New writers often ask me for self-editing tips. Here is a revised version of my guidelines. I hope you find them useful. Would you add any more that I’ve overlooked?


Copyright 2010 by Nancy J. Cohen
1. Tighten your sentence structure by replacing phrases with precise words. NO: “the light of the boat” YES: “the boat’s light” NO: He ran down by the terrace and out toward the lake. YES: He sped past the terrace toward the lake.
2.  Replace passive verbs with active tense.  NO: “The slaves were slain by lions.” YES: “Lions mauled the slaves.”
3.  Replace “walked” and “went” with a more visual word.  She shuffled toward the door.  He raced down the street.
4.  Eliminate most substitutes for “said” along with adverbs that describes speech.  NO: “I love it,” he chortled merrily. YES: “I love it,” he said with a chuckle.
5. Replace “he/she said” with character tags. Use action as identifier and bring in the five senses whenever possible. NO:. “I suppose,” she said. YES: “I suppose.” Her neck prickled as though Grace’s words had prophetic power.
6. Motivate your protagonists with clear goals. If they don’t care what’s happening, why should your reader?
7. Does your dialogue have a purpose? Conversations should advance the plot or reveal character. Re foreign accents: don’t overuse dialects. 
8. Dangling Participles.  NO: “Glancing into the rear view mirror, her breath released upon noticing the coast was clear.” YES: “Glancing into the rear view mirror, she released a breath upon noticing the coast was clear.”

9. Gerunds.  Beware of “ing” phrases that are illogical. NO: Flinging the door wide, she stepped inside the darkened interior. YES: She flung the door wide and stepped inside the darkened interior.

10. Avoid weak phrases like “seemed to,” “tried to,” “began to.” NO: He seemed to want her input. YES: His smile encouraged her to offer an opinion. Also avoid unnecessary phrases such as “she realized”, “she figured”, “he decided,” “he watched,” “he thought.”

11. Show, don’t tell.  NO: She felt afraid. YES: Ice gripped her heart. NO: He was angry. YES: He slammed his fist into the door.NO: He’d met her at the inn and liked her on sight. YES: He spied the blonde as soon as he stepped inside the front door. Wrinkling his nose at the strong smell of ale mixed with human sweat, he loped in her direction. Lights glared from overhead, but it was nothing compared to the radiance on her face…

12. Invest your characters with attitude to give them a distinctive personality. NO: “I’m fine, thanks.” YES: “You really wanna know?”

13. Keep description within the viewpoint of your character. Similes and metaphors should be within his/her frame of reference.

14. When you’re in deep viewpoint, use pronouns rather than the character’s name.

15. Use a new paragraph when you switch viewpoints.

16. Check timing and continuity, and make sure all loose ends are tied up by the last page. Be realistic about meal and work hours.

17. Avoid weak verbs: is, was, are, were, there was.  NO: There was water on the window. YES: Water droplets beaded the window. NO: His pulse was racing. YES: His pulse raced.

18. Avoid negatives. NO: He would not wait any longer if she didn’t appear. YES: He’d leave if she failed to show up.

19. Delete redundancies. NO: sat down YES: sat NO: He thought to himself YES: He thought. BETTER: eliminate “he thought.” If you’re in his viewpoint, you know he’s the one thinking.

20. Check for repetitions: Most of us unconsciously overuse a favorite word. Be alert for these when you read through your manuscript. Also, avoid the same phrases or words on two consecutive pages. Another thing to watch out for: don’t repeat the same information. Mentioning something once is enough.

21. Eliminate “that” where not needed.

22. Remove qualifiers that weaken your prose, such as: very, rather, quite, really, awfully. NO: I remembered that she was really nice. YES: I remembered how her smile lit the room. NO: It was very hot. YES: The heat made my skin itch, or Heat waves rippled off the pavement.

23. Beware of flying body parts. NO: Her eyes flew across the room. YES: Her gaze flew across the room. NO: She threw her hands in the air. YES: She raised her arms.

24. Be specific: NO: She passed a clump of flowers YES: She passed a clump of red tulips sprouting from the ground like supplicating hands. NO: It had been a hard day. YES: Her body sagged as though she’d been battered in a stampede.

25. Learn correct spelling and usage: their or they’re; it’s or its; lay or lie; you’re or your.

26. Beware of talking heads. Lines of dialogue need to be broken up by character tags, including sensory descriptions or action.

27. Keep flashbacks and backstory to a minimum. Work them in with dialogue and action.

28. Use descriptive detail only when it enhances your story. Too much detail can slow your pacing and lose the reader’s interest. Always remember the five senses.

23. Go for strong endings at ends of sentences. Don’t end sentences on a preposition. NO: I didn’t know what he was waiting for. YES: I didn’t understand why he waited. NO: He stared in horrified dismay at her. YES: He stared at her in horrified dismay.



What is a mash-up? I hadn’t heard the term until I read about it in RT BookReviews magazine in the February issue. No, it’s not a type of mashed potatoes. We’re referring to literature here.

A mash-up in publishing is essentially a cross-genre blend. In other words, it’s a combination of genres, such as classic romance and horror in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter blends the vampire craze with history. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and Shakespeare Undead are other examples of classic lit twisted with fantasy or supernatural elements.         zombie

So why is the mash-up so hot in the literary marketplace today? Perhaps because literary mash-ups are taking the spotlight, mixing classics with the paranormal phenomena so popular right now . Even agent Lucienne Diver states in an online interview that she’d love to see a mash-up of history and the paranormal.

This mini-trend isn’t new to the romance genre which has mixed romance with mystery and sci fi and fantasy through the years. Just because books are termed paranormal or mash-ups or steampunk doesn’t mean this concept is virgin.

Speaking of steampunk, has that trend already lost its steam? The latest Sherlock Holmes film brings to mind the historical atmosphere blended with the gears and wheels of old-fashioned technology. How many more Wild Wild West type stories will we see before this trend dives? For more on this subject, visit mystery author Vicki Lane’s recent blog:                 steampunk

And what is paranormal, since we’re on the subject? It’s anything to do with extraordinary abilities: i.e. magic, supernatural, or psychic powers. So why is a paranormal mystery, i.e. a mystery story with a ghost or witch, for example, not called a mash-up? Or is it? What about sci fi romance? Or a historical with mythological beings? It all seems to be a matter of terminology.

Keep in mind these are my loose definitions of the terms. As a writer, it’s more important to blend something old with something new to create what Hollywood calls the High Concept.


A reader at one of my author talks recently said she was surprised by how much research I did for my books. She believed fiction writers made up their stories. I was appalled. No wonder some people (not YOU, of course) look down their noses at popular fiction writers. Any author would be dismayed by this observation because we put a lot of work into researching our tales.

As any reader of historical fiction knows, the writer must thoroughly research all details of the era in order to be accurate. Ditto for mysteries. I get people asking me all the time if I had been a hairdresser because my sleuth’s job details are so accurate. When I mention that my background is in nursing, they are astounded. How did you learn enough to write about a
hairstylist who solves crimes for your Bad Hair Day series? Well, I interviewed my hairdresser and followed her around the salon. I visited a beauty school and checked out their curriculum. I attended a beauty trade show in Orlando. I subscribed to Modern Salon Magazine. And if I needed to know anything else about hair, I asked my hairstylist or had her read relevant passages in my manuscript for accuracy.

That’s just the beginning. Consider that I also consult a homicide detective for crime details and police procedure, even if forensics doesn’t play a heavy role in my books. Plus each story has its own topics to research. I’ve investigated such diverse subjects as medical waste disposal, tilapia farming, migrant labor smuggling, the dog and cat fur trade, vanilla bean cultivation, and more. Then there is on-site research, i.e. pounding the pavement in Mount Dora to get street details, skulking through a Turkish Bath in my swimsuit, getting a reading from a medium in Cassadaga. I take very detailed notes and photos to use in crafting my story.

Authors who use contemporary settings cannot make things up out of thin air. Besides the location, we may need to research pertinent issues to include in our stories. I always try to include a Florida based issue or something of universal interest (like Alzheimer’s Disease) to give my stories added depth. Newspapers, magazines, the Internet, personal interviews, and on-site visits are just some of the techniques we use. Probably the most fun I’ve had for research was going on a couple of cruises for Killer Knots. I challenge you to fault any of my minute details in that adventure.

But what about the vampire and werewolf fiction out there now, and other paranormal stories? Don’t those authors just make up their imaginary worlds? No, because these worlds must be consistent, and they’re often based on mythology or early Earth cultures.

For example, my proposed paranormal series is based on Norse myths. I have several texts on the subject and took extensive notes so I can understand their creation theory. I wrote down the different gods and goddesses, because they play a part in my story as well. For this tale as well as Silver Serenade, my upcoming futuristic romance, I needed to name spaceships, weapons, and/or military personnel. Using the Internet to look up ranks in our own military gave me a model. I also have a collection of Star Trek and Star Wars Sourcebooks which are great inspiration for weaponry, ships, propulsion and such. So even for fantasy, research is necessary. Science fiction is even more exacting because you’re extrapolating what might be plausible in the future or exaggerating a current issue from the news.

So please have more respect for fiction writers. We do extensive research, and a truly gifted writer will not let it show because you’ll be swept into the story. A good work of fiction is like a stage show, with all the blood and sweat and tears going on behind the scenes. All the audience sees is the fabulous performance.

Note: This blog first appeared at on November 13, 2009


What does a writer have to be thankful for in these days of shrinking lists, cut print runs, lower advances, and fewer markets? If we stop to think about it, I’m sure we can come up with several items. So here’s my list. I am grateful for:

  • My fans, first and foremost. I write stories to please you, to sweep you into my worlds, to offer you an escape from daily toil. Your feedback gives me the encouragement to keep writing despite the highs and lows of the publishing business. Your feedback shows me what you respond to in my writing and my blogs. Your feedback lifts my spirits.
  • My writing talent. I am grateful that I have been gifted with storytelling ability, that I can lose myself in imaginary worlds, and envision scenes in my head with people I’ve created. The drive to write cannot be taught. Writing craft can be learned, but the urge that makes a writer pick up a pen or sit at a keyboard comes from the heart.
  • A love of reading fiction. I can look at printed words on the page and soar into the zone where a story unfolds. It’s such a glorious feeling that I feel bad for people who read non-fiction and don’t understand what they’re missing. Not everyone has this ability. Consider it a gift, too.
  • The publishers who have accepted my work so that I could share my stories with you. So thanks to Dorchester, Kensington, and The Wild Rose Press. SILVER SERENADE will be my fifteenth published book.
  • My husband whose support has allowed me to pursue this career. He helps with the errands, often with the cooking, and this frees my time to write. He drives me to signings and other events. He listens to me whine. I realize not all spouses are this supportive or generous, and I am grateful for our 33 years together.
  • My kids who give out my bookmarks to their co-workers.

What are you, my fellow writers, grateful for today?


Writers loops are abuzz with discussion over the bomb dropped by Harlequin, the renowned romance publisher, that they are starting a vanity press originally called Harlequin Horizons. Due to protests in the professional writing community, they’ve issued a notice saying they will change the name to one that does not mention Harlequin at all.

Vanity presses are unscrupulous publishing houses that make profits from aspiring writers instead of profits from book sales. Why is this wrong? Because writers have to pay vanity presses to publish their work, not the other way around as with a traditional publisher who pays an advance against royalties. Writers who pay to have their work published are denied recognition in professional writing organizations.

Both RWA and MWA have already taken measures to challenge Harlequin’s status on their approved publisher list. This would make their legitimately published authors ineligible for the RITA or EDGAR Awards. Now SFWA has stepped up to the plate and issued a statement as well:

Adding fuel to the fire is the paid editorial service Harlequin offers. Publishers who make referrals to editing services also prey on unpublished writers, who may become so frustrated with the submission process that they hire book editors to improve their work and make it more saleable. They believe they’ll become rich and famous once a book editor fixes their work and it sells. But having someone else edit your work doesn’t teach you the principles of writing. It doesn’t train you for a long term career. It’s the easy way out. Nor does it guarantee a sale.

Either venture is a way to take advantage of naive writers. Newbies may feel that acceptance into Harlequin’s vanity press program gives them a chance to have their book picked up for the traditional route. It’s unlikely, seeing how the slush pile for the regular Harlequin lines are huge enough. Are those editors really going to be looking for more manuscripts?

Harlequin has been a highly respected name in publishing forever. We’ll have to see how this plays out. Publishing is in a flux and change is inevitable, but this one doesn’t help writers. It helps the big corporation that will make money off inexperienced writers desperate to see their books in print.

More discussion online:

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Writer Beware

Ashley Grayson Blog

Jackie Kessler Blog

Pub Rants