editing tips for writers

Editing Tips for Writers: 10 Red Flags

As a writer, your work does not end when you finish your first draft. To produce an engaging piece of writing that’s ready for submission or publication, you’ll need to spend time revising and editing the prose. But editing is a craft in itself, and it can be tough to learn how to improve your writing. These simple editing tips for writers are a great place to start.

While you’re editing, keep an eye out for these ten red flags. While these red-flag words don’t always indicate something is amiss, they generally deserve a second look. Before long, editing for these issues will become second nature. Eventually, you’ll find yourself avoiding them even while drafting.

Two quick disclaimers:

  1. Take all writing rules with a grain of salt. You are the writer, and no rule covers every situation.
  2. These are editing tips. The only red flag in a first draft is a blank page.

1. Suddenly

When writing a scene, it should be obvious when something happens suddenly, without explicitly telling the reader.

For example, you could remove “suddenly” in the following sentence: “The wizard appeared suddenly.”

If the wizard isn’t there and then he is, he appeared suddenly. No need to clarify.

2. Was

The word “was” is a “to be” verb that signals passive voice, which can weaken your writing and introduce ambiguity. Try to use active voice instead to make your writing stronger.

For example, instead of writing “The sheep was killed,” try “Mary killed the sheep.”

Using “was” also limits opportunities to incorporate strong verbs into your sentences. For instance, instead of writing “She was walking around the bar,” write “She patrolled the bar.”

3. Very

Words like “very” and “really” are modifiers that specify degrees. Removing them will tighten your writing and force you to imply degrees in other ways.

For example, instead of writing “She was very upset,” you could write, “Her nails bit into her palms.” This is an example of showing, with sensory details, instead of telling.

As Mark Twain once said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”

4. Then

Transitions such as “then” and “after” are usually redundant. The reader assumes scenes to be written in chronological order.

For example, instead of writing, “The dog killed the bird. Then the dog ate the bird,” write, “The dog killed and ate the bird.”

5. Well

Dialogue should not always be written as it is spoken. People tend to say “Well, I did this,” and “Look, this is the way it is.” However, readers do not care about these introductory words and will likely find them irritating. Use “well” sparingly, particularly when trying to convey the personality of a specific character.

6. That

“That” is a word that often sneaks into drafts unnoticed. However, removing it can improve the flow of your writing. For example, instead of writing “She knew that time was up,” write “She knew time was up.” Only include “that” when necessary for clarity or grammatical correctness.

7. Seem

Qualifiers like “seem” and “appear” undermine the narrator’s authority. Rather than using “seem” to indicate how a character feels, show the reader how they feel through their actions. For example, instead of writing “The girl seemed afraid,” write “The girl shuddered.”

8. Thing

“Thing” and “stuff” are placeholder nouns used when you’re unsure what to describe. Using specific nouns adds more depth to your writing. For example, instead of writing “He cleared the stuff from the couch,” write “He cleared the stuffed animals and rattles from the couch.”

9. Adverbs

Overusing adverbs is one of the easiest ways to clutter your writing. Usually, adverbs can be replaced with action or metaphor.

For example, “She walked slowly” could become “She walked like her legs were iron.”

As Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

10. Progressive Tense

Overusing progressive tense (verbs ending in -ing) is a common habit. In most cases, the simple past tense can be used instead:

Instead of writing “She was walking down the street,” you could simply write “She walked down the street.”

Progressive tense is typically only necessary when one action interrupts the first, such as in this sentence: “She was walking down the street when a clown jumped out from behind a tree.”

What Are These Editing Tips Really About?

You may have noticed some commonalities in the above red flags.Most of these red-flag words actually represent an opportunity to include two things:

1. Sensory Details

Show, don’t tell. You’ve likely heard that piece of writing advice many times. All it really means, though, is that you should strive to incorporate sensory details whenever possible. Tell us what the character sees, hears, or smells. Think about actions that represent emotions. Many of the red-flag words above simply represent opportunities to incorporate more sensory information into your story.

2. Specificity

Ambiguity is the enemy of any writer, and a good line editor will put a lot of effort into ensuring that your prose says exactly what you mean for it to say. By eliminating words and structures that introduce ambiguity, you ensure that the reader can clearly understand your meaning and visualize the story, without getting pulled out of the story.

Editing Tips for Writers: Addressing Red Flags

​Remember, none of these are hard-and-fast rules. They are red flags that deserve a second look during the revision process. View them as opportunities to make your writing stronger, but never sacrifice the integrity or your story simply to adhere to a revision “rule.”

If you ever doubt the necessity of marking through a sentence, think of this guidance from Elmore Leonard: “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

When you’re ready for a professional editor’s eye on your work, contact our team at Blue Pen.

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