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Self-Editing for Writers

Here, you will find what I hope will be helpful hints and tips, including questions to ask yourself, when self-editing your work. It's not always easy viewing our work from an objective perspective, while being immersed in the writing process, but the following may help. More hints will be added as time permits.


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Plot is what happens and why. There is a beginning, middle and end. Sub plots are the extra threads of action and conflict woven through the main plot. Sounds reasonable and simple, but many plots fall down in one of these areas and leave the reader frustrated and wondering.

A plot consists of a series of scenes that are strung together-loose or tight, but always with a purpose in mind.

Your plot can revolve around conflict, action or dilemma, or a combination of any or all.

Whether you outline your plot to the millisecond or let the story happen as you write, once the story is finished you need to ensure all ends are tied up properly. You do not want an annoyed reader, least of all if that reader is a publisher or agent.


  • Look at the story from the reader's point of view and ask yourself: Will the reader be able to follow this?
  • At frequent intervals ask yourself: "What does the reader need to know here?"
  • Are all characters' problems solved in a believable (in context) and satisfactory way?
  • Is the reader left without answers?
  • Is there enough conflict-internal or external-to keep the reader interested in how the characters handle the conflict and the final outcome?
  • If you've set goals for you characters, were they achieved? If not, were there adequate reasons for this? Did the goals change and, if so, was the change obvious to the reader?
  • Have you let any crucial leads, hints or reasons for events remain in your head instead of on the paper? After all, you know the whole story, every bit of detail-probably much more than you'll need to include for the reader. Though readers don't like to left wondering about pertinent details.
  • Are there adequate 'rest stops' between scenes of emotional intensity or climactic action for the reader to catch her breath?
  • Are transitions between scenes and time-slips appropriate, and clear enough for the reader keep up? Or, is she left wondering what day of the week, or even year, the story has moved on to?

Who is Telling the Story-Point Of View?

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Point of View (POV) is the point of focus for the reader, the perspective from which the story is told-First Person, Third Person Intimate and Third Person Multiple are the most usual POVs employed by writers.

The POV character is the one whose thoughts, feelings and physical reactions the reader shares at any given point in the story. A short story most often contains only one Point of View, to avoid confusion for the reader, whereas a novel might be told from the perspectives of one character, various characters or the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.

When using more than one POV per scene it is advisable to use them for more than one sentence, making sure the transitions from one POV to another flow easily, so the reader can keep track of whose eyes he is looking through.

It is wise to stick to one POV per scene and best to establish the POV in the first sentence.

When describing surroundings, keep the tone and 'voice' of the description in words your POV character would use. A university lecturer would describe his environment very differently to an alien just arrived by way of a 'matter transformation beam' from Jupiter.


  • If writing in the First Person, does the character step inside other characters' heads at any time, or suddenly develop x-ray vision, able to see events happening behind closed doors?
  • Are changes of POV done for good reason and clear to the reader?
  • If the story isn't working, could it benefit from being told from a different POV?
  • If using multiple POVs, do you have the balance right, or has one character become more interesting than the other/s? Is this intentional or accidental?
  • Is the story becoming fragmented by too many POVs?
  • Is POV strongest in the major characters? They are the ones the reader wants to know intimately.
  • Is the POV character the one with the largest stake in the story?
  • Do you know your character well enough to tell the story from that POV?

Characters, not Paper Dolls

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It is your job as the writer to know your characters well and to convey that knowing to the reader.

The reader shares your knowledge through the character's actions, mannerisms, speech patterns, gestures, emotional reactions, thoughts, fears, doubts and hopes. To know and relate properly, the reader needs to experience life through the characters' senses and perceptions.

The dreams and goals, struggles and actions, and the personalities of your characters determine the conflict and tension and make your characters live.

It should be clear to the reader why a character behaves as he does and takes a particular course of action. If you have created a meek and mild character who, one Saturday morning at a crowded bus stop, beheads a tourist with a machete, there had better be a darn good reason, sooner or later. If not, you've lost the reader. Characters do not have to be likeable and they can surprise the reader, or be completely predictable, but they need to be believable in the context of the story.


  • Do your characters own emotions? Characters, like real people, may exhibit or suppress emotions, but emotion is the link that connects readers to characters.
  • Can the reader identify with the main characters by experiencing the 'life' of the story through their eyes, ears, and feelings?
  • If you've drawn a character from real life, have you assumed more about them than you've shared with the reader?
  • Does the reader know what's motivating the character?
  • Are characters more than robots that simply fit in with the action of the plot?
  • Do you take the reader inside the major character's head where necessary?
  • When minor characters reappear, are they recognisable to the reader, either by quirks, mannerisms or speech patterns?
  • Do your characters have names that are remembered by the reader?
  • Are you telling, or showing the reader how the character feels?

What Did You Say? - Dialogue

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Dialogue is the expression of a character's intellect, feelings and thoughts. Dialogue helps develop your characters' personalities and traits, moves the story forward and adds involvement for the reader.

Conversation between characters can be used to propel the reader into the next chapter. It can also be used to stimulate the reader's imagination and add suspense-by what is not said, rather than what is.

Dialogue can be used to break up or 'pace' action that is simultaneously happening to two sets of characters, by switching from scene to scene, conversation to conversation.

Well-written dialogue can generate tension and create a vital feeling of movement.

Readers need to be able to visualise both the characters and the environment in which the dialogue takes place, not words being spoken in a vacuum. You need to regularly remind readers of 'place' during long passages of dialogue, so they don't forget or lose track.

Characters are individuals and as such will use different terms, slang words and swear words. One may use 'big' words while another may hardly ever finish a sentence. Yet another character might keep chopping off other speakers.

A switch in speaker should be indicated to the reader by a new paragraph. However a thought or action by the same speaker can precede or follow straight on from the dialogue, unless you want to indicate a pause between the thought or action and what is said.


  • Can you 'hear' the dialogue in your head?
  • Are the 'voices' of each character distinct, or do they all sound the same to the reader?
  • Does dialogue add to the story, plot or characterisation?
  • Is there enough dialogue to break up large amounts of text?
  • Are there places where dialogue can be used instead of narrative?
  • Is the dialogue in keeping with the era in which the story takes place?
  • Does it reflect the age, background and personality of the character?
  • Are you as the writer keeping the reader in the picture, adding touches of relevant scenic or sensory detail?
  • Does your dialogue sound realistic? Or is it stilted and too pat?
  • Are long speeches by characters slowing down the story?
  • When imparting information through dialogue, is it necessary and timely?

He said, she said-Dialogue Attributions

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An attribution is the tag attached to dialogue, telling the reader who is saying what and how.

Many writers go out of their way to think up interesting and different alternatives to 'said' in lines of dialogue (reiterated, commented, echoed, ventured). Other writers only use 'said'. Yet others handle attributions in any form as they would a social disease, to be avoided whenever and wherever possible.

'Said' fades into the background and is invisible to most readers.

If it is clear to the reader who is speaking, attributions are unnecessary unless they convey important meaning to the dialogue.

Instead of an attribution, action can tell the reader who is speaking. "I'm not going. That's all there is to it." Tim snatched the newspaper from the table and resumed reading.

Adverbs, particularly those ending in 'ly' are often superfluous and are tautologies - she said, smiling cheerfully. If she is smiling, she is cheerful, at least at that moment.

Not all 'ly' adverbs are 'bad'. There is a big difference between 'I'm not going,' he said softly and 'I'm not going,' he yelled.

Gestures and body language can convey a feeling of movement-he said with the smirk and dismissive wave she knew too well.


  • On reading through your dialogue, are all attributions necessary?
  • Where 'ly' adverbs appear in attributions (or anywhere else in the manuscript), can a single, strong verb be used to better advantage?
  • Are there places where action could take the place of attributions?
  • Do attributions tell the reader something or give an impression of movement?
  • Is it always clear for the reader who is speaking?
  • Have you designated a new paragraph for each switch in speaker as a flag to the reader?


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Of course words, and many of them, are used to tell a story from beginning to end, but in strong writing every word counts and contributes to taking the reader on the journey through the story.


  • Can any sentences or passages be pared to make the writing stronger?
  • Have you used so many big or unfamiliar words that the reader needs to constantly reach for the dictionary?
  • Is the language appropriate to the genre, characters and storyline?
  • Can you see places where you have used several words when one would do just as well?

Vagueness and Accuracy

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Most fiction, unless it is complete fantasy, incorporates elements of truth, taken from the writer's knowledge, experience and/or research. In a story that mixes fact with fiction, it is essential for the writer to have done their research. A reader will very quickly pick up where research is faulty or incomplete and the writer has skimmed over pertinent information.

Some time ago, I read a Mills and Boon novel (yep, I read them occasionally), which was set here in Australia, though not written by an Australian author. I put the book aside in disgust when I read a passage that had the heroine walking into a pharmacy and buying contraceptive pills over the counter. That does not happen! Obtaining contraceptive pills in Australia requires the woman to visit the doctor, get a prescription, and then present the script to the pharmacist for filling. Again, reading another Mills and Boon novel, I was even more disgusted when 'told' a didgeridoo has finger holes. I'm yet to see a didge with any holes other than one at each end - it's the player's breathing skills and patterns that make the various sounds, not fingers placed on air holes. And this, written by an Aussie author!

My point? When incorporating facts, please make sure they are accurate. Otherwise you run the risk of alienating your reader and having her toss the book aside.


  • Do you know the place and era in which your story is set? It's not necessary to have been there, but if details are included in the story, they must be accurate. (Unless you are writing complete fantasy.)
  • Have you researched your characters' professions, illnesses, psychoses, disabilities, phobias and contraception methods if they play a role in the story?
  • If your character is a child of 'today', are you sure about language, current fads and hobbies? And ditto for an elderly person.


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These are overused words and phrases often used in everyday speech (par for the course, he could eat a horse). In writing, they are to be avoided, unless clichés are used in dialogue or as a speech 'signature' of a character. It is a challenge and far more interesting to come up with an original term-you never know, the phrase you invent may one day become a cliché.


  • Have you inadvertently let any clichés slip into your writing?
  • If so, can you come up with an original expression as a replacement?

A Word on Emotion

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Readers yearn to become emotionally involved in a story. They want very much to 'live' the life of the protagonist, to feel what he is feeling, share his fears and hopes, dreams and disappointments and to know what he is thinking and feeling at crucial points in the story. Events have a way of pushing people in unexpected directions.

Change is not always easy for a lot of folk and how a character handles and internalises change can be a powerful motivator. How do your characters internalise changes in their situations, what are they feeling, and how can you convey that to the reader?

Describing a character's body language (showing) can impart much about internal goings-on without writing something as bland as 'Joe was worried sick about Eleanor.' (Telling.) How is Joe's worry manifesting? Is it being exhibited as anger and frustration with him stomping through the house and slamming doors? Has he resumed the telltale habit of chewing at his fingernails? Is Joe staring at Eleanor as if she has lost all reason, or sitting by her bed with the quilt scrunched in his hands, or repeatedly combing his fingers through his hair, making it dishevelled, mirroring his confused thoughts?

Being aware of people's reactions and body language in real-life situations and later attributing them to characters, can help make characters come alive for the reader and add depth to the writing.


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Last updated January 2010