After seven years, Aerogramme Writers’ Studio is taking a break and it not currently being updated.

Click here to explore some of our most popular posts.

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. 16 January 2015 / 3:06 am

    Really useful thank you. I shall print this out and stick it on my forehead – I mean wall.

  2. Sean Welsh
    16 January 2015 / 8:10 am

    Very helpful!

  3. Vern James
    16 January 2015 / 2:01 pm

    Thanks for saying that about adverbs. I have writer friends who have been brainwashed into thinking that all adverbs are poison. The greatest authors in the world use them.

    • 22 March 2015 / 3:43 pm

      Yet she said to cut them, agreeing with your friend. Why are you thanking her?

  4. Anne Connor
    23 January 2015 / 10:56 am

    thanks for this – I have printed it off and will refer to it when writing. It is always helpful to have a checklist and this one is terrific. thanks once again.

  5. 26 January 2015 / 2:13 am

    Careful self-editing saves money if you’re hiring a copy-editor. The fewer changes made, the less the cost.

      23 March 2015 / 12:44 am

      Take it from an audiobook narrator, #6 matters.

      • 23 March 2015 / 2:38 am

        I don’t know what is meant by ‘hard-to-read’. I read a sentence by Nabakov that was about ten lines long, so long it looked like a paragraph and would definitely have been edited down in this day and age; but I rather liked it, the sprawling sentence and its drift of words, a little like a miniature poem. Maybe that, even though it requires concentration, isn’t ‘hard-to-read’ and what’s meant here is maybe lists of motor equipment or specialised terminology. I read this sentence out loud several times, I was so impressed with it. It was not unwieldy. I think it was 166 words long.

  6. SM
    27 April 2015 / 10:08 pm

    Just printed this out and pinned it over my workplace. Thank you very much!

  7. 18 August 2015 / 7:12 am

    This is great. I’ve had it posted beside my revisions and it’s helped me cut so many words!

Leave a Reply