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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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  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Thank you. This is a very helpful list.

  • diedre Knight

    What a terrific list! It's a keeper. I always read aloud (and try to ignore the strange looks I get from the dogs!), sometimes I even read backwards. Watching for favorite words/phrases is definitely something I need to be doing and that "ly" tip is priceless!

  • Very helpful. I strongly believe in reading anything I write out loud. It takes some time, and vocal strength to read a full-length manuscript out loud, but you're right. It's the best way to catch repetitions etc.

  • Joyce Wycoff

    Thanks for the list. The one thing I would add is that if you can get a friend to read it out loud, it is editing gold. You will hear where they are stumbling and notice when they don't get an important point. I'm finishing a novella so it was a little easier to find a friend who would read it out loud to me ... but on a longer book, I would look for people to read chapters. It's priceless feedback.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Great suggestions in the article and in the comments. Thanks to all!

  • Jennifer Dwight

    And to the above I would add that once you have done the best you possibly can on your own (however many times it takes you to go through the manuscript), invest in hiring the best professional editor you can find. I worked with two on my book, David Landau and Carol Staswick (San Francisco and Berkeley, CA). They stripped out all extraneous words and tightened the book in ways I could not have, as I lacked the objectivity and their particular skills. 100% worth it! 

  • Kat Stiles

    Thanks, I'm glad to hear this article is helping! I'm so glad I found this website, there's so many great articles on writing. :)

  • Marcia Riley

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge Kat...(smile)

    Connected by the written word,

    Marcia/USA-Atlanta, GA

  • Toi Thomas

    I love all these tips.

    Ever since I discovered Text to Speech software, my editing has dramatically improved. Reading aloud was helpful, but if a computer can read it and have it sound natural, you've done something not only right, but very well. 

    Thanks so much for sharing this. 

  • Penny Taylor

    Great post. Of course the one that strikes a chord most is "READ IT ALOUD." That's the best advice you can give. If it sounds wrong, it probably is wrong. Of course, "#10 Look for excessive detail of mundane actions," is also important. I used to work for a writer who had an index card hanging over his desk from a string taped to the ceiling. It simply said, "Exposition Kills!" Of course, I can also relate to the problem some people have with overusing favorite words or phrases, but of course each person has their on take on this.

  • Great list! I just went through a manuscript I'm working on and removed about half the words ending in "...ly" Thanks.

  • Lea Galanter

    It's really difficult for a writer to see their own errors, especially after working with a manuscript for months or years. It really is best to hire a professional editor to help smooth out the rough spots and see things that you can't as a writer. Editors are a writer's best friend. :-)

  • Kat Stiles

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

    Mardith - I agree, laziness or time constraints are probably the top reasons to not read it out loud!

    Courtney - I didn't know about Audacity, thanks for the tip! I have an old school Kindle (DX) and if I upload my novel to it, it will read it out loud to me. Not the best voice for reading fiction, but it works. 


  • Mardith Louisell

    Great idea, Courtney. I've taped it and listened but perfect to listen in the car or gym. Brilliant!

  • Courtney Pierce

    Fantastic reminders, Kat. The read aloud tip is essential. To take it one step further, I read my manuscript aloud and record it through the open-source program, Audacity. Then I burn the files on CDs and download to my IPod to listen in the car and at the gym. The ear picks up all kinds of bugaboos in dialogue. If I only focus on listening, the prose unfolds . . . or sends me back to the keyboard. 

  • Mardith Louisell

    Sorry, it was supposed to be Kat, not Kati.

  • Mardith Louisell

    Kati, this is a terrific reminder, not only before you send, but while you are writing.  I would add to this list quotes around words that seem to mean something to the writer but puzzle the reader. It's like a wink wink, but the reader doesn't know at what. Regarding some, most, a little, I find everyone, but  women in particular, tend to use as if these words will placate or deflect from anyone taking offense. Parentheses bug me (to the nth degree). Regarding "that," do you mean at the beginning of a phrase, as in the following sentence? Reading aloud is essential but I find that few people do it.Why don't people read aloud? Time? Fear? It allows you to keep a list of overused words as you are writing the chapter, the essay, whatever, and at the end, do a check. Would love to hear thoughts about why people don't read aloud. When I avoid it, I think it's because I've worked  hard and I don't want to find any more problems.