7 Self-Editing Tips For Non-Fiction Writers

As part of what I do as a publisher, I also offer editing services. And while having an editor is completely invaluable there are things that the writer needs to do to get the most from an editor’s services.


1. Know your bad habits

If you read my writing, you’ll see that I have my own little habits. One of which is using a word all in caps to give it EMPHASIS. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s more common to either display the word in bold or italic. Another bad habit I have is the over-use of ellipses, especially where they aren’t needed. (Or parenthetical phrases!)

So recognize your bad habits and then keep an eye out for them. Are you using them properly? Is it the best way to convey emphasis?

I’m not saying that you have to stop using your idiosyncrasies in your writing but you do need to know when to drop them in favor of a more consistent form.

2. Buy a style manual and use it

When I was in college, a writing professor told me I had no clue how to use a comma. I whole-heartedly disagreed with her but agreed to get a grammar cheat sheet use to make life easier. Turns out, she was mostly right. There were a lot of times where I was using a comma that didn’t really call for it. But there were other times where I inserted a comma to break a thought or phrase into pieces. (I was studying poetry so I had much more leeway.)

But don’t just assume that you remember all the grammar rules from elementary school. To this day, I still double check usage when I’m not sure.

3. Read your work as if you were a total beginner (to your topic)

I write a lot of non-fiction. Specifically in the outdoor recreation genre. And I always thought I was pretty good at defining all the terms and not using too much jargon. Until a self-proclaimed city boy read over my manuscript about camping and asked me what pot-water was.

The word was potable. And I made the mistake of assuming that my audience already knew what I was talking about: drinking water.

Now, after I write something, especially if it’s highly technical but written for beginners, I go back to make sure that if I knew NOTHING I could still understand it.

4. Ask yourself “Does this [section, chapter, paragraph] move the story forward?”

By story I don’t necessarily mean fiction, although it could!

When I first started reading indie fiction, I quickly came to the realization that at LEAST 30% of every book I read could be cut out and the work would be stronger for it. There were too many scenes that did nothing to advance the plot but it was clear that the author was terrified of the DELETE key.

Don’t be that author! Review each section with a critical eye and ask yourself if it REALLY needs to be there. Are you being pedantic? Did you just explain that and now you’re going over it again? Does the reader really need to know this information? IF this were a fiction story, would your reader get bored?

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5. Use strong verbs

Frankly, I didn’t really GET verbs until I was studying Spanish. And then a whole new world opened up with the power of action words!

Here’s a tricky verb in English: to be. Most people don’t really even understand it as a verb.

It’s the “is, was, am, are, were” verb. And it can be very dangerous. For example: “I would be interested in the job.” is the “weak” form of “I am interested in the job.” The first example is boring and the second is more interesting.

The passive voice sneaks up on us as writers! Watch for it and beware.

(I’m not going to get unto my Passive Voice Soapbox here. Just use strong verbs!)

6. Cut the “extra” words

I know I use the word “that” too much. It’s probably how I talk although I haven’t paid that much attention. Other “extra” words include:

  • That
  • Just
  • Very
  • Really
  • Some
  • Also

And while you’re cutting, also chop out the adverbs. Most of them aren’t needed and the redundant ones make even unsophisticated readers wince. For example: shout loudly. When’s the last time you heard a not-loud shout? Your adverb should give us a quality that isn’t already implied by the verb itself.

7. Don’t expect perfection

Nobody can perfectly self-edit. End of story. But you need to know when it’s time to pass the work along to somebody else. My “rough” draft that goes to my editor has been through at least four or five revisions first.

a.   Grammar, spelling, punctuation
b.   Am I being clear (when writing for beginners)
c.   Fact-checking anything I may have “assumed” when I was first writing
d.   Read aloud for flow, missing words, choppy sentences

Once you’ve done everything you can do, it’s time to get a second set of eyes onto the page. But be sure you define what they’ll be doing for you. Back to my example of the camping book: I had one editor who ONLY looked for things that didn’t make sense to a beginner and for facts that might be wrong. I had a second editor take a look at grammar, spelling, and punctuation. A third editor looked at flow and to make sure all the chapters were in the section that made the most sense.

But NONE of those people saw the work before I had worked it over several times myself!

Kim Galloway
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