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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Deborah Finkelstein's 21 Editing Tips

You’ve written the story. Now you want to send it in to a contest, publisher, magazine, agent, etc. How do you know it’s ready for them to see?

It’s time to edit your story. Self-editing is difficult. When you read something too many times you will stop seeing what’s actually on the page and start to hear what’s in your head. Below are some tips on evaluating your own work, and on sharing your work with others.


1. Do you have a catchy beginning? Does your beginning draw readers into the story?

2. Is it vivid? Do readers know your location? Do readers know your characters?

3. Are your characters and your plot realistic?

4. Does your dialogue sound the way real people speak?

5. Are you an expert? If you mention a subway line in New York City, make sure it’s a real subway line. If you mention the military, make sure you have the correct details on rank and other elements.

6. Does it have a beginning, middle, and an end?

7. Is there conflict? The story can have great description, and funny dialogue, but without conflict it’s not a story; it’s a piece of a story.

8. How do the paragraphs begin? Does every paragraph begin “Mary did this” and “Mary did that” or “She did this” and “She did that.” Don’t begin every paragraph the same way. Make it more interesting for the reader.

9. Are you using active or passive verbs? For example: “He began to walk.” Only include this if the fact that he is beginning is important. For example, “At seven months the baby began to walk” or “After nine years in a wheelchair he decided to try physical therapy and then he began to walk.” Here are some examples where it’s not important: “He began to walk to the bar” or “She began to walk over to him.” Instead use “He walked to the bar” or “She walked over to him.” This is more active.

10. Have you remained in the same tense for the whole story? For example, if you start in present tense, make sure the whole story is in present tense.

11. Is your whole story from one point of view? For example, if you start off the story in first person then keep the story in first person.

12. Show don’t tell. For example, “He was angry” is telling. “He stomped his feet,” “He clenched his fists,” “He banged on the table” are ways of showing anger.

13. Have you changed any character’s name? Many writers start off a story with a character having one name (example Nick) and later change that character’s name (example Matt), but forget to change the name in earlier parts of the text.

14. Have you spell-checked and grammar checked? It may seem obvious, but it is a step many writers overlook.

15. Avoid exclamation points. Exclamation points should almost never be used. Most publishers do not like them. They are overused.

16. Read it aloud. Reading aloud will allow you to hear mistakes. Your ears will catch things your eyes missed. You will hear grammar mistakes, repeated words, etc.

17. Ask a friend to read it aloud to you. When you read it aloud you make it sound the way you want it. Your friend will read it closer to the way a reader will. You will hear mistakes, and you may hear things you want to change or clarify.

18. Ask a friend who knows writing to read it for you. Don’t ask the friend who will like anything you do and just say, “It’s great.” Ask the friend who knows writing, and will provide you with constructive criticism and examples of ways to improve. If you don’t have a friend like this then consider joining a writing group, or hiring an editor or writing coach.

19. Ask a friend who knows grammar to read it for you. Sometimes you may have one friend who knows writing and grammar, but many times the writing friend won’t be able to edit for grammar. Consider friends who work in proofreading. If none of your friends fit this bill consider working with an editor or writing coach.

20. Is it laid out properly? No matter where you’re sending this story, (magazines, publishers, contests, etc.), the recipient will have requirements on how they want to receive it. Double-check their requirements and make sure your story fits them. There may be requirements on length, margins, fonts, single/double spacing, location of title on the page, page numbering, location of your name and contact information (some will ask you not to include this information) etc.

21. Read it one last time. Just to make sure. Then send it. And start a new story.

Deborah Finkelstein is an editor, writing coach, writing instructor, and creator of “Deborah’s Writing Newsletter,” a weekly email newsletter of writing exercises. She has published fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and journalism, and received writing awards and honors from Middlebury College, Rutgers University, Santa Fe Community College, LeMoyne College, and Troutbeck Travel Writers Classics. Until October 31, she is offering 18% off editing services for your next writing project. For more information, or to join the newsletter list, email her at

Copyright 2006. Deborah Finkelstein. This article may be reprinted only in it’s entirety. Please let me know if you will be using it.