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Before Editing: A Recommended Reading List

Posted by on Sep 20, 2018 in Blog Posts, Book Reviews, Editing, Featured, Work and Career, Writing Advice | 0 comments

Part of being an editor is noticing patterns—the motion of a character arc, the raveling of a resolution, or the fact that the past five paragraphs have all started with the same word. Here’s another pattern: I’ve been recommending certain articles and books to almost every client I work with, year after year.

So why not share them here once and for all?

These 12 short articles and 6 books delve into the writing techniques I comment on most frequently. Many of them formed the core of my own writing and self-editing practice, and others I’ve discovered since becoming a full-time editor. Any one of them will provide a great foundation for understanding how a first draft can be strengthened—I’ve recommended several, including multiple experts’ takes on similar topics, because hearing a variety of opinions can be helpful when you’re shaping your own style and approach.

I encourage writers to read as many of these texts as they can and do a self-editing pass following the most pertinent advice–and to do this before sending the manuscript to me. A manuscript with fewer pleonasms and filter words, which uses POV thoughtfully and incorporates vivid details and clear, precise language, will be faster to edit (saving both of us time and you money) and frees up more of my editorial attention to develop additional insights and deeper, next-level feedback. The self-edit will also build experience in revising your own work—and in the wise words of Victoria Strauss, “The more skilled a self-editor you are, the more command you will have over your own writing–which surely should be one of a career writer’s major goals.”

Online Articles

  • I’ll start by linking to two of my own articles, which synthesize and build on some of the other suggested reads along with my own editing experience:
  • 12 Words to Almost Always Cut” identifies a dozen common problem words and phrases, weighs when they might be useful, and offers tips on how to catch them over the course of an entire manuscript and ways to rephrase.
  • I’ve also written a blog post summarizing some of my “greatest hits” in editing advice—it’s the next best thing to carrying me around in your jacket pocket (presumably you’d tuck in your tightly-folded manuscript and an adorably tiny red pen for me to work on in there). Another substitute (or supplement): GrammarBook’s ultimate list of what those commas are doing. 
  • I can’t remember when I discovered Allen Guthrie, but my life has never been the same since—nor has that of my editing clients. While not a Bible (there are exceptions to every rule), his “Hunting Down the Pleonasm” is immensely helpful for creating clarity and concision, honing each sentence and paragraph to contain only those words that are most effective at conveying emotion and information for readers. Plus it offers insights into writing that pleases a reader as demanding as Guthrie, a writer and literary agent. The tipsheet is free online, but if the link above leads to an error message as it sometimes does, I’m glad to see it’s also available HERE.
  • In addition to the pleonasms tipsheet, Guthrie has written a list of “Infamous Writing Tips,” which can be read on the Absolute Write Forum (a writing, editing, and publishing resource which I also highly recommend). Perhaps the best rule on the list is 32, “If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t.” But if something isn’t working in a draft, one of these “rules” will often illuminate why.
  • Like pleonasms, “filter words” can steal oxygen from a manuscript, so identifying them and rephrasing can deepen point of view and immerse readers more fully in the action and feeling of the story. Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s article on filter words for Write It Sideways is a brief but hugely valuable introduction. If you only have time to read one of these resources, make it this one.
  • However, as I mentioned above, I always like to read more than one viewpoint on a topic, because each expert brings in something new. Kathy Steinemann’s more recent article on filter words elaborates with more examples, exercises, and ideas for avoiding filters while still using all 5 (or 6…or 12!) senses in a manuscript.
  • Point of View can be a controversial topic, with strong opinions on many sides. I personally have a strong preference for 3rd person limited, the deeper the better. Meanwhile, in my editing I’ve often encouraged writers to rethink the use of 3rd person omniscient, which a number of publishers have also stated they don’t want to see because it can lead to confusing or sloppy-feeling “head-hopping.” Yet then again, I’ve read a number of authors, from Dorothy Dunnett to Celeste Ng, who use 3rd person omniscient to move between different characters’ perspectives at various levels of intimacy and to share things that none of the characters could possibly know—the results are commanding, moving, even (as the name of this perspective always makes me think) divine. Many writers use 1st person to create that sense of deep intimacy I love, and a well-done story in 2nd person is like nothing else. So there’s really no wrong choice for POV, so long as it’s done with thoughtfulness and care. The first step is to understand the kind of choices you’ll be making when you select a POV. Here’s a great introduction from Now Novel on the different points of view and how each can be used to full effect.
  • Pleonasms, filters, and POV aside, the other big non-grammatical (but stylistic) edit I do on each manuscript is a search for word repetition. Honestly, it’s not super-complicated: you want to avoid repeating words so often that a manuscript becomes monotonous. But this article from Writer’s Digest is worth reading for its warning against “elegant variation” and the wise advise to pick one’s battles.
  • Speaking of grammar, once you have a command of subject/verb agreement and pronoun/antecedent agreement, it becomes easier to build sentences (or series of sentences) that can be complex while remaining clear and graceful. You don’t need to remember all these grammatical terms—just recognize what they do. The following link is to a quiz that can test your command of them, but most importantly, see the lesson pages through the links at the end of the quiz for a recap of what they are and how they work: (in fact, I disagree with the quiz itself on a few points—it acknowledges use of singular they but considers the clunky and old-fashioned “his or her” as “more correct”; however, the pronoun-antecedent agreement lesson dedicates an entire paragraph to explaining and defending the use of singular they, both currently and historically. I hope whoever wrote the lesson knows I love them.)
  • Action scenes can be tricky, so I loved this post on the Kill Zone blog for its quick tips and, best of all, useful examples of paragraphs “before” and “after” editing them.
  • The Turkey City Lexicon was developed among fantasy and science fiction writers swapping feedback in workshops. Not all of its advice applies to every manuscript (though even non-genre writers will find parts 1, 2, and 5 applicable), but it has useful and entertaining insights, and I often refer to its terms in my editing—so to learn more about infodumping, handwaving, “said”-bookisms, and Not Simultaneous, take a look!
  • Editor Beth Hill’s article, “How Goes the Flow in Your Story?” is an excellent cap to the previous readings—though possibly you’ll want to read it first of all. I’m reminded of a quote from Virginia Woolf (shared by Margot Livesy in her book The Hidden Machinery): “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.” Until you get that, sometimes it’s a matter of learning to spot the wrong words and developing alternatives to them. Hill incisively diagnoses a number of issues and potential fixes.


  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King is the one book to read if you’re only going to read one from this list (but dear reader, why would you?). Whether dissecting dialogue tags or judging the balance of scene vs summary, Browne and King get into the nitty-gritty of writing without being highly technical or overwhelming. Despite the title, it’s worth reading for nonfiction writers as well, especially writers of memoir or other narrative nonfiction.
  • How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman can be a bit sarcastic, and candidly, I don’t agree that every “error” it points out is actually a flaw—but it offers useful observations on certain trends and advice for avoiding pitfalls in worldbuilding, characterization, and even sentence structure. Also, it can sometimes be a relief to chuckle at the mistakes you haven’t made.
  • On Writing by Stephen King describes many baseline expectations that audiences—from paperback readers to acquisitions editors—have developed about stories and writing style, as well as sharing King’s own rules of thumb and personal experiences (combining writing advice and elements of memoir). It’s valuable for a professional writer in any genre, not to mention entertaining and often thought-provoking.

The last three books form a gentle introduction to grammar and style—my own reference library includes, of course, the Chicago Manual of Style, along with Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Copyeditor’s Handbook, but even for most professional writers those might be a case of “too much information” (if you do want to pick up a copy of CMoS, the online subscription  can be an excellent investment.) And a book I am not recommending is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style—if their advice works for you, that’s awesome, but if it, or their didactic delivery of it, doesn’t work for you, you’re not alone.

  • When it comes to grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is beloved for a reason—conversational and funny, it makes the case for subtle points of punctuation in a thoughtful manner that’s surprisingly low-stress.
  • June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences is another one of my favorites. It focuses, indeed, on sentence-by-sentence writing, with practical examples and brief, clear explanations. These make it a reference work worth keeping on your shelf. Like Truss, it’s often funny, sometimes snarky but not too scary (one of my favorite sentences from this book on writing excellent sentences is, “no strangers to door-opening we”—in the context of avoiding pleonastic explanation).
  • Stephen Pinker’s Sense of Style isn’t the first book on grammar you should read (that’s Casagrande), but it might be the last word. Oriented toward nonfiction, it will be useful for writers of any genre who want to write more clearly and confidently. He offers numerous examples of effective writing, a positive approach that’s often more beneficial than a book full of “do nots”. He offers easy-to-remember principles like  “don’t leave readers waiting (to understand)”. There’s some linguistic theory in this one, mostly to explain why the practical advice is so useful, and surprisingly persuasive reasons not to use “literally” figuratively (along with diagnoses of other common errors–to my chagrin,  apprise and appraise are different verbs).


All three of these books strike me as smart about acknowledging that no one approach is universal, and writers may want to break certain rules for certain effects. Again, remember Guthrie’s Rule 32: “If it works…”

But before breaking the “rules,” it’s helpful to know them. After reading the texts above, you’ll have a great foundation for following, breaking, and maybe even creating some guidelines of your own.

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