5 Ninja Self-Editing Tips to Get You From Rejection to Sale


5 Ninja Editing Tips for Writers. Makealivingwriting.comTired of these responses from editors?

Sorry, but this doesn’t meet a current need.

Not a great fit for us, but we wish you luck elsewhere.

Put your big kid pants on, because you need to face a hard fact: Editors aren’t paid to tell you the truth, tell you what’s wrong with your writing, or help you improve. Their job is to buy and publish good stuff.

Believe me, I know. I’ve edited four national magazines, run a major book publishing company, and written nearly 190 books that have sold over 70 million copies.

I say that not to brag, but to assure you I know what I’m talking about. And I’m telling you that your writing is not coming back because it “just missed” meeting some “current need” or was “almost a great fit.”

You have to submit better work, and that means becoming a ferocious self-editor.

Here are five powerful revision tips to apply to your manuscript before you submit your next piece. Imagine attacking your work like a self-editing ninja.

1. Give the reader credit.

A bloated fail: “The executive assistant told me the CEO could see me now and ushered me through the open door to his office.”

That sentence insults your reader’s intelligence.

It should be rendered, “The CEO’s executive assistant ushered me in to see him.”

Naturally the assistant would’ve said he was available. And is there a reader alive who needs to be told that you entered the office through a door, let alone that it was open?

Give your reader credit for being an adult with a functioning brain.

2. Don’t show off your vocabulary.

That may have impressed your (unpublished) creative writing teacher, but it won’t earn you points with editors.

3.Don’t be an adjective maniac.

Legendary novelist and editor Sol Stein says, “One plus one equals one-half.” He means that if you use two adjectives at a time rather than choosing the stronger of the two, you cut your impact in half.

4. Avoid on-the-nose writing.

This phrase was coined by Hollywood scriptwriters for prose that mirrors real life without advancing the story.

Examples include greetings, introductions, small talk — anything we’ve all heard before. Summarize these and get on with the story.

An example of what not to include:

    “Hi, Jim, how’ve you been?”
    “Good, Fred, and you?”
    “The same. What’s new?”
    “Not much. Oh, did you hear about Pete?”
    “No, what happened?

Avoid all that on-the-nose writing this way:

    After trading pleasantries, Jim asked Fred if he’d heard about Pete.
    “No, what happened?”
    “He was beaten and robbed last night…”

5. Avoid creativity in dialogue attribution.

I’ve had critique groups regale me with all the alternatives they’ve come up with for “he said” and “she said.” I hope they had fun, because they should trash that list.

Break repetition by inserting action (Madison sprawled on the couch. “I’m beat.”). But when you do attribute, “he said” or “she said” is almost always the right choice.

Strap on your ninja sword

Apply these five powerful self-editing strategies to your next freelance effort, and you’ll be amazed at the response you get from the marketplace.

What self-editing tips have helped you get more assignments? Share in the comments.

Jerry Jenkins has written 188 books, including the mega-bestselling Left Behind series. Twenty-one of his books have reached the New York Times bestseller list. He freely shares his proven writing techniques at his website.


  1. Douglas Winslow Cooper

    Thank you, Carol. Some of these are corollaries of Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE’s advice, “avoid needless words.”

    • Jerry Jenkins

      Thanks, Douglas. Yes, I shamelessly borrow from Strunk & White, as we all should. 🙂 ‘Avoid needless words’ is the rule that follows its own advice.

  2. Gail Gardner

    This is definitely a “Must Read” for writers everywhere. I have to throw in my pet peeve: unnecessary words that probably originated because the writer was being paid by the word.

    Immediately take out “Nowadays” and even worse “in this day and age”. Every writer seems to include those in every article. If you open your content with those, I want to immediately hit delete.

    Stop beginning sentences with introductory phrases that are totally unnecessary. You are making work for editors who have to take almost all of these extraneous words out.

    And please, if you submit content to blogs running on WordPress, learn how to use header tags.

    • Jerry Jenkins

      Thanks, Gail, and that’s good counsel. My current pet peeve phrase is “going forward.” As opposed to what? “This addition to our ball club should help us going forward.” Really? He won’t help you before he got here?

      “The mayor said he would take the consultant’s input into consideration going forward.”

      Good idea.

      • Carol Tice

        Right up there with sooner than later…or ‘at the end of the day.’

    • Carol Tice

      OMG, Gail, I cannot tell you how many pitches we get in my Pitch Clinic class that start with, “In this day and age…”

      Are you kidding? You’re trying to get a job as a writer, and you’re opening with a cliche. #notworking

      • Gail Gardner

        Thank you, Carol. I absolutely detest content that starts with “In this day and age…” and it happens so often I actually complain on Twitter about it hoping some writers will see it and just stop.

        LOL @ Jerry “going forward”. Yes, that is another useless phrase. If we were teaching writing, we could ask for the alternatives. Perhaps they want to make a case for “going backward”?

        These issues with writers are definitely backward. In his book “Don’t Make Me Think”, Steve Krug advised to cut your words in half and then in half again. I never knew what he meant until I started editing blog post submissions.

      • Tana

        “In this day and age” is a stand-by for first-year composition students (also “nowadays” and “in today’s society”) . We should definitely do better than undergraduates who are still learning how to write well! (no disrespect meant toward the undergraduates…it’s just that after grading thousands of papers that rely on these phrases, I can’t help but think that professionals should do better.)

  3. Andy Nathan

    I like your point about using regular language for your writing. There are a plethora (oops) of words you can use that do not have to show off your superiority. Thanks!

    • Jerry Jenkins

      Exactly, Andy. I like to say, use the plain word over the obtuse–er, the normal.

  4. Cherese Cobb

    Thank you, Carol. These are great tips!:)

    The best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received–believe it or not–came from my high school English teacher, Ms. Neil. Always use action verbs and never use “vanilla words”. Vanilla words are adjectives that have been used so much that their meaning is lost. Examples: Big, Huge, Tiny, etc.

    • Jerry Jenkins

      I appreciate your kind comments, Cherese, and I like that description of over-used adjectives. Who wants vanilla when there are so many other flavors available?

    • Carol Tice

      My downfall is ‘very’ and ‘just.’ Always self-editing them back OUT of my drafts. 😉

  5. Pete Detlef

    The use of clichés should also be avoided. They are used so frequently that they add little value.

  6. Jerry Jenkins

    Right, Pete, and what is being a writer about anyway, if not investing the time to noodle fresh ways to say old stuff?

  7. Vahe Arabian

    Messaging is key, and not how well you perceive your vocabulary to be. Thank you for this Carol!

    • Jerry Jenkins

      Good point, Vahe, and thanks for your kind comments.

  8. Jim Tallman

    And I always try not to be a sesquipedalian (a person who uses large words when small ones will do).

  9. Katherine Swarts

    Just wanted to say I highly recommend Jerry’s nonfiction book WRITING FOR THE SOUL. It goes much deeper into all aspects of writing/editing (and has great personal-experience stories, too!).

    • Jerry Jenkins

      Thanks for your kind comments, Katherine.

  10. Jerry Jenkins

    I was honored to be invited to guest blog here. Thanks!

    • Carol Tice

      It was fun to have you, Jerry!

  11. Amanda Why

    Thank you for this article.

    I recognised a few things I already try to edit out of my writing, as well as a couple I need to start looking for.

    My favourite thing about this life is that I never stop learning.

    • Jerry Jenkins

      Ain’t that the truth, Amanda? I tell my students that my late mother was my example in this. Into her 80s she was not only still a piano teacher, but she was also still a piano student. I sense too many writers feel they have “arrived.” We should arrive only at a place of lifelong learning.

  12. Lauren Steinheimer

    These tips are fabulous! I always find myself mind-editing weak articles and blog posts, wishing I could re-structure sentences and boost vocabulary.
    In my own writing, they’re things that I typically don’t notice until I walk away from a piece and then return to it with a fresh eye.
    Totally worth it to do some self-editing!

    • Carol Tice

      I have that same evil habit…it’s hard to turn it off! And books are so casually edited these days in general, that one often finds errors. Rick Riordan’s books for kids, which I often read aloud to mine, are cranked out so fast, they’re chock-full of little typos.

      • Jerry Jenkins

        I’m so incurable about this that people don’t even like emailing me anymore, my kids included. 🙁

  13. Scott Worthington

    Outstanding information for a rookie. Bookmarked for return visits.

    Thank you Jerry and Carol.

  14. Joe

    A lot of copywriters do say to use cliches because they have that “folksy” selling approach built in.
    Many of these tips apply to journalism & copywriting — power verbs, limited adjectives, etc.
    How do you guys feel about the difference between some of these rules for journalistic vs. sales purposes?

    • Jerry Jenkins

      I agree there would be a little latitude for sales copy, because the reader is really more of a consumer and is reading on the fly. But I wouldn’t recommend more than one catch phrase or cliche, and I would still urge concision and omitting needless words.

  15. Sheri Rose

    What a useful set of tips. I find inspiration in #5.

    So often I hear and read that writers need to show-not-tell, also called show-don’t-tell, but no concrete ways are shown for how this is done.

    You comment in #5 shows exactly how it is done by substituting action for “he said-she said” fill-ins.

    As in your example, instead of saying:

    Madison said, “I’m beat.”

    Do this, and the action shows just how beat Madison is without telling us. It enables us to create the visual ourselves.

    “Break repetition by inserting action (Madison sprawled on the couch. ‘I’m beat.’).”


    • Tana

      Sheri, I find it really funny that folks telling you to show-not-tell are telling you that and not showing you how its done. 😀

  16. Jerry Jenkins

    Thanks, Shari. And here’s a quick example for tell vs. show:

    Telling: When Jamie left the house, she found it windy and cold outside.

    Showing: When Jamie left the house, she had to fight to keep the wind from blowing the storm door off its hinges. She turned up her collar and thrust her hands deep into her pockets as she set off for the bus.

  17. Sheri Rose

    Hey, Tana. I know, right? Funny, except in my last post, I wasn’t referring to anyone telling me to show-not-tell. I’m was referring to how much I read the phrase and hear it used by others.

    I spent three years working with the wonderful writer and instructor Rebekah Kaplan who coined the phrase show-don’t-tell. Since my training with her, I’ve read the phrases show-don’t-tell and show-not-tell used over and over again and thrown out in conversation as something everyone should instinctively know how to do.

    Kaplan had many concrete, how-to examples I still play with in my writing. Some of her ideas include the same ones Jerry shared in his last post, but she didn’t have one like Jerry’s that shows how to substitute action for the he/said-she said pattern.

    I pretty much thought Kaplan had it all figured out, but today, I’ve been schooled. Jerry is the first person I’ve come across since working with Kaplan who has shown me something new when it comes to descriptive writing.

    Now, I’m not saying I’ve perfected the art of description. Oh, no. I practice all of the time, and I am always grateful when ideas are shared whether they are reminders or new tools.

    So thank you in the most excellent way, Jerry. Keep sharing.

  18. Tim Monson

    What if I don’t whave a ninja sword? 🙂

    I’m a usual writer who wants to write and that’s it.
    What should I do then?

    • Jerry Jenkins

      Edit without a sword? I don’t know. I’ve never tried that.

      If you want to write and not edit, you may have trouble publishing, as all writing is really rewriting.

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