On this month's Special Page:

Nerine Dorman (award-winning author and editor) writes an exclusive article for The Horror Zine about self-editing


Laurie R. King
Joe Mynhardt
Luca Paris
John Skipp
Tim Waggoner


Nerine Dorman is a South African author and editor of science fiction and fantasy currently living in Cape Town, with short fiction published in numerous anthologies. Her novel Sing down the Stars won Gold for the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature in 2019 and The Percy Fitzpatrick Award for Children’s and Youth Literature in 2021. Her YA fantasy novella, Dragon Forged, was a finalist in the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature in 2017, and she is the curator of the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment event and short story competition. Her short story “On the Other Side of the Sea” (Omenana, 2017) was shortlisted for a 2018 Nommo award. Her novella The Firebird won a Nommo for “Best Novella” in 2019. In addition, she is a founding member of the SFF authors’ co-operative Skolion.


Self-editing to make your (and your editor’s) life easier
by Nerine Dorman


Put two or more editors in a room, and you’re bound to hear some stories that will make any seasoned wordsmith’s toes curl in horror. Anyone who has ever sifted through the dreaded slush pile or who has dealt with newer authors will no doubt encounter any number of issues in a manuscript, from head hopping all the way to serious homophone abuse. But I can already hear the peanut gallery crying out, “But isn’t it the editor’s job to fix these things? Surely the author must just put out the words?”

I’ll say this much: yes, it is the editor’s job to fix your manuscript, but if you can take care of the basics to self-edit as cleanly as possible, you will make your editor’s job that much easier. She will be able to focus on other aspects of your writing, instead of having to slog a first pass riddled with dropped words, exposition, and the multitude of other common issues that make her want to defenestrate herself.

Not only do mean self-editing skills help you when you’re working with an editor, but a super-clean manuscript will make a fantastic impression when you’re on the submissions mill – whether you are writing flash fiction or a multi-book series, these are skills that will only benefit you in the long run. I’ll add this much: you can never stop leveling up your self-editing skills. When you do have an opportunity to work with an editor, you will do well to become what I term as my favorite kind of author: a ‘little sponge’ as I call them, the authors who suck up all the tips and tricks, and then apply them to subsequent manuscripts going forward.

I promise you, there is nothing quite as dispiriting for an editor who’s worked with an author over many subsequent works, only for them to keep on turning in manuscripts that are always riddled with the same issues. It’s frustrating to have to continually fix the same errors. So, watch and learn.

A big disclaimer: what you are about to read is my method. You don’t have to follow it slavishly. See what works for you, or what doesn’t, and take time to develop a self-editing method that suits your writing style. I’m old school in that I believe a good story takes time to develop. I’ll often have a bunch of works ‘composting’, as I put it, in a hard drive somewhere before I whip them out and knock them into shape. What you’ll see here are merely my suggestions based on decades of writing, editing, and publishing.

I am well aware that there are those out there who espouse a rapid-release schedule, which does have its benefits if you are willing to play the algorithms. But I must warn you that for all the writers I’ve seen crowing about their huge sales figures and six or more novels released in a year, I’ve also seen countless authors burning out. Figure out what you want, from the get-go, and set achievable goals that are not going to land you in a mental institution.

Sometimes, it pays more to be the tortoise rather than the hare, if you catch my drift.

Also, remember to be kind to yourself. I don’t expect you to become a word wizard overnight, but there’s a lot of truth to the adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. Don’t despair. These skills come with time. What you can do here, now, is nurture them.

One tool that I recommend for authors is to create a style guide for all the areas they need to work on. Whether you buy yourself a nice Moleskine journal or use OneNote, it doesn’t matter – so long as your notes and references are ordered in a way that they are easy for you to refer to, that’s all that matters.

Now the most common errors I encounter in unedited work you can train yourself to find before you end up seeking professional help. If you can get to grips with these, you will make your editor’s life much, much easier, and they will be able to concentrate on helping you with other areas of your writing. And, not only that, you will have a massive advantage over other authors in your genre because you bothered from the beginning to write as cleanly as possible.

The first bugaboo that drives editors dilly is writers who simply cannot wrap their heads around how to punctuate dialogue. This article is not going to reinvent the wheel. Take some time trawling the Googles until you find a reputable resource that gives you the low-down on how to get dialogue right. Hell, even a decent style guide (there are dozens, if not hundreds out there) will help. Copy out those rules and save them so you can refer to them when needed. If you consistently get something wrong – be it the incorrect use of commas and periods, take your writing line by line and refer to those notes until you’ve done as much self-editing as possible to get it right.

After dialogue, the next thing that makes me want to crawl up the walls is when a manuscript is riddled with head-hopping. But a word on head-hopping vs. writing a strong omniscient third-person point of view. If you look at the greats, like Sir Terry Pratchett, he treats his omniscient viewpoint as a cameraman who would pan and zoom in, then zoom out, from interesting characters. The movement is smooth and flows cohesively. By contrast, head-hopping is reading a manuscript that is the equivalent of two rabbits on methamphetamine playing ping-pong with your points of view. I once had to edit a novel where a rather sultry sex scene had been written from both participants’ points of view simultaneously. I honestly eventually had no idea which part was supposed to be inserted into which slot, and by whom, after only a few paragraphs. If you’re unsure, play it safe, and have one viewpoint character per scene, and either have a hard scene break or a transitionary paragraph to show that you’re moving from one to another.

Exposition is another one of those cherries, supported by what is also fondly termed as ‘As you know, Bob’ type dialogue. My advice, resist the urge to tell readers all about your interstellar hyperdrive over a ten-page sequence. No one wants to know. Trust me. Rather allow readers to infer detail from how things or people behave in a scene. Telling us the door ‘irised’ open instead of talking about the technological advancements that resulted in the iris-type door is far more effective and keeps your story flowing. But, also, be aware that you’re not using dialogue between characters already ‘in the know’ for readers’ benefit.

My rule of thumb is to feed in information when and where it is relevant, and to keep it as short and sweet as possible so that you don’t interrupt the flow of your story. You are not JRR Tolkien, and you are not writing The Silmarillion. Many readers don’t have time for that. They want a story with punch, with tension building up that keeps the pages turning. Reams and reams of exposition have the same effect as a handbrake on a speeding car.

Something else that you can train yourself to look out for are any instances where you have pet words, phrases and/or overused idiomatic expressions. Awhile back someone pointed out that I use the words ‘coruscating’ and ‘ebon’ at least once in every novel I write (they’d read enough of them to pick that one up). Now, once per novel is fine, but if it’s a construction that becomes repetitive enough to be noticed by savvy readers, we have a problem. Likewise, train yourself to keep an eye out for any unusual words that get repeated too close together.For instance, in a novel I’m editing I’ve got winged characters who ‘took to the skies’ on every other page. The wording happens often enough that it starts leaping off the page and hanging off my eyeballs. In this case, it’s time to mix things up a little. Ditto for idiomatic expressions, for instance ‘he was up in a flash’ or ‘the cat was out of the bag’ – these are fine in dialogue, but the moment you start using them as crutches in your narrative, you’re going to end up with writing that is chock-fullof overused constructions that won’t do your story any favors.

You might also get editors dropping terms like filtering, filter words or even filler words. These are words that are or do exactly what their name suggests – think of them as extra padding you can lose that will make your writing punchier and more concise. Little red flags should pop up every time you use words such as the following: really, literally, suddenly, very, actually – they do nothing for your writing, and in many cases, you can cut them and perhaps even find a stronger verb. For instance, instead of saying ‘he was very angry’ you could say ‘he was furious’. Other constructions to look out for are instances where you use ‘there were’ or ‘there was’. For instance:

There was a big bird that soared in the sky could rather be A big bird soared in the sky.

See how you make a punchier sentence while at the same time reducing word count? That’s not to say that all instances of these filter words are bad, just that you should be aware of where and how often you use them so that they don’t become crutches.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to have your fingers flying across the keyboard, and sometimes your brain is way ahead of your hands – so we drop words. And because we’ve often reread the same passages multiple times, our eyes naturally glance over these omissions. These are a tricky thing to fix, and if you don’t have a proofreader to hand, often the best way to catch these dropped words is to either read through your work out loud or to use your computer or MS Word’s ‘read aloud’ function. While your eye might be tired, your ear can still pick up many gremlins you would otherwise overlook.

Typos are everyone’s oogie-boogie. I know of some authors who hate writing with spellcheck running at the same time, claiming that it distracts them while they’re putting down words, but honestly, those little red squiggly lines have saved my hide so many times. Also, it never hurts to run your document through a spellcheck before you hit send. This is doubly important for when you’re writing query letters. The odd typo is not a death sentence, but if a manuscript is full of careless mistakes, it suggests that you, the author, really don’t have much care for what you do. It’s not a good look.

Passive voice is a funny one – it’s not wrong to use it occasionally but, in the words of the architect Mies van der Rohe, “less is more” – this can often be applied to architecture and writing, among many different things. So, keep an eye on sentences that can be reworked. As an example, The mat was sat upon by the fat cat vs. The fat cat sat on the mat. The first example is a case of passive voice, the second is active. You’re using fewer words, and the sentence has more punch and communicates more clearly. Yoda not, you are, backwards speak, you do not.

Another thing you can do to make your writing better is to catch any continuity issues before you end up with weird stuff getting weird once the book is printed. I once caught a fact that a character was enjoying a hot cup of coffee the morning after his block lost all its power – and they didn’t have a gas burner to boil water. Thank goodness I picked that up during the proofing stage, but it really should have been fixed way before we even reached that point. Look out for characters’ eyes that change color, clothing that accimagically morphs from leggings to skirts, spelling of place names, and so on. If you’ve got many facts to keep straight, consider setting up a glossary of terms, names, and designations while you work. You’ll thank yourself later. Trust me on this.

Then one of the issues that just about drives me dilly is when writers muddle their tenses. A story starts in past and then for some unknown reason slips into present tense, and then flip-flops like a drunk fish. We all have our favorite tenses. Some writers are phenomenal at writing first person, present tense – which often draws a lot of undeserved flak from certain quarters. If you can train yourself to keep an eye out for when you slip up with your tenses, you’re gold. And don’t feel bad if you struggle with it. Even seasoned writers might slip up on this one. Especially if you’ve got more than one story on the go, and some of them are written in a different tense. Make your editor’s life easier and do your best to keep a handle on your tenses. And if you’re ready for a higher-grade problem, go figure out the differences between past simple and past continuous – but that’s another story for another day.

Now, let’s chat about how to tackle the various editing stages you can follow when revising. One problem that I see often is that newer writers get so hung up on every tiny little word that they nit-pick their novel into a miserable undeath languishing on a dustyhard drive. If you’re tackling your revisions, you need to do what many painters do, and that is start your work by painting with broad strokes first before looking at the finer detail.

First prize is for you to finish your gorram manuscript. Don’t fall into the trap of going back to edit earlier chapters when you still have an entire novel to write. You’ll drive yourself crazy. Resist the temptation. Vomit up your first draft. Even if you’re sitting with a lukewarm bucket of banthapoodoo, that’s fine. Better have something to knock into shape than nothing at all. I always advise my newer writers to read back from the previous two to three paragraphs if they’re picking up the writing again after a break, just to familiarize themselves with the scene. And then plow on bravely. But finish that draft. And then stick it in a drawer and forget about it. Pretend it doesn’t exist for at least two to three weeks, then go and do something fun, like taking up archery or fly fishing. Anything to get your mind off the book you’ve just finished.

And after that break, your eyes will be a smidge fresher, and you can now embark on your first read-through. This is where you can start nit-picking, and if you haven’t already done so, I strongly advise you to create that aforementioned glossary of terms, names, and character traits at this point, so you have these resources for easy reference. Maybe also sketch the overall structure, either on paper or perhaps even creating tables in Excel so you can keep track of what happens when, and where. This is especially useful if you figure out where the actions and downtime are, and it will help you plan better so that you don’t have huge stretches in a story where little happens. This is also when you have a chance to think about the overall structure and characters’ story arcs.

And now you’re ready for your trusted beta readers. You may want to give them specific questions about potential issues you’ve picked up. Another thing: give your beta readers a deadline to aim toward – it will help ensure that you receive your feedback when you need it. Make your expectations clear, for instance, I usually tell my readers not to stress about any typos or grammar gremlins – these are issues I’ll take care of during the actual copy-editing stages. Here you mainly want feedback on the story and the characters, and any other glaring issues.

Now, while you wait for your beta feedback, go do something completely different. If you’re anxious to write or still do authorly things, start outlining that new novel you’ve been talking about or even write a short story. Distract yourself from that novel that you’ve sent out there for friendly eyeballs. Pretend it doesn’t exist.

The big day arrives, and your beta feedback trickles in. Even now you’re still doing mostly broad-strokes, structural stuff. Don’t nitpick about those goblins and gremlins. That comes later. If your betas do pick up gremlins, that’s fine, however chances are good that you’re still going to be deleting entire sections and adding new words. Apply your beta feedback and then do the unimaginable: double space the manuscript (if you’re not already working double spaced) and change the font to Comic Sans.

Yes, I can hear your eyeballs twitch from across the pond.

No, seriously, choose a font you don’t normally use and one that is still legible, and print out your document. The reason for doing this is we’re aiming to defamiliarize ourselves from the document. You want to jolt yourself out of your comfort zone, and what better way than to have something on paper in a totally different font. Also, you’re going to go at the document with colored markers. You need all the space and weirdness you can get.

I love this part: I choose some of my favorite colors: red for typos and grammar gremlins; green for gentle notes about development; and purple for places where I’m going to add in whole new sections. Of course, this is my color code. Figure out how you’re going to mark up your different ideas using colors you like and that speak to you. Don’t be afraid to get messy. The whole point is that you’re dragging yourself away from the machine, and you’re getting hands-on with the writing. Your brain will see things completely differently, and you’ll also give yourself some much-needed distance from the work.

The other great thing about printing your manuscript out is that you can reshuffle pages to your heart’s content. A sidenote: do remember to use page numbers, just in case your cat decides to jump up on the table and scatter all those lovely pages…

Done? Now, let the manuscript simmer in a drawer somewhere for two to three weeks. Enjoy a well-deserved a break. Go waterskiing. Do a Zumba class. Paint a Van Gogh by numbers. But do something during that time that will make you forget about the revisions that await you.

Finally, you are ready to tackle those dead-tree notes you made for yourself. Don’t rush things. While you’re working, either read your work out loud or use your software’s ‘read aloud’ function (if it offers this). I know it takes time, but you will surprise yourself when you catch dropped words, repetition, or just find better places to break long sentences into shorter ones. That read aloud function is also a godsend for people who suffer from dyslexia (a pro-tip from one of my dyslexic authors).

And now, you can start spamming agents and editors with your baby. You’ll probably still get a bunch of developmental feedback from your agent or editor, but congratulations if you’ve come this far before you press ‘send’ – you’ve done a whole whack of heavy lifting and it’s going to show. All the best! And good luck with your submissions!

Nerine Dorman is an award-winning South African editor and author who adores fantasy and science fiction, but will occasionally dip her pen’s ink into tales that are darker… Follow her on Twitter @nerinedorman