Category Archives: Editing Tips

Show, Don’t Tell

Anyone who’s ever written a short story or taken a freshman composition course has heard the words “show, don’t tell.”

I know those words can be frustrating. You might not know exactly what “show, don’t tell” means. Or you might believe that you are showing when you’re really telling.

While “telling” can be useful, even necessary, most people don’t realize how vital “showing” is to an effective story, essay, or even a blog post. Showing allows the reader to follow the author into the moment, to see and feel and experience what the author has experienced. Using the proper balance of showing and telling will make your writing more interesting and effective.

“Okay, I get it,” you’re thinking. “But how do I do it? How do I bring more ‘showing’ into my writing?”

I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips that will help make your writing more vivid and alive for your reader.

1. Use dialogue

This is probably one of the first things I talk to my students about when I have them write personal essays. Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene as if they were there. Instead of telling the reader your mom was angry, they can hear it for themselves:

“Justin Michael,” mom bellowed, “Get in here this instant!”

Dialogue can give your reader a great deal about character, emotion and mood.

2. Use sensory language

In order for readers to fully experience what you’re writing about, they need to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world around them. Try to use language that incorporates several senses, not just sight.

3. Be descriptive

I’m sure everyone remembers learning to use adjectives and adverbs in elementary school. When we’re told to be more descriptive, it’s easy to go back to those things that we were taught. But being descriptive is more than just inserting a string of descriptive words. It’s carefully choosing the right words and using them sparingly to convey your meaning.

The following example is from a short story I wrote.

Telling: He sits on the couch holding his guitar.

There’s nothing wrong with that sentence. It gives the reader some basic information, but it doesn’t create an image. Compare that sentence with this:

Showing: His eyes are closed, and he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover. It’s as if he’s trying to hold on to something that wants to let go.

The second example takes that basic information and paints a picture with it. It also uses figurative language—in this case, the simile “cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover”—to help create an image.

When using description, it’s important not to overdo it. Otherwise, you can end up with what I call “police blotter” description. For example:

He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wore a red shirt and jeans, and a brown leather jacket.

4. Be specific, not vague

This is another one I’m constantly reminding my college students about. Frequently, they will turn in essays with vague, fuzzy language. I’m not sure if they think this type of writing sounds more academic, but all it really does is frustrate the reader.

Instead of writing, “I had never felt anything like it before in my entire life,” take the time to try and describe what that feeling was, and then decide how best to convey that feeling to the reader. Your readers will thank you for it.


The ABC’s of Plot Development

by Mark Nchol

Plot develops out of conflict, either external, such as a person or an event that precipitates a series of actions the main character undertakes, or internal, driven by the protagonist’s wants and/or needs. How that character, and others, makes choices and otherwise responds to stimuli determines the course of events.

The traditional structure of a plot is linear, in which the protagonist’s actions are charted in a more or less straight line, although many stories shift from that person’s point of view to that of one or more other characters as the tale progresses. Others involve one or more flashbacks, introducing new elements to the overarching plot.

In one sense, there are innumerable stories; looking at storytelling another way, various analysts have discovered variable finite numbers of basic plots (such as the quest, which is ubiquitous in all genres), though these types have a seemingly infinite number of variations, as a visit to any large bookstore or library will attest. But stories almost invariably follow a simple pattern, in which rising action propels the protagonist through a series of complications that result in a climax, followed by the falling action of the resolution.

At this point, the character, or at least the character’s circumstances, have changed, though most readers (and writers) find it most satisfying if the character has experienced significant growth or change and has accomplished a palpable goal, such as a physical journey that has allowed the character to achieve some reward, or an intangible goal that still satisfies the reader’s desire for the protagonist to undergo a metamorphosis of some kind.

Writer Annie Lamott created a helpful mnemonic catechism, ABCDE, to help writers remember the basics. Here are the elements:

Action: Set the scene with an event that launches the series of events that constitutes a story. This scene should happen as early as possible, and though writers renowned and obscure alike have broken this rule with some degree of success, observe it unless you have an outstanding reason not to.

Background: Context is essential to settle your readers into the story, though, as indicated above, it usually follows initiating action. Pay it out parsimoniously, however, and don’t let your reader get ahead of your protagonist, or you’ll likely release the dramatic tension prematurely.

Conflict: Such tension is produced by your protagonist’s impetus to achieve a goal. That goal should be specific, and, for the story to be compelling, it should be something the character can’t live without. To be even more so, it shouldn’t be easy for the character to satisfy that desire. The tension is produced by desire, but it is sustained by obstacles to attainment of that desire.

Development: This element constitutes the bulk of the plot; it is the journey, and all the events and incidents along the way. These happenings should bring the protagonist ever closer to resolution of the conflict, and they should steadily escalate in import and impact to heighten the suspense and keep the reader engaged in the story.

End: The final step is further subdivided into a mnemonic trio: The crisis is the stage at which the protagonist must decide how to resolve the conflict, the climax is the tipping point at which the conflict is resolved, and the consequences consist of the state of affairs that exists after the crisis and the climax — has the main character changed, or has the main character changed the world in some way? What is the outcome of all that has come before? This stage in a story, also called the denouement, is the final, necessary release of dramatic tension.


How to Hire an Editor

You’ve written a novel, or a short-story collection, that you hope to publish yourself in print or online, or perhaps you plan to send it to an agent in the hopes that an editor at a publishing company will consider it. Or perhaps you have, or work for, a business that distributes printed communications, or you’re responsible for a Web site that posts lots of written material.

You know the content isn’t ready for prime time. You need an editor. What do you do?

Determine the Type of Editing You Want

First, clarify what kind of assistance you seek. Does your content need a substantive edit, copyediting, or proofreading? Substantive editing involves intensive attention to plotting, narrative, characterization, tone, and other holistic factors for fiction, and organization, logic, and effective messaging in marketing communications or other nonfiction. If your novel has been rejected for publication or your articles (or someone else’s you’re shepherding) lack the impact they require, you should search for an editor who performs substantive editing.

If you believe the content is basically sound, but you believe it needs revision for grammar, usage, style, and punctuation, find a copy editor. If you’re concerned only about typographical errors, hire a proofreader. (But realize this: You can probably get away without a substantive edit, but content that has been proofread but not copyedited is probably substandard.)

Identify the Project’s Scope and Schedule

Next, consider the parameters of the assignment. Is the project a single book, or a series of essays to be assigned over a matter of weeks, or an ongoing collection of articles for a Web site? Whoever you hire will want to know your time frame. Do you expect the assignment to be returned in weeks, days, or hours? Will it be delivered, and is it to be returned, all at once, or piecemeal?

Payment Policy

Next, decide how you will compensate the editor. Will you pay by the hour, by the project (a flat fee), or by the page? Most editors work with an hourly rate, which is the fairest and the most effective, because it allows the editor to do their best work. You can, of course, specify a cap on how many hours the editor is allowed to bill for.

And how will you pay? By check, or money order? By PayPal, or another online service? Some editors may ask for a percentage of the total payment up front or after you receive a specified proportion of the edited material. You can ask the editor to complete a sample (paid) edit of one chapter or a single article that you evaluate before approving them to complete the assignment.

Obtain an Editor

Now, where do you find an editor? You can post physical or virtual notes in your area to solicit local teachers or English majors, but though they may be an economical choice, teachers and English majors are not necessarily good editors. The best method is to work through a self-publishing press, like EverFaith Press, that provides stand-alone editorial support, or by getting a recommendation from a successfully published author. You can also put projects up for bid on Web sites like and, but it’s a complicated process, and many editors who offer their services on the site are underqualified or are not proficient in American English or British English. (And if you lowball the rate you’re willing to pay, you’ll get what you paid for.) Employment sites such as Media Bistro are effective for finding media professionals but not so much for obtaining help with fiction projects or small-scale assignments, and posting employment listings can be pricey.

Craigslist, however, remains an excellent resource, and job postings cost only $75. (And you needn’t restrict your search to your local market.) In addition, organizations such as the Bay Area Editors’ Forum are appropriate resources for private individuals and smaller businesses and organizations seeking editorial assistance. (Again, it doesn’t necessarily matter where you or a prospective editor live.) Alternatively, many freelance editors advertise their services on their own Web sites. (Once again, geographical location is largely irrelevant.)

Consider the Costs

Substantive editing is likely to put you back $50 or more per hour, and the typical working rate is several pages per hour. Copy editors charge about $25 to $50 per hour, depending on their level of experience and expertise and on the subject matter, and they generally complete five to ten pages an hour. Proofreading costs less and is accomplished more quickly, but unless the content is online, you’ll have to mail the proofs, send them as a PDF Portable Document File (the editor will need an editing program), or have the proofreader complete the project on site or pick it up and deliver it on completion. (And remember, proofreading without copyediting is a risky shortcut.)

As you can see, hiring an editor is an expensive proposition. Engaging even a $25-per-hour copy editor for a 100,000-word novel will cost you about a thousand dollars. An experienced substantive editor could end up billing you a few hundred dollars for helping you craft a 2,500-word article for a specialized publication. Even having some Web pages proofread can easily become a three-figure expenditure.

But consider the return on investment: A literary agent is impressed with your tight, cleanly written prose. A periodical accepts your clear, concise, confident technical article. Your typo-free Web site (which your proofreader has also improved with some apt suggestions about format and design) attracts visitors, who may also become customers. It’s nearly impossible to quantify the effect of an editorial professional’s contribution to the impact of any piece of content, and in many cases, the editing you don’t notice is the best kind.

In a sense, it’s a leap of faith to hire an editor. There’s no guarantee that employing an editor (even one armed with an impressive resume or glowing testimonials) will result in publication of your content or any other definitive marker of success, and the process of obtaining an editor’s services isn’t effortless even in the best circumstances. But if you’re careful, you’ll reap the benefits of better content.


How to Clean-up Your Manuscript: What to Look for, What Not to Do

While most books are different in content and purpose, there are some similarities between many of them as far as editing goes. Here is a list of common mistakes authors (and some novice editors) make, and how to correct them:

1: Remember the One Space Rule. Most writers still leave two spaces after a period, question mark, etc. The rule now is one space after all punctuation. You’ll save yourself some money if you will correct this problem throughout your manuscript before turning it over to an editor. If your editor doesn’t know about the one-space-after-a-period rule, maybe she/he isn’t the right editor for you.

2: Use the Em-dash Correctly. Many authors still leave the em-dash dangling between two words. The em-dash is correctly placed when it is about the width of the letter “M” and it connects the two words—thusly. Also, make sure that you use the em-dash appropriately within your text. While there is text within the newer Associated Press Style Guide book in which the em-dash is used correctly, the punctuation section of the older 1992 edition still shows the em-dash as a dangler. Use the em-dash to denote an abrupt change in thought within a sentence, to set off an explanatory element of the sentence and sometimes it’s used in place of a comma. The 2003 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style shows the em-dash (or dash) used correctly.

3: Avoid Muddying Your Writing. Many authors engage in what is called “muddy writing.” They sacrifice clarity for some sort of desire to use complicated, go nowhere sentences. Write so that you can be understood clearly and without lengthy explanations, or why bother.

4: Avoid Using Incomplete Sentences. Make sure that your sentences can stand alone—in other words that it has a subject, an action and appropriate connecting words. This is not a rule always followed in fictional writing, but you have to know the rules before you break them. Avoid this at all costs, and if you can’t avoid it at least keep it to a pleasant minimum.

5: Verbosity is Not A Necessity. New authors commonly write sentences that are too wordy and/or too complex. If someone has to read a sentence through again just to figure out what it means, the author has failed that reader. Keep it simple, and instead of saying “I write in order to make some people happy”, instead say “I write to make people happy.”

6: Don’t Be Repetitive. Novice writers tend to repeat themselves. Our editors spend a great deal of time suggesting that authors replace copycat words with fresh ones. When you finish a paragraph, read through it again to make sure that you haven’t repeated words such as, “had,” “also,” “very,” etc. When you are writing about a dog, vary the way you refer to him. Use his name, call him pup, the old guy, pet, canine, four-footed friend, fur kid, man’s best friend, etc.

7: I see some excellent, fresh writing and some boring, stale text. Make your paragraphs more interesting by varying the size and style of sentences and using unexpected words and phrases. One way to jazz up your writing is by increasing your vocabulary.

8: Don’t use words that are too fancy and obscure. Again, think about your audience. Ask, will they enjoy reading this or will it become a chore for them to make their way through unfamiliar territory?

9: Many authors aren’t sure where to break for a new paragraph. We deal with a lot of paragraphs that are too long. A good tip to avoid this issue is to remember to break paragraphs on new thoughts, new speakers and to break out or shorten wordy explanations/ descriptions.

10: Most authors use far too many instances of quotation marks. Often, it is Italics that they should use in order to emphasize a word or a phrase. Use Italics sparingly, however. Likewise, authors use quotation marks incorrectly in dialogue. They put punctuation outside of quotation marks and omit the comma before the quote, for example. Some don’t capitalize the first word in a quote—you should, you know. And, in dialogue, each new speaker starts a new paragraph.

11: Many writers today still use the passive instead of the active voice. Instead of writing, “The worm was put on the hook by the fisherman.” Say, “The fisherman baited the hook.” Rather than, “The chick was thought by us to be stunning.” Say, “We all agreed that the chick was hot.”

12: Be Consistent. Probably the most consistent problem I see in editing is lack of consistency. Rather than having our editors spend extra time fixing inconsistencies, I generally suggest that they use the find and replace tool on their computer and do it themselves. When you finish your manuscript, make sure that the words you want capitalized are all capitalized, that the names of your characters stay true, without different spellings throughout, and that your facts stay the same.

13: Some authors lean too much on their editors. When using an editor, you should be seeking to learn as you go along. Learn the rules and techniques so you have more than just a finished manuscript from the experience. But, alas, some authors repeat the same mistakes they encountered in their first. As a writer, you should always be interested in developing new skills.

Share Your Expertise: What additional editing tips would you give an aspiring author? Answer below in the comments section, and we might add yours to this list!

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