Self-Editing Tips from New York Times Bestselling Author Gemma Halliday

I’ve been hearing a lot of new authors lately talk about the high costs of self-publishing. This kind of baffles me, as when I started, I think I spent a total of $10 on my first book.  Sure, there are lots of ways you CAN spending money starting up, but you really don’t NEED to.

One place that I think new authors spend the most money is on editing.  While I HIGHLY recommend hiring an editor at some point in your process, especially if this is your first book, you can keep your costs down by making sure that you have the cleanest copy of your manuscript possible before sending it off to your editor. To that end, today I wanted to provide some of my tips for polishing your book before sending off to an editor.

(Note: I’ll be out of town without internet until this weekend, so I won’t be able to answer any questions today.  but I’ll try to catch up as soon as I get back!)

Content Editing:

1.  Repetitive words

If at all possible, try to avoid using the same descriptive word more than twice in the same paragraph.  I see this ALL the time.  I think we get a word stuck in our heads and we tend to use it more than we should, which makes for very clunky reading.


Ramirez’s lips moved over mine, hard and demanding.  I turned, my lips seeking out the warmth of his neck.

Simple fix:

Ramirez’s mouth moved over mine, hard and demanding.  I turned, my lips seeking out the warmth of his neck.

Simple, right?  But if left unchecked, really interrupts the flow of the paragraph.  This happens a lot in love scenes (like the example) where there are only so many body parts you can talk about.  But try to mix it up as much as possible.

2. Mitigating adverbs/adjectives

Words like “slightly” or “mildly” should be used sparingly in your manuscript as they really take away from the punch of your story.  No hero should be “slightly” intriguing.  Go all the way – he’s intriguing.  And, there’s not much at stake if your heroine is “a little bit” afraid, right?  So, whenever possible, get rid of those descriptors that make anyone or anything less than they are.


What was mildly surprising was my boyfriend’s reaction to my trip to Paris.


What was surprising was my boyfriend’s reaction to my trip to Paris.

See how just taking out “mildly” makes it a stronger statement?  Simple.  Even though you might feel it’s more natural for someone or something to be a only a little bit this or that, try taking the mitigating word out and see how it feels.  Chances are, the statement will work even better.

3. Action then reaction

Whenever possible, put the character’s reaction after the action they’re reacting to.  (Yeah, I’m aware that’s a total mouthful.)  If they react first, before the action is shown to the reader, it can be a little jarring, pulling the reader out of the story as she tries to figure out what’s happening.  I see this a lot in mystery and suspense manuscripts, as I think the tendency is to want to keep the reader guessing.  Which is great with your plot, but not so great when they can’t picture what’s happening in your scene.


The doors slid open.  Three teenagers and a family of four from Japan filed out.

I sucked in a breath.

And him.


The doors slid open.  Three teenagers and a family of four from Japan filed out.

And him.

I sucked in a breath.


What the…? Who was calling me?

The sound of the William Tell Overture trilled from my purse.


The sound of the William Tell Overture trilled from my purse.

What the…?  Who was calling me?

Like in these examples, most times all you need to do is switch around a sentence or two, and the entire scene becomes much easier to picture.  And the more your reader can visualize what’s happening, the more they’ll lose themselves in your story.

4. Tense trouble

One thing I see a lot is trouble with when to use past or past perfect tense with verbs.  (past: walked, past perfect: had walked)  Simple rule of thumb:  If you’re writing in past tense, anything that happened before the point your story picks up should be in past perfect tense.

Example (manuscript written in past tense):

Mrs. Rosenblatt walked (past) in.  She and my mom had met (past perfect) when, after a particularly depressing Valentine’s Day alone, Mom had gone (past perfect) to her for a psychic reading.

Mom had bought (past perfect) the neon blue eye shadow in the ‘80s and was (past) no less attached to it now.

5. Telling vs. Showing

Telling is the number one way to lose your audience to boredom and turn off potential readers.  Obviously, we’re all storytellers, but the best storytellers are ones who “show” their audience a story through emotion, action, and clever dialogue.

Telling:  Maddie was sad.

Showing:  Maddie wiped a tear from her eye.

When you tell a reader, “Maddie was sad,” they may or may not believe you.  They may or may not care.  It’s a flat, uninteresting fact.  But, when you show a tear coming from Maddie’s eye, the reader sees the emotion; they’re watching the drama unfold and making the connection that she’s sad all on their own.  It’s a lot more interesting and definitely more engaging.

Grammar Goodies:

1. Compound Sentences – to comma or not to comma?

I see this mistake all the time.  Even in traditional books!  Here’s the basic rule about compound sentences: if you have two independent clauses (as in each part of the sentence can stand alone as a complete sentence with both a subject and verb), you must add a comma along with a conjunction to combine them.  If you have one independent clause and one dependent clause (not a full sentence), no comma is needed.


The masked man came at her with the gun, and she began to shake.

(Both “The Masked man came at her with the gun” and “she began to shake” can stand alone as complete sentences, so you need a comma between them.)

The masked man came at her with the gun and lunged forward.

(“Lunged forward” is not a complete sentence on its own, so no comma is needed here.)

2. Misuse of the word “literally”

Why this poor word gets abused so often, I don’t know.  But it does.  All the time.  And not only by writers, but by politicians, newscasters, actors – I’m telling you, it’s an epidemic!  Merriam Webster defines the words literally as meaning “actually”, as opposed to figuratively.  So, if something literally happened, it actually, in reality, did happen.  Literally does not mean “really” or “a lot” as it’s often misused.  Chances are your heroine did not literally have her heart ripped out of her chest when the hero left her, the villain didn’t literally scare her to death, and saying that this was literally the worst day of her life really doesn’t add any more meaning to “this was the worst day of her life” because either it is or it isn’t, there’s no question of whether we’re talking figuratively here, right?  So, use this gem of a word carefully, and you will be among the shrinking minority that knows what it really means.

3. Further vs Farther

These two words are often used interchangeably, but, in actuality, they have distinctly different meanings.

Farther relates to physical distance.  If you can replace the word “farther” with “more miles” in your sentence, you’ve used it correctly.

“How much farther do we have to travel?”

Further refers to a more metaphysical depth or degree.  It’s another way of saying “additional”.

“Further discussion is needed on the matter.”

4. Mom and Dad – capitalized?

I often see various versions of capitalization of these two words – along with uncle, aunt, grandmother, etc.  The basic rule: if you’re using it in place of a name, capitalize it.  If you’re using it to describe a person, it stays lower case.


The villain killed Mom, and Aunt Sue was devastated.

The villain killed my mom, and my aunt, Sue, was devastated.

Hopefully these few quick tips can help take your manuscript to the next level, saving your editor some time  – and you some money!


P.S.  Book #2 in my Jamie Bond mysteries series, SECRET BOND, is now available for pre-order!

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  1. I’ve certainly been guilty of the literally/figuratively rule, but once I was aware of it I now know better. I’m sure these tips will help writers…but I have to tell you that some of them were unintentionally funny. “What was surprising was my boyfriend’s reaction to my trip to Paris” is a sentence that still needs work; it uses the word ‘was’ twice (in a single sentence!) And ‘Three teenagers and a family of four from Japan filed out’ would be best if the words “from Japan” were removed. It struck me as rather presumptive; how would the narrator know *where* they were from?

    • SK Holmesley says:

      Taking it in the context of a single sentence plucked out of a longer text, I just assumed there was lead in before the family filed out that placed the narrator at the gate in an airport waiting for the people to deplane from an aircraft that had flown in from Japan. That would still make it unnecessary, but not presumptive, particularly if they were Japanese. :-)

  2. Interesting post, Gemma. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of all of these mistakss. One thing I found in my books, “Mr. Short, Dark…& Funny” and “Mr. Tall, Tan…& Tasteless” was that I had (literally) beaten the reader over the head with the fact that the hero and his sister’s parents didn’t have a lof of money so they have to wear second hand clothes. I am sure an editor would have cut out a few mentions of it and if I do another edition, I will make sure that’s done.

  3. Lois Lavrisa says:

    Gemma- Love this post as I am not a great self editor I miss too much because I “read” and “see” what is not there or don’t see it in the first place! I have a group (actually two) of authors who critique each other and find not only content but copy edit errors as well. And I pay a final editor (or two) to go over my work before it is published. I am just not great at self editing but I will keep all your pointers in mind:)

  4. Tamara Ward says:

    Thanks for this fabulous post! Perfect timing for me as I’m beginning editing of a novel!

  5. PJ Sharon says:

    Excellent tips, Gemma. Thanks so much!

  6. Great post, Gemma! Lots and lots of VERY helpful reminders. Also, I come from an entrepreneurial background, so the expenses involved in becoming your own publisher are minimal as compared to many many other business endeavors one could pursue. I love being in business for myself, and I am so thankful to have resources like this website to continue to learn from. Thanks again, WG2E!

  7. Sibel Hodge says:

    Great tips, Gemma. I love that you’ve mention writing action and reaction on separate lines. This was something I learned early on, I think it’s fantastic. As well as being easier to visualize the scene, I think it adds drama and tension! :)

  8. Great tips with helpful examples. The further/farther issue has caught me up more than once.

    My big new thing: the absence of certain words, like “to.” When I go back over a scene to do an edit, I tend to read it aloud. I will literally ;-) find a spot where “to,” or a similar small word, is among the missing. Oversight? Typing too fast? Or – gasp! – the Word Stealer? (cue tense music)

    • SK Holmesley says:

      lol — I love that. “the Word Stealer”. Probably related to that pesky imp that resides in the washer or dryer–haven’t caught it yet, so not sure which–that always steals 1 sock, but never the whole pair.

  9. JT Lewis says:

    Amazing and succinct article on these often troubling little problems to our stories! Thank you so much for sharing, this is a keeper!


  10. A great post for beginners, and perfect reminders for anyone who’s been around the block. Thank you!

  11. Liz Matis says:

    Thanks for a great post Gemma! Another one I look for is your vs you’re. I know the difference- I really do but when in the throes of writing I may slip up so I know make sure to do a word search and double check to make sure I’m using it correctly.

  12. Very helpful! Thanks for sharing!

  13. SK Holmesley says:

    I have a script that searches for paragraphs with thinking/believing, farther/further, and certain potential instances of “,” misplacement that habitually occur when I’m merrily writing along trying to get the words “on paper”. Now, I’ve added “slightly” and “mildly” to that script. Not that I won’t still use them, but so that I review and make sure I mean it, if I do use them. I catch the paragraphs in a separate file, since I find that reading them out of context makes it less likely that my brain will auto-correct, rather than actually alerting me to the problem.

  14. SK Holmesley says:

    Telling: Maddie was sad.
    Showing: Maddie wiped a tear from her eye.

    This one was funny — not because it isn’t a good point, but because of a discussion my daughter-in-law and I had recently. She had started reading a book by David Eddings, not sure which one it was. She read me the first four pages: His opening character said something, then Eddings spent three pages describing that character’s mood. By the time he got to the end of his description and the other character in the room (there were only two people) responded, I had completely forgotten what the first character said. My response was that he could have just said she was sad and gotten on with the story. I do agree with you, but your example reminded me of Eddings’ excruciatingly long description, when there action afoot. But that brings up your point of action / reaction. If he had first described his character’s mood, then let the other person enter the room and the conversation begin, it might have still been tedious, but not so annoying.

  15. Joe Bruno says:

    Great post; especialy the part about the commas between independant clauses. I get this wrong half the time.

  16. Diana Layne says:

    apparently some editors are telling writers to join two independent clauses with a comma now because semi-colons are passe. I can’t bring myself to do that, and sometimes I do want a semi-colon as opposed to adding a conjunction. Rarely. But sometimes I do. Some great tips, thanks!

    • Oh, good! Another person who uses semicolons! I don’t know where this rule about not using semicolons in fiction came from, but I’ve heard it from several sources. It must be from the same person who wants dashes instead of parentheses. While I agree that neither semicolons nor parentheses should be used excessively, sometimes it works better to have them.

    • SK Holmesley says:

      Yeah, I still use semi-colons, too. I reread the sentence with each in mind and sometimes it needs a semi-colon rather than a comma.

  17. This post almost matches the list I made for myself after I got my manuscript back from my copy editor. I don’t have the “literally” problem. However, I frequently use “like” when I should use “as if”:

    She felt like her heart was going to burst.

    She felt as if her heart was going to burst.

  18. Great tips, Gemma!

  19. Gemma, the past and past perfect tenses were always a mystery to me until I read your post. Thank you! Being a music major, instead of an English or journalism one to fall back on, is a major disadvantage. But I’m learning thanks to authors like yourself. My editor is young and writes in a style that often omits commas between independent clauses. She says they can slow the story down. That – I don’t need! It’s a battle and we go round and round. It’s a battle, and we go round and round. :)

    • SK Holmesley says:

      silly editor

    • I have been seeing a lot of this lately. I even read a traditionally published NY book by a very big name author lately that omitted the commas. I have to assume it was a conscious choice in that case. Personally it takes me out of the story, and I’m focused on the grammar. That’s not what I want for my readers.

      • SK Holmesley says:

        Unless it’s all simple sentences, like a children’s book, I think it’s too easy to misread the author’s intent without punctuation. For me, it can make for a very disappointing read when I’ve interpreted a character’s response one way, then get three pages down and discover I’ve been giving that character the wrong emotional voice, and hence, the entire scene. Like Gordon’s example in the Edit Dude’s blog in January:

        A woman without her man is nothing.
        A woman: without her, man is nothing.

        Punctuation can totally change the meaning and how I would feel about the character.

  20. Alison Pensy says:

    Thanks, Gemma. Very timely for me, I’m just about to start editing my 1st draft and your post brought things back to the forefront of my mind.

  21. Rena George says:

    Some really great tips here, Gemma, particularly your last comments on capitalization. I’m forever having to check and double-check this in my drafts. So thank you. x

  22. Julie Day says:

    I am guilty of repetition. I try to wean them out by highlighting each verb throughout the ms, and going through it to see if there are any words the same.

  23. Great tips, Gemma. It’s so important to know how to take off the artist’s hat and become an editor. Most of our editing has to be done ourselves. A paid editor can only do so much.

    I’m going to be posting on self-editing this week too (on Sunday) with some questions to ask yourself about your first chapter–the hardest one to self-edit, but the most important.

  24. Deborah Jay says:

    Ooh excellent, thank you Gemma.
    Those grammer tips just helped me out big time!
    I’m in a final edit, and my capitalization question is now answered

  25. adan lerma says:

    one of the easier to read and understand, and practical, guides i’ve seen on this subject -

    i still get bummed figured out when to capitalize mom & dad ;-)

    thanks gemma (ps, still reading/enjoying high heel mysteries!)