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6 self-editing tips to strengthen your writing

The guidelines for novelists and screenwriters apply to anyone who strings words together to tell a story, inform readers or engage an audience—and keep your editor at bay.
By Lisa Lepki | Posted: December 29, 2015
Editor's note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2015. We're rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)

Editors read for a living. They read all day long.

Some writing lands on their desk in excellent form, but a lot of it requires serious work with the red pen. Generally, editors are happy to help their writers to develop strong narrative arcs and believable characters.

The most annoying thing, though, is when writers fall at the most basic technical writing hurdles. Editors should not spend their time replacing adverbs with strong verbs or changing from passive to active voice. The writer can and should make these edits when they do their own first edit.

Editors have limited time to spend on your drafts, and that time is expensive. Taking a little time for self-editing can impress your editor and prove your writing skills.

Here are six common problems to fix before your editor gets out the red pen:

1. Replace adverbs with strong verbs.

When you write your first draft, it's more important to get the story out than to get every word right. Wrestling with every word can disrupt your momentum.

So, if you need to write, "Mike drove quickly back to headquarters" while you're pouring out a scene, then go for it. Your first edit is your chance to figure out how to make it stronger: "The tires screamed on Mike's beat-up Honda as he raced back toward headquarters."

In your first major edit, reassess any adverbs you find. Sometimes an adverb will sing, but more often than not, you will come up with a stronger way to get your idea across when you go back and look again.

2. Fix repetitive use of initial pronouns.

This used to make my professor crazy. As a master's student, I had a terrible habit of starting nearly every sentence with a pronoun. He did this. She did that. It is correct. Boring.

Aim to have fewer than 30 percent of your sentences begin with a pronoun. Vary your sentence structure as much as you can; it keeps your readers' attention and makes your writing more engaging.

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3. Get rid of clichés.

Editors despise nothing more than unoriginality. Clichés, by definition, are unoriginal phrases. When writing fiction, try to come up with your own unique way to describe people or situations.

George Orwell said in his rules for writing, "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."

Clichés are often the result of lack of imagination or laziness and, as Orwell says, are often "merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves." Replace any clichés with your own unique phrasing to touch your reader's imagination in a whole new way.

4. Declutter your writing by cutting redundancies.

Redundancies clutter writing by adding words but not meaning. Every word should be there for a reason. If it's not needed, delete it.

Some redundancies are so common we don't even notice them. How often have you heard someone talk about a "free gift"? As opposed to what the kind of gift you have to pay for? The word "free" is redundant in this case; cut it.

Or those organizations that undertake a "joint collaboration." Unlike all those individual collaborations? The word "collaboration" means people working jointly. Cut the clutter so your editor doesn't have to.

5. Eliminate your passive voice.

Overuse of passive voice can jump off the page to an editor as a mark of inexperience. Like adverbs and initial pronouns, sometimes you can use passive voice for a specific purpose and it will be perfect, but overuse weakens your writing.

Let's look at an example:

Active voice: Dave kicked in the door. He hurdled the sofa, shouted a warning and then ransacked the kitchen.

Passive voice: The door was kicked in by Dave. The sofa was hurdled, a warning was shouted and then the kitchen was ransacked by him.

In the first example, Dave is the subject; in the second example the door, sofa, warning and kitchen are the subjects. The second example is not grammatically incorrect, but it doesn't sound right. Your verbs should refer to the doer rather than to the thing having something done to it.

6. Get rid of sticky sentences.

Sticky sentences brim with glue words—the 200 or so most common words in the English language—including: is, as, the, that, etc.

Glue words are the empty spaces in your writing that your readers have to pass through to get to the meaning. Reducing the frequency of glue words increases the clarity of your writing, which makes your editor happy.

Here's an example:

Original: Erica needed to get the key to the car, and so she asked for the contact number of the person who was in charge of that department. (Seventeen glue words in a 27-word sentence. Glue index: 63 percent.)

Edited: Erica contacted the department head to borrow the car key. (Three glue words in a 10-word sentence. Glue index: 30 percent.)

The first sentence wobbles around searching for the point, whereas the second sentence is concise and clear, using fewer than half the words. Learn to recognize sticky sentences and rewrite them before your editor sees them.

Give your editor a break. Let her concentrate on making your story more compelling and your characters more believable. Don't bog her down by forcing her to correct errors that you could easily have caught. You need her too much for that.

What revisions do you strive to make before you send material to your editor?

Lisa Lepki is an independent author, a staffer at ProWritingAid.com and an active member of the grammar police. This article originally appeared on The Write Life.