books · editing · writing

Targeted Self-editing, Part 1

Kari Trumbo editing

My writing process looks a little like this, I write a rapid first draft, warts and all. Get as much down of the situation and feeling as I can so I can recall it exactly when I need to re-write. I then let it sit about two weeks while I focus on other writing. I throw myself into a brief new project. I read through the original manuscript and re-write scenes two times (line edit), then let it sit again. Finally, I start what I want to talk about today, targeted self-editing. I follow that by a printing it out to catch any last details.

You cannot do a read-through with each edit. If you attempt it, not only will your work become boring to you, you will actually see the flaws less clearly. I will cover what I do to help with re-write blindness another day.

Use control + f, it is your friend. For each word or phrase I need to eliminate or lessen I use control + f. If I simply try to read through it looking for that word, I get lost in the story and before I know it, I’ve read through two pages and missed many of my targets. Control f will highlight problem words and phrases to edit them out rapidly.

The first to go are the “to be” verbs. In case it’s been a while since you learned what those are: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, & been. You do not need to remove all of them, merely the great majority. Dialogue is a completely different beast than prose, this does not necessarily apply to dialogue. Focus on removing ARE and WAS the most, they cause the most trouble with passive voice. Writer’s tip: Any time you see was + and ing verb, find a way to get rid of it. Just doing that eliminates portions of passive voice.

The dreaded that. Some are necessary; many are not. Read a sentence out loud both with the word that and without. If the meaning does not change, you can delete it. I’ve also found the word that can be a hallmark of a weak sentence, try re-writing to see if it can be eliminated. A strong subject/verb punch creates a sentence that makes you want to read further. That can become a crutch on a sentence. Writer’s tip: Be aware of when you don’t mean that at all, but who or which. If the subject you are referring to with the word that is a person, use who (or whom), if it is defining exactly which one, use which instead.

Started or began. When we do something, it has a beginning, we start to knit or start to read. In a story, there is no place for starting to do anything. If you think of how something appears, they aren’t starting anything, they are doing. Eliminate all started to’s and began’s (and beginning to’s, etc.). If something looks differently when the character is “starting to” do something as opposed to doing it, describe it. Your character isn’t ‘starting to make bread’, she ‘gathered the flour, yeast, sugar and other ingredients, laying them out with care on her work surface…’.

Lastly, be sure to actually look through each instance these words happen, don’t just do a find and replace. You can mess up your manuscript permanently.  If you do a search for that and switched all of them to which (not that you would, I hope) somewhere in your manuscript, you might end up with whichch instead of thatch. Also, always keep a copy of your MS that you haven’t touched in a while in case something goes wrong while you edit, like if your word processing program stops responding, freezes your computer and you lose the file. It’s much easier to use a document you need to edit over again than to start from scratch.


That should get you through a few days or weeks of editing, depending on how much time you give yourself a day. I will add more to this series soon. Happy writing!