How to Edit Your Fiction: Watch Me Correct My Own Story in Real Time

How to Edit Fiction: Watch Me Correct My Own Story in Real Time

Teaching writers how to edit fiction is one of those things that can be surprisingly counter-intuitive. Most books and articles about editing are actually nothing more or less than books and articles on good writing. After all, the fundamentals of good self-editing are the fundamentals of good writing. The skill set for good editing is no different from that of good writing: an understanding of grammar and style, knowledge about character development, awareness of story structure, and the je ne sais quoi necessary to make narrative pop.

That’s all fine and good. The more we know about that stuff, the better we’ll be at both writing and editing. The downside is all this wonderful writing advice can sometimes end up being more than little, shall we say, general when what you really need are tips on how to edit fiction.

That’s why, today, I’m going to share with you the “real-time” editing process for one of my daily writing sessions from my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer.

Every day before starting a writing session, I take the time to first edit what I wrote the previous day. These quick edits are my first pass through the rough draft, so I’m not content editing so much as cleaning up the prose, getting rid of my obviously bad ideas, and putting the initial shine on my emerging diamonds.

Below you can see the full screenshot of my edits for this section of the story, which I’ve marked using Word’s Track Changes feature. Note that not all of my corrections will make sense out of the context of the main story, and some (such as my many tweaks of word choice to better reflect the 19th-century British setting) will be pertinent only to me and this book. (Click on the pages for a larger view and then use your browser’s zoom feature–shortcut: CNTRL plus +–if necessary.)

My Editing Page 1

My Editing Page 2

My Editing Page 3

And now let’s get down to business! I have selected twelve particular examples from my edits, which are general enough for any writer to glean from. Read on for full explanations of what I was doing and why.

1. Resist the Urge to Explain

1 Resist the Urge to Explain

Basically, resisting the urge to explain is nothing more or less than choosing showing and subtext over telling and talking down to readers. The phrase comes straight out of Renni Browne and Dave King’s canonical Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:

It is nearly always best to resist the urge to explain (or, as we so often write it in manuscript margins, RUE). This tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the author. And more often than not, authors tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action–it’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point.

My character’s fear, as observed by the narrator, is completely clear from the context–both from everything that happened previous to this scene and from her high-tempered reaction and trembling hands. Readers don’t need to be told she is frightened–or that the narrator hopes her healthy fear will keep her out of other dangerous situations in the future.

2. Avoid Unnecessary Word Repetition

Sometimes repeated words and phrases can be used to great effect for rhythm, emphasis, and even humor. But that is always a technique to be approached carefully, since clumsy repetition can easily jar readers and pull them out of the prose. I’ve seen books docked in review stars simply because repeated words bothered the readers so much.

Here, I had to eliminate the repeated word “know” (you know, I know), but I still needed to highlight the speaker’s emphasis of her knowledge. Adding “of course” was a quick fix.

3. Get Rid of “Seemed” and Other Weak Inferences

Remember a few months ago when I posted an installment in the Most Common Writing Mistakes series called “Inferring Non-POV Characters’ Thoughts“? Well, that post was inspired by my own persistence in using this sloppy technique in my rough drafts.

“Seemed” and similar inferences are usually an attempt to convey a non-POV character’s thoughts or emotions without delving outside the point of view. The result, however, is too often another round of telling instead of showing.

Sometimes the solution will be fleshing out the description to show readers the same facial tics and body language that the narrator is interpreting. Sometimes, as in my sentence, the emotion is already clear and the only thing that needs to be done is cutting the word “seemed.”

4. Pay Attention to Where Emphasis Belongs

4. Emphasis

There are good ways and bad ways to emphasize important points in your sentences. Or rather, I should say: depending on the sentence, some methods will be much clumsier than others. One effective method of emphasis is to begin a sentence with a conjunction (“and,” “but”). Although technically frowned upon, this has become largely accepted within casual writing and some fiction narratives.

But(!) despite their usefulness, conjunctions as emphasis are rarely an elegant solution. In this instance, my need for emphasis was better served by deleting the “but” at the beginning of the sentence and instead italicizing the exact word I wished to stress (“that”).

5. Don’t Qualify Your Dialogue

Throat-clearing words like “well,” “look,” “listen,” and “oh” can be excellent dialogue aids because they are so common in real-life speech and can evoke that same realism in our dialogue. They must, however, be used sparingly and only to purposeful effect.

Too many of them will clutter your dialogue or, as in this instance, water down the effect. My character–who is a straight-talking young noblewoman–doesn’t need the hesitating “well” at the beginning of her sentence: it robs her speech of her natural forcefulness without adding anything in the way of meaning or characterization.

6. Delete “That” Unrelentingly

I have to give my longtime critique partner Linda Yezak a nod for this one because I think of her every single time I see a “that” in my work. She’s always getting all over my case for letting this little parasite gorge itself on my lean writing. “That” is a filler word that(!), more often than not, is completely unnecessary. If you can delete “that” from a sentence without compromising clarity, do it. Linda will be proud of us both.

7. Streamline Language

7 Streamline

This is the one that always has me thinking of William Brohaugh (who is not my critique partner but is the author of the awesome Write Tight–which, again, I must thank Linda for). In a nutshell: never add a word that is unnecessary to your meaning. Write tight; streamline your language; keep your words and your meaning as tight as possible.

It’s amazing the clutter that sometimes fills our sentences. Once again, “that” is a frequent culprit (as it is in this example), but notice how the whole phrase “that can” adds words but no meaning.

8. Show Don’t Tell and 9. Mind the Motivation-Reaction Unit

8 9 Show and tell

As we saw above in #2, regarding “seemed” and other inference words, sometimes shifting from telling to showing is as simple as deleting a few telling words to let the showing words shine through. Here, instead of telling readers the narrator was “finding he was almost embarrassed,” I can let his thought stand on its own for stronger effect.

I’ve also switched around the order of this paragraph a bit to allow for a stronger motivation-reaction unit. Remember: the motivation-reaction unit (or MRU) is supposed to present a logical order in which the character’s reactions are shown in the sequence they actually happen: thought > action > speech. In this instance, first the character is embarrassed, then he acts upon that embarrassment by covering it up with a chuckle.

10. Bold Reminders to Fact Check

10 Bold

Sometimes when we’re writing along, the last thing we want to do is break out of the zone to fact check. Whenever I’m writing or editing and feel it would be counter-productive to hop onto the Internet to research a questionable fact or word, I’ll simply bold that word and move on. Later, after I’ve finished the first draft, I’ll go back and double-check all my bold words.

11. Ensure Pronoun Antecedents Make Sense

I love referring to my characters by pronouns whenever possible. This is a technique that subtly deepens the intimacy of the narrative–except when the pronoun’s antecedent (the person–or thing–to which the pronoun is referring) is unclear. Whenever there’s a doubt about clarity, always name your character instead of opting for a pronoun.

This is also true even when the last possible antecedent was one mentioned in dialogue as it is here (and therefore couldn’t logically be the character referred to in the next sentence). Even though readers might recognize (or figure out) that the “he” at the beginning of the next sentence isn’t the guy mentioned in the dialogue, they can still experience a split second of confusion. A split second is a split too much.

12. Use Paragraph Breaks to Punctuate Dialogue

12 Paragraph Break

We touched a bit on this last week in the post on paragraph mistakes. In this instance, even though it might have also been technically correct to keep all the dialogue (and its action beats) within a single paragraph, a little bit of breathing space makes for better timing and better emphasis.

Here we have the character performing an action that literally stops his dialogue–he puts the bottle in his coat pocket, then looks up. Furthermore, when he does finally look up, he’s going to change the subject and send the conversation in a new direction. As a result, the paragraph break made good sense.

The situations and challenges you will face as you figure out how to edit fiction will of course be vast. The twelve points I’ve highlighted here are just a few of the many things to watch for while you’re correcting your stories. I hope this candid peek into my daily process has offered you some clarity and inspiration in your own editing process. Head over to your manuscript, pull out that red pen, and start making your story even better than it already is!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the best tip you’ve discovered for how to edit fiction? Tell me in the comments!


How to Edit Your Fiction: Watch Me Correct My Own Story in Real Time

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This is such a great and informational post. I love it! Very timely considering I’m in the process of editing my own work.

    Thank you so much for this post 🙂

  2. Thank you, I find this very helpful and once again, I got to resist the temptation to go back through my previous works and see where I have done these things. I say resist because if I really do it, I think I might not like what I find.

  3. I don’t know how to use the ‘track changes’, so I use the ‘review’ function instead. Even between writer and editor I find it simple to use, and simple to delete when no longer needed.
    Between writer and editor, the comments come in two different colours, dated, and with the commenter’s initials, so it’s never a problem knowing who is who.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Track Changes is part of the Review pane in Word. Just look for the button titled “Track Changes,” punch it, and any alteration made in the text will be recorded.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this! I can see already that I’ll have some work to do when it’s time to edit my current draft. I know I’ve used “seemed” probably too often; I’ve used it so much because my narrator is a horse who doesn’t understand a lot of what he’s seeing, but because “seemed” is showing up so much, it’s cluttering the narrative more than it’s actually representing his confusion.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A few “seemeds” won’t hurt anything. But don’t be afraid to simply call it like your narrator sees it–even if he’s totally wrong.

      • Could one use ‘seemed’ or ‘appeared’ to show the narrator’s uncertainty? The author could detail what the narrator is sensing, but the reader might miss the narrator’s lack of conclusions.

  5. K.M., this is a great post! I’ve been waiting for something like this since I branched out into novels. Thank you. VERY informative.

  6. Perfect timing! I’m in the middle of editing the second half of my novel, so this should be very handy. Good luck with your own edits!

  7. thomas h cullen says

    Just two simple rules.. 1) Know the story, and 2) Look at the page, and “see” the reality.

    Got it? No, I don’t either.

  8. I am bookmarking this for future reference. Every point was super helpful.

  9. Thank you! I’m editing right now, so this is very helpful.

  10. Stephanie Corvin says

    Not so useful to me write now as I’m not finished but when I do I’ll be sure to come back to this! I need all the editing help I can get lol

  11. Would you be surprised if I said the sneak peek is what I enjoyed the most? 😛

    Thanks for the great advice. I am always very careful with but and that, I tend to overuse those!

    I will be thinking of this during my next edit. Do you thing using this tool and seeing your changes along as you go helps? I do not normally use it.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’d be pleased. 😉

      I only used Track Changes on this edit, so I could share it in the post. Otherwise, I use Track Changes only when working with editors.

  12. Steven Speece says

    I am curious to know which is correct, “I-” (as I saw above) or “I…” .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hmm, I’m actually not sure what you’re specifically referring to here, but I’m guessing it was an instance with where I replaced an ellipsis with a dash? Both are correct. I’m just in an ellipsis-overkill phase, so I was probably just toning it back in that instance.

  13. Stephanie Corvin says

    I know. I’m scared to DEATH of the editing process and have this incurable need to be hyper vigilant about finding the RIGHT editor RIGHT NOW. Then I remember that’s what my not found as of yet literary agent is for lol

  14. Oh, yay! Just make it come quick enough, lol. I´m curious about how are you going to explain it. For obvious reasons you need a different backstory from Barry and you can´t rely on technology like The Flash does to explain it either, for obvious reasons too! :p

    Have you noticed your book is coming out the same year than The Flash movie? That is so awesome 😀 You have quite a bet to win there, lol.

    Oh, I don´t use Trach Changes either. It bothers me. And sometimes I have to go over it all several times to find the right way to fix certain things that are bothering me. I never do it before I´m done with the first draft though, I´ve seen how poisonous that is. You have a method, but otherwise it keeps you going over the same things once and again until you never keep writing or move forward. Even though I know I´m going to make major changes, I don´t do it until the edit.

  15. Thank you for this very valuable post. I’ve learned some things to keep an eye out for. So often, it seems my “editing” involves me just reading my work, and maybe fixing the occasional typo.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s actually kind of a fun exercise to hit “track changes” while you’re editing your own stuff. I bet you’ll discover you’re changing more than you realize in your daily edits.

  16. Fantastic! Thank you!

  17. I was a serious abuser of the word that and I didn’t realize it until after I had my MS edited. Thousands of words were eliminated just by cutting “that” out. Now I know. Great post!!

  18. Whoa, this is a marvellous post! Very helpful and informative. I will certainly come back to it when I start editing my WIP (which means, in five days. Gulp!).

  19. I find myself wanting to use ‘that’ because in everyday conversation, at least in my part of the country, it appears to be overused. I am used to speaking it all the time.

    I keep that in mind, writing dialogue that contains regional colloquialisms and bad grammar, while trying not to do the same in the narration.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s interesting, because these days, I actually find myself mentally editing “that” *out* of my everyday conversation. :p

  20. Oh, you will definitely benefit from that :p

    I trust Ezra Miller, but I love Grant Gustin so much too!

    Thanks for the post again. I just finished editing my last novel last week but there is always more editing coming up!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve only seen Gustin in his Arrow cameos, but it’s hard to see how anybody could embody that character better!

  21. Without a doubt, I will be referring back to this post frequently. And I will immediately incorporate #10 into my writing habits. I can’t tell you how many times my writing sessions have been hijacked by “just a quick little internet research” that turned into a wasted hour surfing the web for completely unrelated junk. Much thanks, K.M.!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I learned that trick the hard way! The siren song of Internet distraction gets harder to resist by the year, seems like.

  22. Totally agree there! 🙂

  23. #6 … a famous comedy duo years ago sat down with a dozen or so writers to come up with a new sketch. They started with one of the two misunderstanding a word: ‘Erase ‘That’ unrelentingly… Erase what, unrelentingly? That! What?! Back and forth it would go. They worked on it for the better part of an hour realizing it really wasn’t going anywhere. So they decided to take a break, head outside and play a quick game of sandlot baseball. As they headed out, one asked, “Who’s on first?”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah! As soon as you started explaining the “that” sketch, it made me think of “who’s on first.”

      • Dang, you beat me to the punchline!? ;-D Though I guess I should be grateful. It’s a great comedy sketch, but generationally speaking, the gap is getting wider to cross… not too many know about it.

        Regarding the article (serious note) I really do appreciate you letting me/us watch your editing process over your shoulder, so to speak. Kind of like med-school watching an autopsy in action… or wood shop: chiseling, shaping, refining.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I think it might be fun to do a sped-up screen capture of an entire writing session, but so far my experiments with screen-cap programs have all been unable to handle a video that long and keep crashing on me. One of these days though!

          • Oooh, that sounds interesting!

            Not to add another plate to your juggling set, but have you thought about AfterEffects to speed up your screencap footage?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I use Magix for video editing. AfterEffects is way more power than I need! It’s actually the screencap program that I’m having trouble with. Any recommendations?

          • Unfortunately, that’s uncharted territory for me. What was the program Joseph Michael used for his Scrivener demo (but then again, that was real time and not screencap). Perhaps a twitter post would get you the answer your looking for (?) Sorry couldn’t be much help. (and honestly, is there really such a thing as too much power??

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Only if you’re Loki. 😉

          • LOL… okay, sure… there is that! lol! 🙂

            (flash back to Loki as a kid struggling to move a rotary mower through tall scrub)

  24. This is so helpful. Thanks!!

  25. Jim Tucker says

    I found these tips on editing very helpful. I also learned that I’ve been using your “rules” intuitively, without any formal writing or editing training, education or experience writing fiction.
    One other issue I’d like to raise is over use of the word ‘the’. The writers I most enjoy reading use ‘the’ minimally, and I am now–as I am seriously working on my novel after many decades of distractions–focused on ‘that’ word use.
    My particular favorite author for he past several years has been Jim Butcher. I love his “Dresden” series; it resonates with my personal world views. His first person POV, and ‘fourth wall’ humor are amazingly well done.
    Jim T.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I would say “the” is a pretty hard word to overuse. Its functionality is such that it can rarely be used without necessity (in contrast to “that”). If it feels like it’s being overused, the problem is likely more to do with lack of variation in the sentence structures.

  26. Jim Tucker says

    Which is exactly what I’ve been figuring out! I suppose as I pour forth my oft-times stream-of-consciousness, or historical/biographical background narratives, I just stick the “thes” in there somewhat mindlessly, to get my thoughts and the characters’ interactions and occasional more global events out of me and onto the Word Doc.
    Without thoughts, at those times, of readers. “That” comes later, with “the” initial rounds of self-editing. Then I start proofing, fact-checking (for consistency, since it’s my world), and, trying to make better sentences and dialogues. Thx for your keen observation.

  27. Hi there and a highly informative article. I’ve introduced a variety of ideas into my editing process but for both my short stories and novels I’ve found two techniques which work.
    I leave my work for a couple of weeks before I edit.
    I print my work and then read it aloud, with red pen in hand.
    For a couple of years now I’ve also practised something that might not work for many folk.
    I work on more than one project simultaneously, which means I can leave one to ‘rest’ whilst I’m working on another.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All three are great pieces of advice! I do the first and third religiously, and use the second primarily as a valuable proofreading technique.

  28. This is by far the most valuable article I’ve found on editing fiction. Thank you so much for giving us a peek into your process!


  1. […] the hang of this whole rewriting/editing thing. Between Heather Rose Jones‘ comment and some direction from Helping Writers Become Authors I’m now flailing with a plan: check POV and punctuation; kill “that”s and […]

  2. […] Weiland presents How to Edit Fiction: Watch Me Correct My Own Story in Real Time posted at Helping Writers Become Authors, saying, “Need specific advice on how to edit fiction? […]

  3. […] How to Edit Fiction: Watch Me Correct My Own Story in Real Time – Helping Writers Become Autho… […]

  4. […] of an author editing a fiction novel, check out Helping Writers Become Authors’ “How to Edit Fiction: Watch Me Correct My Own Story in Real Time,” which shows screenshots of the editing […]

  5. […] of an author editing a fiction novel, check out Helping Writers Become Authors’ “How to Edit Fiction: Watch Me Correct My Own Story in Real Time,” which shows screenshots of the editing […]

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