Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self Editing

Today, I just wanted to bring to you what I think is a really, really good idea. It was something that came to me as I was thinking on the things that constitute a good, precise, well-written, tight sentence. This is something I believe every writer, like, you know, a writer who writes anything needs to know about.

By this time, I believe the point has been drilled home. Writing tight sentences requires two skills: 1) the ability to cut words that aren't needed; and 2) an ability to construct precise sentences by using the "smartest" words possible.

Let's look at the problems in our first paragraph that will leave a reader shaking his head:

Weasel Words:

Every writer has them. Sometimes these words are ones we often use in speech, and they do not translate well into written prose.

A few weasel words authors should add to an editing checklist are: very, really, that, thing/things, I mean, and like. This list is not comprehensive. Individually, weasel words are those the author tends to pepper through a manuscript. Sometimes,they aren't needed. Other times, they're obscure words that come to a writer's mind, and they are used too often while the author is working on a segment of their manuscript. The bottom line is writers need to edit for weaseling (and yes, weaseling has made the dictionary as a verb, which means to use weasel words.)

A caution on weasel words: On occasion, a word will be deemed a weasel word, and the reaction is to cut each instance of it from a writer's manuscript. Once in a while, that is needed in a sentence or a character's vernacular is such that weasel words are an important part of their dialogue. Examine each circumstance carefully.

Vague Construction of Sentences:

A clue that an author is writing vaguely (and some might say lazily) is the over use of certain words or phrases such as: it was and there was, and thing or things. For example: It was very hot and things were melting quickly.

An author could say that in context a reader can assume the author is talking about the weather and generally things melt when it's hot. However, a better example would be: The burner was hot, and the solid mass of ice melted quickly.

The weather might be hot, and things outside may have melted, but that wasn't the author's intent. Even with the sentence in context, authors should practice precise writing and never assume the reader will follow the author's train of thought.

A Ton of Descriptive, Flowery, Majestic Adjectives:

Adjectives are descriptive. They take an otherwise bland sentence and give it flavor. However, their overuse (such as in the subtitle) will tire the reader. Here's another example: The haunted, ghostly tour included the old rickety, dilapidated cabin looming before us in the dense, mossy, green forest.

Whew! I'm exhausted writing the sentence, which would be better written: The ghost tour included the dilapidated cabin looming before us in the dense forest.

Note: I chose the verb looming in order to allow the word dense to stand as an appropriate adjective that sets a scary picture. Writing tight sentences does mean choosing the best words.

Writer and educator Brander Matthews once said, "To be clear is the first duty of a writer; to charm and to please are graces to be acquired later." Acquiring those graces requires an author look carefully for overused words in his or her manuscript.

Happy editing.


  1. LOL. I am so very, very glad that you included this tremendously insightful and helpful article that will most assuredly help me with editing so that I create that elusive tight sentence which will definitely make my writing stronger. - Sorry, couldn't resist. I've been cutting weasel words. My worst offender is "that." Today I'm editing another chapter of my rough draft and will look for these weasel words.

    Sometimes I edit and I wonder if I've cut my story down to bare bones and I should add more descriptors. Too few details can be as off putting as too many.

    Have a blessed day.

  2. My worst word is "just" and also those vague phrases...I need to work, work, work, at it :)