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Top 10 Editing Tips for your Final Draft
Written by
Kat Stiles
September 2018
Written by
Kat Stiles
September 2018

You’ve read all the great editing books, went through the manuscript at least a dozen times, fixed the largest gaping plot holes and checked your grammar (manually). The beta readers have even given their blessing. Think your epic novel is finally ready? Before you hit the send button, check out these ten pointers to ensure your novel is really ready for publication.

#10 Look for excessive detail of mundane actions

There’s no need to do a play by play when a character washes her hands. I recently read a novel that did this over and over, it was almost like reading stage directions. There’s a reason why no one ever uses the bathroom in the movies. Nobody cares, and it doesn’t add anything to plot. Keep the mundane stuff short or even better, just cut it if you can.

#9 Look for point-of-view (POV) violations

POV violations can be subtle – a simple thought of a love interest can do it. Even if your novel is in third person (if it’s not omniscient) then you should only be able to see the thoughts of the main character.

#8 Look for repetition of monologue and dialogue

If you say it in the internal monologue, there’s no need to also say it in dialogue. Summarize or use non-verbal to convey it to the other person, or just include it in the dialogue and not the internal monologue.

#7 Look for fancy punctuation

By fancy punctuation, I mean anything other than a period or comma. This includes the exclamation point, semi-colon, colon, and parentheses. I didn’t think I had a problem with these until I did a search and found a ridiculous number of them littering my manuscript. Some general rules: If you say, “she exclaimed,” then there’s no need to use an exclamation point. There’s almost no reason to use an exclamation point in internal monologue, it’s over the top. Semi-colons are wonderful, but too many of them are distracting. Same goes for colons and parentheses, they’re unusual enough to take you out of the moment when you come across them.

#6 Look for fancy tags

Fancy tags are also a terrific way to bring you out of the magic world of reading and focus on something that doesn’t matter. “Said” is the most common tag and the job of the tag is to let the reader know who is speaking. When there only two speakers, you don’t even need tags. You especially don’t need tags if you express a character’s thought immediately before or after the spoken sentence, because it’s then obvious who’s speaking. But too many “replied, implied, conjectured, retorted, asked,” and many other exciting ways to say “said” rips the reader out of the story to process the fancy tag. Don’t be afraid of “said.” It’s straightforward and keeps the focus on the dialogue, where it belongs.

#5 Look for your favorite words and phrases

Every writer has something they repeat ad nausem, whether it’s a verb, phrase, or even a dreaded adverb. I had trouble with smiling. Everyone was smiling all the time, and in individual scenes I had characters smiling three or four times. If you don’t know your own favorites, then read one of your longer scenes aloud slowly, that should bring them out in the open. Once you figure out your favorites, use the find feature to see all occurrences. It’s especially important to not have them in close proximity to one another, even if it’s a common word or phrase. Find different ways to express what you’re trying to show but don’t resort to a thesaurus – using a flowery or unusual way to say something simple is pretentious. Unless of course, your book is pretentious, then in that case go right ahead.

#4 Look for common filler words and excessive modifiers

Filler words are words that don’t really add much to the sentence. It’s not the same as spoken filler words like “um, like, er,” unless you really do write them. I find in writing I have the most trouble with: that, I think, I believe, just, and a lot of others. If you can write the sentence without it, it will make your writing stronger. Same goes for modifiers – sometimes, most, only, a little, a lot – all of these should be used sparingly. Speaking of adverbs…

#3 Look for excessive adverbs

Adverbs are the very bane of a writer’s existence. It’s kinda the easy way out, to make it obvious exactly what’s going on, but most of the time they’re not even needed. I see adverbs most often modifying tags, but if the dialogue itself is strong enough, the adverb is superfluous. Easiest way to search for adverbs, just look for “ly.” You don’t have to eradicate all adverbs, but look for opportunities to rewrite without them.

#2 Do a formatting check

Formatting can vary from publisher to publisher, so be sure to follow guidelines. Most involve font/font size, single or double spaced, proper header/footer information and margin sizes. If you have any questions in general as to how your novel should look, you can pop open any published book and see the punctuation and paragraph formatting. There are exceptions in some of the newer novels, but most follow a similar format.

#1 Do one last line edit / grammar check

Always a good idea. Best way? Read it aloud. Have I mentioned that before? Yes. That’s because it’s a great way to find omitted words, homonyms and other nefarious word traps you think are perfectly fine when you read them. Your eyes tend to scan and fill in words you expect to be there. If you take your time reading it aloud, you just might uncover some issues you didn’t see the last time around.

Copyright 2015 Kat Stiles



* This post was originally published in July 2015.

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  • Kat Stiles

    Kelly - That's a great method to use - I find that I tend to get wrapped up in the plot when I go through it normally. 

  • Kat, great post!  I always read my work out loud to find my repetitive phrase du jour.  Great tip!  May I add to your Tip #1?  I read my work out loud backwards, reading the last paragraph first and so on up to the top.  This not only slows down my reading so I catch repetitions (can I use "great" again?), missed words, etc, but it gives me a chance to really see how the paragraph holds up without my eye and mind racing through it.

    I love Rebecca Ferrel Porter's idea of using a straight edge.  I'll try that!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
    Columnist, The Argonaut

  • Kat Stiles

    Patricia - The one thing I do is have my Kindle read it back to me. While that won't necessarily help with the speed of the reading, it can help with the situations where your brain will insert a word that should be there but isn't. Not sure if all Kindles do this - I have a DX and it's listed under experimental features or something odd like that. Plus it's fun to hear that computerized voice mispronounce words. :) If you're lucky enough to have someone else read it to you, that might help too. 

  • Working on doing a read through of one of my novels! Don't know why, but I hate doing this. No, I do know why, I can read so much faster than I talk so I get impatient with my progress. Then I read really, really fast to get through it quicker. Any suggestions for making this tedious part of editing easier. (I do have fun with the dialogue though!)

  • Kat Stiles

    Thanks for all the comments, I'm so glad to hear this article is useful for so many. :) Love the idea about a straight edge, hadn't thought of that one!

  • Mary Oak

    I appreciate having a list of what to check for final edits and this covers a range, thank you. I differ with your view of punctuation though. It may be what acquisition editors are looking for, but it seems a shame to weed out colons, semi colons and exclamation points. Limiting our writing to only commas and periods tones down the writing. 

  • Karen K. Hugg

    Thanks for this. Just did a final edit before sending it to an agent and am so glad I did. I I found the word "simply" three times within four chapters and was horrified. (Also found other repetition.) And yes, reading aloud is so valuable. I wrote a blog post on that. What's weird is when I notice repetition when reading published novels. Yikes. Great post. Cheers.

  • Great tips! Thank you. Reading aloud became part of my final edit after seeing how it improved my flash fiction. An added bonus... my inamorata gets to hear my stories.

  • Stephanie Bond

    Great post!  A terrific list to bookmark!

  • Lisa Thomson

    Fantastic post. Thanks for these, Kat. I'll be referring to this on going. I'm almost ready to submit my short story collection so the timing of this is perfect, too!

  • Rebecca Ferrell Porter

    That last time through, the one looking for grammar issues, use a straight edge to keep your eyes locked on what you are reading. It prevents the writer brain from leaping ahead to what you know is coming. It also slows you down. 

  • Delin Colón

    Excellent check list. I'm a big fan of reading aloud. And, with regard to unnecessary phrases, don't forget to omit syntactical expletives like "there are" or "It is." 

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Super tips, Kat! I will happily share this with my author clients ... great to have such a to-the-point list when going through the editing phases and final draft checks. Thank you!

    By the way ... I had to smile (!) when you said your characters were smiling all the time ... that's my repetitive descriptor too! I actually had to strip a lot of "smilings" out of my novel as well. :) Thanks for sharing!

  • Sharon Scott MaHarry

    You've nailed all the cardinal rules in one post. Thanks, Kat. This will find a prominent spot on my office wall.

  • Karen Elizabeth Lee

    I like the suggestions in this post because we have to learn to be our own best editors before we put our work out to others, perhaps professionals. Avoiding adverbs can force us to be much more creative in describing, "showing" rather than telling. Simple telling of the events in a story is often more powerful than fancy punctuation to make points. Thank you for reminding us of these often common sense editing tips that we often forget.  I am in the middle of a piece right now, so it is timely for me.

  • Sherry Joyce

    Really good suggestions.  I have a critique group where we read the progress on each others manuscripts, catching errors, tags, and duplicate words (those we tend to use over and over). Line editors are excellent at looking at every sentence, every paragraph, every nuance to make sure it's necessary and makes sense.  Still, the oddest typos pop up months later when I read my own work outloud.  Editors are our best friend...especially the picky ones who hate mistakes.

  • Kat Stiles

    Thank you for the feedback everyone! I agree with the comment that a professional editor is worth it - I had my novel professionally edited twice, and yet, like a few of you mentioned, there are still errors. :) I want a friend that would agree to read my novel aloud, that would be awesome. For now, when I'm tired of doing it, I upload it to my Kindle DX and use the text to speech feature on it. I can't say that I've ever read it backwards, that's a neat idea.

  • Thea Constantine

    Excellent advice! I recently went to PDX Writers editing workshop and the facilitator brought up many of these examples, we even took out all the adverbs from samples of our work and very few-- if any went back in!

  • Marcia Riley

    Hello Roselee:

    To save “some time and vocal strength,” I use NaturalReader to air edit.  It’s a text-to-speech FREE program that converts written material into spoken words.  Microsoft Word also has this feature, but I like to voice on NaturalReader better.  The only limitation is with homophones ― unless you’re reading text while listening.

    Connected by the written word,

    Marcía/USA-Atlanta, GA

  • Rebecca M. Douglass

    I'm encouraged to see that I already do those things! Well, all but the punctuation search. Maybe I should look, though I consciously avoid them when writing fiction. I have a list of about 10 words or phrases that I overuse. I keep it taped to my wall and run through them all late in the editing process.

  • Thanks for the reminder.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    I wonder if there has EVER been a book with absolutely NO typos or mistakes? I've read many, many books and I always find at least one mistake somewhere in each one.

  • Joyce Wycoff

    Kathryn ... I have the same problem ... I call them word weevils. It makes me wonder if it would EVER be possible to read a manuscript and not find something that needs to be fixed.

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    I am always amazed no matter how many times I proofread a manuscript...if I give it just one last look...I always find a few more mistakes. Sometimes I swear a "typo gremlin" sneaks in over night and messes a couple of words up, ha, ha. I learned that trick of "searching" for a word throughout the whole manuscript a long time ago to see how many times I repeat it and then I start substituting in other words for them. Believe me all this was harder when I wrote my first books on a typewriter (44 years ago now) to fix all these things, but these days with laptops and electronic files it is soooo much easier.

  • Victoria Chames Writing

    Good stuff– Practical wisdom. I'm printing this out for my personal "primer" binder of skills-tips, (I hope that's okay)  as I write my first non-technical, non-analytical, non-I'm-so-smart (on the outside anyway) book– a memoir. Telling the truth means getting to know myself with brutal honesty, some tears and rage. I'm brand new to SheWrites, and it's looking like a treasure-trove of valuable shared knowledge. Thank you so much.