I’m honored to have a very special guest this week… Jerry Jenkins (yep, that one!). It also happens to be on a topic that all of us can use: self-editing. So take it away, Jerry, and thanks for stopping by! 

Regardless your reason for wanting to self-publish, your prospects for success will rise exponentially if you learn to edit your own writing. The crisper your prose, the farther you’ll separate yourself from the ocean of competitors who flood this vast new space.

There’s little point in pouring hours, days, weeks, months, years of your whole life into a manuscript and in the end settling for anything less than your very best work appearing in print.

Google “Self-Editing” and you’ll find dozens of checklists that include examining your manuscript for things like Active Voice, Description, Character Motivation, Context, Hooks, Pacing, Read Aloud, Similes & Metaphors, Synonyms, and Engaging the Senses.

All of those are important, but let me zero in on the writing itself.

Author Francine Prose (there’s a writerly name for you) says, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, or especially cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.”

I learned self-editing the hard way early in my magazine career, working for a boss who edited my writing and second edited my editing. Every day he found things in my work that I should have caught, and it became my goal to submit something he couldn’t improve upon.

I never entirely succeeded, but I got better, ferreting out redundancies and errors in logic, excessive adjectives, and other maladies I’ll cover below.

Above all, I learned to develop a thick skin and realize that every piece of published writing is a duet between the writer and the editor, not a solo.

To this day, more than 185 published books into my career, with 21 New York Times bestsellers, and 70 million copies sold, I have become a ferocious self-editor and always work the same way:

  • I begin my day with a heavy edit and rewrite of the rough draft I composed the day before.
  • Only when I am happy with every word do I then turn off my internal editor and produce the rough pages I will edit and rewrite the next day.
  • When the entire first draft is finished, I start over from the beginning with a final heavy edit and rewrite.

What I Look For

When I’m going over those rough pages with my fine-toothed editing comb, I:

  • Excise throat-clearing, that tendency we all have to keep from getting to the point and getting on with the story
  • Make sure I’ve chosen the normal word over the obtuse; I don’t want to intrude on my own story, showing off my vocabulary
  • Omit needless words
  • Avoid subtle redundancies, like clapped his hands (what else would he clap?), shrugged her shoulders (ditto), squinted their eyes (see what I’m saying?)
  • Usually delete the word that (sometimes it’s necessary, but usually not)
  • Look for where I can resist the urge to explain, giving the reader credit for understanding, such as: Marian [was mad. She] pounded the table. “George, you’re going to drive me crazy,” she said[, angrily].
  • Avoid telling what’s not happening, such as, He didn’t respond or The room never got quiet; if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t need to be said.
  • Avoid becoming an adjectival maniac. Good writing is a thing of strong nouns and verbs. Novelist and editor Sol Stein says one plus one equals one-half, meaning that we should chose the best of two adjectives and not deplete the power by using both.
  • Avoid hedging verbs like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc. People either smile or laugh or frown, or they don’t.
  • Avoid the term literally — when I mean figuratively. Literally means something actually happened. I literally died when I heard that. I was literally climbing the walls. My eyes literally fell out of my head. See how ridiculous that sounds?
  • Avoid too much stage direction: showing every movement of every character
  • Make sure to maintain a single Point of View for every scene.
  • Avoid clichéd situations as much as words and phrases, such as starting with the main character waking to a jangling alarm clock, then describing himself before a full length mirror; or eventual lovers literally bumping into each other at their first meeting.
  • Avoid on-the-nose writing.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Avoid creative mannerisms of dialogue attribution. People mostly just say things, they don’t exclaim or declare or pronounce And if you describe action first, we know who’s speaking: John dropped onto the couch. “I’m beat.” Not: John was exhausted. He dropped onto the couch and exclaimed tiredly, “I’m beat.” “I hate you,” Jill said, narrowing her eyes. Not: “I hate you,” Jill hissed ferociously.
  • Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes. “He…was…DEAD!” doesn’t make a character any more dramatically expired than “He was dead.”

Have any thoughts about these self-editing tips? Talk to me in the comments section (I’m more responsive than you might think).

Jerry B. Jenkins shares advanced writing tips with aspiring authors at JerryJenkins.com. He is a 21-Time New York Times bestselling novelist (The Left Behind series) and biographer (Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Billy Graham, and many others) with sales of over 70 million copies. Click here to discover his five most crucial tips for anyone who wants to write a book—free.