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Polish Your Prose: An Editorial Cheat Sheet

Polish Your Prose: An Editorial Cheat Sheet

A guest post by literary agent Nephele Tempest.

No matter your resolutions for the year, regardless where you stand with your current writing project, the time will come when you need to edit. I don’t mean rework your plot, heighten dramatic tension, or beef up your protagonist’s motivations. Rather I’m referring to that nitty gritty editorial process of looking at your work word by word, sentence by sentence, and examining the language you’ve used. Do your descriptions dance on the page? Have any clichés snuck into the mix? If you had to read aloud in front of an audience, would you find yourself running out of breath?

Sentence-level editing involves more than checking for missing words or making sure your Find-and-Replace changed a character’s name all the way through your manuscript. This is your chance to shape up your prose and show your skills, not just as a storyteller but as a wordsmith. But a manuscript can be a fairly long document, and sometimes it’s hard to remember everything you want to check as you work your way through from first page to last.

Here’s a handy cheat sheet of things you might want to keep in mind while editing:

  1. Cut your adverbs and make your verbs stronger.
  2. Rework any clichés.
  3. Eliminate filler words and phrases, such as “currently”, “that”, and “in order to.”
  4. Refer to people as “who” not “that.”
  5. Cut repetitious words and/or phrases.
  6. Divide long, hard-to-read sentences into two or more shorter sentences.
  7. Fix any inadvertent double negatives in long, complex sentences.
  8. Hyphenate modifying words.
  9. Minimize use of “very” and “really.”
  10. Beware of overusing passive voice/passive verb structures (is/was/-ing verbs).
  11. Double check the definitions of any words you’re not 100% sure you know.
  12. Determine and weed out any words, actions, or punctuation that you personally overuse as filler, such as characters smiling or taking deep breaths, ellipses in the middle or end of dialogue, exclamation points, etc.
  13. Replace general words with specific ones, such as “thing(s)” or “stuff.”
  14. Cut unnecessary chit-chat from dialogue; limit conversations to substance that moves your story forward.
  15. Limit distinctive dialogue quirks or movements to a single character; don’t give “signature” details to more than one person unless there’s a reason (child emulating a parent or older sibling, etc.).

Of course, these are just a sample of common errors you should be checking for at this stage of the editorial process. Depending on your writing style and personal habits, you will add to (or maybe subtract from) the list to customize it for your own use. Likewise, many of these are aspects of usage to keep in mind but not hard-and-fast rules. For instance, I don’t expect you to wipe every single adverb from your work, merely to avoid overusing them. Reliance on adverbs suggests your verbs need to pull more weight, but adverbs on their own are not evil parts of speech.

Clarity should always be your first goal. You wish to tell a story and have your reader understand it. Beyond that, you combine your personal voice and writing style with the style in which you’ve chosen to write this particular work in order to impart everything else to the reader — setting, tone, atmosphere, culture, etc. Use this editorial phase to hone those details for consistency and strength of impression. It’s your last chance to polish your prose, eliminate the ordinary and unnecessary, and make your work sparkle.

Nephele Tempest is a life-long reader and writer. She works as a literary agent and heads up the Los Angeles office of The Knight Agency. Follow Nephele on Twitter and Tumblr.

This post was originally published at and is reproduced with permission.



  1. 26 August 2015 / 3:28 pm

    “More shorter”?

    • 27 August 2015 / 11:45 am

      Commas would have fixed that as in “…two, or more, shorter sentences”.

  2. 6 September 2017 / 11:46 pm

    Or “two or more shorter sentences.” Too many commas create havoc in flow.

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