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February 18, 2015

The Ultimate Editing List


NOTE: This post has been revised to include more information. 

(contains more content than the blog post)

First, I want to share my top five pet peeves as an editor. Or, more precisely, five errors I’d like more writers to be aware before submitting to an agent/editor/publisher.

1. Stay in the Same Tense

I’ve seen many stories that start in past or present tense then after a few pages or even a couple of chapters shift to another tense, without warning. The change doesn’t happen because of a time jump from past to present. Rather, the timeline is the same, but the writer makes this mistake without realizing it. Sometimes, this shifting can go on throughout the entire manuscript. This is an easy mistake. Admittedly, I had done it with my first attempts. A good beta reader can point this out, but it’s important for writers to be able to recognize this themselves, with practice.

2. Stick with One Name for a Character

In the narrative, if you refer to a character by their first name, don’t later change the name you use to their last name. Or vice versa. Establish the name you want your character to be known by in the beginning and stick with it. Dialogue is another story, however. A character’s name can change in dialogue depending on their nicknames and titles.

3. Join Complete Sentences

Make sure when you join two sentences with a comma and conjunction (and, or, but) that the sentence following the comma is complete with a subject.

Example: She couldn’t wait to go on vacation, but she had a deadline to meet first.

(This is correct, because there is a subject following the comma and the conjunction. If you remove “she” from the second half of the sentence, it would become a fragment.)

4. Pay Attention to Gerund Phrases

Gerund phrases begin with a verb that ends in “ing.” These phrases can be at the beginning of a sentence or at the end of the sentence following a comma. The problem is, some of the sentences might not make sense together.

Example: Smiling, she tilted her head.

This is correct, because you can smile and tilt your head at the same time.

Example: Running upstairs, she flopped onto her bed.

This is not correct, because you can’t run upstairs and flop onto your bed at the same time, not even if your bed happens to be in the stair way. You’d have to stop one act to do the other.

You can use the Find tool to search for “ing” to double-check these phrases. If you find an incorrect phrase, a little revision is all that’s needed to make it work.

5. Comma Splices

Comma splices are very common. I know that I have comma splices in my earliest works, but they are incorrect. A comma splice is when two independent clauses (sentences) are joined by a comma.

Example: Mom ordered pizza, Dad went to pick it up. (Comma Splice)

Example: Mom ordered pizza, and Dad went to pick it up. (Correct)

Most of the time, adding a conjunction fixes this problem. Or you can replace the comma with a semi-colon or period.

With the top five errors I come across as an editor out of the way, I now present my ultimate editing list, which I hope will help you to tighten your writing.

Redundant/Incorrect Phrases to Fix:
·        He thought to himself = He thought
·        Stand/stood up = Stand/stood
·        Sit/sat down = Sit/sat
·        Turned back = Turned
·        Turned around = Turned
·        Return back = Return
·        Rise up = Rise
·        Descended down = Descended
·        Low/soft whisper = Whisper
·        Woke/wake up = Woke/wake
·        Checked/check out = Checked/check
·        Rest up = Rest
·        Fix up = Fix
·        Reason why = Reason
·        Right here = Here
·        Meet with = Meet
·        Final outcome = Outcome
·        Added bonus = Bonus
·        Total blackout = Blackout
·        Bald-headed = Bald
·        Visibly Upset = Upset
·        Try out = Try
·        Each and every = Each
·        As many as = Up to

Here Is a List of Words to Cut Because They Clutter Sentences:
·        That
·        Just
·        Only
·        Really
·        Very
·        Both

Example: She swore that it would never happen again.

Better: She swore it would never happen again.

Example: Jamie and Matt both wanted ice cream

Better: Jamie and Matt wanted ice cream.

Note: While I try to eliminate as many of these as I can, I still use “just” and “only” every now and then.

Cut These Words to Make Clear, Assertive Statements:
·        Almost
·        Slightly
·        Seemed
·        Perhaps
·        Maybe
·        Simply
·        Somehow
·        Kind of
·        Sort of
·        A little
·        Absolutely
·        Basically
·        Actually
·        Instead
·        Now

Example: The cut hurt slightly.

Better: The cut hurt.

Example: Now stop it!

Better: Stop it!

Phrases to Eliminate to Make Your Writing More Specific:
·        There was/were
·        There is/are
·        It was
·        That had been

Example: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Better: The night was dark and stormy.

Tell your readers exactly what “it”, “that”, and “there” refers to so your meaning is clear.

Correct Meanings/Uses:
·        Site is a place
·        Sight is vision
·        Affect (verb) means to influence someone/thing (weather conditions affect)
·        Effect (noun) is a result of something (side effects of medication)
·        Could care less = Couldn’t care less
·        Shouldn’t of = Shouldn’t have
·        Six year old girl = six-year-old girl (hyphenated when used before a noun)
·        By who = By whom (whom – him/her)
·        Only had = Had only
·        Try and = Try to
·        All of = All
·        Off of = Off

Eliminate Passive Voice:
·        Was
·        Were
·        Had/have been
·        Being
·        Will be

Passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is acted upon.

Example: Ben was attacked by a swarm of bees.

Active Voice is when the subject of a sentence is the doer of the action.

Example: A swarm of bees attacked Ben.

However, it's not totally wrong to use passive voice.

Example: My car was stolen!

This a correct sentence if your character doesn't know who stole their car.

Eliminate How Many Sentences Begin with These Words Back-to-Back:
·        He/she (third person)
·        I (first person)
·        Then
·        The
Variety is the spice of...writing.

Clichés to Rewrite or Delete:
·        Stopped in his/her tracks
·        Yell at the top of his/her lungs
·        At his/her fingertips
·        Sigh of relief
·        Blood boil
·        Glaring sun
·        Cold as ice
·        Hot as hell
·        Scared to death
·        Eyes were glazing over
·        Bared her soul
·        In the blink of an eye
·        All hell broke loose
·        Time flies
·        Deer caught in headlines
·        Pale as a ghost

When you finish your first draft, go through this list slowly to eliminate these words and phrases. And, remember, we all do them.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great list! I use the word just a lot. I'll admit it.
Another word to eliminate - felt. Because usually if you are using it, you are telling not showing. (Unless you are talking about Muppets.)

Nick Wilford said...

This is a great list! I think it's well worth bookmarking. It's pretty easy to fall into bad habits, especially on a rough draft.

sage said...

Thanks, your list is a good reminder.

Suzanne Furness said...

Great list of reminders. I'm with Alex,'just' is one of my over used words and 'well' often seems to sneak into dialogue!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Excellent reminders for the editing/revising stage, Chrys! I'm still in the drafting stages of my WiP so I'm not worrying too much about these things right now. Whew! :)

nashvillecats2 said...

Great list, will keep these in mind.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this list! I get so mad when I see people say could of/should of/would of. Who started that??

Stephanie Bird said...

What a superb post Chris, as usual. I will print this page and refer to it, as I'm in the editing stage of what I've written of my novel. This post makes me self conscious about what I'm writing, so I'll stop here. Thanks for such a comprehensive list and great advice.

Sarah Foster said...

Great list! Passive voice irks me the most. I'm always shocked by how many instances of "was/were" I find in my writing. Not gonna lie, though, "really" is a word that I use a lot, since it kinda just became part of my narrator's voice. If I wrote in third person, it would sound pretty weird.

Carrie-Anne said...

It's amazing how many people overuse "that." It's so distracting when I'm reading a book which does just that. English teachers should really teach the importance of not overusing it, since so many sentences sound much better without it.

Since I'm a student of world languages, I see the usage of "was/were/are/is" perhaps a bit differently. Just to use an example I'm familiar with, Russian has slightly different forms of verbs depending on whether an action is continuous, one-time, or just started. Using the qualifier "was/were/are/is" specifies what the character is doing. It also gives me a different impression of the action involved, like someone already reading the newspaper before the scene began vs. only starting to read it after the scene starts, or only quickly reading the newspaper and then putting it down.

Jeffrey Scott said...

Great list. Ironically, I published my own list this week. That's how I found your blog, to be honest, researching other overused words. 'Very' is the word I found you writing about. 'Just' is my #1 over used word but I do have others I didn't see on your list.

About - Seems like a lazy word to use.
A lot - How much is a lot?
Began - Did someone begin then stop? Or did they do it.

Thanks for sharing. So much great information.

Chrys Fey said...

I use "just" a lot, too!
Felt is a good one to cut. Also "saw" and "watched." I completely forgot about those! Thanks for reminding me. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, Nick! It is easy. That's why we have to keep practicing and stay vigilant. :)

Chrys Fey said...

You're welcome, Sage!

Chrys Fey said...

I'm an over-user of "just", too. And "well" sneaks into my dialogue a lot when I'm sending messages on FB. haha

Chrys Fey said...

I only look at this list when my first draft is done then I spend a good while looking up each word with Microsoft's Find tool.

Chrys Fey said...


Chrys Fey said...

I have no idea who started that.

Chrys Fey said...

There's no need to be self-conscious because of this post. I have to eliminate a lot of these from my first drafts, too;. Every time! ;)

Chrys Fey said...

It's normal to use "really" or "just" a lot. I do the same thing no matter how much I try not to. ;)

Chrys Fey said...

I understand exactly what you're saying, about was/were because I used to write the same way, but so many said "No-no!" Now I don't, but I personally didn't find anything wrong with it.

Chrys Fey said...

I told you I'd be posting mine this Wednesday. Great minds think alike. ;)

You're not alone with that 'just.' I overuse it and so do many others who have commented.

TBM said...

A wonderful list! I was going to add a word, but all of a sudden it slipped out of my brain.

Loni Townsend said...

Great list! I'd add a couple I use: knelt down and dropped down, both of which are redundant and the down can be dropped. That's the great part of editing... it's like a game, finding all the little things.

betty said...

I'm not a writer, but I can see myself using some of these phrases in blog posts :) Could reminder to get to the point and exclude a word here and there without changing the meaning of what you what written.


Chrys Fey said...

Oh no! I hate it when that happens. :P

Chrys Fey said...

Oh yes, those are good! I'll add them. Thanks, Loni! :)

Chrys Fey said...

I think I use some of them in blog posts too, because I'm a little more leisurely with my blog posts. :)

Cherdo said...

My blog posts are pretty juvenile, as far as grammar goes. This is an incredibly useful list, Chrys! Thanks - I'm making a copy.

Chrys Fey said...

I'm glad you find this useful, Cherdo! :)

Barbara Bettis said...

What a terrific post, Chrys! Great lists. "Just" is a word I have to watch. But I'll add to your first group:

"Continued on" is a phrase that is redundant, too, but that I see a lot of.

Pat Hatt said...

Just and seemed I used a ton, but had it pointed out to me and now use them only when absolutely necessary. Great list.

Chrys Fey said...

'Continued on' is a good one! Thanks, Barbara!

Unknown said...

Excellent post, you covered a lot of ground. I'm constantly taking those pesky "extra" words out of my manuscripts. Wonder how they ever got there in the first place!!! LOL

Chrys Fey said...

I have the same problem with 'just' and 'seemed.' While I cut out as many as I can, I still leave in a few when necessary, as you said. :)

Chrys Fey said...

I think a little fairy comes in a sprinkles those extra words in when we aren't looking. ;)

Nicola said...

Great post, Chrys!! You should put all this useful info in a book. I'd definitely invest in it. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise. I greatly appreciate it. It seems so simple and yet we all fall into the traps of verboseness from time to time. I will be checking my latest stories!! All the best.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

What a terrific list. Using the 'find' function also helps you learn your bad habit words so you notice when you're using them.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent list. When I first started writing, I tried to delete all of my ing words. I forgot about gerunds being all right. Good times in the beginning. Good times.

Crystal Collier said...

Great list, Chrys. We all need to condense our writing, eh? Just a few cut phrases or words does wonders.

Chrys Fey said...

I am planning on create a book with all of my best blog posts, but not just yet. ;) And you're so very welcome! I believe writers shoulod help other writers. :)

Chrys Fey said...

That Find tool is my BFF! ;)

Chrys Fey said...

I love ing word! ;) Yes, the beginning was good times. It was so much easier writing back then. lol

Chrys Fey said...

A phrases or word here or there really does do wonders. :)

diedre Knight said...

What an excellent list of reminders! Another one for my In-case-you're-not-sure notebook.
As with other readers of this post, I've been consciously working on 'just' for awhile now by searching the word and scratching it from the document and am amazed by how many times I (keep) using it!
I'm curious, if you shouldn't use 'perhaps' or 'maybe', what else is there?

Chrys Fey said...

You can use 'perhaps' or 'maybe' but they are weak. By cutting them out of sentences you're making those sentences more assertive.

Nas said...

Great list, Chrys. I tried copying and pasting in a word doc to use when I'm editing! Though the background is black!

Michelle Wallace said...

This is a handy list. I need to print it.
Thanks for sharing, Chrys!

Calisa Rhose said...

This is great, Cris. I just wanted to clarify for your readers why you say certain ones like sit/stand= down/up. If we think about those alone it will help us see others we may do, but aren't on your list. I used to do that a lot, A LOT. lol But when we sit, we can ONLY go down, therefore no need to state that a character sat 'down'. Or if they stand, they can ONLY go up (unless they know another direction to sit or stand. LOL) It really seems obvious, but when writing, we tend to want to help the readers know just what we mean, so we treat them like they are, well...stupid, by spelling it out. In this and most examples you've given like it, we have to acknowledge that readers are smart. Smart enough to figure out that when a character sits, they are going down. :)

One other thing. With hyphenating age (six-year-old) keep in mind that not all publishers, or editors, follow that rule. I had a few changed in my work by different publishers. They go by individual 'house style' in a lot of areas where the CMoS (Chicago Manual of Style) doesn't have solid rules.

Hope it's ok to offer this from an editor's perspective. :)

Rebecca Grace said...

What a great list. I'm going to print and save to use as I edit my next story. I am one of those "just" people who has to constantly check for it.

Rebecca Grace said...

Usually I have trouble with -- usually!!! That's another of those words I have to keep watching for.

Mary Kirkland said...

That's a great list. I use 'and' a lot when I'm writing articles.

Chrys Fey said...

You can take away the black background after you paste. In Word, normally a little clipboard graphic appears in the corner of what you paste. If you click on it, you can select keep text only. It'll get rid of any formatting and color and just leave the text.

Chrys Fey said...

You're welcome, Michelle! :)

Chrys Fey said...

I still tend to add "up" or "down." lol I figured after my list, and adding the ones that some commenters suggested, that readers would eventually get the idea. ;)

In that case, the editor would fix it to what he/she prefers.

That's no problem, Calisa.

Chrys Fey said...

Awesome! There's a lot of us "just" people. ;)

Chrys Fey said...

Usually is a good one to add! Thanks, Rebecca!

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, Mary! 'And' is a tricky one to eliminate.

DL Hammons said...

Awesome list and this post has been duly bookmarked! "That" has always been one of my targets of abuse. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, DL! "That" is a pain in the butt! :P

Judy Ann Davis said...

Great post, Chrys. It's so nice to review all those useless or misused words every now and then.

Donna McDine said...

Terrific post! Cuts to live by. Thanks for sharing!

Dixie@dcrelief said...

Okay I have to copy all. This will eliminate half of my blogs (smile).

Cherdo said...

Cherdo wants to pre-order, ha ha.

CA Clark said...

Please do a post on pronouns, I am so tired of writers using YOU instead of all the pronouns they should have used. Great lists by the way.

Anonymous said...

These are wonderful. I'll have to return to this when I'm editing.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Great editing tips, Chrys. Have you tried ? It makes neat designs of the words you use most in a segment of text ... say a chapter you've written. Go visit. Have some fun. :-)

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, Judy! :)

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, Donna! And you're welcome! :)

Chrys Fey said...

Haha! Cutting these words/phrases does drop the word count down quite a bit. ;)

Chrys Fey said...

A post on pronouns. Hmm...thanks for the suggestion. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Great! :D

Chrys Fey said...

I've never tried I'll have to check that out. Thanks! :)

Chrys Fey said...

Haha! It may be a long wait. ;)

Stephanie Faris said...

This is awesome!!! I need to print this and save it. There's a tool you can use where you pull your text in and it identifies the words you use most. I can't remember the URL.

I had an editor with my freelancing who wouldn't let me use the word WAS (or is) EVER. That was very tough. (See? I just used it!) Glad she stopped sending me assignments. Avoiding "was" altogether was giving me a headache!

Lidy said...

Another great post. I've already saved it to use as reference. I try my best not to use "was" and "that" but it isn't always easy. Another thing I look for during edits are too many words ending in "ly." Those definitely get cut. And as for cliches, most times instead of cutting them, I try to reinvent them.

Chrys Fey said...

Sounds like the website Roland mentioned just before your comment. I have to try it some time!

Not use 'was' ever? Gosh, I don't think I could do it!

Chrys Fey said...

I have to use 'was' but I try not to and cut out passive voice when I can, but I'm not so crazy as to try to not use 'was' at all. That would be difficult! Eek!

Yup, that's why for the cliches I said to rewrite or delete them, because it is possible to make them new.

VR Barkowski said...

Spectacular list, Chrys. Once my drafts are done, I use AutoCrit to help me spot check for repeated words, qualifiers, and certain phrases. I'll definitely be adding some new offenders from this list. One other thing I look for is too many sentences beginning with a gerund.

My worst crime is overusing "it." I bring a whole new meaning to It girl. I do think clichés can sometimes work in dialogue—there are people who speak in clichés. But clichés never work in narrative.

VR Barkowski

Chrys Fey said...

You're right that cliches are okay in dialogue, but not narrative.

Liz Blocker said...

Chrys, this is a GREAT post. One of your best, I think, which is saying something :) Super helpful and practical - the kind of thing I can bookmark and use as a proofreading list. Thank you!!

Unknown said...

bookmarked!!! Love this--crazy how much we overuse words!

Ian Martyn said...

Good list and has set me thinking. I always have a long hard look at adverbs that creep into my work, most can be removed or replaced with something better. Those that stay have to earn their place. I'm also wary of 'shouting' as in 'blah blah,' he shouted. I read one book where everyone WAS SHOUTING. It's often obvious from the context.

Chrys Fey said...

Wow! Thank you so much, Liz! :D

Chrys Fey said...

Awesome! And it is crazy. I don't know why we do it other than we just talk like that.

Chrys Fey said...

'Shouted' is a good one to either remove or change. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Ian! :)

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Excellent list, Chris. Shared it along!

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, Ash!

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Mighty impressive list indeed :)

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks, Keith! :)

Unknown said...

Great list, Chrys. I'm guilty of all these things. I have to delete - juste, thats,and wells - to name but a few. That's why editing is so important. Thanks for sharing.

Chrys Fey said...

Editing is extremely important. We all have to do it. :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chris .. no wonder you've got 92 comments ... I've kept the post open - so I can re-read it properly as I'm aware I definitely make some of these mistakes ...

Thanks for setting it out so clearly .. cheers Hilary

Chrys Fey said...

You're welcome, Hilary! I thought a lot of people could benefit from this. :)

Unknown said...

Suddenly is a throwaway word.

Chrys Fey said...

It is. :)