editorial issues I find in manuscripts that cross my desk. Many professional Indies will scoff at this list, declaring it small fry—and much of it is—but you’d be surprised how often authors make these mistakes.

Wonderfully florid, flamboyant, descriptive and wordy verbiage

Some ambitious authors regularly find unnecessary cause to heartily and readily pepper their wordy prose with long-winded, superfluous, and exceedingly boring adjectives and adverbs, continually. See what I did there?

This kind of writing constitutes an adjective and adverb overload. Adjective overload is usually found in descriptive passages, and adverb overload in dialogue. When most of us write, we are relaying a scene we have visualized in our minds. As a result, we sometimes think that providing all of the rich detail we imagine will make the scene more vivid for the reader, who will feel almost as if they are watching a movie. Unfortunately, it rarely turns out that way.

Reading is a different exercise to watching a movie. Providing the reader’s brain with too much visual or sensory information too quickly can actually befuddle it. Rather than getting a clear picture of what is happening in a scene, the reader gets a fuzzy, out-of-focus mess. Because they’re not sure what they will need to recall later, readers will be trying hard to process all of that information, which distracts them from the real task at hand—comprehending. The brain just isn’t able to hold all of that visual detail in there while you get to the “verbs” (action), so it just switches off.

Take for instance:

The girl walked into the long, dim, stone-floored corridor lit only by the softly glowing beams of candles in carved pewter candlestick holders that lined the grey stone walls where richly embroidered tapestries danced in the slight draught. The candlelight flickered off her beautiful emerald-green, floor-length dress made out of Chinese silk flecked through with gold, which left one of her pale shoulders bare, revealing the small scar where she had been nicked by Zhung-ze’s katana as a small girl. At the end of the gloomy hall stood a shadowy assassin wearing an ominous black robe and holding a giant, heavy bronze battle-axe engraved with the curious symbols of the Wey Tu Mutc clan. (116 words)

Phew! There’s a lot going on in this scene, isn’t there? Short answer: not really. The only action is a girl with an interesting scar walking into a candlelit corridor with an assassin at the end—that’s it. There is a lot of good sensory information in there, but it is obscured by all of the padding and setting. It could be more effectively written as:

The girl’s green silk gown swished on the stone floor as she entered the corridor. Flickering light from candelabras lining the walls made her pale skin glisten, illuminating the small scar on her shoulder where Zhung-ze’s Katana had nicked her as a child. At the end of the corridor, the assassin’s black robes billowed in the draught. He lifted his heavy axe in anticipation. On the bronze weapon, the engraved symbols of the Wey Tu Mutc clan shone in the candlelight. (82 words)

Even with thirty-four words pruned off the original, I think you’ll agree that the second version provides a clearer visual image of the scene? Of course, the above passage is far from perfect, but it’s simply to illustrate my point. Ninety per cent of the manuscripts I get sent that are over 130,000 words are rife with adjective and adverb overload.

Some authors (such as Stephen King in On Writing) suggest ditching adverbs entirely and even go as far as insisting there is never any reason to use them. I disagree. Sometimes adverbs can add spice to your writing while allowing you to remain succinct. Take the following example:

“Because I love her,” Dan said dispassionately.

The therapist said nothing. Removing her glasses, she carefully wiped the lenses with a tissue while waiting for him to continue. When he did not, after several seconds she asked, “Really?”

There are three adverbs in this passage (dispassionately, carefully and really). I believe all of them have some role to play. If the author were to remove “dispassionately,” the reader might well assume Dan’s statement were true, which would remove the subtext of this passage. As it is, the adverb provides a clue that Dan’s words and his feelings are not in accordance. The therapist “carefully” wiping her lenses helps flesh out her character. Although this is the most dispensable adverb in this example, it underscores that she is a thorough, analytical person. She is not giving her glasses a cursory swipe with a tissue. [Incidentally, the glasses also provide metonymy here. They represent her clarity of purpose and foresight, her ability to peer more closely into Dan’s thoughts and feelings to see the truth about his life.] The final adverb here (really) demonstrates that she is aware Dan is not being truthful, even if he does not realise it. It could perhaps be replaced with “Do you?” But I think that “Do you?” would be slightly less accusatory. She is calling him on it, so “really” makes that more clear.

There is a way to recast this passage to remove all of these adverbs and still keep some undercurrents in the conversation between Dan and his shrink, but it would require more words. E.g.

“Because I love her,” Dan said, knowing he did not mean it.

The therapist said nothing. Removing her glasses, she wiped the lenses with a tissue, careful to cleanse them of even the smallest smear, while waiting for him to continue. When he did not, after several seconds she asked, “Do you?”

Some writers who have bought into the “Adverbs are bad M’kay” school of writing advice will prefer the second example; others will prefer the first. In defence of adverb haters, in many cases adverbs are used as to prop up weak nouns, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. It is true they can often be removed to strengthen text. Following are some common culprits:

Get out!” he said loudly. (Substitute “he shouted” or remove the attribution as the exclamation mark and context make it clear he is shouting.)

“I love you,” she said softly. (Substitute “she whispered”).

“You complete me,” she said honestly. (This adverb is best removed unless there is a specific reason for doubting her honesty in the first place, e.g. she is a compulsive liar.)

She ran swiftly toward him. (She sprinted, she bolted, she pelted, she tore)

He walked slowly. (He ambled, he loped, he strolled)

He smiled happily. (He beamed or he grinned).

Note: Take care not to use “he/she smiled” after dialogue, e.g. “Whatcha doing,” he smiled. No one is capable of “smiling” words. However, you can insert it as an action following dialogue by using a full stop and capital letter in place of a comma, e.g. “Whatcha doing?” He smiled. Persistently using dialogue tags that are impossible is the mark of the amateur.]

“I hate you,” she said spitefully. Now, I know I’m going to cop some flak for this, but in my own writing I would use “she spat” here. But … but … You said you can’t smile words, so how can you spit them? I can hear you flak-throwers thinking. My answer to that is: I’m sure all of us have been spat on accidentally at least once when someone we were chatting with was being over emphatic. Also, language doesn’t have to be literal all of the time. Another option might be: “I hate you,” she said, enunciating each word. Or, if you really want to push boundaries: “I. Hate. You.” She spat out each word.

A worthwhile exercise is to set aside one edit of your draft where you do nothing but go through your manuscript and pinpoint adjectives and adverbs. Assess whether each is necessary and identify the role it plays. If an adverb is not enhancing meaning, aiding characterisation or providing subtext, strike it out. Where an adjective follows a string of other adjectives (especially if you have three or more adjectives in a sentence) delete the weakest one.

Comma Calamities

Not knowing, where to put commas, some authors believe, that the best way to avoid seeming as if they don’t know, is, just to, put them in, entirely randomly. ßDo not do this! I’ve read a lot of comments on forums suggesting that commas are entirely subjective. The rules are: there are no rules. Right? Wrong!

While “rule” is too strong a word, there are conventions regarding comma use. Just thwacking a comma down whenever you pause for breath, or whenever you freeze up momentarily when tapping away at the keyboard, is not going to cut it. Some commas, however, are a matter of personal preference and are called “pausal” commas. Old-school grammarians mostly favour pausal commas; more modern grammarians tend to advocate using as few commas as necessary to achieve clarity. For some good examples of where NOT to put commas, check out my blog post Don’t Put a Comma in your Ear. For some examples of where commas are necessary, click here.

One regular error is the comma splice, which is also known as a run-on sentence. It occurs when a comma is incorrectly used to join two independent clauses in place of a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so) or in place of an appropriate punctuation mark (such as a semi-colon, colon, or em dash). An example is: He ran to the bus, it was running late.

Because both of these clauses constitute short sentences—that is, they both have a subject (a noun or pronoun, in this case he and it) and a predicate (a verb form, in this case ran and running)—this is incorrect. This sentence could be correctly written as:

He ran to the bus. It was running late.

He ran to the bus; it was running late.

He ran to the bus: it was running late.

He ran to the bus—it was running late.

Or, perhaps best of all:

He ran to the bus, which was running late.

Any one of these is better than the original splice, although the first, second and last are the most standard.

Modifiers Gone Mad

Poor comma usage can also lead to another editorial bugbear: the misplaced modifier. Modifiers are usually adverbial or participial phrases that cause problems when they unintentionally modify something other than what the writer intended. Groucho Marx once quipped, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” The problem with Marx’s joke (or at least part of the problem!) is that the modifying phrase (in my pajamas) is positioned close to the object of this sentence (elephant) rather than to the subject (I), which is what it should be modifying. To make it correct, it would require recasting. E.g.

One morning, while/whilst still in my pajamas, I shot an elephant.

[I say while/whilst because it depends on which side of that debate you squat on. Old school is to use whilst; new school would be to go with while, which is now commonly used in both British and American English.]

Participial verb forms regularly create an insidious type of misplaced modifier known as a “dangling participle.” Participle verbs are -ing form verbs, e.g. Running, smiling, dancing, glancing. When a subject does not immediately follow a participle phrase at the start of a sentence, a dangling participle can occur. Take, for instance:

Glancing up at the clock, the photograph on the mantelpiece caught my eye.

The subject in this sentence is unintentionally the photograph, which is accidentally performing both of the actions—glancing and “catching” (in “caught”, the past participle of catch). To make this sentence correct, it would need to be reworded:

As I glanced up at the clock, the photograph on the mantelpiece caught my eye.

Or, Glancing up at the clock, I noticed the photograph on the mantelpiece.

You could also rewrite it as: Glancing up at the clock, my eye was caught by the photograph on the mantelpiece. But that sounds awkward because even though the subject is now “my eye” the photograph is still performing the action of the verb “caught.” You might also try: Glancing up at the clock, my eyes were drawn to the photograph on the mantelpiece. Or even just: I glanced up at the clock, but my eyes were drawn to the photograph on the mantelpiece.

The good thing about misplaced modifiers and dangling participles is that, once you have identified them, there are several easy fixes. Spotting them in the first place is usually the tricky part! For more on misplaced modifiers, visit this page.

Some adverbs also need careful consideration when it comes to their role as modifiers. Mostly, adverbs are freewheeling. They are the only words that can move around a sentence without throwing too much into disarray. Take:

The cat climbed quickly up the wall.

Quickly, the cat climbed up the wall.

The cat climbed up the wall quickly.

The cat quickly climbed up the wall.

We’ve no issues there; they all make perfect sense, although some are slightly more euphonious. But some adverbs “limit” or constrain the words they are close to. An example is the adverb “only,” which should be placed just before the word it modifies. For example:

Go to school only if you are well.

Not: Only go to school if you are well

The latter implies that if you are well, you should do nothing else but go to school.

Those are the first three things I notice in a new manuscript that hint an author is still learning the craft. Of course, there are many more, and Dave has been kind enough to let me waffle on about the other two at length on Friday this week, so tune in then to learn about some basic Dialogue Dilemmas and Wrong Word Whoopsies. In the meantime, keep on scribbling.


Karin Cox is an Australian editor, poet and author and, like many women, is doing her best to be a modern Wonder Woman (minus the cape and the gold lasso). Trained as a professional editor, and with more than fourteen years in the trade publishing industry under her belt, she edits and writes in her “spare time” while being a fulltime mum to her infant daughter and to a black cat with the improbable name of “Ping Pong.”


A huge thanks to Karin for this, and I’m looking forward to the final installment on Friday. For those who can’t wait until then, Karin’s blog is here and you can find more information on her editing services here.

If you are interested in checking out her work, she has self-published two titles. Cage Life is a collection of shorts available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and Growth – a poetry collection – is also available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

Karin also has a string of trade published titles (too many to list here, but you can see some of the covers above), and you can get more details on those here.

Australia, given its far-flung location, is a little ahead of us, but I’m sure Karin will be along to answer questions in the comments, once she has dispensed with the Australia Day tradition of eating Kangaroo Burgers and wrestling the Prime Minister.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

75 Replies to “Self-Editing: Back to Basics, Part I – Guest Post by Karin Cox”

  1. Thanks, Karin. We can never hear these rules and guidelines often enough.

    I especially like your take on the adverb issue; I have a little essay I wrote to myself called “Are Adverbs So Bad?” after reading an adverb-hater’s position and came to the conclusion you did: sometimes there *isn’t* a strong verb to use, sometimes an adverb *does* fit the bill perfectly (ahem). Would you really want to use five words when one would do, just to avoid a word that ends in -ly?

    When it comes to grammar and editing and many things writerly, I think C.J. Cherry’s advice is best: Never follow a rule over a cliff.

    1. I am one of those writers who took Stephen King’s adverb advice to heart and largely (see what I did there) stripped them from my MS. I went too far, of course, and Karin had to encourage me to sprinkle a few back in. Having said that, I would strongly recommend King’s book (On Writing). For me at least, it was the book that converted me from someone who just talked about writing… something… someday, to an actual writer.

      1. I often list On Writing as one of my top 10 writing books. It often gets disparaged as too autobiographical, but I found it to be just the right inspiration at the right time.

        I also took the “no adverb” advice too far; it was only after I found myself going through ridiculous verbal contortions to avoid using one little word that I realized you don’t have to follow any rule to the death if you’ve got a good reason for doing otherwise.

      2. Funny enough On Writing by Stephen King did the same to me. Well I’d written but his tale made me realize that I am a writer, so why the heck not share it with the world! (I didn’t take the adverb thing to heart. At least, I haven’t scoured any manuscript of them yet.)

      3. Dave, King’s advice is mostly spot on, and I do agree that adverbs need to be assessed and replaced in many cases. Some genres also lend themselves more readily to adverb use/abuse. Horror and thriller novels are mostly slick and economical when it comes to word use, and especially adverb use. Chick lit, children’s literature, romance, and commercial adult fiction tend to include more adverbs. It is all about writing for your audience and determining what is best for your authorial voice.

        For that reason, I don’t think I suggested adverbs in your shorts, which are Lovecraftian, but I did for your historical novel because it helped reduce wordiness in what was already a sweeping and carefully crafted authorial voice.

    2. I completely (ha!) agree, Matthew. Emerson said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” and while consistency in a manuscript is usually a good thing, consistently weeding out all adverbs or slavishly following arbitrary “rules” can make writing stilted. I will check out your site for your Adverbs post, too. Cheers Karin

      1. “;ooking” Really? See what can happen when you self-edit. 🙂 That slipped in as a whoopsie by my hitting a key with my little finger to replace the “l” accidentally just as I hit reply! Sigh. Sometimes the editing gods have a strange sense of humour.

  2. Very good information., Karin. But you did commit one of my pet peaves. You used the ever-popular phrase “He said nothing.” Is that really necessary? If he says nothing…isn’t it obvious?

    Once you notice it, you’ll see it overused by many authors. My wife and I were on a recent car trip and she was reading a Lee Child book aloud so we could both enjoy it. He used that phrase so often it got to the point where my wife would stop, point to me, and I would fill in the gap. It was comical.

    Of course, there are times when it works, but should be used sparingly. Uh-oh, there’s one of those adverbs. 😉

    Merrill Heath

    1. Hi Merrill,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that “He said nothing” can be overused, but I’d have to disagree that it is always obvious if removed. “He said nothing” or “He/she paused” is a convention commonly used to slow the pace. The reader won’t necessary presume a pause. For that reason, it cannot be simply omitted in all cases without affecting pacing. It could be replaced, e.g. “She considered him for a moment.” I’ve even seen just the single word “Silence” used to good effect to add that pause necessary to signify a character’s silent reflection.

      It falls under the old adage, “Silence speaks volumes.” Sometimes, the things characters don’t say is as important as what they do say, and their unspoken words or thoughts can help create subtext. Having said that, you’re absolutely right that such phrases are overused by novelists. Another is “he turned to” or “she looked at”. The find and replace feature in MS Word is an excellent tool to use when self-editing to ensure that you’re not overusing some of these quick fixes.

      Cheers Karin

      1. Agreed, Karin. There are many ways to make the point. But even the most experienced authors get stuck on a phrase or a word and wear it out. I kid you not, in the example I mentioned, the author must have used the phrase “He said nothing” a hundred times. It was on every other page. So much so it became laughable. It’s the one phrase I see most used and abused.

        It’s interesting sometimes to use the find feature in Word to see how often you use a word. You may be surprised. Another good way to catch this is to have someone read your work aloud. You’ll hear a lot of things that can be improved.

  3. Not just great information, but well-written and easy to read. Boy, always a little nervous to leave a comment on a self-editing post — better make sure to get everything right…I mean, nervous I am always upon comment of a post, a post self-editing…or something like that.

    1. Lol. Try writing one, Tim! Editors are not infallible either, and as I mentioned, try as I might to self-edit my own work, I’m sure someone will weigh in with something I missed in the above post. In fact, I’ve already noticed that my capitalisation of headings is inconsistent.

      I am a firm believer that castigating other people’s grammar or spelling when they post comments, or facebook posts, is undignified (for an editor especially). Sure we’re writers and we should demonstrate proficiency with the written word, but it is all too easy to slip up on a casual post. I really enjoyed this blog post over on Shitty First Drafts about correcting people in conversation.

      An online conversation is still a conversation, so I’ll assist where someone asks for help, but otherwise I rarely point out boo-boos in grammar, punctuation or spelling. I will chip in if they are providing facts or advice that is incorrect.

  4. One correction, David. Karin is MY editor. 😉
    Hands down, the very best money any indie writer can spend is on a professional editor. Forget the ads, forget paying for a cover, forget eating for a week if you have to – but, get yourself a great editor.
    All of the traditionally published writers you love have had their work edited. Don’t make the mistake of neglecting that step. If you do, your book, and your career, will suffer as result.
    David and I were discussing editing when I was first looking for an editor. I was balking a bit at the expense and he told me “consider it an investment.” He was right (shhh..don’t tell him I said that). Invest in yourself. Find a great editor.
    Happy writing! 🙂

  5. This is an informative post. One thing: I’m an editor and indie writer, and I have to say the “Removing her glasses, she wiped…” example is a pet peeve of mine. Is she wiping as she removes? No. Then the example should be “She removed her glasses and wiped….”

    I see this more and more. Maybe it’s acceptable now, but I avoid it.

    1. Hi Q.
      You’re quite right. I think the “after” is generally implied in some of these participle phrases, and often counteract that by adding “then” too. E.g. Removing her glasses, she then wiped them…

      It is best to avoid it when two things cannot happen simultaneously. When the can, it’s a different matter, e.g. Smiling, she considered the implications of telling him…

  6. I find myself in total agreement with Cheryl Shireman. I HATE self-published garbage (that’s all it is) that hasn’t seen the color of a professional editor’s pencil. Karin, you say: Let me start off by stating that there is no such thing as self-editing to a publishable level (at least not without a team of skilled beta readers) How I wish you had left out the clause in parentheses. No team of beta readers, skilled or otherwise, can replace a professional editor. Having said that, there are so many different types of edit that a book must go through before making the grade. All that stuff about adverbs and adjectives does nothing to repair a faulty plot. And so many self-published books have hopeless plots.

    1. While I certainly agree with your sentiments, I think Karin might have been referring to *very* experienced authors, and that those “skilled beta readers” probably include a bunch of professional editors and writers. I know some very experienced authors who work this way and can do so effectively. A minority, it should be said, and I should point out that I’m referring to people with very long careers behind them.

      1. I would add to that, David, by stating that there are a few writers whose natural tendencies (or experiences, or both) will help them put out professional quality work without the assistance of a dedicated professional editor.

        Some people are more careful and have better instincts than others. That should be obvious to anyone who has ever read a batch of papers written by a diverse group in a brief period of time. (Such as those works written within an hour or two in a classroom or workshop setting.)

        Some people are capable of writing “to-the-point” and others are not. Which does not mean the latter cannot be good writers. They simply need more assistance getting there.

        I could, as an example, use Harlan Ellison. His plethora of short stories written on a typewriter situated in a random bookstore’s window were not perfect, but they were much closer to it than the efforts of many other writers. There’s a saying that goes something like: “every writer’s first drafts are crap.” I, of course, find this to be true. But, like in the real world, some crap smells less than other crap. 🙂

        Two major factors come into play here.

        The first: natural ability. This is simply how capable someone is of internalizing style and writing techniques; how shallow their learning curve is for matters of language. (It is something innate, and for those who rank highly here the term “gifted” is appropriate. Consider how this compares with the term “skilled” for a better understanding of what I mean.)

        The second: the individual’s depth of experience. This accounts for how much time they have been able to spend actually applying these principles. (Note that this is not how many words or novels they have written, but how much attention they have paid to becoming a better writer in a technical sense. The two are absolutely not the same.)

        A sufficient combination of these two factors will result in a professional quality piece assuming the author opens themselves up to criticism from beta readers of sufficient quality. (I do not agree that long time professional authors and editors are requisite in this mix assuming that the writer’s factor one and factor two combine at a high enough level.)

        While I admit that proofreading by an individual who is not the author is vital in a majority of cases, there are savants out there who do not make mistakes in that arena.

        Unquestionably, self-editing is a vital skill in any writer’s toolbox.

        I just don’t think it wise to make the assumption that because one person cannot do something others are going to be equally incapable. There are always exceptions to a rule. Frequently this results in those who cannot do a thing being dismissive of those who can. (Of course, some who cannot become convinced that they can. C’est la vie.)


        I am looking forward to the second part of the article. I didn’t learn anything new here, but I believe there is a power in reading things you already know as they have been written by a different person. The change in words used to get a point across serves to reinforce and strengthen your understanding of the subject matter. This is why being widely read is such an advantage in a career as a writer. 😉

    2. And – to clarify – I don’t think all unedited self-published work is garbage.
      If Steinbeck self-published today without editing, his work would not be garbage. Just unedited work that could be better.
      Any writer publishing without the use of an editor is at a disadvantage. An extreme disadvantage. But that doesn’t mean that all unedited books are garbage. I think there are probably many “diamonds in the rough” out there. Yes, lots of “garbage” too, but I wouldn’t make that blanket statement. Unedited does not equal garbage.

        1. Yes, Cheryl and David. You’re both right. I would say maybe 0.01% of unedited eBooks are not garbage. And of course 99.99% of self-published authors think their stuff is wonderful and doesn’t need any sort of edit.

    3. Yes, I felt it needed a qualifier, as I know some successful self-published authors who self-edit to a high standard. Mark Williams and Saffina Desforges spring to mind. However, there are two authors involved there, rather than just a single set of eyes.

      JJ, I added “skilled” betas for that reason. But you’re right, at least one professional edit is necessary if you’re serious about your writing. 🙂

  7. Thanks, Karin. I like self-editing posts. I find that a lot of plot problems are actually grammar problems. Muddied wording makes it difficult to see what is actually happening in a scene.
    Looking forward to your other post.

  8. I think this is great information to learn even if you have an editor waiting in the wings. As I see it, your beta readers and crit partners will have an easier time focusing on your story. Hopefully, they return the favor and self-edit before sending their work to you.

  9. Oh I know I’ll be investing in thatprofesional editor, after I’ve edited the heck out of my book.. heh. Sadly I’m definately a noob writer. I’m quite certain the modifiers are running rampant, mad as it were, throught my manuscript. ActuallY I’m not even sure I could call it that yet *giggles*

    Post like these defiantley deserve a book mark in my toolbar, that’s for sure.

    But I have one question that I hope you can help me with: How do I find the editor that’s right for me? Is it trial and error? or are there questions you can ask that can help you?

    :} Cathryn

    1. You should always get a sample edit. That should give you an idea of the editor’s style, and whether you will work well together. Plus, you can get a sense of the person from your email communications.

      I’ve only strayed from my current editor’s clutches once, near the start of our working relationship, when I wanted specific advice on something and received a recommendation from a fellow author who had faced the exact same problem. I didn’t get a sample edit, and if I had done so, I would have known that working with that other editor was a complete waste of time (and money). Lesson learned, and I returned to my current editor with my tail between my legs (and she sorted it all out for me anyway). Two lessons learned 🙂

    2. Cathryn,

      Another thing to think about when searching for an editor is to be sure in your own mind what level of edit you want. Some authors want the whole shebang (structural and developmental editing as well as copy-editing), but not all editors are willing or able to provide that. Some editors will focus solely on grammar, spelling and punctuation, and let you deal with issues like plot arcs, internal consistency or character development. Some authors want me to insert suggestions or improvements into their manuscript using track changes; others prefer I don’t try to “improve” anything but only mark suggestions where they might be able to reword things themselves.

      For that reason, you’re best off trying to assess what your manuscript needs before you choose an editor. “The works” editing will be more expensive, and a proofread will be the cheapest. Some editors prefer to have a manuscript appraisal to work on developing their manuscript, and then a copy-edit. Also, make sure you ask about other books the editor has edited and about their experience. In most cases, I’d trust an editor with on-the-job training more than one who has finished a diploma but has no direct trade experience. But that’s not to say some of those don’t have the aptitude to be great editors and we all had to start somewhere.


      1. There’s a big contradiction in there, Karin. Unfortunately, most inexperienced writers (me included) are incapable of assessing the editing needs of their own work. This is why so many indie books are published with terrible plots or gaping plot holes or no plots at all. Many are far long and need an editor to remove several (tens of) thousands of words. My way of getting over this problem is to hand the ms to my editor and ask her to assess what it needs. With the book I’m writing now, I gave her my outline to read and she told me why the plot wouldn’t work, where I had put unnecessary stuff and how to improve it. It took a couple of weeks and about 5 iterations before I had the outline of a storyline that will make for a strong plot.

      2. JJ, I know that is true, and I’ve experienced some clients who believe that all they need is a proofread when in truth they need an awful lot more than that. One thing is certain: ego is a terrible editor.

        Having said that, I have also had clients who preferred me to point out their foibles but not to try to provide solutions for them. Their reasoning was that they didn’t want to just have some other writer tell them how to fix their book’s issues, they wanted to teach themselves how to do it. It makes an editor’s job a lot easier to know what a client *thinks* they need, although a competent editor will also tactfully let the client know if they require something more extensive. Unfortunately, some authors see this as “upselling” and some are seeking a cheap, quick fix. Some are simply unable to see their book’s faults.

      3. Thank you so much for answering my question. Theres certainly a lot of information for me to digest here. I’m looking forward to the next post.

        As an inexperienced writer, I’m going on the assumption my book needs both types of edits. But not until I’ve shook my manuscript throughly.

        :} Cathryn

    1. Lucky you. As soon as I take my eyes of my MS, my commas and modifiers go for a wander all over my clauses. My pristine clauses! Their amok-ery makes a mockery of my wordsmithery.

    1. I hope it helped, Edwin.
      As others have mentioned, reading aloud or using the text-to-speech facility in Word or Adobe Acrobat will also help you weed out a lot of these errors. Another trick is to isolate words in a sentence that reads a little awkwardly, and then make sure that your subject and the verb it is performing are close to each other. Reading tricky sentences backwards also helps you isolate each word and is a useful way of picking up spelling errors or transposed letters.

  10. Thanks for the Karin

    Some good tips here. Grammar in general is something I NEED to improve drastically in the coming months. I’ve done a lot of self editing, now trying to send it to some beta readers and hopefully pick up some tips and good practices that i can use myself for another self edit. Getting a pro editor involved at some point is a must though. This is something i’ve discovered in recent months

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    1. Matt, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with some style guides, too. Depending on where you’re based, the following guides are very helpful:

      US —Chicago Manual of Style (available as an online subscription from and Garner’s Modern American Usage.
      UK — The Oxford Guide to Style and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage
      Australia— Wiley 6th Edition (sometimes also known as Snooks & Co.) and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

      Of course, there are plenty of other excellent reference texts on grammar. Some, however, such as Fower’s Modern Usage (which is not really very modern, despite updated editions) and Strunk & White, are useful in part but are sometimes a too stringent for modern fiction editing, at least in my opinion.

      1. I wouldn’t count out Strunk & White as a fiction writer (E.B. White is probably the most accomplished fiction writer who has lent his name to a book on grammar, after all). In my experience anyway, the Elements of Style is a great little book to have on hand when revising your work. I’ve read it cover to cover a few times, although that’s something I’d hesitate to admit to in certain circles. 🙂

        That does bring up a point that I’ve often wondered about … is it other people’s experience that those who who work in non-English languages seem much less grammar-phobic than English speakers and writers? And, perhaps as a consequence, non-English speakers and writers seem to have a much better and more conscious grasp of their language’s rules? With English-language writers (including myself), good grammar seems to be more unconscious, something you “feel your way through” rather than strictly “think your way through.” Not sure yet if that’s a good or bad thing for a writer.

  11. Thank you for your article, Karin. I particularly agree with your viewpoint regarding adverbs. The modern tendency to remove all adverbs, even when sentence comprehension or impact is weakened as a result, make me think of babies and bathwater. The sparing use of an adverb or two can enhance the depth of a reader’s experience, but overuse can confuse and stifle meaning.

    I used to tutor a screenwriting class and they were all concerned about formatting, visual language, character/plot arc and all that Sid Field schemozzle. My advice to them was simple: just write the damn thing. Everything else can be fixed, but if you never write it because you are concerned about form or even content then you never write it.

    Maybe it’s my age, but I struggle with the idea that all prose has to be sparse; I still read Dickens with a sense of awe, even though his novels are littered with adjectives. Florid? Perhaps. But I ain’t gonna argue with Charlie.

    My dog is my current editor although lacking the skill to discriminate which pages he needs to chew up and which he could leave alone, so I wish I could afford you. Sadly, the barbaric prose in my debut novel – due out in February – will have to enter the world without the armour provided by a skilled editor.


    1. JD, I agree. What a boring literary landscape it would be if all writers wrote the same! However, I do think that all of the words should have a purpose. Writing should be deliberate (to a degree), although you are right that such deliberation often comes at the editing stage and rarely at the writing stage, when the objective is to GET IT ON PAPER (or on screen nowadays).

      I don’t like wordiness if it arises because an author lacked clarity of thought, or was unable to be economical with language, but when the character is deliberately wordy or waffly, that is a different story.

      Most people find that a particular writing style appeals to them. Some like lyrical, descriptive prose that, to another reader, might border on purple. That is why I also think it is important for writers to understand their unique authorial voice, to foster it, and to try to resist copying another author. Part of an editor’s job is respecting authorial voice, but I think a good editor will also read widely across many genres, so they have an understanding of style and genre and learn to appreciate many different writing styles, from florid to sparse.

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  13. Karin,
    Thanks for the great post. I’m glad to see someone actually reasoning out the adverb thing. I get sick to death of hearing that all adverbs must go, because Stephen King says so. They have their place in our language they just have to be used correctly.
    Also thanks for reiterating what I am always telling new authors, you must have an editor before you publish, find a way to get your book edited so you put out the best work possible.
    I can’t wait for part two.

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  15. I am obviously too late for this conversation and as usual any profundity likely to evaporate for want of attention…so just here to add my plaudits for the best Editor I ever had…and luckily found before too late.

  16. I’m both an editor and an author and I think this is a good, practical post in terms of identifying common problems to watch out for when editing your own work.
    I also find it useful to look at self-editing from the standpoint of specific *techniques* that can help you spot errors and issues in your own writing. For anyone who’s interested, I’ve written a fairly detailed three-part post that approaches the topic mostly from this angle. You can find part one (and links to the other parts) at I hope people find it helpful.

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