Editing Fiction Like a Pro: The 5 Most Common Mistakes That Bog Down Your Narrative

The most common mistakes that bog down an otherwise flowing narrative are easy to avoid or correct when you’re editing fiction scenes. These five simple steps will make your writing soar and your readers sit up and take notice.


by Ellen Tanner Marsh

Writing is hard, even for prolific published authors, but polishing your work shouldn’t be. By focusing on the “don’t’s” of sentence structure rather than agonizing over every word until it sounds just right, you can make your prose shine.

How do I know? As a long-time freelance editor, I’ve helped countless authors whose writing skills ran the gamut from brilliant to barely literate overhaul or fine-tune their plots and characters and buff up their words. Some of these authors were well-known (no names, please), some not so much, but all of them, whether gifted or just getting there, tended to make the same mistakes when putting pen to paper.

How Being an Editor Helped Me Be a Better Writer (and Vice Versa)

The five most common mistakes that bog down an otherwise flowing narrative are easy to avoid or correct when you’re editing fiction scenes. Here’s how. (Note: None of the examples below are mine. My first books, written when I was barely out of college, make me cringe too much to share! However, these are taken from actual books, although the wording has been subtly changed to protect the innocent.)

1. Don’t show every physical movement.

Too often prose bogs down in unnecessary physical action. Trust your readers to imagine what your character is doing without leading them through every step. Here are two examples:

She grabbed the gun with her right hand and used her left to search inside the drawer.

He turned away from the door, crossed the room, and leaned against the counter to pick up a wine glass.

Instead try:

She grabbed the gun and searched the drawer.

Crossing to the counter, he picked up a wine glass.


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2. Don’t catalogue the contents of every room or location.

While descriptions are vital in helping readers to image a scene, don’t overdo. Describe the location the way you see it in your mind’s eye, then go back and delete most of your words. Really. Ask yourself: What does my reader truly need to know to make this office or bedroom or muddy field, etc., come alive? Offer a general impression with one or two thoughtfully chosen visual features.

Here’s an example:

She flipped on the light to find a room with a blue-striped bedspread in one corner, a worn oak desk under the window, and a burgundy-upholstered chair sitting beside a pitted fireplace filled with ashes.

Descriptive, sure, but the visuals took away from the fact that there was a corpse on the floor near the fireplace!

This rewritten sentence relies on spare wording that’s focused on the action, which helps maintain the tension of the scene:

She flipped on the light to find a cramped bedroom and the body of a man lying prone by the fireplace.

3. Don’t specify a person’s height in feet and inches.

These appeared in a lot of the books I edited. If you must include this action-slowing detail, don’t write something like this when introducing a new character:

He was five feet eleven inches and weighed 195 pounds.

Instead, go for inference or suggestion:

He was a heavy-set man, not very tall, but certainly muscular enough to give me pause before I decided to confront him.

4. Don’t punctuate every spoken sentence with dialogue tags.

Avoid overusing such tags as he said, she shouted, he asked. In fact, go over your manuscript and delete every fifth or sixth one, especially in lengthy conversations between characters. Then delete some more. The result will be much snappier repartee.

5. Don’t forget to clean the clutter.

Avoid overusing semicolons, exclamation marks, the em dash (used to suggest an abrupt interruption in speech or an aside in a sentence already overpopulated with commas), and the ellipsis.

Here’s a pro tip: Use the global search function to find these and other punctuation marks. You might be surprised how many are sprinkled needlessly across your otherwise beautiful prose.

By focusing on these simple “don’ts,” your writing will sound snappy and your narrative will always flow.


Ellen Tanner Marsh was barely out of college when she penned her first historical romance. After writing and publishing more than twenty books, including two New York Times bestsellers, she turned to fulltime editing. Now, after polishing thousands of pages of purple prose during an editorial career that spanned more than two decades, she has rewritten a trilogy of her own. Look for the first release, Diamond Dark, to be published in July.


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