Friday, February 7, 2014

What's on Your Self-Editing List?

While Kathryn continues her Art of Falling blog tour elsewhere, we'd like to welcome special guest Janice Gable Bashman—published nonfiction author, soon-to-be published fiction author, and editor—to the Blood-Red Pencil.

Fiction and non-fiction are two different beasts when it comes to editing. I’m the Bram Stoker nominated author of Wanted Undead or Alive, and I’ve published articles in Writer’s Digest, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, The Writer, and many other publications. I’m also managing editor of the International Thriller Writer’s The Big Thrill, so I edit a lot. But when it comes to editing fiction, I have to wear a different hat.

In editing my own short stories (published in various anthologies), my young adult science thriller Predator (coming October 2014; Month9Books), and the middle grade novel I’m wrapping up now, I’ve had to look beyond copy editing, fact-checking, sentence structure, etc. and check other items. I’m not talking about big developmental issues such as inciting incident, plot, character arc, etc., but the nitty-gritty things I need to address when all that is completed.

I call it my Fiction Search and Destroy List.

Because many writers whose fiction I’ve edited tend to make similar errors, I’m sharing my Fiction Search and Destroy List in the hope it will help other writers. Of course, you should add your own edit checks for your fiction and remove the mistakes from my list that you’re smart enough not to make.

Here are my edit checks:

1. Show versus Tell—It took me a little while to fully grasp this concept. For the most part, showing is better, although there are times when it’s just as important to tell. For instance, you can tell instead of show when you are bridging one section of a scene to another and need to get the reader there with a few sentences.
Telling: Alex was nervous/scared. 
Showing: Alex inched down the hall, fists raised, listening carefully for the slightest rustle or clack or squeak. 
2. Place the word “have” after should, would, and could.

3. If the word “that” can be removed from a sentence and the meaning remains clear, remove it.

4. Up/Down and Shrugged—he didn’t climb up the hill; he climbed the hill. He didn’t sit down; he sat. He didn’t shrug his shoulders; he shrugged.

5. Pursed lips, scrunched faces, hanging jaws, clenched teeth, eyes wide, heart raced, cleared throat—be sure to use these infrequently. There are many ways to describe a reaction than repeating these overused phrases.

6. Check for the use of knew, could see, could hear, noticed, thought, etc. Frequent use of these words brings the reader out of close point of view, once point of view is established, and is not necessary.

7. There are many ways to describe someone walking or looking—seek variations in these verbs to better describe your character’s movement.

8. Use body movement to identify speakers when possible rather than a lot of he said/she saids. If it is obvious who is speaking, you don’t need to do either. However, keep in mind that younger readers need more dialogue attributions than adults since it’s more difficult for them to follow long passages of dialogue.

9. Engage the senses—I always check to ensure that senses are engaged in each scene and particularly focus on others besides sight, which is often a sense writers rely on. What are the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, etc. associated with the scene? Can I work one or more of them into the scene in a meaningful way? Here’s an example from my story “Extinction,” published in the Slices of Flesh anthology. The story features an American protagonist and takes place in Russia.
Words assault me from all angles. Hundreds of people in the crowded marketplace oblivious to what he is, to what he has become. To what I did. How can they not see him? How can they not know? 
I duck around a soleniye ogurscy stand and the smell of the brine from the salted cucumbers mixes with that of sweet apple pirozhky. I haven’t had one in years. But if I stop for an instant, apple pastry will be the last thing I’ll ever smell.  
My instinct screams run! but I ignore it. If I can blend in with the crowd, if I can get lost among the sea of colors, if I can...oh god. Where is he?
Here, we have sound (words assault me from all angles), smell (brine and sweet apple), and sight (sea of colors), all in a few short paragraphs.

So, there you have it. Customize my Fiction Search and Destroy List to create your own. Happy editing.

Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author (with New York Times bestseller Jonathan Maberry) of Wanted Undead or Alive (Citadel Press 2010) and Predator (Month9Books, coming 2014). She is managing editor of The Big Thrill (International Thriller Writers’ ezine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She has written for Novel & Short Story Writer's MarketThe Writer,  Writer's Digest, and others.  She has spoken at many writers conferences and is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.


  1. Janice thanks so much for being here today and sharing your handy self-editing list. Loved that you named it, lol.

  2. Thanks so much for having me on the Blood-Red Pencil. It's a great site and a fantastic resource for all writers.

  3. Love the Search and Destroy list, and I laughed when I read number four. Every time I read "he shrugged his shoulders" or "he nodded his head" I want to scream.

  4. I should have read this post many years in the past, that would have been great. I know I could have avoided many mistakes.

    1. It's impossible to avoid them all; no matter how good we are at writing, we all make mistakes. And, for some, the list of mistakes changes over time.

  5. I do all of these. I have an entire book of high and revision layers. I always end up with a new repetitive word list for each story, though. I get the old bugaboos out and new bugaboos move in. When I hear people write one draft and think they are done, I cringe. I'm certain even Jane Austen wrote more than one draft.

    1. I add new words to my list for each new story I write because I never know when those words I thought I'd stopped repeating will show up again.

  6. Self-editing is not my issue - saying 'That's it, you're done' is my issue. It can always be better.

  7. Thanks for visiting us, Janice! I particularly agree with your tip about using the senses, and find it interesting that music is so much a part of my current story - hearing. These characters are very attuned to sound. I haven't figured out what's going on with me in real life that's pouring into the story this way. Surely something.

    1. It's great that you're so able to tap into the senses, particularly hearing. It makes the story so much richer. Whatever is going on in your life that is pouring into the story is obviously a good thing. Enjoy writing the rest of it.

  8. Welcome, Janice! Excellent tips. These are what I also recommend to my editing clients!

  9. Janice,
    Everything you mentioned is wonderful advice. It can't help but improve the writer's manuscript. for completeness sake one obvious search should be mentioned. When we show and don't tell, our sentences should be in the active form, so that the reader can see our characters in action. Passive voice is the enemy of showing. Good Luck on your writing. - Lew aka theMadMutt.

    1. Thanks Lew - active voice is always a plus. Good luck with your writing too.

  10. Thanks for this. Great reminders. I need to keep #6 in mind lately.

  11. Love it, love it, love it! I have spent years talking to editing clients about show-don't-tell.

    As a writer, I find one of my greatest challenges to be remembering to include the senses. With the last book I did better; it opened in a courtroom that reeked with a musty odor that never went away.

    Excellent post, Janice. So glad to have you visit us!

    1. Thanks Linda - a musty odor that won't go away definitely sets the scene and the senses, and distinguishes that courtroom from other places.

  12. Being deep into edit mode, this is a well-timed post. Thanks.


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