Self-Editing Practices: 6 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing

Self-Editing Practices: 6 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing

Editors read for a living. They read all day long.

Some writing lands on their desk in excellent form, but a lot of it requires serious work with the red pen. Generally, editors are happy to help their writers to develop strong narrative arcs, believable characters, and well-organized structures.

The most annoying thing, though, is when their writers fall at the most basic technical writing hurdles. They should not spend their time replacing adverbs with strong verbs or changing from passive to active voice. These changes can and should be completed by the writer when they do their own first edit.

Editors have limited time to spend on your drafts, and that time is expensive. Taking a little time for self-editing can impress your editor and help prove your writing skills.

Here are six common problems to fix before your editor gets out the red pen.

6 Self-Editing Practices to Strengthen Your Writing

1. Replace adverbs with strong verbs

When you write your first draft, it’s more important to get the story out than to get every word right. Spending too much time wrestling over every word can make you lose momentum.

So, if you need to write, “Mike drove quickly back to headquarters” while you’re pouring out a scene, then go for it. Your first edit is your chance to figure out how to make it stronger: “The tires screamed on Mike’s beat-up Honda as he raced back toward headquarters.”

In your first major edit, go back and reassess any adverbs you find. Sometimes an adverb will work perfectly, but more often than not, you will come up with a stronger way to get your idea across when you go back and look again.

2. Fix repetitive use of initial pronouns

This used to make my professor crazy. As a master’s student, I had a terrible habit of starting nearly every sentence with a pronoun. He did this. She did that. It is correct. Boring!

Aim to have fewer than 30 percent of your sentences begin with a pronoun. Vary your sentence structure as much as you can; it keeps your readers’ attention and makes your writing more engaging.

3. Get rid of cliches

Editors despise nothing more than unoriginality. Cliches, by their very definition, are unoriginal phrases. When writing fiction, try to come up with your own unique way to describe people or situations.

George Orwell said in his rules for writing, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Cliches are often the result of lack of imagination or laziness, and as Orwell says, are often “merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” Replace any cliches with your own unique phrasing to touch your reader’s imagination in a whole new way.

4. Declutter your writing by cutting redundancies

Redundancies create clutter in your writing by adding more words, but not more meaning. Every word should be there for a reason. If it’s not needed, delete it.

Some redundancies are so common we don’t even realize it. How often have you heard someone talk about a “free gift”? As opposed to what — the kind of gift you have to pay for? The word “free” is redundant in this case; cut it.

Or those organizations that undertake a “joint collaboration.” Unlike all those individual collaborations? The word “collaboration” means people working jointly. Cut out the clutter so your editor doesn’t have to.

5. Eliminate your passive voice

Overuse of passive voice is one of those things that can jump off the page to an editor as a marker of inexperience. Like adverbs and initial pronouns, sometimes you can use passive voice for a specific purpose and it will be perfect, but overuse will almost always weaken your writing.

Let’s look at an example:

Active voice: Dave kicked in the door. He jumped behind the sofa, shouted a warning and then ran through to the kitchen.

Passive voice: The door was kicked in by Dave. The sofa was jumped on, a warning was shouted and then the kitchen was run through by him.

In the first example, Dave is the subject and in the second example the door, sofa, warning and kitchen are the subjects. The second example is not grammatically incorrect, but it doesn’t sound right. Your verbs should refer to the doer rather than to the thing having something done to it.

6. Get rid of sticky sentences

Sticky sentences are full to the brim with glue words — the 200 or so most common words in the English language — like: is, as, the, that, etc.

Glue words are the empty spaces in your writing that your readers have to pass through to get to the meaning. Reducing the frequency of glue words increases the clarity of your writing, which makes your editor happy.

Here’s an example:

Original: Erica needed to get the key to the car and so she asked for the contact number of the person who was in charge of that department. (Seventeen glue words in a 27-word sentence. Glue index: 63 percent.)

Edit: Erica contacted the department head to borrow the car key. (Three glue words in a 10-word sentence. Glue index: 30 percent.)

The first sentence wobbles around searching for the point, whereas the second sentence is concise and clear in fewer than half the words. Learn to recognize sticky sentences and rewrite them before your editor sees them.

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  • techquest says:

    It’s true that we can all commit typographical errors, and that’s why I always say that everyone needs an editor, including a professional editor

  • Olivia White says:

    What a great post. All tips are so well written and are appropriate for a budding writer. Writing plays a vital role in today’s modern era. One should always take some little time to improve writing skills. You have well explained the strategies to strengthen the writing. I will surely include these tips for my writing skills. Keep sharing such informative posts.

  • Tony says:

    Great to see tips with examples.
    Teaching without preaching. Great.

  • Glue is not natural and unhealthy. I would not want to be in the same zip code as glue. Also, great, informative piece!

  • Thank you for these great tips. I use the word, “that” a lot. I do a search for filler or fluff words when I edit. I am embarrassed to say I find them far too often.

  • I love this article. Can I say PROFOUND? My favorite part are the examples. Fabulous! Thanks so much.

  • I found your tips very helpful. I especially liked your explanation about “sticky words” and redundancies. Thank you. I’m very bad about doing both of those a lot.
    I’d like to reblog this on my blog site if you don’t mind.

    • Lisa Lepki says:

      Hi Connie,

      I’m so pleased that you found them helpful! Please do go ahead and reblog it but it would be great if you could reference and The Write Life when you do. Also, if you tweet it out, include @ProWritingAid and we’ll RT for you!

      Thanks again for your kinds words!


  • Katharine says:

    These changes can, and should be, completed by the writer—passive!

    • LOL! This is why it’s always dangerous to write an article about editorial pet peeves; someone will always catch you breaking a rule yourself!

      Of course, it’s also a great example of why no “rule” in writing should be seen as absolute. Passive voice should be used when the subject of the sentence is legitimately the true focus of the thought, as in this sentence. (Think about it! Saying, “A writer should use passive voice …” shifts the emphasis from the grammatical structure itself, passive voice, to a random person who happens to be writing, not at all the intent in this example.)

      Splitting stylistic hairs can be fun!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC

      • Lisa Lepki says:

        Ha! Thanks Katherine for calling me out. And thank you Trish for your kind defence.

        I certainly don’t argue that writers should never use the passive voice. There are many times when it is the most appropriate option, as Trish illustrated above. However, I would be very careful about overusing it. This is why an editing app is sometimes particularly useful. The app has no opinion on the content of your writing, it will simply highlight every instance of passive voice so that you can go back and make sure that it is the best option. I find that passive voice sometimes sneaks into my first draft without my realizing it, especially if I have lots of momentum going. About 80% of the time I will rework the sentence so that it is in active voice.

        Thanks for your feedback!


  • All fantastic tips, and ones I’ve been working with as I revise my first manuscript. Using an online editing app, I have learned to hate sticky sentences and the battle between passive and active voice. Thanks for setting these tips out in black and white.

    • Lisa Lepki says:

      Thank you Sherrey!

      Do you use ProWritingAid as your editing app? It has honestly taught me so much about the technical elements of writing. I love how you learn about your own writing as you use the app.



  • A Writer says:

    Great article that more writers need to read.

    Color, simplicity, economy, and freshness are the cores of good writing and that’s stuffing your creative voice in place of a convention. Every great writer has those virtues to their writing but no one would call the style of Virgin Suicides and the style of The Princess Bride the same or even similar. These are just the foundations that all great styles are built on. It’s not creative to put commas in the wrong spot.

    I’d also add a note to all writers to listen to your editor 70% of the time.

    • I think two of your lines should be printed in big bold letters, framed, and hung on every writer’s wall:

      “It’s not creative to put commas in the wrong spot.”

      “Listen to your editor 70% of the time.”

      As a freelance editor (the acquisitions editor at your publishing house is something else!), I always tell authors, “I only recommend. You decide. After all, it’s your name that will be on the cover.” 70% is probably about on target!

      Trish O’Connor, MDiv
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC

    • Lisa Lepki says:

      I love “Color, simplicity, economy, and freshness.”

      It’s the perfect description of good writing.

      Thank you


  • This is a concise and well written piece. Very useful. Thank you for taking the time.

  • This is so, so, so good. I’m keeping a giant list of the edits I tend to get over and over. This post is a fantastic resource I’m definitely bookmarking for the exact same reason!

    • Lisa Lepki says:

      Thanks Marian!

      It’s funny how people make the same mistakes over and over! Sometimes it takes the brain a long time to “unlearn” all the bad habits it picked up over the years.

      Best, Lisa

  • Seana Graham says:

    I’ve used Pro Writing Aid several times and find it quite useful in not only proofreading but getting me to look at what I’ve written from a new angle. The sticky sentences concept is the one I have the hardest time getting my mind around or improving. I liked seeing your example and wish there was a place where I could see more examples of cutting them back.

    • Lisa Lepki says:

      Hi Seana,

      I’m so pleased that you find ProWritingAid useful. It took me a while to figure out how to best use the sticky sentences report too. It’s now one of my very favourites though so keep at it.

      Thanks for the feedback. Perhaps a post specifically about sticky sentences is in order. I’ll dig around for some good examples to include.



  • These are all fantastic tips, Lisa! Almost every writer has stumbled into those pitfalls at some point, especially early in the process of honing his or her craft.

    Other issues may be more specific to particular authors, or particular types of writing, and every editor has his or her own pet peeves. Inexperienced academic authors, for example, often succumb to the temptation of putting too much information into content (discursive) notes. When I have seen this, I have always suggested that the writer reserve the notes for simple source citations and try to integrate the additional information organically into the main text, relegate it to an appendix, or, if it really is not sufficiently related to the main text to merit either of these solutions, eliminate it entirely and save it for the next book. While content notes are not currently considered “incorrect,” the Chicago Manual of Style urges that they “should be limited in a judicious manner” (14.51), and it is my hope that in the seventeenth edition they will be banned outright as a distraction from the flow of the book.

    That said, I would like to go on record as saying I have yet to “yell” at an author, even when content notes have taken up as many pages as the primary text.


    Trish O’Connor, MDiv
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC

    • Kara Benson says:

      Fantastic article! Why did you leave the spelling mistakes? To see how sharp our focus is?

      Kara Benson

      • Kara,

        It’s true that we can all commit typographical errors, and that’s why I always say that everyone needs an editor, including a professional editor. I was mortified when I saw your reply to my comment, thinking, “What did I spell wrong this time?” However, I have read through my comment again, and can’t find it. Perhaps it’s still too fresh for me, as the writer, to see it.

        Did you really mean to be replying to me, Kara, or were you referring to something in the blog entry itself?

        Trish O’Connor
        [email protected]

      • Lisa Rowan says:


        I’ve read and reread and run spell check again and can’t catch the spelling error(s) you noticed. Go ahead and call them out, and I’ll be glad to fix!

        We put multiple sets of eyes on all our content here at TWL, but are happy to correct when we slip up.

        Thanks for reading!

        TWL Team

        • Teri Saya says:

          Excellent advice! Thank you! I think what might have thrown Kara off and actually threw me as well was the below sentence:

          ‘Taking a little time for self-editing can impress your editor and help prove your writing skills.’

          It just seems that you would have used the word ‘improve’ instead of ‘prove.’ but I guess either way works, if you are ‘proving’ your good writing to your editor or if you are ‘improving’ your skills.

        • Grace Curby says:

          Perhaps she was referring to the typo in the second sentence of Tip #2: “As an master’s student…”

    • Lisa Lepki says:

      Thanks Trish!

      Yes, I’m sure that most editors rarely actually yell. They don’t need to. The red pen does the yelling for them! 🙂

      I’m so pleased that you found the article useful and that it resonated with your own experience.



    • Maz says:

      Great advice…

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