Self Editing: Put Your Book on a Diet

self editingWriters often confess their dislike for the revision process. Let’s face it, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to write a story feels much more creative than meticulously going through it to add or subtract and rearrange text.

I certainly understand how overwhelming the revision process can be, but breaking it down into manageable bites can make it very doable. And one of the easiest self-editing tasks you can tackle is deleting extraneous words.

In other words, put your manuscript on a diet.

Put your manuscript on a diet, and get rid of those extra words. #writingtip Click To Tweet

As an editor, one of the common things I see is an overweight manuscript.

Overweight? As in too many pages? Well, yes and no. Too many pages can often be the end result, but the real culprit is too many unnecessary words.

We admire gifted writers because they take us to another place—and we don’t even realize it. A well-turned phrase, the perfect adjective, a carefully crafted description—they are the Holy Grail for writers.

As a writer, you know that each word is important, and sometimes the most important words are the ones you don’t use.

The words you don’t use are those you’ve searched out and deleted during your self-editing. Here’s how Writers Relief puts it:

Take a crash course in deleting. Remember that paragraph you worked on yesterday, picking out the best words? Now, cut it down. Get out your red pen and slash away! Be brutal. What is the absolute minimum number of words that you can use to make a point?

Every writer tends to overuse certain words and phrases; check your current work in progress for words like “that,” “in order to,” “began to,” “quickly,” and my personal pet peeve: “it” without a subject noun as an antecedent. The next step is to look at adverbs and adjectives in general, and ask yourself if you can improve your description by removing some of those extra words.

Try this fantastic exercise, courtesy of Write Divas:

We’ve all heard the advice: Paint a picture with your words. Describe the scene. Be creative with your words…

Many first time authors take this advice a little too far and over use adjectives when describing something, because let’s face it–the more descriptive words used, the better the picture, right?


Most of the time one or two adjectives are enough to create an image, but instead of overusing adjectives, authors should strive to use better adjectives. The following is an exercise to help authors practice this skill.

  • Select a scene from something you’ve written.
  • Rewrite it without any adjectives. Remove every last one and list them on a separate paper.
  • Read the scene without the adjectives.
  • Review the list of removed adjectives and replace each one with an adjective not already on the list, using lesser known adjectives or better word choices.
  • Using the new list of adjectives, put back only the adjectives that are necessary for clarity. Nothing more.
  • Read the scene again.
  • Did you need all those adjectives? If the passage needs a few more, add them in but limit yourself to one per noun, two at the most and only occasionally. Never three.
  • Read the scene again.
  • How does it compare to the way it read in the beginning?

The idea here is to give enough description to give your readers’ imaginations flight to create the scene in their head without directing every minute detail. The more ownership a reader has in creating the scenes and characters in their imagination, the more invested in the story they will become.

There are many ways to save on professional editing, and I’ve listed just a few in How to Save Money on Editing by Preparing Your Manuscript and 3 Things You Shouldn’t Hire an Editor to Do. But my first piece of advice to any writer who wants to get the most bang for his or her editing buck is:

Put your manuscript on a diet, and get rid of those extra words.

Happy Writing!


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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

15 thoughts on “Self Editing: Put Your Book on a Diet”

  1. This is great! When I’m revising, I love watching my word count diminish bit by bit. Makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something! Thanks for the helpful tips and reminders. I’m revising two pieces right now and will refer to this post! Love the adjectives exercise.

  2. I actually don’t mind editing; maybe it’s my nature, after all I do edit my text messages. I think editing is very much a part of the creative process, just as much as writing that first draft. When you look at your words a second time, you can find new ways of telling your story, deeper meanings, better words, connections you didn’t see the first time. If writers saw editing as an integral part of the creative process, perhaps they wouldn’t find the task so unpleasant or daunting. I quite enjoy it, especially when things start coming together as I had first envisioned them.

    1. SO glad to know I’m not the only one who edits text messages! I agree with you that editing is part of the creative process, and for me, it’s the fun part. When I first started editing, I found my own writing improved as a result, and now I always encourage writers to edit not only their own work, but that of other writers, too. And don’t you love when that third or fourth or twelfth draft is finally THE ONE?

    1. We often don’t realize how much we overuse certain words–especially when we aren’t paying attention. I’m currently editing a manuscript with dozens of characters who ALL begin almost every sentences with “Well, . .” I doubt I’ll ever begin a written sentence that way after this!

  3. Great advice! I’m glad I had a good non-fiction, research writing background before I took up fiction writing. It helped me cut out the unnecessary and write what really mattered.

    1. You make a great point, Allen. The type of writing you did was no-frills, and that’s excellent training for making sure your fiction isn’t loaded with frilly words that add nothing.

    1. Thanks for bringing that up, Jill, and it’s a good point. That’s a common problem when we switch from one style of writing to another. So, one of your macro points might be to look for places where you can break out of the formulaic writing to add more color to your characters or scene.

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