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.

Minimize, Don’t Nominalize: Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part 3


In the last two posts on “Effective Writing,” I’ve covered a number of common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. This week I’d like to discuss another affected writing style: nominalizations.

Nominalizations are nouns formed from other parts of speech, and they tend to make your writing “clunky” or “chewy.” Think about your own writing: do you find yourself using unnecessarily complex words to sound more “literary”? For example, is your writing “an amplification of a concept,” or does it amplify your idea? (See the difference?) Writing is more clear and direct when it relies on strong verbs to do the work.

Think about your own writing: do you find yourself using unnecessarily complex words to sound more “literary”? #amediting #editing #editingtip Click To Tweet

Of course style enters into the equation, and nominalizations tend to be more accepted in academic writing than in other genres, but be careful not to overdo your use of nominalized phrases in your own writing. Here are some examples:

            There was considerable erosion of the beaches due to the hurricane.

            Our discussion concerned a tax increase.

            I am getting through my loss, and there is a beautiful life that still awaits me.

Here are more succinct ways to say the same things:

            The hurricane caused considerable beach erosion.

            We discussed a tax increase.

            I am adjusting to my loss, and a beautiful life is waiting.

In “The Opinionator” blog, Helen Sword writes about what she calls “zombie nouns”:

“Academics love [nominalizations]; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

“The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

“The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what.

“When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

“Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

“Only one zombie noun – the key word nominalizations – has been allowed to remain standing.

“A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep. Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete, clearly structured, and blissfully zombie-free.”

You can easily fix these awkward sentences by asking yourself, “What is happening in the sentence?” In the example above, the writer is the subject—and notice that writer is absent from the awkward version.

As The Grammar Gang writes, “If the answer to this question cannot be found in the verb of your sentence but rather in one of its nouns, then you have some work to do.”

For more on common writing errors, check out my older blog posts–you’ll find lots of great info that will help you with self-editing!

Do you have any awkward writing pet peeves? I welcome your comments and examples—I’d love to use some in my next blog, so don’t be shy, please comment away! Or you can e-mail me privately at, and I promise to respect your privacy.

Happy Writing!



Pass the Passive Writing, Please!

Image courtesy of markuso at

I thought I was a pretty good writer when I was in college. I probably was, at least as far as making my argument was concerned. But unfortunately, I didn’t learn until after I graduated that I was guilty of a common writing error: I overused passive writing because I thought it sounded “literary.”

Boy, was I wrong! Yet I had plenty of company, and I can even point to a couple of good reasons why it happened and why writers continue to overwrite using the passive voice.

Are you making the mistake of using passive voice? Here are examples of the difference between active and passive voice. #editing #writing #writingtip #passivevoice Click To Tweet

Let me explain. In the active voice, the subject performs the action; in passive writing, the subject receives the action. It’s that simple. For example:

Active voice: Candace wrote a new blog about passive writing.

Passive voice: A new blog about passive writing was written by Candace.

In passive writing, the subject might even disappear from the sentence, like this:

A new blog about passive writing was written and posted.

In most cases, you want to emphasize the subject that does the action (active voice); in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. And because passive writing is often wordier than active writing, writers should always be looking for ways to craft a cleaner, more concise sentence.

While it is preferable to use an active voice most of the time, there is a time and place for passive writing. Daily Writing Tips puts it this way: “Passive writing is common in scientific papers because it lets the writers avoid using the words I or we, to avoid saying where their ideas came from That’s why some teachers think that passive voice sounds more educated. Usually, though, it’s simply less definite . . . but in the real world, when they have something to say, even scientists don’t have the luxury of not being definite.” And in A Writer’s Reference, author Diane Hacker writes,

“The passive voice is appropriate if you wish to emphasize the receiver of the action or to minimize the importance of the actor.”

Passive writing is tricky, though, and something you should work to avoid in most cases. offers:

“It takes time and practice to eliminate such problems as expository dialogue and passive writing from your work. But the payoff for your hard work      and diligence will be a smoother style and a heightened ability to create remarkable stories.”

That sounds like a goal worth pursuing! So don’t try to sound “literary” or “educated” by overusing the passive voice when you write. If your grammar checker flags a passive sentence, take a careful look to be sure you’ve written it that way for a good reason. If not, it’s time for a revision.

A final word: in the classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, author Patricia T. O’Connor writes, “If you have something to say, be direct about it. As in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” That’s good advice for all of us, so the next time you self-edit, say it the way you mean it and work to construct your sentences so they are direct and active.


Next week: Avoiding Awkward Sentences